Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (Money) (No. 2)

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 4:09 pm on 15th February 2011.

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Queen's recommendation signified.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 4:14 pm, 15th February 2011

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of the Consolidated Fund of charges payable to the Chief Counting Officer in connection with the referendum on the voting system for parliamentary elections.

The resolution relates to Lords amendments 31 to 34 to paragraph 20 of schedule 1, which were inserted in the Bill in Lords Committee. The resolution gives the chief counting officer, who is the chair of the Electoral Commission, a power to incur expenses for the effective conduct of the referendum in certain, limited circumstances and to make payments in respect of those expenses out of the moneys to be provided from the Consolidated Fund. The original money resolution, which was agreed to on Second Reading in this House, covered only the payment out of the Consolidated Fund of charges payable to regional counting officers and counting officers in connection with the conduct of the referendum.

This additional resolution is needed because it has become apparent to the Government and the Electoral Commission that further savings in the cost of the referendum can be made by allowing the chief counting officer to pay costs directly from the Consolidated Fund. For example, Royal Mail has indicated that it may be able to provide a cheaper service for any sweeps of mail centres-a service to ensure that any postal votes still in mail centres towards the end of polling day are identified, extracted and provided to returning and counting officers before the close of poll that evening-if it can contract for this on a national basis with one individual, rather than having to negotiate and contract with the more than 350 officers conducting the poll locally. The resolution is therefore pragmatic.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Those of us who are worried about the amount of money to be spent on the proposal might be persuaded a little more if the Minister could give us an idea of by how much the cost will come down as a result of this resolution, and say what other measures he can take to try to secure better value.

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

I can reassure the House that, because of the way the Bill and the amendments are drafted, the chief counting officer can directly recover expenditure only where it has been incurred in a way that provides a clear financial benefit to the public purse. The test is that the chief counting officer may recover expenditure that she has incurred for the purpose of running the referendum only where that expenditure would have been incurred by local or regional counting officers in any event, but where it was more economical for it to be incurred by the chief counting officer. The resolution is therefore aimed at saving money.

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

The whole point is that it is not possible to predict every eventuality. The resolution says that if by spending money herself centrally, the chief counting officer can get services at a lower cost than all the individual regional counting officers, she will be able to do so, thereby delivering a saving, although it is not possible to quantify this in advance. I have given a specific example of where we know there is an ability to deliver a saving, but I cannot give my right hon. Friend the certainty on the numbers that he seeks. However, having given him the detail that I am able to, I commend this resolution to the House.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 4:18 pm, 15th February 2011

As the Minister set out, this is a minor money resolution, and we do not have a major problem with it. However, perhaps I can use this opportunity to raise an issue in relation to the combination of polls-the reason we need this resolution-as it affects Scotland. As I am sure the Minister will know, electoral registration officers in Scotland have said that they will not now be able to perform the whole count for the Scottish parliamentary elections overnight. All they will do is the verification-both of the referendum, as the Bill requires, and the parliamentary elections-and then they will stop, leaving the count to take place on the Friday.

I understood from what the Minister said in previous debates that nothing would get in the way of ensuring that the count happened as soon as possible in Scotland and Wales, and in local government. Before the last general election, all parties combined to try to ensure that the overnight count happened. Disappointingly, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has refused to suggest any amendments to the Bill. I therefore wonder whether the Minister could assist us by saying something that might help to ensure that the election results are known in Scotland overnight.

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

It might be helpful if I remind the House that, when the chief electoral officer set out her guidance about the count timing, she also set out a number of principles. One of her principles-which is also one of the Government's principles that was shared across the House-is to ensure that the results of the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as the results of the council elections, are counted and made known first. She was reassured by counting officers in Scotland and elsewhere, and on that basis, she made a determination about the time of the referendum count. I am sure that if she is given different information by those counting officers, she will want to ensure that her principle is upheld-namely, that we should still know the results of those elections before the count takes place for the referendum.

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

I am grateful to the Minister, but, unfortunately he has not yet replied to my letter of some weeks ago, so I am unable to know the full purport of what he is saying. The point is that we believe not only in the principle that the elections to elected office should be counted first, but that the counts for the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and for the local elections should happen overnight.

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

The rules for the referendum are set out in the scope of the Bill, but it would not be within its scope to change the law pertaining to the counting only of the votes in the elections. The important thing that we have set out about the combination is that nothing that happens with the referendum count will change the timing of the election results. I think that there was a shared view on both sides of the House that we want to see those results counted as soon as possible, so that people will know who is running the devolved nations.

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

I am sorry, but the Minister's reply is very disappointing. Either he does not understand the law that he himself has drafted and the statutory instruments that have gone through in relation to the combination of polls in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, or he is being-how can I put it-somewhat obtuse. The necessity for most people is that they want to know the election results on the night. However, because of the way in which the Government are combining the polls, and because of the Bill and the statutory instruments that went through at the same time, the people of Scotland will not know their election results on the night. The Minister will have unpicked one of the elements that has been absolutely standard in British history for more than 100 years-namely, that the results are announced immediately. This does not have much to do with the money resolution, Mr Speaker, but I have made my point none the less. I think that it is a great shame that the Minister has behaved in this way.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest 4:22 pm, 15th February 2011

I want to put on record that representatives of the Electoral Commission came before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee again last week to discuss the amendments that are before the House today. One of the questions that the Committee looked at was that of the cost of the referendum. It will cost £100 million to run the referendum, at a time when, I hardly need remind the House, we are looking at cuts-let me say "reductions"-to every other aspect of public expenditure. It would appear that, in addition to that expenditure, the voter education campaign that the Electoral Commission is quite rightly required to undertake will cost something like £7 million. Local authorities will also have to bear additional costs, which we will not know for another six months or so, in running the referendum. That is not a reason not to have the referendum, but it is important that the House and our electorate understand just how much it is costing the taxpayer.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife 4:24 pm, 15th February 2011

I should like to return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, having perhaps given the Minister slightly more time to reflect on the genuinely valid points that my hon. Friend raised. I know that colleagues from other parties were also nodding in agreement when he was raising them.

The returning officers in Scotland are up to the same trick that they were trying to pull before the 2010 general election, when the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Murphy gave a clear instruction to the returning officers that they could not delay the start of the count for that general election in Scotland until the following day.

Let me place the Minister under notice that I shall seek two guarantees from him and the Deputy Leader of the House. The first is that he speaks urgently to the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland-I suspect he will have a number of opportunities to speak to them in the Division Lobbies in the next four hours-to get them to set the record straight on the Scotland Office position on the counting. Will the Minister also guarantee-I will take him at his word, as he is an honourable Gentleman-that either he or the Secretary of State will write to the returning officers in Scotland to remind them that they receive a payment for carrying out these duties?

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

Does not the hon. Gentleman share my absolute and utter surprise that neither the Secretary of State for Scotland nor the Under-Secretary have yet written to returning officers to get this issue clarified and resolved?

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

I fear that in some ways I am not surprised, because we have learned over the last nine months that the Secretary of State for Scotland is like Macavity the cat. When it comes to any issue-whether it be the coastguard, defence or anything else-he is posted absent. The hon. Gentleman's point is valid because the Secretary of State should be writing to returning officers to remind them that they receive an additional payment for carrying out their duties in unsociable hours, so there is no reason for the count not to happen. If the returning officers insist on delaying until the following morning, will the Minister guarantee that those payments will be withdrawn from them and their staff? Why should we pay them for a service that they are not carrying out? Will he also confirm that he will write to returning officers to remind them that, during our Wednesday evening debate on the Standing Order at the end of last year and during the course of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, he gave an explicit guarantee on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that the count would take place as soon as practically possible-namely, straight after the polls close in Scotland?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 4:26 pm, 15th February 2011

We are debating a money resolution, the whole purpose of which is for the House to exert some control over the expenditures of public money and to be accountable for them. I find it curious that the Minister was unable to tell us how much money was involved in the wider issue of paying for the referendum, and unable to help the House by telling us by how much he might be able to reduce that rather large bill as a result of this mini motion.

Many of us are reluctant about the entire measure; we do not think that it is either urgent or important, but we believe that controlling public expenditure is vital. When we see discretionary items such as this one, we are even more enthusiastic about exerting very strong control over the expenditure if it proves to be the will of Parliament as a whole that the proposal goes forward. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will have some figures to present to us and will be able to give us a little encouragement about why we should support this particular money resolution. He hinted that it could mean a bit less, but some of us would like it to be a lot less. I hope the Minister will think again.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne 4:27 pm, 15th February 2011

I agree with my hon. Friend Mrs Laing and Chris Bryant. My Broxbourne constituents are horrified at the cost of this referendum, which some commentators have said could be as high as £250 million. I dare to say that this money would be far better spent on employing doctors, nurses, teachers and soldiers.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North 4:28 pm, 15th February 2011

I recognise, as do we all, I am sure, that this referendum measure is before us because of the coalition agreement. If the Conservatives had won the election outright and gained a majority, they would certainly not be putting it forward. I also accept that public expenditure should not be the dominant reason why the House should not pursue a particular course. I must say, however, that there is very little evidence of any desire in the country at large to have a referendum on what sort of system should be used for electing Members of Parliament. How many letters have we received? How many e-mails? Do people come to our surgeries and tell us that this is one of the most important, crucial issues of the day? The answer is no. [Hon. Members: "No!"] The noes are coming from the Conservative Benches, but I ask my hon. Friends: am I wrong? Is it not a known fact that there is so little interest in the matter?

I must also say, however-and I know that at some stage this evening we shall debate the Lords amendment concerning the nature of the threshold-that, like others who have spoken, I see little justification for spending what will be a very large amount of money on a referendum on the system for electing Members of Parliament at a time when we are constantly told that we must be careful with our public money, when allowances and benefits are being taken away from people, and when, in my view and, I believe, that of most Members, there is little public wish for such a referendum.

Question put and agreed to.