The amendments make minor and technical drafting changes to the Bill. Amendments 267 and 269 change the deadline for issuing the notice of poll in the rules for the conduct of the referendum from 16 to 15 days before the poll. The change is necessary to ensure that the combination provisions, which we tabled earlier today, work in the right way.
The rest of the amendments contain a series of miscellaneous minor technical amendments and corrections. I am happy to discuss them further if Members are interested in the detail. I commend them to the Committee.
I briefly note the Minister's point of information earlier. However, there are several amendments on the Order Paper and if he thinks that we shall not reach them because he has not allowed enough time, that is his problem. To force a vote, rather than hold a debate, is a disgrace.
I am always profoundly disturbed when I see the words "minor and technical amendments", because all too often far too much can be hidden away in the detail. The Minister skirted over the change of the notice of poll from 16 to 15 days. As he rightly says, that is because of the combination of polls, but there is no need to have a combination of polls next year. As we have rehearsed many times already today, and on our previous day in Committee, we do not need to hold the elections on the same day, in which case 16 days could be provided for the notice of poll, which would be more sensible. I should be grateful if the Minister could explain why he thinks it is better to have 15 rather than 16 days' notice of poll, in particular because it is more difficult for overseas voters to know when an election is happening. Does he not think that if the elections were on different days, they would have more time? Why is it important to have just 15 days?
Amendment 171 would remove sub-paragraph (4) of paragraph 21, which relates to the keeping of order in polling stations. The paragraph states:
"It is the presiding officer's duty to keep order at the officer's polling station...If a person engages in misconduct in a polling station or fails to obey the presiding officer's lawful orders, the person may immediately, by the presiding officer's order, be removed from the polling station."
Sub-paragraph (4), which the amendment would remove, states:
"A person so removed may, if charged with the commission in the polling station of an offence, be dealt with as a person taken into custody by a constable for an offence without a warrant."
I do not know why the provision was originally included, or for that matter why it is being removed. What has prompted this change of view? I presume it is nothing to do with the technical wording of the statement, in that the person might not have been charged when he was actually in the polling station, but might have been charged with committing an offence in the polling station. However, I should be grateful if the Minister could enlighten us. Some of the other amendments indeed seem to be technical.
Last week during our first day in Committee, we had an extensive debate on the date of the referendum. I know that the hon. Gentleman argued a different point, but the Committee took the view, by a significant minority, that it wished the election to be on
On amendment 171, the hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that sub-paragraph (4) was an outdated provision; to be quite honest, that is why we have removed it. It is simply not necessary.
I think it is more the case that we copied across to the Bill a lot of the existing rules. This is a minor, technical change, but on going through the rules more closely, we decided that the provision was no longer necessary. We are simply tidying up the legislation, which I think is perfectly sensible. These are, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House often says, running repairs.
Amendment 267 agreed to.
Amendment made: 170, in schedule 2, page 27, line 33, leave out 'education'.- (Mr Harper.)
The Second Deputy Chairman:
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 355, page 27, line 38, leave out from 'Scotland' to end of line 39 and insert
'any school other than those which are run as profit-making enterprises'.
Amendment 356, page 27, line 41, after 'Assembly', insert
'or a school which enjoys charitable status'.
The amendments are in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Leader of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. Historically, legislation has always provided that the returning officer is able to use polling stations in state-provided schools. For many people up and down the land, when they go to vote, they expect to turn up to a school. Normally it is their local primary school, but provision may be made in their local secondary school. Sometimes, where schools have disappeared, there is a problem with the local returning officer finding a suitable venue. Of course, there is an impact on local state schools: sometimes they have to be closed because there is no other means of providing that the returning officer can use the entrance and make sure that there is security for the children in the school.
These are three simple amendments, the first of which-amendment 354-would insert in schedule 2, page 27, line 37, the words
"a school which enjoys charitable status", so that the provisions applied not just to schools provided by the state. We have used that term in relation to the law in England and Wales, because in those areas, independent schools with good facilities that might be made available could be so termed. To provide a similar provision for Scotland, we have tabled amendment 355, which would insert, in schedule 2, page 27, line 38, the phrase
"any school other than those which are run as profit-making enterprises", because the independent sector in Scotland works slightly differently.
I see that none of our Northern Irish colleagues is with us, but amendment 356 relates to Northern Ireland. We would not want to conflict with the provisions relating to Roman Catholic schools run by nunneries and convents, so we have not provided the exact same measure as for England and Wales, where "charitable status" covers the situation. We therefore suggest in the amendment that in schedule 2, page 27, line 41, after "Assembly", we should insert
"or a school which enjoys charitable status".
I recognise that there are those who would say, "Why on earth should independent sector schools be forced to act as polling stations?" I suspect that more independent schools are likely to say that they would quite like the income that might accrue. More importantly, I do not see why state-provided schools should be regularly used and should therefore undergo the upheaval that polling stations cause, but the independent sector which, in the main, enjoys charitable status and is therefore able to have tax benefits, should not be required to provide the same facilities.
The Minister may say, "We think this is an unnecessary piece of legislation." Our point is that it should be a matter of fairness. The provision should apply across the board. It should not be state schools alone that are inconvenienced. The inconvenience should be shared by all. In addition, some preparatory schools or public schools would be able to provide the necessary facilities relatively easily, without any major inconvenience to them.
In recent years we have seen a considerable attempt by schools in the independent sector to open their doors so that they are far more engaged in the local community. This is an opportunity for them to be engaged in the political process. I hope the amendments will be acceptable to the Government. I am sure they would not want to defend the present injustice.
I know personally only one public school in England and Wales that is attached to a monastery, which is Ampleforth. There is also Downside. I know of a considerable number of others, and many are attached to Anglican foundations in various ways, such as Charterhouse. The point I was making was specifically in relation to the Northern Ireland settlement. I now have two Northern Ireland colleagues present. I did not want to disturb the complex equilibrium that sometimes exists in relation to these matters in Northern Ireland.
In the case of Ampleforth, for example, which has a large number of pupils over the age of 18 and a large number of teachers who live on a very large campus, I see no reason why there should not be a polling station for Ampleforth itself. That might apply to a number of the larger public schools which, to all intents and purposes, would represent as large a polling district as some other polling districts. The amendment does not require any action to be taken against public schools. I hope they would see it as an enabling measure so that they might be able to encourage more of their students to vote.
I still hope the Minister will support the amendments.
I fear I may disappoint the hon. Gentleman. The amendments would compel independent schools to be used for electoral purposes and for the referendum, should the local authority decide that they are the most suitable place for such a purpose. Electoral legislation at present provides that all publicly funded schools can be used as polling stations, and we are applying those provisions to the referendum. So that there is no doubt, following discussion with the Department for Education we can confirm that academies and free schools will fall within those provisions as well.
Under the Bill, as in electoral law generally-
It is clear that schools that are publicly funded and receive Government grants fall under these provisions. Schools that do not receive Government grants do not. I was setting that out for the benefit of the Committee, in case there was any doubt. I see no need to labour the point.
Under the Bill, as in electoral law generally, independent schools cannot be compelled to act as polling stations for other electoral purposes unless they receive Government grants. But, to pick up the hon. Gentleman's point about how he hoped that his amendment would be an enabling measure, there is nothing in the law to prevent such schools from serving as polling stations voluntarily. So there is nothing in the law to prevent all those schools that he mentioned from acting as and hosting a polling station, particularly if they have lots of students of voting age. They can make that offer to the local authority, and the local authority can take it up; there is nothing at all to stop a school doing so.
On the hon. Gentleman's wish for the amendment to be an enabling measure, I must say that it is simply not necessary. I do not see any need at all to change the arrangements, which work well. There is nothing to stop such schools volunteering their premises, and I see from his examples that there may well be benefits to the schools and to their students, so I urge him to withdraw this unnecessary amendment.
I shall not withdraw the amendment, because I do not accept the premise on which the Minister has advanced his argument. I presume that in his definition of a school for the purposes of the provision, he relies on paragraph (9)(3)(a) of schedule 2, which states that it is either
"(i) a school maintained or assisted by a local education authority;" or
"(ii) a school in respect of which grants are made out of moneys provided by Parliament to the person or body of persons responsible for the management of the school"- including, therefore, all the free schools. From the way he was talking, however, it seemed he was suggesting that he had come across some new reason in his conversations with the Department for Education which proved that free schools would be included.
The Minister is right that anybody can apply to provide a polling station. Indeed, some members of the public have said, "In my street, there is no provision," or, "In my little village, there is no provision, so if you would like to use my house feel free to do so." However, I am not aware of any public school or independent school having sought to do so. The Minister did not meet the point that for many state schools there is an inconvenience attached to providing a polling station. The law requires them to do so free of charge, but it does not require anybody else so to do.
The Minister's distinction is based on whether schools are in receipt of moneys or not; my point is that if a school benefits from a favourable tax regime, namely the charitable status that attaches to large parts, although not all, of the independent sector, they should have a concomitant responsibility to provide such facilities. Many public schools are quite happy to provide on a limited basis their sporting facilities-swimming pool, gym or whatever-to the wider community, and such provision might apply to the situation before us, too. I shall therefore press the amendment to a vote.
On a point of order, Mr Evans. I do not know how the order of the amendments was decided, and I am sure that it was done in a proper and orderly manner, but I wish to place on record the fact that the threshold provisions are being driven further and further down the selection list, yet they are seminal to the referendum and whether it can be justified in the national interest.
A statement was made by the Minister earlier about thresholds and I am sure that it will all become clear to the hon. Gentleman as he stays for the rest of this evening's proceedings.
I beg to move amendment 268, page 28, line 2, at end insert-
'Modification of forms
9A (1) The Chief Counting Officer may, for the purpose of making a relevant form easier for voters to understand or use, specify modifications that are to be made to the wording or appearance of the form.
(2) In paragraph (1) "relevant form" means any of the following-
(a) Forms 3 to 11, 14 and 16 in Part 2 of this Schedule;
(b) the form of the notice set out in rule 16(7).
(3) In this Part of this Act a reference to a form is to be read as a reference to that form with any modifications specified under paragraph (1).
(4) Where a form is modified by virtue of paragraph (1), section 26(2) of the Welsh Language Act 1993 applies as if the modified form were specified by this Act.'.
These amendments make several modifications for the purpose of adding clarity to the forms and statutory questions that a presiding officer may put to voters in certain specified circumstances in light of the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, Scope and electoral administrators. I referred to these amendments earlier, when we were debating the amendments tabled by Alun Michael.
We recognise the important role that the chief counting officer has to play in the successful running of the poll so, at the request of the Electoral Commission, amendment 268 gives the chief counting officer power to amend the wording and appearance of voter-facing forms, except the ballot paper, for the purposes of making them easier to use or understand. This power will extend to forms 3 to 11, which are the form of postal voting statement, the declaration of identity, official poll cards and poll cards for postal or proxy voters; form 14, which is guidance for voters; and form 16, which is the form of declaration to be made by the companion of a voter with disabilities.
We have also made some other minor amendments to improve the clarity of the material seen by voters, including to the instructions on how to vote; to ensure that voters in devolved areas in particular are clear that the referendum relates only to the UK parliamentary system; and to ensure that the questions put to voters prior to being given a ballot paper are clear for areas in which more than one referendum may be taking place.
Following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, we have sought to make the voting instructions clearer by stipulating that voters must vote in one box only. Amendments 287,291, 293 to 298, 303 and 308 effect this change at the relevant points in the Bill.
Amendments 282 and 283 give effect to the recommendations in the Electoral Commission's guidance on prescribing voter materials to move that voting instruction to directly above the location of the boxes where electors will make their mark.
We have also tabled amendments to make it clear that the referendum provided for by this Bill relates to the electoral system for UK parliamentary elections, as opposed to electoral systems electing members to devolved legislatures. That issue came out of the research that the Electoral Commission did when it was looking at the question. Amendments 281, 284, 286, 289, 290, 304, 305, 323, and 324 achieve that objective.
We have also tabled amendments to make it clear that the referendum provided for by this Bill relates to the electoral system for UK parliamentary elections, as opposed to electoral systems electing members to devolved legislatures. That was an issue that came out of the research that the Electoral Commission did when it was looking at the question. Amendments 281, 284, 286, 289, 290, 304, 305, 323, and 324 achieve that objective.
Given that mayoral referendums might also be taking place on
Amendment 302 adds a title to guidance for voters to specify that the guidance to which the form refers relates to the referendum on the voting system for UK parliamentary elections. Amendments 285 and 288 give clarity to electoral administrators on where the official mark confirming the authenticity of the ballot paper may be placed on the form. It is important that no wording other than specified in the Bill appears on the front of the ballot paper. Any official marks that contain words, letters or numbers must therefore be printed on the back of the form, which will ensure that ballot papers are as simple and clear as possible for the voters to use.
Following advice from the chief counting officer in Northern Ireland, we have introduced amendments 299 to 301 to remove unnecessary forms from the Bill, as in practice separate poll cards are not sent to electors voting by post in that part of the United Kingdom.
Notwithstanding what I said earlier about technical and minor amendments, sometimes they are actually technical and minor amendments, and I do not want to delay the Committee too long.
I have two points. First, I do not understand why, in amendments 274 to 278-and, for all I know, in a couple of the others as well-the question has to be asked not just about "the referendum", but about the referendum
"on the voting system for United Kingdom parliamentary elections."
I am not aware of many other referendums coming down the line on that date, so the amendments seem rather otiose and verbose. Will the Minister enlighten me on why they are thought necessary?
Perhaps a more serious point is that several of the amendments-in particular, amendments 287, 291, 293 and 296 to 298-replace the direction to vote just "once" with the direction that people should vote "in one box" only, which is slightly confusing, especially given that we will be having a combination of polls. Elsewhere, schedule 2 provides that there may be more than one polling station in a room, which is quite common because two polling districts might be using the same polling station-so there might be two desks with two electoral registers and two boxes. I presume, however, that in Wales and Scotland, there could be four desks with different registers, given that there are different electoral registers for the different elections-for the referendum and the elections. There could, therefore, be four ballot boxes in the room, and people might be expected to mark two boxes. So the inclusion of the words "in one box" is rather misleading.
As the Minister will know, a ballot paper will often contain the name of the candidate-for example, "No. 1: Chris Bryant"-followed by the address or whatever the candidate has allowed on there, followed by the party and finally the box. I presume that returning officers will be allowed to count as valid votes, as they do in parliamentary and other elections, any ballot paper on which the signifier, which could be an X or in some cases a tick, has been marked anywhere along the line of the yes part of the question-in other words, not in the one box specified as the box in which the person is meant to put their cross, but at any point across the whole of that line.
First, therefore, does the Minister think that extending the question on "the referendum" is necessary or otiose? Secondly, by inserting the words "in one box", will we not actually make the situation worse? At combined polls, people will expect to vote in two ballot boxes and to mark two boxes on two forms, and whether they do so in the little box itself or in the wider area on the ballot paper will be of material significance. I would be grateful if the Minister could enlighten us on those matters.
The point about mayoral referendums is that some may indeed be held. Where there are mayoral referendums, we simply wish to capture them and cover that circumstance. The hon. Gentleman may think that the provision is otiose, but we thought it sensible to be clear.
On the hon. Gentleman's point about amendment 287, amendment 291, and so forth-his point about putting an X in one box only-we are following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, which I understand it has tested, to make voting instructions clearer. I recognise that he thinks that that might lead to some confusion, but we do not propose to change the normal rules that apply for elections or the test that returning officers adopt to determine whether a vote is validly cast. For example, as long as someone has made clear their intention, the usual rules apply. So, if they have not put an X, but drawn a little smiley face, or if the mark is partly in one box and partly in another, but what the voter intended is clear, the usual rules will apply and returning officers will attempt to ensure that such votes count. Those are the normal rules for elections that we are all used to, so where there is doubt, if the returning officer thinks that there is clarity about someone's intention but then does the usual check with the counting agents, that vote will be allowed.
I was not aware that a smiley face was a signifier of assent, but I hope that that matches present practice. The Minister may know more about that than I do, but if he is wrong, he will doubtless correct his statement later. However, the bit that the Electoral Commission has not been able to check is how the system works where combined polls take place in the same room and where a voter has to go to two desks to cast two votes, and therefore votes twice. That is the bit on which I am seeking clarification.
Just to return to the other point, of course the rules talk about putting down an X, but it is usually the case in elections that if someone has made a mark and signified a clear intention, the returning officer will normally accept that, although that is usually run past the counting agents. That is the usual practice and we do not propose to change it. We do not want to disfranchise anybody unnecessarily.
As for the hon. Gentleman's point about voters perhaps being confused by the number of ballot boxes, personally I think that he is making a point for the sake of making a point, but let us assume for the sake of argument that he is trying to make a sensible point. Given that the proposal was adopted following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, I will draw his concerns to its attention, and it can see whether they have any validity. The chief counting officer has the ability to amend some of the other forms and instructions given to voters, so I will draw the matter to her attention and see what the Electoral Commission thinks, which is perhaps the most reasonable thing to do in the circumstances.
Amendment 268 agreed to.
Amendments made: 269, page 28, line 8, leave out '16th' and insert '15th'.
Amendment 270, page 29, line 6, leave out paragraphs (3) and (4) and insert-
'(3) In England, the polling station allotted to electors from any parliamentary polling district wholly or partly within a particular voting area must, in the absence of special circumstances, be in the parliamentary polling place for that district unless the parliamentary polling place is outside the voting area.
(3A) In Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, the polling station allotted to electors from any polling district must be in the polling place for that district.
(4) The polling districts and polling places that apply for the purposes of paragraph (3A) are-
(a) in Wales, those that would apply by virtue of provision made under section 13(1)(a) of the Government of Wales 2006 in respect of an election for membership of the National Assembly for Wales held on the day of the referendum;
(b) in Scotland, those that would apply by virtue of provision made under section 12(1)(a) of the Scotland Act 1998 in respect of an election for membership of the Scottish Parliament held on the day of the referendum;
(c) in Northern Ireland, those for the time being established under the law relating to local elections with the meaning of section 130 of the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962.'.
Amendment 271, page 29, line 41, at end insert-
'This paragraph is subject to paragraphs (1A) and (2).
(1A) An official poll card must not be sent to a person-
(a) as an elector, if the person is entitled to a postal vote in Northern Ireland;
(b) as a proxy, if the person is entitled to a proxy postal vote in Northern Ireland.'.
Amendment 272, page 30, line 23, leave out sub-paragraph (b).
Amendment 273, page 30, line 27, leave out sub-paragraph (d).
Amendment 171, page 35, line 3, leave out sub-paragraph (4).
Amendment 274, page 35, line 31, after 'referendum' insert
'on the voting system for United Kingdom parliamentary elections'.
Amendment 275, page 36, line 5, after 'referendum' insert
'on the voting system for United Kingdom parliamentary elections'.
Amendment 276, page 36, line 9, after 'referendum' insert
'on the voting system for United Kingdom parliamentary elections'.
Amendment 277, page 36, line 22, after 'referendum' insert
'on the voting system for United Kingdom parliamentary elections'.
Amendment 278, page 36, line 35, after 'referendum' insert
'on the voting system for United Kingdom parliamentary elections'.- (Mr Harper .)
I beg to move amendment 352, page 37, line 26, after 'contrary', insert
'including any validly registered voter who presents himself to the polling station before 10 pm but, because of a queue, is not immediately able to vote'.
The amendment seeks to rectify the situation that we saw in the general election this year, when, as hon. Members will know, in several constituencies around the land people turned up to vote at 9.40 pm, 9.45 pm, 9.50 pm or 9.55 pm, but could not cast their ballots. Indeed, they were not provided with ballot papers because they could not get through the doors, as there were queues of people wanting to vote. I hope that all hon. Members thought it a bit of a scandal that although people have historically said that England is the mother of all Parliaments, and although we pride ourselves enormously on our historical past, we were not able to run-
Unfortunately it was a Liberal who first said that England was the mother of all Parliaments, so I can only excuse him. However, if the hon. Gentleman wanted to point out that the first Parliament was not on these isles at all, he would be absolutely right: it was the Althing, the Parliament of Iceland, which has sat since 929.
My point is that on election night we were deeply embarrassed by the fact that so many people were unable to vote in so many parliamentary constituencies. The Deputy Prime Minister himself said that the situation was simply unacceptable in a democracy:
"It is not right that hundreds later found themselves unable to exercise their vote when the polls closed. That should never, ever happen again in our democracy".
In fact, the situation in his own constituency was among the worst in the land. The returning officer, John Mothersole-a name I have not come across before-apologised to voters who were turned away, saying that the council had "got things wrong." He said that the turnout had been phenomenal, probably the highest in 30 years. That was not quite right-it was not the highest turnout in 30 years-but the fact that some 200 people were turned away in Ranmoor in Sheffield, Hallam and the police had to deal with an angry crowd of about 100 would-be voters is a clear indication that there is a significant issue to consider.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this problem is made worse by a number of local authorities closing polling stations, which means that the number of people having to attend one particular polling station is much greater than in the past?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is true that some people vote some days before the election when they vote by post, but for many people-those doing shift work, for example-it is vital to keep the polling stations open right up to 10 pm; otherwise, they would not be able to meet their work obligations as well as their voting duties.
I saw how what the amendment proposes can work in practice in Venezuela, where I was once asked to be an international election monitor. When the time to close came, the polls stayed open until the queue of people had finished voting. It worked with no problem at all; it functioned very well in Venezuela.
Some people have had doubts about some of the Venezuelan elections, and I am not sure that we want to base what we do entirely on comrade Chavez's elections. When I was the Minister with responsibility for Latin America, I was shown a hospital in Venezuela and on one occasion I saw the same woman in three different wards-to prove that the hospital was being used.
Serious questions are often raised before elections, but that happens in this country, too. I do not want to leave people with the impression that there is anything specifically wrong with Venezuelan democracy. From what I have seen of that democracy, I know that both the opposition and the Government of that country were very happy with the process.
Perhaps we should stick to elections in this country, rather than worry about Venezuela. The point is that the amendment is designed to allow someone who has presented themselves to the polling station before 10 o'clock to enter it, receive their ballot paper and vote after 10'clock, even though there was a queue that prevented them from being dealt with by the officials immediately. This will be even more important if we end up with combined polls next year. In many areas in the Rhonda, there tends to be a fairly quiet period between 8 pm and 9.30 pm, but then there is a sudden surge of voters. If Assembly elections as well as the referendum are happening in the same polling station, with people having to approach two desks to provide the information necessary to get their ballot papers, the delay might well be increased. If local authorities are worried about whether the number of staff is sufficient to fulfil all the functions properly, that provides all the more reason to make special and specific provision for people to be able to vote, even though they are not in the polling station until after 10 o'clock.
May I press the hon. Gentleman on the definition of presenting at a polling station? At what point when someone arrives at a polling station do they present? Will someone stand outside the polling station to decide? How long would a queue be before someone is excluded?
Discussing the length of the queue would be a great British debate, but my view is that if there is a queue of 500 people, they should be allowed to vote. I do not think that anybody should be disfranchised just because the operation is not swift enough to allow people who present themselves at the polling station before 10 o'clock to vote immediately. As is clear in the amendment, presenting means standing in a queue if it is not possible to vote at once. If a person arrives at one minute to 10 o'clock, they should be able to go straight through the polling station door and talk to the returning officer and then be presented with a ballot paper. If necessary, that should apply to the two polls-the referendum and local elections.
I note that the Electoral Commission has continued to be concerned about late polling since the general election. Clearly, there was uncertainty in the application of the regulations in different parts of the country, because some returning officers were slightly more generous than others. As I understand it, the commission is keen for a resolution, and is broadly supportive of the thrust of my proposal.
I am very hopeful, as always, that the Minister might succumb to my ardent desire in relation to the amendment.
I should like clarification. I take it that the amendment applies to voting in the referendum, because that is the Bill that we are discussing. However, it would mean that an elector who turns up to vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections and in the referendum could vote in the latter, but not the former.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, and I am glad that Ministers appear to be taking it on board. Had they presented their changes to the Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland legislation to allow for combined polls, I would be able to present proposals that dealt with that problem. However, because the Government are not proceeding in orderly fashion-they are putting the cart before the horse-I can table an amendment only in relation to the referendum. Should the Government get their act together and present their other proposals, the Opposition would indeed seek to make provision so that people could receive both ballot papers when they present themselves at the polling station.
Additionally, some people might say, "I'm here, but there's a queue. Which of the two ballots should I participate in before the 10 o'clock deadline?" That could lead to a degree of chaos and disorder in the polling station, particularly in urban areas. The amendment would be an important provision and we need to make it. As I said, I am very hopeful that the Minister will meet my ardent desire and agree to it.
I fear that I might disappoint the hon. Gentleman again. Clearly, some of the scenes on election night did not do our reputation any good, but it is worth putting them in context. The Electoral Commission report states that there was a problem with queues in 27 polling stations out of 40,000 that were used for the May elections, and that about 1,200 people were affected out of the 29.6 million people who voted. I do not wish to underplay the position for those people, but it is worth putting the problems in perspective. The report also states:
"The main factors which contributed to the problems were evidence of poor planning assumptions in some areas", meaning that some areas used assumptions for the general election based on the turnout for local elections.
I had not finished my points, if the hon. Gentleman would allow me. I was not trying to underplay the situation, but to put the problem in context. The commission report also states that the main factors were:
"Evidence of poor planning assumptions...Use of unsuitable buildings and inadequate staffing arrangements" and that
"Contingency arrangements...were not properly triggered" when queues built up. Returning officers are supposed to have contingency arrangements in place to deal with unexpected demand, and to be able to move people about. It was clear from the Electoral Commission's research that, in the areas where there were problems, there had been inadequate planning.
There clearly was an issue therefore, and we must put it in context, but the key is how we then deal with it. We have to ensure that any changes made to the rules are workable. My hon. Friend James Morris put his finger on one reason why this is not as simple as it sounds. As soon as we start talking about there being queues and people presenting themselves to vote, issues arise. For instance, any queue will have to be managed so that people cannot present themselves after the end of the vote. This is not as simple as it sounds therefore, and in trying to solve what is a real problem-albeit one that was not as enormous as it could have been, although I take on board the point of Kelvin Hopkins-we do not want to create further problems.
The Government are considering the Electoral Commission's report and looking at what steps are necessary to prevent a repeat of these events. I am not convinced that the hon. Gentleman's amendment offers the right solution, however.
It would be all right for this argument to be advanced if it were not for the fact that the Government are not doing anything about the problem. The Deputy Prime Minister said this was something that should never ever happen again. I have heard the Parliamentary Secretary say that voting fraud absolutely has to be dealt with, and I completely agree, but there are not any more incidences of that than there are of these problems in relation to the poll. If he were coming forward with a solution tonight, I might be more interested in his remarks.
I did not say that we would do nothing about the problem. I specifically said the opposite-that the Government are looking carefully at the Electoral Commission's report and its outline of the problem, and that we are considering possible solutions. We are not yet persuaded that a legislative solution is the right one, however. When we have decided what we think the appropriate solution is, if that requires legislation we will introduce it at the appropriate time. Also, if we were to make this change, we would need to make it for elections in the round, not just for this particular referendum.
I was not in any way underplaying the seriousness of the issue in those cases where these events happened. I was simply outlining the fact that it was not as widespread as people might have thought from the television coverage; I wanted to put it in context. However, as I said, I absolutely acknowledge that for those people who were affected, the problem was clearly very serious, and we want it to be solved, but we do not necessarily think that the proposal under discussion is the right way to solve it. There is a danger of creating as many, if not more, problems than those we are trying to solve in the first place. The law of unintended consequences might apply.
Does the Minister not accept that the problem is likely to be more acute in circumstances such as those in Northern Ireland, where voters will be using three different ballot papers? Regardless of what combination arrangements are put in place in respect of separate ballot boxes and so forth, that is likely to cause more delay. I also ask him to remember that in the last general election some of us had our counts delayed by dissidents who were directly attacking the democratic process. Sadly, it is likely that in some places in Northern Ireland there could be disruption outside the polling stations, which will add to the problem.
The hon. Gentleman raises two separate issues. The latter problem is clearly one that I hope does not arise, although he says it may well. If so, it must be managed on a case-by-case basis. We cannot make provision in legislation for that, but we want to make sure we solve the problem.
The hon. Gentleman's first point about the combination of polls next year highlights exactly why we have worked closely with the Electoral Commission and officials who administer elections across the UK to put in place sensible combination provisions to ensure that the elections run smoothly. It will be for those responsible for delivering both the elections and a referendum to look at what the likely turnouts will be and what complexities might arise from the elections, particularly in places such as Northern Ireland where there may be a number of polls with different electoral systems, and to put plans in place. One of the things that the Electoral Commission will be examining, certainly as far as the referendum is concerned, is whether people on the ground have made those arrangements. I know that the chief counting officer will be ensuring that the counting officers and regional counting officers have exactly thought through some of these issues to ensure that they do not arise again, and of course they have the power to direct some of these things to be sorted out appropriately, a power that they did not have for the election.
To be fair, it is worth making the point that although the Electoral Commission was criticised to some extent this year, it was not responsible for delivering the elections in those individual cases. It delivers the guidance and it encourages returning officers to think about some of these issues, but in the areas where there was problem it was largely the responsibility of the individual returning officer for not having planned properly or having had proper contingency arrangements in place. That is where the responsibility lies, and we need to ensure that that does not happen again.
The hour is late, but I wish to put on the record how concerned people in Hackney were by the debacle that we had at the polls earlier this year. The number of people who were turned away is an underestimate, because in my constituency hundreds of people came out after work to vote, saw the queues, went away, came back again, saw the queues and went away again, so we will never know how many people were put off voting. The cause of the queues was partly that people in Hackney were voting in three different ballots-that was one of the problems. Another cause was that the returning officer put a great deal of effort into encouraging people to cast their votes-my area had its highest ever turnout, particularly among young people who had never voted before. Another cause was the enthusiasm of people in Hackney to vote Labour.
I wish to stress that in a democracy the state has a very basic responsibility to allow people to cast their vote. These people did not come along at 9.50 pm; they had been queuing since 9 o'clock, but when 10 o'clock struck they were told that they could not cast their vote because they did not have a ballot paper in their hand. All I am saying is that this matter caused great concern in Hackney and it was very demoralising, particularly for people casting their vote for the first time. Voting is a fundamental right, and it is a fundamental duty of Government to allow people who want to vote, and who have come out in good time, to vote. We all saw last year's American elections, where very long queues of young people wanted to vote for Barack Obama. A system was put in place that allowed people who were in a queue to vote; once the point where the queue was stopping had been marked, everybody in that queue was able to vote, even if that took hours. I do not see why we cannot have a similar system here in the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend Ms Abbott has exposed the problem: we do not really know the extent of the difficulties that voters had in this year's general election. We are all deeply moved to see people voting in South Africa; they queued not just for a couple of hours, but for days when they first had the opportunity to vote. We felt moved when we saw people in the United States of America queuing to vote and we are moved when we see people in Poland, or people other parts of the world who have not always enjoyed democratic rights, queuing to vote. So it is a bit depressing when the view that other countries had of our election night was of people queuing and not being allowed to vote. That is the simple point that Labour Members are trying to rectify by way of this amendment.
I had presumed, because the Liberal Democrat leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, said that this was something that should never happen again in our democracy, that he was going to deal with the matter rather more swiftly. The referendum will coincide with other ballots, as my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Hackney North and Stoke Newington have said. The Minister wants these combined polls next May-I would prefer not to have them-and it is therefore all the more important that we have a specific provision to deal with this matter.
If the amendment does not contain the right wording, I would be quite happy for the Minister to come back on Report and provide us with an amendment to our amendment. That is the advantage of this process, in which we debate constitutional Bills on the Floor of the House like this. That might also speed up his officials. I offer him this possibility in comradely spirit. If he were to support the amendment so that it were carried, that would spur on his officials to provide an answer to the problem before we reach the Report stage. I will, therefore, press the amendment to a vote.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 154, page 48, line 32, at end insert-
'(4A) If the difference between the total number of votes cast in the referendum in the country in favour of the answer "Yes" and the total number of votes cast in the referendum in the country in favour of the answer "No" is fewer than 10,000 or 0.1 per cent. of the total number of votes cast, whichever is the smaller number, the Chief Counting Officer must give a direction to regional counting officers to have all the votes in their region re-counted.'.
My hon. Friend Mrs Laing and I have tabled the amendments to seek clarification from the Minister about the provisions for a recount at national level in the event of a tight overall result. Although I am satisfied with the provisions in the Bill for counting in each voting area, or for a recount in each voting area, just as there are provisions at a general election count for a recount in each constituency- [ Interruption. ]
Thank you, Mr Evans.
There are adequate provisions in the Bill for a recount mechanism at individual voting area level, just as at a general election count an agent or a candidate may call for a recount if the result is tight or there is some other doubt as to the accuracy of the count. However, if my reading of the Bill is correct, there is no such provision for a recount at national level and I am very concerned about that omission.
Counts in individual voting areas will be carried out in ignorance of what is happening in other counting areas. The Welsh devolution referendum of 1997 offers examples of where the problems may lie. Members may recall that the result of the referendum was very close. Of more than 1.1 million votes cast, the winning majority for the yes campaign was about 7,000 and there were approximately 4,000 spoilt ballot papers, so the result was on a knife edge.
It does not follow, however, that each area voted with the same margin of result; there were huge disparities between the counts in areas throughout Wales. In Rhondda, for example, which the shadow Minister may have some affection for and knowledge of, there was a large yes vote-a 15,000 majority for the yes campaign. Had that been at a general election, no candidate would have questioned it.
May I correct a mis-impression that is often given by Conservatives about the Rhondda? It was not actually in the Rhondda. The only result the hon. Gentleman can know about was for Rhondda Cynon Taff, which includes the whole county area. His Prime Minister has regularly said that there is a Conservative councillor in the Rhondda. There is not. There is, however, one in Rhondda Cynon Taff.
I stand corrected. I was using Rhondda as shorthand, in view of the late hour, but that does not undermine my point. The majority was clear in that counting area and had it been a general election no candidate would have challenged the result and called for a recount. However, in an authority close by-Vale of Glamorgan-there was a similar large majority for the no campaign, of 14,000 or thereabouts. There, too, no candidate would have chosen to call for a recount, but when we aggregate the two results, as happened throughout Wales, the result was very close overall. As far as I can tell, the Bill includes no provision for either the yes or no campaign to call for a recount in that eventuality.
Amendment 154 would establish a mechanism for calling a recount, and I invite the Minister to give some clarification as to whether my interpretation of the Bill is correct. Would the proposed mechanism be the most appropriate way to rectify the measure or would the Government care to suggest some other means?
Amendment 153 would provide for the chief counting officer to direct a recount. I am a little concerned about the wording in paragraph 42, which states:
"The Regional Counting Officer or Chief Counting Officer may give a direction under paragraph (3)(a) only if the officer thinks that there is reason to doubt the accuracy of the counting of the votes."
I am not satisfied with the term "thinks that there is", and I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the circumstances in which the chief counting officer should be compelled to call for a recount if he believes that there is some doubt about the accuracy of the count.
I am intrigued by the proposals. The first of the two amendments-amendment 153-deals emphatically with an important question of administrative law. Under paragraph 42(3)(a), the regional counting officer or chief counting officer has a permissive power to give a direction. Importantly, sub-paragraph (3) says:
"The Regional Counting Officer or Chief Counting Officer must then either-
(a) direct the counting officer to have the votes re-counted, or"- this is the crucial proposal-
"(b) direct the counting officer to make the certification under section 128(5) of the 2000 Act."
From paragraph 42(4), it is clear that the Government's intention is that the provision should be permissive only. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), and for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), for insisting that the provision be not permissive but mandatory. That would put the whole question of the administrative arrangements for such a proposal on a compulsory footing, and that, when applied to the Bill, makes a significant difference. If the provision were merely permissive, almost anything could happen, but if it were compulsory, the regional counting officer or chief counting officer would be under a legal obligation to give a direction under paragraph (3)(a)
"if the officer thinks that there is reason to doubt the accuracy of the counting of the votes in the counting officer's voting area."
There will be enormous difficulty and ambiguity if that is done purely on a permissive footing, so I strongly recommend that the Government accept the proposal of my hon. Friends, who insist that the provision be made compulsory.
Under paragraph 42(5), there is a compulsory requirement, in that
"A counting officer who is given a direction under paragraph (3)(a) must-
(a) begin the re-count as soon as practicable, and
(b) if the officer does not begin the re-count immediately, notify the counting agents of the time and place at which it will take place."
The most extraordinary situation would arise if, under sub-paragraph (5), action was compulsory, while under sub-paragraph (4) it was only permissive. I make the point strongly that a compulsory requirement, enforceable by law, seems the right way to proceed. However, all that would arise
"only if the officer thinks that there is reason to doubt the accuracy of the counting of the votes".
As is well known, the question is not simply whether the provisions should be permissive or compulsory. We then move on to the question of what is in the mind of the officer.
How are we to establish what the officer thinks there is a reason to doubt? After all, if we are asking in legislation for a potential judicial interpretation-a compulsory requirement to depend upon what somebody thinks-how, short of bringing in the shrink, can we determine whether the person thought that or not? We are faced with an extraordinary situation, which is not uncommon in certain kinds of legislation, where the issue ultimately turns on what is going on in the mind of an official.
Is not the problem the fact that the Bill gives no guidance as to what matters should be in the mind of the returning officer when he comes to his decision? He is given no guidance as to what matters should be taken into account.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that extremely intelligent and useful intervention, which demonstrates the very point that I am making. If we do not establish criteria, there is nothing by which the court, in a judicial action in administrative law, would be able to judge what was going on in the official's mind. Is it to be merely a matter of opinion or is it to be a matter of judgment by certain criteria?
I notice that those on the Front Bench are watching me with some interest. I have been watching them with much interest throughout the proceedings as we were moving towards clause 6, but we were not getting there, so we will have to see.
I am sure my hon. Friend and others want more elucidation on the point. We get used to the fact that some legislation states "where, in the opinion of a Minister" and subsequently says that the proceedings shall not be challenged in any legal proceedings whatsoever. That occurs in another interesting and somewhat controversial Bill, the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which I do not need to go into today because we will have plenty of opportunity to examine it on another occasion.
If the provision merely states that if the officer thinks there is a reason to doubt the accuracy of the counting of the votes in the counting officer's voting area, and does not say "in the opinion of", we are using different language from the language that the courts are used to in administrative legal challenges, which is the precise wording, well established in the courts and in administrative law, "if, in the opinion of the officer, there is a reason to doubt the accuracy of the counting of the votes".
As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South made clear at the beginning, this is a matter of great importance when there is a knife-edge vote. He mentioned the experience of Chris Bryant in relation to elections. We must bear it in mind that the Bill is not just about an election. It is about a referendum with a range of percentages that may be applied as a result of the threshold provisions. Those will become highly controversial in the context of clause 6, which we will reach later on-much later on.
When one is considering whether a recount should be requested, one must take account not just of the number of votes, but of the manner in which the election process has taken place.
I greatly admire my hon. Friend's perspicacity. He puts his finger on an important point-the context in which these events take place. This is about whether or not, in relation to a matter of such importance as the issue of alternative vote, we end up with a decision which could be on a knife-edge and which is decided merely on the basis of what an officer thinks.
I do not know about hon. Gentlemen in the Committee at large, but sometimes I do not have that much faith in bureaucratic thinking; in fact, I have a strong aversion to it. But if the measure were to say, "In the opinion of the officer," we would at least know that we were on what I would describe as generally understood judicial ground. The measure does not provide for that, however; it provides for the question of what is in his mind, not his opinion, and there is a very big and important distinction to be drawn between those two things. My hon. Friend is entirely right in believing that there ought to be a context and some criteria.
Furthermore, the measure includes the wording,
"if the officer thinks"- whatever that means-
"that there is reason to doubt the accuracy of the counting of the votes in the counting officer's voting area".
What is or is not reasonable is, again, a question that the courts are well used to determining. There is a whole stream of case law, which I am quite capable of spending some time describing, on the question of what is or is not reasonable, and for that matter what is or is not practicable. I am afraid to say, however, that when the Bill simply states,
"only if the officer thinks that there is reason to doubt", it applies yet another spurious objective test, which is actually highly subjective, and that is not the way to legislate.
We want clarity and impartiality, and to be sure that, if there is a knife-edge vote, there will not be some unfortunate mistake in the mind of the officer-and I shall make no mistake whatever about what I say this evening.
My hon. Friend is making a very compelling case, as usual. Does he not agree that this is an open and shut case? Owing to the way in which the measure is worded, if the chief counting officer, or the regional counting officer, thinks that there is a reason to doubt the accuracy of the count, he "may" give a direction for a recount. Surely, if a returning officer has reason to believe that the count is not accurate, it is an open and shut case. Surely, it is the duty of the returning officer that they must order a recount in those circumstances.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend, with again the greatest perspicacity and accuracy, has put his finger on the complete absurdity of the Government's chosen language. Let us be quite serious for a moment-I am trying to be serious the whole time-because the fact is that in legislation of this importance, and in the circumstances of a knife-edge vote, we are allowing a situation in which, if the counting officer "thinks" that there is a reason, he only sort of has to think about whether or not he might or he might not decide to order a recount. However, as my hon. Friend says, it is absolutely crystal clear in the circumstances to which he refers that it is not possible for the officer to give a direction other than on a mandatory basis, which is what "must" actually means.
I obviously agree, but does my hon. Friend agree that his proposal would actually benefit counting officers and returning officers? In a situation where people have been up late at night, they are tired and it is not clear whether people want to have a recount, making the position abundantly clear in the legislation would be of great help to a returning officer, who would then not be under any pressure not to undertake a recount.
Given the seriousness of the situation that we face this evening, for example, it would be intolerable to keep people up late for no useful purpose. That is precisely why I am making these very useful comments-to ensure that what happens is in line with the proper principles of administrative law.
On the next provision, which is amendment 154, there are a number of other extremely important matters that are of grave concern. That is so important that hon. Members have devised a special provision-not merely an amendment of the kind that I have described but the very well-thought-out separate paragraph (4A), which says:
"If the difference between the total number of votes cast in the referendum in the country in favour of the answer "Yes" and the total number of votes cast in the referendum in the country in favour of the answer "No"- this is crucially important-
"is fewer than 10,000"-
Debate interrupted (Programme Order,
The Chair put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (
The Chair then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Amendment proposed: 353, page 49, line 15, at end insert-
'(aa) certify as respects the votes cast in each parliamentary constituency within his area-
(i) the number of ballot papers counted by him in that parliamentary constituency; and
(ii) the number of votes cast in favour and against to the question asked in the referendum.' -(Chris Bryant.)
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendments made: 279, page 50, leave out lines 34 and 35 and insert 'relevant registration officer'.
280, page 51, line 11, at end insert-
'(3) For the purposes of paragraph (1) the relevant registration officer is-
(a) the registration officer of the local authority in whose area the counting officer's voting area is situated, or
(b) if the voting area comprises any part of the area of more than one local authority, the registration officer of the local authority in whose area the greater or greatest (as the case may be) number of electors is registered.
In this paragraph "local authority" has the same meaning as in paragraph 2A of Schedule 1.'.
281, page 54, line 9, after 'for' insert 'United Kingdom'.
282, page 54, leave out line 10.
232, page 54, leave out lines 11 to 14 and insert-
|'At present, the UK uses the "first past the post" system to elect MPs to the House of Commons.|
|Should the "alternative vote" system be used instead?'.|
283, page 54, line 14, at end insert-
|'Vote (X) in one box only.'.|
284, page 54, line 20, after 'for' insert 'United Kingdom'.
285, page 54, line 26, at end insert-
'The official mark may be printed on either the front or the back of the ballot paper if it does not consist of or include any letters or numbers; if it does, it must be printed on the back of the ballot paper.'.
286, page 55, line 1, after 'for' insert 'United Kingdom'.
287, page 55, line 3, leave out 'once' and insert 'in one box'.
288, page 55, line 5, leave out from 'question' to end of line 7.
289, page 55, line 10, after 'for' insert 'United Kingdom'.
290, page 55, line 19, after 'for' insert 'United Kingdom'.
291, page 55, line 20, leave out 'once' and insert 'in one box'.
292, page 55, line 21, leave out paragraph 7 and insert-
'The words mentioned in paragraph 6(a) must be printed in bold characters.
The words on the front of the ballot paper indicating the alternative forms of answer to the referendum question must be printed in bold capital letters.'.
293, page 55, line 29, leave out 'question' and insert
'the direction "Vote (X) in one box only"'.
294, page 57, line 15, leave out 'once' and insert 'in one box'.
295, page 58, line 32, leave out 'once' and insert 'in one box'.
296, page 60, line 7, leave out 'ONCE' and insert 'in ONE box'.
297, page 63, line 17, leave out 'ONCE' and insert 'in ONE box'.
298, page 67, line 9, leave out 'once' and insert 'in one box'.
299, page 67, line 14, at end insert
'so please ignore this poll card'.
300, page 67, line 24, leave out from beginning to the end of line 36 on page 68.
301, page 70, line 16, leave out from beginning to the end of line 9 on page 72.
302, page 73, line 2, at end insert-
'Referendum on the voting system for United Kingdom parliamentary elections'.
303, page 73, line 7, leave out 'once' and insert 'in one box'.
304, page 73, line 16, after 'for' insert 'United Kingdom'.- (Mr Harper.)
Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to .
Yes, it does. Under the motion of the House, schedules 3 and 4, clause 4, schedule 5, and clauses 5 and 6 were to be debated this evening before 11pm. We now know that there is no time for debate on any of those parts of the Bill. May I refer you, Mr Evans, to the undertaking given by the Parliamentary Secretary when he addressed the House-