Clause 1 - Piloting conduct at European
European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill
Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)
I, too, have concerns about the consultation process but they are not the same as those expressed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. I have my concerns about the timetable. The Minister is aware of that, because I have already made that point plain. We are enacting legislation in unseemly haste. This issue should have been considered for much longer if we were to consider it properly. The amendment would render illegitimate the consultations that are already under way with the Electoral Commission. That seems a retrograde step. We need more consultation not less. It seems an extraordinary position to take.
I am unhappy about the strange relationship that is developing between the Electoral Commission and the Government. It is not clear who is leading the process, who is putting forward the proposals and how the whole thing is constructed. We are told that the Government intend to have three pilot regions. That is not a recommendation from the Electoral Commission. It was simply told that that is what the Government want, and it is not considering that. Yet that proposal does not appear in the Bill.
Nothing in clause 1 says that there shall be three pilot regions. It simply hangs in space as a Government intention that is not to be enacted and that is to be dealt with by secondary legislation. That seems entirely inappropriate. The Electoral Commission made absolutely plain the limits of what it is allowed to consider. The Government have not asked it to recommend the detailed form of the all-postal or electronic pilot schemes. Why on earth not? The purpose of the commission is to carry out audits, take considerations of that kind into account and make proposals to the Government for eventual legislation.
The Government have already decided what they want to do. They have passed to the Electoral Commission a remit and asked it to rubber-stamp it so that it is acceptable and so that it makes the Government impervious to criticism that they have not consulted. However, they have also said that the commission should not expect consultation, as the basic decision has already been taken. As I said, that is an inappropriate way of doing business, and I deplore it.
I have a great deal of respect for the Electoral Commission and its work. The consultation that it has
undertaken is of importance, and the consultation that it will take following enactment of the Bill will be equally important. Both should be taken into account. That is why I do not accept the premise of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that, for some reason, the consultation that will have taken place up to the time at which the Bill receives Royal Assent is irrelevant.
If the Government have already taken decisions on matters that are absolutely crucial to the operation of the pilot schemes, I wish that they would make them explicit in the Bill rather than hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, as it were, in suggesting that the Electoral Commission is considering such matters when, in fact, it is not. It is specifically excluded from considering them, as requested by the Government.