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Clause 13 — Role of Electoral Commission

Firearms (Amendment) Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 25th January 2011.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe 9:55 pm, 25th January 2011

Clause 13 covers the role of the independent Electoral Commission in the administering of any future referendums held under the Bill. The clause would supplement the existing provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Neill committee originally suggested the establishment of such a commission to supervise the restrictions on spending by, and donations to, both political parties and third parties.

As I have explained, we have not sought to disapply or replace any of the general provisions of PPERA. There is, of course, nothing to prevent Parliament doing so in any legislation that might be needed for a referendum in future, in order to reflect the context and the circumstances in which that referendum would be held. Significantly, however, the Act contains no provision to confer on the Electoral Commission power to promote public awareness and understanding of the subject matter of referendums.

We feel that, as part of the Government's firm commitment to helping to rebuild trust and reconnect the British people to decisions made in their name on the European Union, it is important that the administration of any future referendum to be held under this Bill facilitate the understanding and clarity required to enable the British people to make informed decisions on whether or not to approve a treaty change or decision that would transfer power or competence from Britain to Brussels. Clause 13 provides that if a referendum is triggered under the EU Bill, the Electoral Commission has an obligation to take whatever steps it thinks appropriate to promote public awareness of the referendum and how to vote in it.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I hear what the Minister says about an appropriate public debate and a high degree of awareness, but the clause states that the Electoral Commission

"may take whatever steps they think appropriate".

If the Minister thinks that public awareness is so important, why did he not ensure that the word "will" was used rather than the word "may"?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

The Electoral Commission was rightly established as an independent body. I think it important for the Government not to issue instructions to it, and to be seen not to do so. Given that the commission's value to our political process is by virtue of its being a completely independent statutory body, I consider it right for us to give it these new powers without laying down rules requiring it to use them in a particular way. It is for the commission to make its own judgments. How it chooses to promote awareness is rightly a matter for it, but we are giving it a statutory duty to promote awareness before any referendum held under the provisions of the Bill.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

Perhaps I can help the Minister. Clause 13(a) says that the commission

"must take whatever steps they think appropriate to promote public awareness" of the existence of the referendum, but

"may take whatever steps they think appropriate to promote public awareness of the subject-matter of the referendum."

I suggest to the Minister that that may mean giving appropriate amounts of money to the yes campaign and to the no campaign.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

My hon. Friend's helpful intervention will probably have given some reassurance to Mr David.

We are seeking to encourage greater participation, and providing clarity so that the people know what they would be voting for regardless of which way they choose to vote. We are following the practice adopted for the North East assembly referendum in 2004, and the approach taken in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

If I may, I refer the hon. Member for Caerphilly to the 2003 enabling Act for the north-east regional assemblies referendum. It included clause 8, supplementary to PPERA, on "encouraging voting", and that-

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 7 December).

The Chair put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83D), That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 13 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The occupant of the Chair left the Chair (Programme Order, 7 December.)

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again tomorrow.