moved Amendment No. 118:
Page 14, line 13, leave out (", Wales and Scotland") and insert ("and Wales").
The amendment is very much a probing amendment. I understand the first half of Clause 12(1), but I do not understand the second. I understand that Schedule 4 will have effect in parliamentary elections,
"in relation to England, Wales and Scotland".
I have no problem with that. It seems correct that any changes at parliamentary level, which I hope will be through primary legislation, will apply throughout the whole country. However, I have difficulty with sub-paragraph (b), which establishes that Schedule 4 will have effect as regards local government elections in Scotland.
I have two problems. We rehearsed the first before the Statement. I shall not go into it again, but I simply mention it: it seems wrong that experiments conducted only in England should be rolled out in local government in Scotland. My stronger concern is that local government in Scotland is, of course, no longer the responsibility of this Parliament. It has been devolved. I have before me the Scotland Act 1998, which makes it perfectly clear in Part II, Section 3 of Schedule 5 that this Parliament has responsibility only for elections for membership of the Commons and of the European Parliament. There is one exception in local government terms, which is the franchise at local government elections. In fact, all the other matters concerning local government and local government elections in Scotland have been devolved.
My question is therefore: is this Parliament taking back a power which the Scotland Act gave to the Scottish Parliament? I suggest that the Minister is careful in his answer, because I warn him that if that may be done in this case by the executive, I shall use it as a precedent for amendments to other legislation on any matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament when such matters come before the House with regard to England and Wales. I should be grateful for some explanation of why this Parliament can legislate for something which we have devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I beg to move.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is indeed a canny Scot. He has played close attention to the script. I am delighted that that is the case. I am absolutely over the moon that he has been fully converted to the good cause of devolution. He is protecting, as he rightly should as a Scot, the rights of the Scottish Parliament.
I believe that I can set his mind at rest. Elections to the other place are, as he says, a reserved matter. It is right that provisions relating to absent voting at parliamentary elections in Scotland should be included in the Bill. As the noble Lord has informed us, the conduct of local elections in Scotland is a devolved matter, and quite rightly too. Accordingly, when preparing the legislation, we consulted the Scottish Parliament about whether provisions relating to Scottish local elections should be in the Bill.
Perhaps if I read to the Committee the text of a resolution passed by the Scottish Parliament, the noble Lord may be satisfied on that point. It states:
"That the Parliament endorses the principle of ensuring consistency of absent voting arrangements for parliamentary and local elections in Scotland as set out in the Representation of the People Bill and agrees that the relevant clause to achieve this end in the Bill should be considered by the UK Parliament".
There we have it--the agreement of the Scottish parliament that in order to achieve consistency the matter should be considered in this Bill in the UK Parliament. It is for that reason, and for no other sinister purpose or reason, that the Bill includes provisions relating to absent votes at Scottish elections. On that basis, I am sure that the noble Lord will want to reconsider his amendments.
I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. I just wonder idly why, in the interests of having a uniform system in the United Kingdom, the question of student fees is not coming back here. I certainly thank the noble Lord for that explanation. It would appear, as the late Enoch Powell said, that power devolved is power retained. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 118A:
After Clause 12, insert the following new clause--
:TITLE3:IDENTIFICATION AT POLLING STATIONS
(" . Prior to the issue of a ballot paper, the presiding officer shall require each elector to identify himself by one of the following items of documentary evidence--
(a) a valid United Kingdom or European Union passport,
(b) a valid United Kingdom or European Union driving licence,
(c) a Department of Social Security pension, unemployment or family credit benefit book,
(d) a National Health Service medical card,
(e) a certificate of verification as issued by the electoral registration officer, or
(f) other such documentary evidence as may in the reasonable opinion of the presiding officer concerned constitute such evidence of the matters provided for within this section.").
I hope that this new clause will be crystal clear in its intention. The idea is that before voting every voter should give some proof of identity. I have framed the amendment in this way because I felt that if it was left to the discretion of the presiding officer as to whether or not he asked for proof of identity, it might be tempting to do so in relation to someone who was shabbily dressed or suspicious looking. That could then be regarded as discrimination. If everyone walking into the polling station has to provide means of identification, that charge could not be brought.
I have suggested various official documents which I hope people will consider reasonable--a driving licence, a passport, social security documents, and the like; or anything else which the presiding officer considers reasonable in order to prove the identity of that person. I do so because the present system has an in-built weakness in as much as the presiding officer really cannot challenge anyone's identity by asking for evidence. I believe that in Northern Ireland proof of identity is required to deal with the specific problem, which it has had in the past and may still have for all I know, of personation on a fairly wide scale. When we are making all these changes and we are invited to think afresh on electoral systems, that is a good moment to repair what I believe to be a weakness.
Indeed, I suspect that the weakness will become greater as we embark on the various experiments which may well become general and universal. If, for example, we have one central polling station, or if there are the mobile polling stations about which we spoke earlier today, that may make it less easy for presiding officers to determine the identity of voters. Moreover, we are going to have people who have no specific address but are considered to have some connection with a locality, which makes it even more difficult to decide who they are without other means of identification.
Furthermore, there are likely to be increasing numbers of referenda on specific topics. That does not particularly appeal to me, but if a referendum is to take place on an issue about which people feel very strongly, we may well see personation and fraud on a greater scale. One has only to think of the fury that is engendered by the issues of fox hunting, abortion, or whatever it may be, to know that people become infuriated and uptight. Such referenda will provide a greater temptation.
I understand also that when we have given advice on elections abroad, we have suggested that means of identification should be part and parcel of the whole system. My suggestion therefore seems to be a sensible and not very radical one. I gather that most European countries ask for means of identification before voting. I hope that the Minister will look kindly on what I believe to be a reasonable and sensible suggestion. I beg to move.
I should like to add my voice in support of what my noble friend said. I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically at the amendment. My noble friend has made out a persuasive case. What she proposes would help to protect the integrity of the electoral process. That is extremely important. I addressed that point at Second Reading and I do not want to rehearse the arguments that I put forward then.
I can anticipate the Minister's response. I suspect he will say that there is no evidence of any significant abuse. However, we know that no systematic study has been carried out to determine whether there is a real problem. There is some evidence that occasionally there has been a problem, as we know from Winchester at the previous election, but no study has been carried out to see whether there is a serious problem.
In the absence of such a study, there are two reasons for having the safeguard proposed by my noble friend. The first is as a reassurance. Electors should know that there is a safeguard. That is important to the integrity of the process. The other is as a deterrent: to deter anyone who may be tempted to abuse the system. What my noble friend proposes would help to protect the integrity of the process.
At Second Reading I put forward a slightly different way of addressing the problem. But I think that my noble friend's amendment is a step in the right direction and I hope that it gets a fair wind.
Perhaps I may make one or two comments about this subject. I have some sympathy with the sentiments behind the amendment. I hope that we can give the matter further consideration because I am not absolutely certain that what is in the amendment is the right way of tackling the problem. I agree that we have to be careful about abuse and that we have to have safeguards.
I should like to make one point about the European elections, particularly with regard to the elections conducted in the new democracies. They were very different because all those countries have identity cards. The noble Baroness's amendment raises that whole question. Therefore, I suggest that we need to give the matter further consideration.
I do not have a problem with identity cards, but I understand the reasons why other people do. I came back from so many of my visits to eastern Europe absolutely enthused about the identity card, and for one reason: people could register on election day because they had an identity card. It meant that people were not precluded from voting. It seemed to be a sensible system. There is merit in thinking about how we can ensure that there is not abuse. I cannot remember the other suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, in his Second Reading speech. I shall have to look it up. I hope that the Minister will agree that we should look at this matter again.
I welcome the debate initiated by my noble friend Lady Fookes. There is widespread unease about the state of electoral registration with regard to those who are entitled to vote and those who never go through the process of getting on to the register. I have the instinct that those who do not register today comprise a far greater number than would have been the case five, 10 or 15 years ago. We have no hard evidence. We know that those who are registered then turn up at a general election. But the percentage abstaining or the percentage not voting is tending to increase; and against the rather surprising background of there now being wider political coverage by formal political parties than has been the case hitherto.
In those circumstances, there is a feeling of, "How do we make voting easier?" I am not sure that that really is the correct question. There is much merit in trying to attach to the whole process of voting not effort but certainly a qualification; something one holds in one's hand without which one cannot vote. My noble friend Lady Fookes has expressed not a restrictive attitude; it is an attempt to make voting a rather formal exercise of a privilege that has been fought for over the years. It would be no bad thing if we tried to restore that sense to voting--a sense that would certainly have been entertained before the First World War, when gaining the vote was still in recent memory. Having to, as it were, claim your vote is a very sensible gesture. I wish my noble friend well in her pursuit of that objective.
My noble friend Lady Fookes has done us a service in introducing the amendment. When we discussed the Scottish and Welsh referendum rules, I raised the question of identification. The debate ended unsatisfactorily. It was perfectly clear that if a presiding officer had some doubts, he was entitled to say, "You are Mr Smith?", but when the person said, "Yes, I am Mr Smith", that was an end of the business so far as I could see. The electoral officer had no entitlement to ask the person to prove his identity. A voter who is impersonating Mr Smith will of course say that he is Mr Smith. So there is a problem.
I live in the constituency of Glasgow Govan, where these matters are something of a worry. Indeed, there is no doubt that personation has taken place in that constituency. It is more a matter of who organises it, not whether it takes place--there is no doubt that it does. The only way to stop that happening is to ask for some means of identification. We must begin thinking about that.
If we are to go down the road of electronic voting and of people voting at different polling stations, not only in their own area, there is a fair chance that presiding officers over much of the country will either know the person voting, or have a vague idea when they look at the register that people were not who they had thought them to be.
If we are to introduce mobile polling stations and people are able to vote at any station, in a school, a supermarket or whatever, and if we have electronic voting--which is what we should have to do in order to achieve that--identification becomes a much more important problem. I shall be surprised if the Minister accepts my noble friend's amendment. However, I hope that he will indicate that, as we move to new voting systems, the need for identification may well increase.
This has been another fascinating debate, distinguished by the powerful group of noble Lords who have spoken to these two amendments. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, asks whether her amendment is clear. It is indeed very clear in its form. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness's distinguished record as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place for a number of years.
I cannot resist the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, on the importance of voting. He is absolutely right. It is an important event. He spoke about the First World War and the time before that. I should like to bring the noble Lord slightly further forward and point to the fact that women under 21 did not have the vote until the 1929 general election. I mention that for the personal reason that I am fortunate enough to be the great nephew of Mrs Pankhurst. She would understand completely, as will all women, what the noble Lord is saying and how important the vote is.
Having made those helpful remarks, I am not sure that I can be quite as helpful in the rest of what I say. All of us share the noble Baroness's desire to prevent electoral fraud. Her motives in tabling Amendment No. 118A are good. The noble Baroness is right. A requirement to provide documentary proof of identity before being issued with a ballot paper already exists in Northern Ireland. That is a reflection of the special difficulties with electoral fraud that have been experienced there.
However, I must tell the Committee that there is no evidence of similar problems occurring in Britain. Our minds are never closed on this subject; however, the Government would be most reluctant, without very good cause, to introduce new measures which would make it harder for people here to cast their vote.
The Working Party on Electoral Procedures, which had representatives of political parties and electoral administrators among its members, examined all aspects of electoral procedure but saw no need to make a recommendation of this kind. More pertinently in this case, the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place specifically considered this issue as part of its inquiry into electoral law and administration. Reporting in September 1998, the committee concluded (at paragraph 102):
"We broadly agree that there is at present no great problem with impersonation in British elections outside Northern Ireland, and we do not see a need to introduce any additional requirements to prove identity before being given a ballot paper".
Amendment No. 136, tabled by the noble Lord, is obviously prompted by the most impeccable of motives. But is it necessary? All or many Members of the Committee are no doubt assiduous voters in local elections. Some Members of the Committee, including myself, will recall voting in general elections, although, alas, that is not something that we are able to do now. So your Lordships will have considerable experience of what happens in a polling station. I imagine that experience is similar to mine. If you have taken your polling card with you, the presiding officer will generally ask you to confirm the details on it. If you have forgotten to take your polling card, you will be asked for your name and address.
That is normally the end of the matter. However, if the presiding officer has any reason for doubt, he can put the statutory questions that are set out in Rule 35 of the Parliamentary Election Rules. That seems to us at present to be a perfectly satisfactory system and there is no reason to require the presiding officer to put those questions to every single elector, as we believe would be the effect of the noble Lord's amendment.
The Working Party on Electoral Procedures, to whose report the Bill gives effect, had, as I said, experts--both administrators and representatives of political parties-- among its membership. They saw no need to make a recommendation for change in this area either.
Having said all that, we shall of course keep a close watch on what happens to the electoral process in the years that lie ahead. I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment; however, I do so not on the basis that that is the end of the argument for ever--it clearly is not. We are not minded at present to go down the route that she suggests, but our minds are not closed to the issue. I do not say that we shall return to it during the course of the Bill, but it is certainly something that the Government will keep very much in mind.
Before the noble Lord sits down, the words "shall require" in the amendment could be replaced with "may require", and sub-paragraphs (a) to (e) could be removed. That would leave only the provision in sub-paragraph (f). In other words, if the electoral officer had any doubt, he could ask for documentary proof as evidence, which could be a credit card or any other form of identification. That would remove the valid point made by the noble Lord; namely, the need to ask every elector for proof of identity, which would be a waste of time. It would give the electoral officer a fallback position if required and it would not clog up the system, which the amendment might otherwise do. I am trying to be helpful.
I accept the noble Earl's intervention as helpful, as always. I should like to consider the point. We are not minded to give such a power to the presiding officer, although it may well be that, as part of the questioning that he can undertake with any voter whom he suspects, he can ask for identification. I shall have to check that out before giving a proper answer to the noble Earl. I should like to consider his suggestion and perhaps write to him with something that I hope may satisfy him.
I was interested to hear the noble Lord's lineage and I congratulate him on the distinction that he enjoys. In the circumstances, I am disappointed that this does not provide a suitable opportunity for him to demonstrate the militancy which may be expected of him in view of his distinguished forebear.
I long have suspected that the Home Office does not believe that there is any source of good ideas other than within its own walls. The noble Lord shakes his head. I hope that he will provide evidence to prove me wrong; if so, I shall much enjoy it. The particular observation of the noble Lord which worried me was that the Government would keep a close watch on the situation. That is one of those "bromide" phrases which mean absolutely nothing. I wonder what would be said by those on the other side of the Committee, who are so much more eloquent than I, if a Minister from these Benches stood up to say that he would keep a close watch on the matter. That would provide no satisfaction to noble Lords; and I do not expect that it will afford my noble friend, who moved this amendment with such clarity and skill, any lasting sense of satisfaction.
Perhaps the noble Lord will think again and take away the amendment, not merely say that the Government will not accept it. It will not cost the noble Lord anything to do that, but it will give the impression, albeit perhaps a rather shallow one, that every now and again the Home Office is prepared to give a little thought to ideas that come from another source.
I am most distressed that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, believes that the Home Office is closed to ideas. That may have been so at the time he was such a distinguished member of the previous government. Perhaps in his day the reply that I have given would have been considered as nothing more than a "bromide" form of words.
I assure the noble Lord that it makes very little difference to me from which party a particular government come. I am quite capable of making the same kind of comment about either.
I accept from those who know the noble Lord much better than I do that it was always so. I am sorry that I am not militant enough for the noble Lord's purposes; the time may come when I am. To a certain extent, the noble Lord's contributions in this Chamber sometimes make up for my lack of militancy. My response is not meant to be a "bromide"; the Government have an open mind on this matter. However, for the moment we want to leave matters as they are and consider how they work out in the next couple of years.
I wondered why the Minister referred so flatteringly to my time as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee; later in his speech I realised why. I do not accept everything that the Home Affairs Select Committee may decide subsequent to my membership of it--or even, on occasions, when I was a member of it.
I am slightly disappointed. I believe that the Government could take this matter further than they are prepared to do. I am willing to accept some of the assurances given by the Minister in the face of all the evidence. Having seen both main parties in government over the years, that is very trusting of me--far more so than my noble friend Lord Peyton, who I believe never gives anyone the benefit of the doubt. I hope that the Minister will do more than simply keep an open mind and that he will look at the matter more closely.
I should like to put one question to the noble Lord. In connection with another amendment, I made reference to a pilot scheme being undertaken by the City of Plymouth. Plymouth wants early voting and a single centralised polling station in the centre of the city. What I did not quote then (because it was not relevant) but quote now is its suggested voting procedures, which state:
"(c) ii) The elector must produce a poll card or some other proof of identity before a ballot paper is issued".
Do I take it that when this comes before whoever is to make a decision on this matter such a procedure will not be accepted, even for a pilot scheme?
The noble Earl is right: I am quite prepared to admit that I do not know the answer. However, we shall look at the form of the consent to that pilot scheme to discover whether it has been accepted in full or whether that part has been left out, and write to the noble Baroness. I congratulate the noble Baroness on saving that particular shot until the end of the debate.
Before the noble Lord sits down, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said recently that answers in the form of letters to Peers were of interest only to Peers. This appears to be an important answer which should somehow appear on the record rather than be simply placed in the Library. I do not know how that can be arranged.
moved Amendment No. 123:
Page 38, line 7, at end insert--
("(12) When a nominated proxy is approved by an electoral registration officer to hold a permanent or particular proxy vote for an elector, the election registration officer shall write within three working days of the application to the elector to confirm the name and address of the appointed proxy and the duration of the appointment of the proxy vote.").
Amendment No. 123 relates to proxy voting. It is clear from the previous debate that, for understandable reasons, we do not have much of a clue how much personation goes on. Equally, we probably do not have much of a clue about the extent to which fraudulent use of proxy votes occurs. I am advised that it is relatively easy to apply for a proxy without the particular elector being asked to give his consent. Obviously, a person who is intent on doing this will select someone who has, to that person's knowledge, left the country, or who will be away on polling day or, in the case of a Jehovah's Witness, who may be registered but is known not to vote.
It has been put to me that there may well be a serious loophole here that can be closed by incorporating something like my amendment on the statute book. When someone asks for a proxy vote, the registration officer should write to the elector concerned and ask whether he has appointed the person as a proxy. The matter is fairly self-evident and I am sure the Minister understands the point that I seek to make. I beg to move.
I have considerable sympathy with the amendment. As Members of the Committee will be aware the Working Party on Electoral Procedures looked at the whole question of absent votes in considerable detail. It made a number of recommendations to make it easier for people to obtain and cast postal votes, and these are reflected in Schedule 4 to the Bill.
However, the working party did not feel able to make any similar recommendations, for good reasons, in relation to proxy votes because, as it put it,
"there are a number of current police investigations being held into allegations of proxy vote abuse".
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is as aware of those as I am.
Perhaps I may digress briefly. About eight or nine years ago in a closely fought, perhaps somewhat bitter, by-election in my locality there was a terrible abuse of proxy voting. A proxy vote had been stolen from someone suffering from Alzheimer's. That person was a long-standing Labour voter. Someone claimed a vote in a form which was wrong and quite wicked. The individual was entirely defenceless.
A system in which the elector on whose behalf a proxy has been applied for is sent a letter confirming their proxy appointment would certainly deal with the first of these mischiefs and, possibly, the second. An elector who had not applied for a proxy but who had received such a letter could raise the alarm.
We would need to be sure of the practicalities. I am conscious that it could represent a significant burden to the electoral registration officers during an election period when they will be at their busiest, particularly if it means that they will have to speak to administrators generally to seek their views on whether it can be done.
Accordingly, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment for the time being but on the clear understanding that I am sympathetic to the purpose behind it. We shall try to bring back some provision to cover that eventuality. As I said, the police are continuing with their inquiries. The working party has spoken on the issue. There is cross-party agreement that we must do all we can to stamp out abuse and fraud. I believe that, as I am sure the noble Lord does.
I thank the Minister for those comments. I support the principle underlying the amendment, although not the wording. If the Home Office and others are looking for suggestions, they might turn to page 42 of the 1993 report of the Labour Party's working party on electoral systems which gives a number of suggestions as to how this issue could be resolved.
First, I congratulate the Minister on the first really good answer I have heard him give during his time in this Chamber. If that sounds somewhat patronising it is not intended to be.
The noble Lord mentioned that police inquiries are continuing. Because police inquires are going on, why does that mean that one cannot change the system? The logic of that would mean that police inquiries could continue until the third millennium. Something may be wrong but one cannot change it because police inquiries are going on. I cannot follow the logic. I may just be being stupid; it is well within the bounds of possibility.
I am prepared to accept the noble Earl's congratulations. I am sure that he would not dare to patronise me in any sense, shape or form.
The importance of the police conducting their inquiries is that something can be learnt from those inquiries. I agree with the noble Earl. We do not want to hold up improvements to the system. For that very good reason, I said from the Dispatch Box today that we are happy to consider ways in which we can make some progress. The letter writing scheme may well be one way to achieve it. But we need to speak, through our officials, to the electoral administrators to see what we can come up with which will satisfy the precise point.
I am grateful to the Minister for his understanding on the issue. Perhaps I have a lesson to learn: that the shorter my introductory speech the more chance there is that my ideas will be listened to sympathetically! I may try it again shortly.
The noble Lord underlined the problems I sought to address. I did not go into the detail; I did not think that necessary. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. I think that we should address the issue. It is interesting that the working party did not wish to see proxy voting extended because of the problem of abuse. Perhaps the Bill will give us an opportunity to tighten up the provision. For some people proxy voting is still an important way to exercise their vote. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 125:
Page 14, line 34, at end insert--
("( ) In rule 25 (provision of polling stations) after sub-paragraph (1) there shall be inserted--
("(1A) The returning officer shall not provide as a polling station any place which is not accessible to people in wheelchairs or otherwise with restricted mobility and cannot reasonably be made accessible to them by temporary ramps or other equipment."").
In moving the amendment, I speak also to Amendment No. 127. In an age in which we are legislating for access to taxis, buses and all public places, the amendments are self-evident. I wish to ensure that during the experiments provisions for the disabled are not omitted, perhaps resulting in inaccessible polling stations. I beg to move.
Perhaps I may make one addition to the amendment. Problems with access do not relate only to getting into the polling station from outside. In some polling stations the ballot box is placed so high that someone in a wheelchair cannot reach it; and sometimes cannot reach even the tellers' tables. We should consider extending the provision to include access inside as well as outside the polling station.
I appreciate the motives underlying the amendments. The noble Lord is to be congratulated on moving them.
The first of the amendments, on the face of it admirable, may not assist. In certain circumstances the amendments could result in lower overall turn-out in certain area--exactly the opposite of what the Bill intends to achieve.
Amendment No. 125 would require returning officers to ensure that all designated polling places have all-disabled access. Returning officers are already required, as far as reasonably practical, to designate as polling stations only places which are accessible for voters who are disabled. I cite the Representation of the People Act 1983 as amended in 1985. That is to assist them in identifying and assessing such places. There is Home Office guidance on minimum standards.
In practice, most polling places are in public buildings which already have good disabled access. Most other buildings can be temporarily adapted, and I shall say more about that in a moment. There remain, however, a few places which cannot reasonably and practically be made accessible and where there is no alternative building in the area. That is the problem. In these cases the returning officer has a rather difficult choice. He can either designate that polling place for use in the knowledge that, should a disabled voter turn up, he or she may not be able to gain access; or he does not designate it. The amendment would mean that the building could not be used. In turn that could mean inconvenient and perhaps lengthier journeys to other polling places for all electors in that area with the consequent effects on the overall turn-out.
Therefore, although desirable, and a splendid and admirable amendment, it could have a self-defeating element: it could discourage other voters who might have to travel much further. Returning officers have a duty to do all they can reasonably and practically to provide access for voters who are disabled. But they also have a duty to the wider electorate. The amendment would restrict their flexibility and may result in greater disadvantage for a wider population.
We want to do everything we can to assist disabled voters in gaining access to the electoral process. But this amendment could cause greater harm than good.
I turn now to Amendment No. 127, where polling places are not accessible but can be made so. Here returning officers are obliged to take all reasonable and practical steps to do that, for example by providing temporary ramps. I take the point my noble friend Lady Gould made about addressing not only external but also internal access; and that is a matter which is carefully thought through.
In the current situation the procedures are such that assistance can be sought both in terms of Home Office guidance and in the form of direct grants. Local authorities have been very enthusiastic in taking up the 50 per cent grants that we make available to cover the cost of adaptations. I shall read some figures. The Home Office has since 1992 given grants for temporary ramps totalling £315,000, £120,000 of which has been given in the last two years. That amounts to a total spending on temporary ramps of more than £650,000 over the last few years. One can probably buy a lot of ramps for £650,000, so those adaptations have made a very big difference indeed. We want to encourage more local authorities to come forward and claim their percentage from the Home Office.
There is therefore some indication that, where necessary, these facilities are being provided because of a combination of existing legislation which already requires them and government assistance of which returning officers take full advantage. In view of my comments and the assurances that I have given, I hope that the noble Lord will accept that Amendment No. 127 is not necessary and will not press it.
I again seek information. The noble Lord has perfectly reasonably said that there are some polling stations which it is extremely difficult to make wheelchair friendly. How many?
That probably is a question from hell! I am ever ready to try to match the questions that are pitched at us over the Dispatch Box. However, I could not even promise to undertake to have a survey completed to satisfy that one.
I accept that it is a question from hell. The point is that the noble Lord has been briefed by his officials, perfectly reasonably, that this is a problem. Therefore, they must have evidence of the problem. Has he sifted it? Is it genuine? If it involves one polling station in Caithness, I suppose we can just about live with it. If it spreads wider than that, we perhaps should not. I am asking what the breadth of the problem is. If it is broad, it should be dealt with through the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. If, on the other hand, it is so small as to be immaterial, the noble Lord's amendment can almost be accepted anyway.
There is a problem. Local authorities are charged with the responsibility, through their registration service, of assessing the extent of the problem. Both governments have in recent years made generous grants available, and we wish to encourage as much adaptation as is reasonably practicable in the circumstances. There will be circumstances in which it is not practical, and the effect of the amendment which the noble Lord has moved could be self-defeating. I do not know how many of those instances there may be. It would be difficult to estimate. In my opinion, we have to proceed on the basis of goodwill. There is a great deal of encouragement from central government, there is an enormous amount of guidance and help given by the Home Office, and there is a tremendous amount of goodwill in the local authorities to tackle these issues. We have the fundamentals in place to make it easier.
We discussed earlier the practicalities of having mobile polling stations so that people who may be disabled or perhaps less mobile because of their age are able to get to a polling station. I believe that we can tackle these issues in the practical and hard-headed way that we have outlined by way of example today.
I take the point that a tremendous effort has been made in recent years. However, one of our concerns is that in a period of experimentation where new polling practices and new polling stations are established, they should be disabled friendly. In the case of disabled persons who go into the car parks of large superstores, for example, it would be outrageous if as part of the experiment we added to the problem rather than diminished it. There may, as has been said, be such polling stations.
The Home Office could well give guidance to returning officers that where polling stations are clearly non-disabled friendly, they should be thinking of phasing them out so that they are narrowed down to a minimum. However, I do not doubt the department's goodwill or the efforts of local authorities. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 126:
Page 14, line 45, at end insert ("and any assistance given shall be in a form which will not enable the identity of the voter to be revealed").
I can move Amendment No. 126 fairly briefly. We are dealing in this part of the Bill with,
"a device of such description as may be prescribed for enabling voters who are blind or partially-sighted to vote ..."
I have asked for the addition of the words,
"and any assistance given shall be in a form which will not enable the identity of the voter to be revealed".
I have in mind the traditional ballot paper. I shall start with the nonsense examples: it quite clearly cannot be an enlarged ballot paper, because that would obviously identify the voter at count; it cannot be a ballot paper in Braille; it cannot be a ballot paper which has in any way been marked by this device, whatever it may be.
My amendment would reinforce the need for privacy, and I do not see any harm in accepting it. But it is really tabled in order to seek an explanation and an assurance from the Minister regarding the device. I presume that one is contemplated. Otherwise, why put it in the Bill? I would like an assurance that the device will in no way leave marks on the ballot paper which would allow the identity of the voter to be discerned. I beg to move.
The reference to "a device" sounds rather painful. I do not believe that this is quite as draconian as a "device". I am nevertheless grateful to the noble Lord for tabling the amendment. As he listens, I am sure that he will get the reassurance that he seeks.
One important change which the Bill introduces is that blind and partially-sighted people will in future be able to vote using a template. As I explained at Second Reading, we have in mind something like a cardboard sleeve into which the ballot paper could be slotted. The sleeve will have holes cut out of it, so that the boxes for marking a vote will be visible. The voters will then be able to feel where to put their crosses. When I recently described this plan, somebody responded by saying, "What a simple idea! Why did we not do it years ago?" I am sure that your Lordships will probably be equally positive. It seems to me a very simple way of achieving the objective.
We do not need to be overly formal about this. Unlike voters who are assisted by a companion, no other people are involved, which in turn means that no signatures or lists need to be involved. We believe that the template can simply sit on the presiding officer's table and that a voter who wants to use it can simply ask for it. He will not have to say why he needs it, nor will he have to fill in any unnecessary paperwork--no added bureaucracy. The electoral register will not be marked in any special way. Therefore, there will be no way at the end of polling day of identifying those who have used the facility. As far as I can discern, a cardboard sleeve as a device will not leave any kind of mark on the ballot paper. I trust that those assurances will sufficiently meet the noble Lord's concerns and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 127A:
After Clause 13, insert the following new clause--
:TITLE3:ACCEPTANCE OF NOMINATIONS: MISLEADING NAMES
(" . In Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act (the parliamentary elections rules), in rule 6 (nomination of candidates) at the end there shall be inserted--
"(4) The returning officer shall refuse to accept the nomination of a candidate in a name which has been adopted by the candidate and appears to the returning officer to have been adopted with a view to causing confusion among electors between that candidate and any other person who is or is likely to become a candidate in the same election."").
I freely confess that the Liberal Democrats are deeply scarred by the experience of name changes, having had to fight a by-election with two Roy Jenkins and at a European election facing a "Literal Democrat"! Name changes can sometimes be seen as amusing. I am reminded of the story of the man whose name was Billy who became so fed up of being called "Silly Billy" that he changed his name to George, whereupon everybody called him "Silly George"! So in some cases, name changes and such like can be seen as amusing, but, on the other hand, we have had to become used to tomfoolery with our electoral system. I am told that returning officers are often reluctant to take action because they do not want to become embroiled in litigation, the cost of which falls on their own local authorities. Therefore, where there is room for abuse, there may be a case for ruling it out in order to protect returning officers and their discretion.
I, too, have experience of name changes. As leader of Brighton and Hove Council during the previous general election, I faced the same problem. Someone wanted to stand as the "Conversative" candidate, aping the name from the "Conservative" candidate and we had to go to law to try to sort it out. Therefore, I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment.
However, we believe that we have tackled the problem. Praise is due to dear old Brighton and Hove Council and to dear old me. I wrote a telling article on the subject, going through our experience, shortly after the general election. Of course, the new, listening, sensitive, incoming Government have tackled the issue and believe that the Registration of Political Parties Act, which we introduced some two years ago, put a stop to that.
I have not seen new and fresh abuses since then, but if there are any or more imaginative ways of impersonation which so distract the electorate that one party suffers, we should like to hear about them. It is something we cannot tolerate in our electoral process because it frustrates democracy, as it did in the famous and celebrated European elections which caught the eye.
We do not believe that further statutory provisions are required. Although I sympathise with the concerns raised by the noble Lord, I suggest that it would be appropriate to withdraw the amendment.
In moving Amendment No. 132, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 133. These government amendments relate to the new false particulars offence which the Bill contains. The Bill makes it an offence to submit a nomination paper which includes a false name or address of a candidate. However, as the Bill stands, this new offence contained in Schedule 5 does not include cases where candidates have forged the signatures of their subscribers or coerced people to sign a nomination paper without the signatory being aware of what it was. These amendments correct that omission and I hope that they will be welcomed by the Committee. I beg to move.
moved Amendment No. 133:
Page 40, line 24, at end insert ("; or
(b) anything which purports to be the signature of an elector who proposes, seconds or assents to, the nomination of such a candidate but which he knows--
(i) was not written by the elector by whom it purports to have been written, or
(ii) if written by that elector, was not written by him for the purpose of signifying that he was proposing, seconding, or (as the case may be) assenting to, that candidate's nomination.
(2) In this section "relevant election" means--
(a) any parliamentary election, or
(b) any local government election in England or Wales."").
On Question, amendment agreed to.
moved Amendment No. 134:
Page 40, line 24, at end insert--
(" . After section 66 insert--
"Prohibition on publication of exit polls.
66A.--(1) No person shall, in the case of an election to which this section applies, publish before the poll is closed--
(a) any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or
(b) any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.
(2) This section applies to--
(a) any parliamentary election; and
(b) any local government election in England or Wales.
(3) If a person acts in contravention of subsection (1) above he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months.
(4) In this section--
"forecast" includes estimate;
"publish" means make available to the public at large, or any section of the public, in whatever form and by whatever means; and any reference to the result of an election is a reference to the result of the election either as a whole or so far as any particular candidate or candidates at the election is or are concerned." ").
I can be brief. The amendment gives effect to a commitment made by my ministerial colleagues in another place to bring forward a government amendment to prohibit exit polls where voting takes place over more than one day.
There is concern, and rightly so, that where voting takes place over a number of days, the results of exit polls may influence those electors who have not yet cast their vote, whether that be how they vote or whether they choose to vote at all. We cannot allow that.
The amendment will stop that by preventing the results of any exit polls being made public before the final close of poll. Normal opinion polls and parties telling activities will remain unaffected. I trust that that will satisfy Members of the Committee. I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, raised the issue at Second Reading and that other noble Lords expressed concern. I beg to move.
I welcome the Government's attempt to try to deal with a problem we identified at Second Reading. I want to make two points. My first relates to the text of the amendment. Subsection (2) of the new clause states:
"This section applies to ... any parliamentary election".
Notwithstanding my complaints about Clause 11, do I take it that that includes elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly? After all, a roll-out of a three-day poll could easily happen to them. Furthermore, the Minister explained why Scotland was included in earlier parts of the Bill, but why is it not included in new subsection (2)(b), which refers to:
"any local government election in England or Wales"?
My second point is a little more serious. Have the Minister and his department considered whether the amendment accords with the European Convention on Human Rights? Article 10, paragraph 1, of Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998 reads:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers".
I do not expect an answer tonight, but I flag up the issue. It would be better if the Minister considered with his legal advisers whether the provision would accord with the convention.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. I am not sure that he will be happy with my answer, but we think--I stress, "we think"--that the provision complies with the ECHR. However, I am determined to check that with officials and I shall ask them for a further view.
The subsection to which the noble Lord referred does not apply to Scottish and Welsh elections because they have separate election orders which will need corresponding amendment. The answer to his second question is that the Scottish Parliament has not asked for this provision. That is a matter on which it may want to reflect further, but that is the situation. I shall be more than happy to correspond with the noble Lord in order to tie up any other queries.
I accept the point about the European Convention on Human Rights. I notice that the Minister avoided telling me whether the Government have considered the matter as regards this amendment. I shall not press him any further. I will assume that they have. If the Government have not done so, they certainly will now.
As regards the Scottish point, I fully accept that the Scottish Parliament has perhaps not asked the Government to include Scotland. Dare I suggest that perhaps they do not know that a prohibition on the publication of exit polls has been put into the Bill? Therefore, my question is this: have they been asked if they wish this Parliament to legislate on the matter?
The Committee will know Rule 20 by heart. It is the official mark which is placed on ballot papers. I raised this matter as regards the Scottish referendum election. I suggested that it was an obsolete rule. I raise it again very briefly to say to the Minister that I still believe it is an obsolete rule. I do not believe that it stops any infringement taking place. In fact, the last time we debated this matter nobody suggested that it did. It was almost a question of, "We've always done it this way and let us carry on with that". I do not believe that it stops infringement.
Any infringement that one could imagine that the mark would prevent would have to be of the nature of people stealing a wedge of ballot papers and, without the official mark, adding them to a box. Dare I suggest that something would be badly wrong with the tallies at the end of the election if such an event happened, because there would not have been enough "score offs" on the electoral register?
In addition, we all know that at various elections a certain number of papers are, for inexplicable reasons, spoiled. I suspect that in the rush the clerks at the table simply forget to put the mark on the ballot paper. Frankly, most electors do not bother to look, because, apart from people like ourselves, I doubt whether many electors realise the significance of the official mark. Ballot papers get through without the official mark. Indeed, although it is a painful business, the Winchester argument was over the question of official marks. There did not seem to be any doubt that about 25 electors had properly marked their ballot papers, but because the official mark was missing they were not counted.
I believe it is time that we scrapped this procedure. Interestingly enough, I have in my defence the Winter 1999 newsletter of the Association of Electoral Administrators. In addition to wishing everyone a happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year, the newsletter says this. I shall read out the whole passage because the first part encourages the Minister.
"At last we see proposals for electoral change. Many of the recommendations in the new Representation of the People Bill reflect the AEA's document Vote for Change which was published some time ago and demonstrates just what a leading role the association has played in producing the new agenda. Somewhat disappointingly, though, some of the practical issues such as the abolition of the stamping instrument, have not been mentioned. But maybe a couple of unstamped ballot papers resulting in an election petition during the pilot scheme might get the Home Secretary to think again".
Without waiting for a couple of unstamped ballot papers and an election petition, I ask the Home Secretary's representative in the House of Lords to think again. I beg to move.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, on his continued mastery of selective quotation. I can see that he has had a very gripping Christmas read. The amendment raises some important issues about the official mark. I am very mindful of the Winchester case. I know that it caused a great deal of distress in certain circles.
The official mark has its virtues. It dates back to the Ballot Act 1872, so it has a long history of some kind. I believe that we should be thankful for that mark because it has probably prevented many fraudulent instances in local and general elections.
However, the noble Lord is quite right. I believe that the Home Affairs Committee in another place, in its inquiry into electoral law and administration, discovered that at every recent general election between two and three thousand ballot papers have been rejected because they lack the official mark. That is not a fantastic number of people who have lost their votes in consequence of the official mark not being in place. Nevertheless, it cannot be right. We ought to have something which prevents a person's vote being cancelled because of an inadvertent error by a member of the polling staff.
We believe that there should be more effort to consider the issue. I am not sure that the noble Lord will be entirely satisfied when I say that he should take comfort from the fact that the Home Office is seized of the need to see whether a suitable replacement can be found for the official mark. The noble Lord is a very imaginative fellow. I am sure that he will produce a suitable replacement even if we do not. On that basis, I invite him not just to withdraw his amendment, but to come forward with some good ideas also.
I believe that I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, at least as far as it went. My suggestion is that we do not need to have a mark at all. Therefore, I do not need an alternative mark. I noticed his phrase,
"the Home Office is seized of the need".
It is a good thing that my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil is no longer here otherwise he might have lighted on that as a variation of "keeping it in mind". I appreciate that the Minister sees the point. He was a little unkind to say that my quotation was selective, because I read out the whole of the paragraph, which included some laudatory comments on what was happening in this Bill.
The Minister made the point about the Ballot Act. I say to him that, given all the changes that the Government have made to the British constitution, claiming that we have to rest on the Ballot Act 1872 rings a tinge false to those of us who went through the referendum Bill, the Scottish Parliament Bill, the Welsh Assembly Bill--
Will the noble Lord accept on this one occasion that the process of modernisation does not always have to be entirely current and that sometimes we can borrow from history?
That may be so, but it certainly cannot be claimed as a new idea if in fact we keep a ballot mark from 1872. I have listened to the noble Lord's assurance. I believe that the Home Office should have a serious look at this matter so that perhaps by the time the Bill leaves this House we shall have dropped what I believe is a pretty useless exercise as regards the ballot paper. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendments Nos. 137 to 140:
Page 41, line 32, leave out ("and 13") and insert ("to 13C").
Page 41, line 33, leave out ("In section 5 (manner of voting), after") and insert ("--(1) Section 5 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1), omit "or local government".
(3) In subsection (5), omit "or, as the case may be, electoral area".
Page 41, line 42, at end insert--
("(5) In subsection (6), omit "or local government" (wherever occurring).
(6) For subsection (7) substitute--
"(7) In this section and sections 6 to 9 of this Act "appropriate rules" means the parliamentary elections rules." ").
Page 41, line 43, leave out paragraph 13 and insert--
("13.--(1) Section 6 (absent vote at elections for an indefinite period) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1)--
(a) omit ", at local government elections or at both"; and
(b) in paragraph (a), for "elections to which the application relates" substitute "parliamentary elections".
(3) In subsection (2), omit--
(a) "or local government", and
(b) paragraph (aa), and, in paragraph (c), after "his spouse," insert "or by reason of his attendance on a course provided by an educational institution or that of his spouse,".
(4) Omit subsection (2A).
(5) In subsection (3), omit paragraph (a).
(6) In subsection (4), after "in pursuance of" insert "a declaration of local connection or".
13A.--(1) Section 7 (absent vote at a particular election and absent voters list) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1), omit--
(a) "or local government"; and
(b) in paragraph (b), "or, as the case may be, local government".
(3) For subsection (2) substitute--
"(2) Subsection (1) above does not apply to a person who is included in the record kept under section 6 of this Act, but such a person may, in respect of a particular parliamentary election, apply to the registration officer--
(a) for his ballot paper to be sent to a different address in the United Kingdom, or
(b) to vote by proxy, if he is shown in the record so kept as voting by post at parliamentary elections."
(4) In subsection (4)--
(a) omit "or local government"; and
(b) in each of paragraphs (a) and (b), for "elections of the kind in question" substitute "parliamentary elections".
13B.--(1) Section 8 (proxies at elections) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1), omit "or local government".
(3) Omit subsection (3A).
(4) In subsection (4), omit "or local government".
(5) In subsection (5), omit ", or at the same local government election in any electoral area,".
(6) In subsection (6)--
(a) omit ", at local government elections or at both"; and
(b) in paragraph (a), for "electors for elections in respect of which the application is made" substitute "parliamentary electors".
(7) In subsection (7), omit--
(a) "or local government"; and
(b) in paragraph (a) "or, as the case may be, local government".
(8) For subsection (9) substitute--
"(9) The appointment may be cancelled by the elector by giving notice to the registration officer, and shall also cease to be in force on the issue of a proxy paper appointing a different person to vote for him at any parliamentary election or elections (whether in the same constituency or elsewhere)."
13C.--(1) Section 9 (voting as proxy) is amended as follows.
(2) In each of subsections (1) and (3), omit "or local government".
(3) In subsection (4), omit--
(a) ", at local government elections or at both"; and
(b) in paragraph (a), ", or electoral area,"; and in paragraph (b) for "the same area" substitute "the same ward".
(4) Omit subsection (5).
(5) In subsection (6), omit paragraph (a) (including the final "and").
(6) In subsection (7), omit "or, as the case may be, electoral area".
(7) In subsection (8), omit "in respect of elections of the kind in question".
(8) In subsection (9), omit--
(a) "or local government"; and
(b) in paragraph (a), "in respect of elections of the kind in question".
(9) In subsection (10)--
(a) in paragraph (a), omit ", local government electors or both (as the case may be)"; and
(b) in paragraph (b), for "elections of the kind in question" substitute "parliamentary elections".
(10) In subsection (11), in paragraph (b), omit ", or electoral area,".").
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Schedule 5, as amended, agreed to.
Schedule 6 [Repeals]:
moved Amendments Nos. 141 and 142:
Page 42, line 20, column 3, at end insert--
|("Section 49(1) and (2).")|
Page 43, column 3, leave out line 26 and insert--
|("In section 5-- (a) in each of subsections (1) and (6), the words "or local government" (wherever occurring), and (b) in subsection (5), the words "or, as the case may be, electoral area". In section 6-- (a) in subsection (1), the words ", at local government elections or at both", (b) in subsection (2), the words "or local government" and paragraph (aa), and (c) subsections (2A) and (3)(a). In section 7-- (a) in each of subsections (1) and (4), the words "or local government", and (b) in subsection (1)(b), the words "or, as the case may be, local government". In section 8-- (a) in each of subsections (1), (4) and (7), the words "or local government", (b) subsection (3A), (c) in subsection (5), the words ", or at the same local government election in any electoral area,", (d) in subsection (6), the words ", at local government elections or at both", and (e) in subsection (7)(a), the words "or, as the case may be, local government". In section 9-- (a) in each of subsections (1), (3) and (9), the words "or local government", (b) in subsection (4), the words ", at local government elections or at both" and, in paragraph (a), ", or electoral area,", (c) subsection (5), (d) in subsection (6), paragraph (a) (including the final "and"), (e) in subsection (7), the words "or, as the case may be, electoral area", (f) in each of subsections (8) and (9)(a), the words "in respect of elections of the kind in question", (g) in subsection (10)(a), the words "local government electors or both (as the case may be)", and (h) in subsection (11), the words ", or electoral area,".")|
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Schedule 6, as amended, agreed to.
House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.