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I beg to move amendment 48, in page 2, line 30, at end insert—
‘(aa) the provision made under subsection (1)(a) shall include making arrangements to allow all those entitled to vote in the referendum to vote by electronic means.”
The amendment would provide for electronic voting in the referendum.
With this it will be convenient to take the following:
Amendment 3, page 2, line 39, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘(2) The referendum shall not be held on the same day as:
(a) elections to the Scottish Parliament;
(b) elections to the National Assembly for Wales;
(c) elections for the Mayor of London; or
(d) local authority elections”.
The amendment would prevent the referendum being held on the same day as Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, London mayoral or local authority elections.
Amendment 7, page 2, line 39, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘(2) The referendum shall not be held on the same day as elections, other than by-elections, that are scheduled to take place for:
(a) the Scottish Parliament;
(b) the National Assembly for Wales;
(c) the Northern Ireland Assembly;
(d) the Gibraltar Parliament;
(e) Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales;
(f) the London Assembly and Mayor of London; or
(g) local authorities and mayors in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar.”
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the referendum is not held on the same day as other polls.
Clause 4 stand part.
Amendment 8, in clause 6, page 3, line 37, at end add—
‘(5) Regulations made under this Act or the 2000 Act in respect of the referendum must be made and come into force not less than six months before the start of the referendum period.”
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure the legislative framework for the referendum is clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with.
Clause 6 stand part.
Clauses 7 to 11 stand part.
Given the limited time available, I will be brief. I know that other hon. Members wish to speak on the other amendments. I just want to warn the Committee that on subsequent occasions I will bore Members by going on about electronic voting as often as I can. We have been waging a campaign for 15 years to see whether we can update our electoral methods and bring them into the 21st century. For brevity’s sake, I will circulate the notes prepared by the Library for those Members who are interested. I want to thank Isobel White, the researcher, for preparing the notes, which go through the history of electronic voting, including the various pilots that we have undertaken since 2000.
We started the adventure way back in 2000, when we established the first pilots, and we had more in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007. At each stage we had reports back on the enhancements that electronic voting would bring to our procedures. The background to the attempt to introduce electronic voting is the declining turnout in elections, although the key issue is whether the subject of an election excites the general public, such as in the Scottish referendum. If people feel the issue is important enough, they will turn out and vote, but unfortunately they do not have the same incentive in some elections. Part of the issue, therefore, is ensuring that voting is as easy as it can be, and we have been piloting electronic voting for a long time.
The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy has explored the issue in the last two years and made several recommendations. The remaining issue to be confronted is the security of online voting, but I do not believe it to be an insuperable problem. The reason for raising the issue in the debate on the Bill—as I will for every other Bill that we consider, including the trade union Bill we are expecting—is to ensure that we force the Government to resolve the issue of security, which seems to be the only thing holding this back.
This is possibly the first time in 18 years that I have had a slight disagreement with one of my hon. Friends, but my hon. Friend suggests that changing the way we vote will increase turnout. We introduced postal ballots for that reason and we have still seen a big decline in turnout. People do not vote if they see less difference between the parties: if there is a real difference and they have a real choice, they turn out to vote.
Thank goodness, we are not disagreeing. That is the point that I tried to make earlier, but in a more complicated fashion. The issue about turnout is how people are incentivised to vote, but the minimum we can do is increase the access to voting procedures. We have done that through postal voting, as my hon. Friend says, and we have just introduced electronic registration, to assist in the registration process. It was argued that once we had introduced electronic registration we would revisit online voting, but unfortunately that is not the case in this legislation. I hope that the tabling of the amendment will make the Government go back to the Electoral Commission and ask it to make detailed proposals. Even if we have to pilot electronic voting in some areas in this referendum, we may be able to overcome some of the problems that have been identified.
Not for the first time, Kelvin Hopkins speaks good sense, but I fear that the hon. Gentleman has neglected to answer his point, which is that since the advent of postal votes on demand, there has been no demonstrable increase in voter turnout. Indeed, voter turnout since 1997 generally has gone down. Will he address that point?
There was a slight increase at the last general election. The hon. Gentleman is right, because I can remember turnouts at around 77%. In some areas we went down to 56%, but this time round we went from 60% up to about 65%, so there was a slight increase—a significant increase in some areas—from the introduction of postal voting. If he looks, he will see that where the pilots that were undertaken throughout the 2000s were implemented effectively, turnout was increased significantly. I recommend examination and exploration of the Shrewsbury pilot, which took place in 2005.
I will not delay the Committee any further, but I refer Members not just to the findings of the Electoral Commission, but to the statement by Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, that it would return to this issue as its main feature of work in the coming period and report in due course. Again, the Electoral Commission’s argument is simply about bringing our electoral system into line with practices in the rest of society, which is now largely online, and facilitating democracy by the use of online voting in that way. I also refer Members to the executive summary of the report undertaken by WebRoots Democracy—I will circulate it rather than delay the debate—which identifies the ability of online voting not only to increase turnout, but to reduce the cost of balloting procedures.
I raise this issue briefly on an amendment because it is something we need to return to rather than neglect; it has been neglected over the last few years. It is something that many Members will want to explore in a way that facilitates the improvement of democratic processes in our society, but I also give this warning: I will be raising this matter time and again. I mentioned the trade union Bill. We will be tabling amendments to such Bills to ensure that we establish the principle that this House will facilitate access to democracy on every occasion we can. Electronic voting is one mechanism through which we can enhance our society’s democratic processes.
I would like to talk to amendment 3, which stands in my name and those of my right hon. Friends. On Tuesday, the Committee agreed amendment 55, which ruled out the possibility of holding the referendum in May next year, when there are other important elections taking place throughout the country. However, amendment 55 did not deal with the potential for a poll held in May 2017 to clash with local elections, which are scheduled in both England and Scotland, and the mayoral elections taking place in some places. Our amendment 3 deals with that, because it would rule out holding the referendum on the same day as local elections, as well as the other elections that are listed in the amendment.
There are two separate reasons why we believe the referendum should be held on a separate day. The first is that a referendum on such a large constitutional issue deserves its own campaign and its own moment of decision. The focus in a competitive election when parties are battling to control a local council or another elected body is different from that in an election on a yes/no constitutional question of this kind. The focus in a local election battle should be on who will run the body that is up for election. In a referendum, the focus is different. Views on the European referendum will cross party lines.
If the hon. Gentleman is seriously holding up the AV referendum in 2011 as a model of democratic engagement, I am afraid that, based on my experience, I beg to differ. I really do not think that is a model we should follow.
In 2017, we will have the inaugural elections for the metro mayor for Greater Manchester. That in itself will pose a challenge for those of us who are politicians in the city region, because it is a new post and we will have a duty to explain what it will be. Is that not another reason why we do not need this added complexity?
My hon. Friend makes a good argument. That is an important election and, as I say, the focus will be on who should be that mayor. There will be different candidates standing, and it is a different question from whether or not we remain members of the European Union.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. As part of the complexity of the situation relating to the election, is he aware that elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly will take place on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales on
I take the hon. Lady’s point, but the issue of May 2016 has already been dealt with through amendment 55, and I am focused on May 2017, when local elections are taking place in various parts of the country.
I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend that, when we are voting on whether to leave or stay in the European Union, it should not be confused or blurred with party allegiances and so forth; there should be a clear understanding that on that day we are voting on our membership of the European Union and nothing else. No other elections should be held on that day; we want a unique day for that vote.
On European matters, it is not always the case that I am in agreement with my hon. Friend, but this time on this point, I am. I entirely agree with his point.
The first reason, then, is that on such a major constitutional question about the country’s future, the focus should be entirely on that question, but there is a second reason why on this occasion it makes sense to separate this poll from other polls, which relates to the discussions we have had about purdah arrangements. Without re-running Tuesday’s debate, the Government’s argument is that there needs to be some qualification of the purdah arrangements that would normally apply. The jury is still out on what the eventual outcome of that argument will be, but we know from Tuesday that the Bill will be amended in one way or another on Report.
However, purdah arrangements also apply to a local election period, so combining the referendum with other elections could mean we had full purdah in place for some things and qualified purdah or no purdah in place for others. In such circumstances, what exactly would the role of Ministers and the civil service be? We could have one set of rules for one poll taking place on that day, and another set of rules for another poll taking place on the same day. We do not need to think long and hard to realise that that is not an ideal arrangement for clarity on the conduct of the poll.
Our point is that the Bill deals with a big constitutional issue, which deserves to be considered by the public on its own merits, not tacked on as an add-on to local elections in various parts of the country. For those reasons, we feel that there is unfinished business from Tuesday. Amendment 55 was not the end of the matter, and our amendment 3 would, if passed, make it clear that this has to be a stand-alone poll and not one combined with other elections—either next May or in May 2017. To conclude, if given an opportunity to do so this afternoon, we intend to press the amendment to the vote.
First, on a point of principle, if this is truly—certainly for voters in England—the most important democratic constitutional decision taken for 40 or more years, it is surely worth a day of its own rather than being tacked on to something else. A second, practical point is that some of the elections that are listed—the Scottish local government elections, for example—are run according to a completely different electoral system. Last time the local government elections took place on the same day as a straightforward first-past-the-post election, there were well over 100,000 spoilt ballot papers, because those who were voting in the local government elections did not understand how to vote in a different way. The one thing that we do not want is doubt about the result of the EU referendum caused by a lot of spoilt papers.
I am surprised that we are having to debate the impartiality of broadcasters. Members should be aware that there is a widespread perception in Scotland—I will not comment on whether I share it—that some broadcasters were not impartial during the Scottish referendum. I do not think that that tainted the validity of the result, but it has tainted the reputation of those broadcasters, and it may be a generation before it has been sufficiently restored. We need to send the broadcasters a message, whether through legislation or by some other means. We need to convey to them that this referendum has to be fair, which means that the broadcasters must be impartial and seen to be impartial, not only during the purdah but from today. Otherwise, the impression will be given that the referendum was not fair.
I shall deal first with the arguments about combination advanced by Mr McFadden. I shall then respond to what John McDonnell said about electronic voting. If time permits, I shall also say something about clause 3 stand part and conduct rules.
Let me begin with combination. As the right hon. Gentleman said, we settled the issue of May 2016 on Tuesday, by means of amendment 55. In practice, what we are discussing today is whether we should also rule out any possibility of May 2017. I am not yet persuaded that the arguments are sufficiently compelling. The principle ought to be that the timing of a referendum concerning our future in or out of the European Union should be determined by the progress of negotiations at EU level. I suspect that once those negotiations have concluded and the Prime Minister is ready with his recommendation, there will be a pretty strong appetite in all parts of the House of Commons—and, I think, an even stronger one among British voters and, indeed, our partners in the European Union—for the issue to be brought to a head and settled as soon as possible, in so far as that is compatible with a campaigning period that is seen to be fair and that allows all the arguments to be set out clearly so that people can make a well-informed and deliberate choice.
Ultimately, it will be for Parliament itself to decide whether to approve the specific date that the Government propose. The Bill includes an order-making power for the Secretary of State to set down the referendum date, and that date must be approved through a statutory instrument, which must be tabled in accordance with the affirmative procedure. I can give an undertaking that the debate, whenever it comes, will take place on the Floor of the House. It will be for the House of Commons as a whole—and, separately, the House of Lords—to decide whether, in all the circumstances of the time, to agree to the date that the Government have proposed. Given the reservations that have been expressed about a hypothetical combination with local elections in May 2017, the Government will need to make a persuasive case at that time.
The right hon. Gentleman advanced his argument with his characteristic courtesy and in a constructive tone, so I shall try to respond in kind. I think that he underestimates the British public: I think that voters will be able to distinguish between the different outcomes that they want.
I have not always been too helpful to my right hon. Friend this week, but I hope to be helpful now. He will have noted that the Opposition spokesman did not address my point that there was a constitutionally significant vote in May 2011—whether or not he agreed with its taking place in the first place—and, at the same time, very important local elections. One did not invalidate the other. Also, in terms of purdah, voters were clear about the issues they were deciding on at the time. He did not address that issue in his remarks.
If the Government have accepted the principle that there should be no clash with elections for the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016, why do they not go a step further, accept the amendment and rule out a referendum in 2017 at the same time as local authority elections?
Partly for the reasons that I have given, and also because I think there is a qualitative difference, which we acknowledged when we introduced amendment 55, between elections held for a constituent nation of the United Kingdom and elections held for local government. We accepted that distinction in the amendment we introduced earlier this week.
If we look at the number of occasions when local elections and general elections have been held on exactly the same day, we find plenty of examples where the public have indulged happily in ticket splitting, sending a Member to this House representing one political party and electing a different political party to run their local authority. The public are able to make that distinction perfectly well.
The Minister and I have discussed this issue before, but I want to place on the record that my constituents, across Winchester and Chandler’s Ford, are quite capable of distinguishing between two elections. When they have one piece of paper for a parish election, for a district election or even for a county election, as well as a parliamentary election on the same day, they seem to manage it.
May I take the Minister back to his earlier answer to Jonathan Edwards and point out politely that the population of Greater Manchester is greater than that of Northern Ireland and almost as large as that of Wales? We are going to have an inaugural election for a metro mayor, which is a creation of his own Government. Do we not deserve to have that argument separately from the EU referendum?
I take the hon. Gentleman back again to 2011, when we had the London mayoral election on the same day as the referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. That did not appear to cause the electorate any great problems.
The other question that the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East put to me was about the difficulty of operating different regimes for purdah during overlapping electoral and referendum periods. To some extent, the riposte to that came from my hon. Friend Mr Jackson, but given that the Government have this week undertaken to consult all parties on the appropriate framework for purdah in the run-up to the EU referendum, I am happy to take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s points as part of that consideration and future discussion.
There are some technical flaws in the Opposition’s amendment. There is, for example, no carve-out regarding by-elections, so an unanticipated by-election could inadvertently result in an agreed referendum date becoming invalid at short notice. Nor does it capture police and crime commissioner elections, which, if the amendment were agreed to, would still be possible on the same day as the referendum. Even if the right hon. Gentleman had his way, there would need to be some tidying up at a later date.
As I said earlier, whatever the decision in this House during our progress on the Bill, the House will discuss the timing of the referendum again when the Government table a statutory instrument to designate a date for that.
Have the Government considered the fact that if there is a referendum on the same day as local elections, in some wards one candidate for a party will be campaigning for a yes vote and another from the same party will be campaigning for a no vote? That might make it difficult for the political parties to co-ordinate their literature, apart from anything else, if they are going to take a united position.
One thing about the European referendum campaign, which I think the public will expect, is that people from both the hon. Gentleman’s party and mine will be campaigning in both the yes and no camps. Both parties are broad churches and we accept that that is a reality. I do not think the British public are incapable of understanding that the European question is one that cuts across normal party political boundaries.
I wish to move on to deal with the amendment on electronic voting tabled by John McDonnell. I do not want to cause him too great a shock in saying that I am not wholly unsympathetic to some of the points he makes. I have been to Estonia and talked to Estonian Ministers about what they have put in place, not only on electronic voting, but in delivering almost all interaction between citizen and government through digital means. Given current advances in IT, I can see how e-voting sounds attractive, but we would have to consider a number of issues carefully and thoroughly before this country committed itself to going down that path.
Most obviously, there are genuine concerns that e-voting is not sufficiently rigorous and could be vulnerable to attack or fraud. The last thing that would serve the interests of Parliament or of democracy in this country would be for us to move swiftly to a system of electronic voting that led to still greater public mistrust in the integrity of our democratic process. Particularly when selecting elected representatives or deciding an issue of national importance in a referendum, it is essential that we have the highest possible security, and I am not convinced that we have the requisite assurance yet. Even in the short exchanges that have taken place on this subject, different views have been expressed about whether or not the pilots in the past have led to a serious increase in turnout. That is another point to be borne in mind.
Even the Conservative elements of the campaign group have been a problem, too. May I suggest something to the Minister? This referendum will be in two years’ time, the Electoral Commission is focusing its work this year on electronic voting and we will have elections before then. Can we look again at reviving some of the pilots, at least for next year’s local government elections, so that we can learn the lessons and overcome the security issue, which he rightly mentions? Things have moved on from the last pilots and we need a new pilot to give us the confidence that we can then use e-voting more extensively in referendums.
I am sure my colleagues in the Cabinet Office, who lead on constitutional matters, will have heard that point. E-voting may be something that the Government will want to consider in the future, but it is not a priority immediately for the legislation to authorise the arrangements for this referendum.
I want to say a few things about the conduct rules more generally. Clause 4 provides that Ministers may make provision about the conduct of the referendum in regulations. The provisions in clause 3 and schedule 3 already set out the key aspects of the conduct of the referendum, and broadly they are concerned with the overall framework. In addition to those general provisions, it will be necessary to set out more detailed rules for conduct. Clause 4 grants Ministers the power to do so by regulation.
Our intention will be to draw on the rules used for the conduct of the parliamentary voting system referendum in 2011 and those used for elections more generally, in particular for our parliamentary elections. We will also take account of recent changes to electoral law to ensure that they also apply for the purposes of this referendum. The clause also requires that Ministers consult the Electoral Commission before making any regulations on these issues.
The Minister will know that there have been serious concerns in the European Scrutiny Committee, the Chair of which is in the Chamber at the moment, but there is not the time at this stage to discuss bias in the media on European Union matters. Will there be a time on Report for a more thorough discussion of this, because there are some serious concerns? As he will know, the chair of the BBC Trust and the director-general of the BBC have both been before the European Scrutiny Committee to discuss the matter.
Obviously, what we discuss on Report will be in the hands of Members who table amendments. I have known my hon. Friend Sir William Cash for many years, and I know that he is ingenious and creative in finding opportunities for parliamentary debate on subjects that are close to his heart.
With great respect, may I be ingenious for one moment, as I wish to put amendment 8 on the record? The amendment is supported by the Electoral Commission. Given the time that is available, I just want to say that the Electoral Commission supports the proposal, which is that the detailed regulations required to administer and regulate the referendum
“must be made and come into force not less than six months before the start of the referendum period.”
We do not propose pressing the amendment to a vote, but we would like to return to it on Report. I know that the Minister understands it, and that the Electoral Commission supports it.
My hon. Friend’s amendment proposes that the legislation be put in place at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with by campaigners or administrators. Although it is not necessary or appropriate in this specific case to set an arbitrary timeframe in statute, I can offer him some reassurance on the point. The reason for the Electoral Commission’s recommendation, to which he alluded, is that it is important to ensure that the people who are responsible for organising and administering a referendum and the people who will be responsible for accounting for expenditure on behalf of campaign organisations are clear about the rules that apply. To some extent, as I said a few minutes ago, the general framework of those rules is set out in the body of the Bill. The more detailed rules on conduct will be provided for by regulations that the Government will have the power, under the Bill, to table.
I can assure the Committee that it is the Government’s intention to publish the conduct regulations this autumn. That will mean, especially given the decision that the Committee took on Tuesday not to combine the referendum with the devolved local elections in May 2016, that there should be plenty of time for the Electoral Commission, and returning and counting officers and campaigners to familiarise themselves with the detail of the rules under which the referendum will be conducted. We would expect those detailed rules to cover such matters as the referendum timetable and the key stages within that; the provision of polling stations; the appointment of polling and counting agents; the procedure for the issue of ballot papers and for voting at polling stations; the arrangements for the counting of votes and declaration of results; the disposal of ballot papers and other referendum documents; arrangements for absent voters and postal and proxy votes and so on.
There will be a great deal of information, which it is our intention to have publicly available for everybody to see in the autumn of this year, well ahead of the referendum date. I hope that on that basis my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and others who have signed his amendment will be reassured that the Government are fully committed to our declared intention of ensuring that the referendum is conducted in an way that is not only fair but that is seen to be and is accepted as fair by everybody who takes part on both sides.
I am not convinced that the Government are taking the matter of electronic voting seriously, but I welcome the warm words from the Minister that there could be some movement in the future. Although we might not be able to achieve it for this referendum, I hope that we can encourage the Electoral Commission to undertake pilots again next year that might resolve some of the issues with security. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 3, in clause 4, page 2, line 39, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘(2) The referendum shall not be held on the same day as:
(a) elections to the Scottish Parliament;
(b) elections to the National Assembly for Wales;
(c) elections for the Mayor of London; or
(d) local authority elections”. —(Mr McFadden.)
The amendment would prevent the referendum being held on the same day as Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, London mayoral or local authority elections
On a point of order, Mrs Laing. For the third time this week the House has taken a position in votes that will be recorded in Hansard and in the official record of the House. Unfortunately shortly after those votes have been taken certain SNP MPs have tweeted out completely the contrary to the result of the votes. That happened on the Scotland Bill on Monday, the European Union Referendum Bill on Tuesday and again this evening. Can you rule on whether that is bringing the House into disrepute and how we stop that happening?
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and he has done well to draw it to the attention of the House and, no doubt, further afield, but he will appreciate that it is not a matter on which I can rule from the Chair at present. One would hope that a reasoned report of what happens in this Chamber will be disseminated widely throughout the country by many means of communication, not just on social media, and that people will always choose which report they wish to believe.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, 9 June).
The Chair put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D).
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 6 to 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill, as amended reported, (
Bill to be consideredtomorrow.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek the advice of the Chair on a matter that has come to my attention concerning the business that has been announced for next Tuesday: consideration of the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill: Instruction (No. 3). As I understand it, that will extend to the Select Committee the power to consider amendments to accommodate the requirements of landowners and occupiers in my constituency, particularly in Little Missenden, the Lee and Great Missenden.
Further, there will be consideration of the amendment to accommodate changes to the design of the works authorised by the Bill in Great Missenden and Little Missenden. The Select Committee scrutinising the hybrid
Bill is visiting my constituency on Monday morning at 9.15 to look at the effects of HS2 on an area of outstanding natural beauty. However, I understand that the Government are not planning to publish the additional provisions that would give this House, the Committee and my constituents the information on what additional provisions HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport will make for the Committee’s consideration.
Perhaps you could advise me, Madam Deputy Speaker, on whether that is the correct procedure for this House, because it seems to me that my constituents and this House should know about those additional provisions prior to the Committee’s visit, and prior to the business before the House next Tuesday. As I understand it, those additional provisions might not be available until the second week in July. Could the Speaker’s Office and the Chair assist me in any way on that procedure?
The right hon. Lady raises a matter of some concern. If the procedure under which the House is scrutinising that important Bill has not been properly followed, it is indeed a matter of concern. I am quite certain that Mr Speaker will wish to have the procedural elements of the right hon. Lady’s concerns investigated, so I will ensure that such an investigation is undertaken. She has eloquently made clear to the House her concerns, and I am quite sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have taken note of what she has said and that her concerns will be conveyed to the relevant Ministers. If there has been a procedural oversight, one would hope that it will be put right in time.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you for undertaking to investigate the procedure. Would it also be possible for the Chair to investigate whether those details could be made available to the Committee, to me and to my constituents prior to the visit at 9.15 on Monday morning?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that further point. I am quite sure, in undertaking an investigation, that if matters can be put right, they will be. I am quite sure that if they are not put right, the right hon. Lady will inform the House of it next week. We all look forward to seeing progress on the matter.