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Schedule 6 — The alternative vote system: further amendments

House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 19th October 2010.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 7:00 pm, 19th October 2010

I beg to move amendment 198, page 147, line 18, leave out '45A(4) or (5) above in' and insert '45A above-

(a) in'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 199 to 202.

I understand that there may be a consensus to hold a slightly broader debate about these Government amendments and to obviate the need for a stand part debate, and I am content with that process.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

These Government amendments-following our debate yesterday-genuinely fall into the technical category. Their purpose is to set out the procedure in the parliamentary election rules for determining which candidate is to be elected when only two candidates stand at an election under the alternative vote system and they receive the same number of first-preference votes. The amendments would provide for the returning officer to decide by lot which of the two candidates was to be elected.

Under the current first-past-the-post system, a tie between candidates is resolved by the returning officer drawing lots. Under the alternative vote system, the situation might arise whereby during the count either two or more candidates at a particular counting stage had the same number of votes or at the final counting round the two remaining candidates had the same number of votes. The provisions in paragraph 7 insert new rules 49 and 49A into the parliamentary election rules to deal with those circumstances. If the tie were at the first counting stage, on first-preference votes, lots would still have to be used to decide the outcome. If the tie occurred at a later counting stage, under the alternative vote system the use of preferences would allow the returning officer to refer to previous stages and use those preferences to make the decision.

The drafting of new rules 49 and 49A does not specifically cover the unlikely situation in which there are only two candidates at the outset who receive the same number of votes, but we thought it sensible to ensure that that possibility was clearly addressed to avoid any doubt. The Government have therefore tabled the amendments to ensure that rule 49A deals with the possibility of that situation and provides for the winner to be elected by drawing lots. I hope that Members are content with that.

We touched on this issue during our debate about clause 7, but it is worth saying that clause 7 deals with the two key aspects of the election under the alternative vote system-how votes are cast by voters and how they are counted. Schedule 6 sets out further amendments to the parliamentary election rules and other aspects of electoral law that would be required to hold a UK parliamentary election under the alternative vote. The changes reflect the fact that the election would be held under a preferential voting system. They touch on the ballot paper and guidance for voters; how we conduct recounts; how we decide whether the ballot papers are rejected; how we deal with candidates with the same number of votes-I have just set out our amendment on that; how the result is declared; a candidate's deposit; and a number of other changes.

I am content for any member of the Committee to ask me questions on those measures, but I do not see anyone rising to their feet immediately. I urge Members to accept the Government's amendments and to agree to the schedule.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

In light of your earlier comments, Mr Gale, I hope that it is okay for me to stray into a debate about whether the schedule be agreed to.

The schedule makes a number of other very important amendments to the law that pertains to the election, and they, along with the other measures that we discussed in clause 7, will come into force when the Minister tables the order that follows a yes vote in the referendum. Some of the provisions are pretty straightforward. For instance, the notice that is normally exhibited on the ballot paper under the existing system says, "Vote for one candidate only". Obviously, that would be thoroughly misleading if we were to adopt the alternative vote system, because it would point out precisely what the voters had not to do.

One relatively interesting point is that the guidance will make it clear:

"Do not use the same number more than once.'"

I presume that if a voter did use the same number more than once, that would invalidate a vote. I presume that if somebody voted 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, that would invalidate the vote at the point that one reached the second preference, because one would not be able to determine the second preference, even if there had been some other strange means of adding to it.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

This is obviously a very technical and complex debate, but does my hon. Friend agree that that is exactly why, in the next version of this Bill, the Government have to give way on the issue of the same date for the Welsh and Scottish elections in 2015? The potential for confusion is far too great.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

As I have said previously, one difficulty that we as a Committee have in debating the Bill is that we do not know the precise amendments that the Government are going to table on the combination of polls in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We do not yet know what the law-as the Government expect it to be in relation to those three territorial departments-will be, because the statutory instruments have not been tabled. That makes it difficult for us to imagine exactly what a polling station is going to look like when somebody goes in. However, the measures in the schedule do not affect the conduct of the referendum next May, but rather the conduct of an election at a subsequent date once there has been a successful yes vote in a referendum and the measure has been introduced.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife 7:30 pm, 19th October 2010

I apologise to my hon. Friend for not being clear enough. I was referring to the 2015 elections, where we will have the additional member system in Scotland, as well as first-past-the-post and the AV system, if the Government do not give way. Would it not have been better to have one single Bill for fixed terms and for these provisions instead of this mish-mash of two Bills?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

That is a good point, although I have not yet given up on the idea that the Government's Fixed-term Parliaments Bill will end up with a five-year rather than a four-year parliamentary term, which would be more advisable and acceptable, I suspect, to this House and the other place. If there were to be a combination of simultaneous parliamentary elections in Scotland for this House and for the Scottish Parliament, and in Wales for this House and for the Assembly, operating under different electoral systems, both of which involved writing "1, 2, 3, 4, 5", there would be capacity for confusion, and polling stations could be a rather complex area for voters to enter. Unfortunately, we are not able to have that provision in this Bill because the Government have decided to bring forward not a great reform Act but little tiddly bits of reform as they can be spatchcocked into Bills to appease both sides of the coalition.

Under paragraph 5, the system for recounts will be changed to allow for a recount to happen at any stage in the voting process. That is obviously a sensible measure. If, say, five candidates were standing and the person in fifth place is there only by two or three votes, they will want to have a recount to make sure that they really are the person who should be eliminated at that stage. I remember that when I stood in 1997 in High Wycombe-not traditionally a safe Labour seat; in fact, the Conservatives had a majority of 18,000-there was a recount in the ballot, and on a night when many Conservative seats fell, my friends thought, "Blimey, it looks as if Bryant has won High Wycombe." In fact, I had not come anywhere near to winning; it was all about whether somebody else-the Green candidate, I think-had lost his deposit.

Under the schedule-it is also animadverted to in the clause that we have just debated-there is to be a public announcement at each stage of the process, so at each point where there is an elimination the returning officer gets everybody together to agree, "Yes, this the person who is being eliminated, these are the votes that have been cast, these are the second preferences as they have been cast, this is the number of non-allocated ballots," and so on. I am concerned about that, because there has been a growing tendency for the presumption of secrecy during the counting process to be completely ignored, with many broadcasters and journalists asking candidates on the night, in the middle of the count, to reveal what is happening in the process. That is a disturbing trend, particularly in relation to postal ballots. At some counts, the returning officer has decided not to validate the postal ballots separately but to put them in with all the others so that nobody can start doing what every political party does-the sampling process-and then say, "It was the postal ballots that won this election," or otherwise. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that, particularly as it might apply in the process as it develops.

If we have public announcements at every stage, are we not letting the secrecy of the ballot run away with us? It has sometimes been difficult to get all the agents and candidates together for announcements, and it might take some considerable time to arrive at an election result if one had to go through the whole process at each stage. I understand, however, that according to the schedule there can also be a recount at the end of the process, as long as the final result has not yet been announced. If I am wrong about that, I am sure that the Minister will enlighten me.

I am glad to see this provision:

"A ballot paper on which a number is marked elsewhere than in a proper place shall not be deemed to be void for that reason alone."

That mirrors provisions elsewhere in legislation. However, I wonder what improper place might be given as a reason why a vote might be declared void. In addition, the provision:

"A ballot paper on which the voter makes any mark which...is clearly intended to indicate a particular preference for a particular candidate, but...is not a number (or is a number written otherwise than as an arabic numeral), shall be treated in the same way as if the appropriate number (written as an arabic numeral) has been marked instead", is an important element of what we are guaranteeing. In the transition from the existing system to the new system, assuming that there is a yes vote, if a voter still has not quite understood the system, or, for that matter, is a conscientious objector to the new system and therefore wants to vote only with their first preference and chooses to do so with an X, a tick, or as the Minister frequently says-I am not sure if that is because he votes in this way-with a smiley face, then we should allow them to do so.

We are fully supportive of the Minister's amendments, which seem to make sense in the way that he has described. I hope that he will be able to answer the questions that I have asked in the course of my comments. Otherwise, I see no reason why the schedule should not stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman seems to be mostly concerned about publicity in relation to the declaration of results. Rule 45B in clause 7 requires the returning officer to "make publicly available" specified information, so that information will be public not only to those at the count-the agents and so forth-but to the media and everybody else. He refers to an increasing trend for people to set out the partial results of elections before the result is declared. He will know that that is an offence. I shall not name the person, but there was a parliamentary candidate-a Member of this House-who did that on Twitter and was suitably chastised. However, I do not think it is a widespread situation that people are publicly making declarations or suggestions about the results of general elections. If they were to do so, that would be an offence.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I am not sure that that is right. I know about the instance that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Because of the practice of sampling, which happens when returning officers verify the postal votes separately, I have frequently heard people say-indeed, I have heard it in this House-that a seat was won or lost solely by virtue of the postal votes. I would have thought that that was an offence.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am not going to get into what may or may not be an offence. The hon. Gentleman may well be right. I thought that he was citing the situation whereby people have referred to results before the result was declared, which is clearly more significant. Because of the nature of the alternative vote, one cannot just wait until the final result but must say what is going on at each stage. The Bill makes it clear that that will be publicly declared so that everybody knows what is going on.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the recount rules in the schedule, which make it clear that at any stage

"a candidate or candidate's election agent...may request the returning officer to have the votes re-counted".

In the same way as under our current rules, that would be not a demand but a request that could be made. It would ultimately be up to the returning officer to grant it, unless they thought it unreasonable. Of course, the returning officer themselves could choose to have a recount if they thought there were problems with how the count had progressed.

I think those were the only issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, unless I missed any. I therefore hope that the amendments will be accepted.

Amendment 198 agreed to.

Amendments made: 199, page 147, line 19, at end insert-

'(b) in the case of an election with only two candidates who receive an equal number of votes.'.

Amendment 200, page 147, line 20, at beginning insert 'Where paragraph (1)(a) applies,'.

Amendment 201, page 147, line 26, leave out from 'Where' to second 'the' and insert

'paragraph (1)(a) above applies but the tie is not resolved under paragraph (2) above, or where paragraph (1)(b) above applies,'.

Amendment 202, page 147, line 28, leave out 'remaining' and insert 'two'.- (Mr Harper.)

Schedule 6, as amended, agreed to.