My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)
The electoral commission will have a very important role to play in the political life of our country. That role will not just encompass elections to the House of Commons or elections to the European Parliament; it will also encompass elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Ireland Assembly; and it will encompass referendums, or referenda, depending on your preference.
Later on in the Bill we will address the question of the role of the electoral commission in Scottish local government, which I think is the subject of a series of government amendments. Without doubt the electoral commission will have an important role to play in the United Kingdom. I am selecting Scotland here because the powers of the Scottish Parliament are far greater than the powers of the other two devolved bodies set up by government. The powers of that Parliament to make electoral law for local government are different from those which the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies will have.
The Neill report, on which the majority of the Bill is based, said about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in the summary paragraph 12 on page 3:
"We have been particularly conscious of the significant changes in political arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Throughout this report we have constantly considered whether special arrangements are needed to meet these differences. Our view is that these differences can best be met by appropriate modifications of our main recommendations".
I assume from the report that there will be one electoral commission for the United Kingdom. It will not be necessary to have an electoral commission set up for Scotland to look after local government and so on. I hope that that is what the later government amendments actually mean. That is my reading of what the Neill report says. Interestingly, summary paragraph 13 says:
"The Election Commission should maintain offices in each of these parts of the United Kingdom. Our aim in proposing this is to ensure that the new electoral arrangements in these areas are fully monitored and any changes required in the system are taken into account by the Commission as a whole".
I might not have tabled this amendment had it not been for events in your Lordships' House last Thursday when the Leader of the House answered a Question from my noble friend Lord Strathclyde about the Appointments Commission which is to be set up. As your Lordship will recall, the chairman of the Appointments Commission is the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham. It was clear that of the three non-political members--if I may call them that--one comes from Wales and one from Northern Ireland. My noble friend Lord Renton then asked about Scotland. He said:
"I did not hear the names of anyone who could be identified in that way".
The noble Baroness said that she would place biographical details in the Library. She continued:
"However, all three places to which the noble Lord refers are represented. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, is a Scot".--[Official Report, 4/5/00; col. 1132.]
That came as a surprise to almost all the Scots in the Chamber. Indeed the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, who for years and years was secretary of the Scottish Peers Association asked the noble Baroness if the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, lives in Scotland. The noble Baroness did not answer that but said, at col. 1134:
"I believe that he would be distressed not to be described as a Scot".
I have to say that I have yet to be convinced that the noble Lord would be considered by Scots as a Scot. I went to the Library to get the biographical details. I looked at Who's Who. The only indication I could see was that he went to a public school in Scotland. That does not actually point to the fact that he is a Scot. The entry did not say anything about where he lives. Clearly, his title indicates Suffolk, which is not one of the counties of Scotland. There was no address in Scotland in Who's Who.
I asked for the biographical details which the noble Baroness said last Thursday she would place in the Library. I discovered that the biographical details had not been placed in the Library, so I was no further forward. However, I have made some progress. My noble friend Lord Northesk looked up the Downing Street website and pulled off the CVs of the members of the commission. They were no help at all, being more limited than the information in Who's Who. I therefore decided to put down this amendment.
I may be absolutely wrong. I have no reason to doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, is a perfectly worthy chairman, but I do not think that the Government can justifiably claim that he is a Scot who represents or is aware of political developments and what goes on in Scotland. If we are to keep this kingdom together--we shall be coming to amendment after amendment about Northern Ireland, all of which suggests to me that the Government are intent on dividing the kingdom, one island from the other--then we have to be mindful of the very different position which the Government have created in Scotland. There is need for a Scot on these United Kingdom bodies who is clearly seen to be a Scot by other Scots. That would be achieved if he was ordinarily resident in Scotland. I beg to move.
I support the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has made what I regard as an unanswerable case for a specific Scottish commissioner. There is a very strong case for a commissioner ordinarily in residence. There is a very strong case because we could draw a parallel with Northern Ireland. I might be tempted to go into that in referring very briefly to the reason why Northern Ireland should have a resident representative.
Living four days a week in London, as I do, I frequently come across people who introduce themselves as Ulstermen. They explain that they are members of very laudable professions. They ask about the old country and their questions reveal to me that they know absolutely nothing about political affairs, electoral matters or general public opinion. I ask how long it is since they visited Ireland. They reply, "I think I was there in the 1950s".
It would be unfair for a commissioner, even if he had Northern Irish origins, to be placed in the position within the context of his fellow commissioners of giving a view and a snap judgment on something dealing specifically with elections in Northern Ireland. It can be baffling enough for those of us who live there, even more so for those who do not.
I use that point to reinforce the case made by the noble Lord in moving his amendment. It is one thing to have someone allegedly belonging to or having been born in a given part of the United Kingdom before moving permanently to another. It is quite another to expect them to commit themselves to giving specific answers which may have a legal and binding effect on the report of the commission. It has to be recognised that what one is creating is what I can only regard as a super-quango, the like of which is difficult to find even in less important aspects of national life.
The Bill specifically states that members of the commission,
"shall be appointed by Her Majesty".
Her Majesty will act on the advice of her Ministers. But the crucial question is: who advises the Ministers in these delicate matters? I offer another analogy of which noble Lords will be very well aware. Will Price Waterhouse be once again invited to "head hunt" and come up with members of the board of Tesco or Barclays or someone of that kind? Will they have any practical experience of that with which they are asked to deal? In the context of the dreadful word "transparency", will the emphasis be on quotas of various segments of society in the United Kingdom regardless of their knowledge of electoral matters and traditions going back more than 700 years, or will they be confined to reading what appears in The Times or in the Sun, which appears to have changed its attitude? Will they be bereft of any practical experience in the delicate matters with which those of us who, God help us, have submitted ourselves to the electorate time after time and therefore know what it is like to be at the coalface will be familiar?
I am not suggesting that we should be selected. I am simply saying that it would be unfair to people to be plucked out of obscurity, worthy persons though they might be but with no practical knowledge of electoral matters. If in reply to my point about the lack of wisdom of appointing commissioners simply because of their background in relation to segments of the population the Government say that appointing a territorial representative from Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland would be disproportionate and make the body disproportionate, the remedy resides in a later amendment to increase the total number of members of the commission.
I should like briefly to support the amendment. I, too, was going to draw attention to what happened last Thursday. A commission has been appointed to look for Cross Bench Peers but there is no one there who lives in Scotland. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, who is a distinguished person, lives in Suffolk. It is not easy to know who is who in Scotland when you live somewhere else.
The commission proposed in the Bill will have to deal with some very sensitive issues indeed. It will deal with political parties. There are political parties which exist only in Scotland as there are political parties which exist only in Northern Ireland or only in Wales. There is a very sensitive issue in relation to the Scots Parliament in that under the boundary committee duties proposed in the Bill the commission will have the indirect effect under the Scotland Act of deciding how many Members of the Scots Parliament there will be. To give that duty to someone who is not present in Scotland would be the greatest possible mistake.
I am not suggesting, and the amendment does not suggest, that the person should represent Scotland, but he or she would be a member of the commission who is in Scotland, understands Scotland, knows what is going on there and is trusted to do the job by the Scots Parliament and by the people of Scotland. It would be very wise of the Government to look hard at this amendment.
One of the most enjoyable experiences that I have had in this House is the number of occasions on which I have found myself in almost complete agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. However, on this occasion I really must dissent from him. I hope that his feelings are not too hurt by my apostasy. The noble Lord seemed to be suggesting that in some way you could cease to be a Scotsman by living in England. The noble Lord shakes his head. None the less, that is the impression that is left in my sensitive soul.
As many noble Lords will know, I have lived in London for approaching 50 years. I do regard myself as a Scotsman and I think that most noble Lords regard me as such. As proof of that, I remember once remarking to the House that three of my children who were born in London were born at University College Hospital, which was as near as my wife could get to St Pancras Station, from where the train left for Kilmarnock. The other child was born at the Whittington Hospital in Archway. He came back from school one day and said that since he was born in London he must be an Englishman. His three siblings very briskly remarked, "No you're not. You're a Scotsman because your blood is pure". Much as I admire the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, much as I agree with him and much as I should like to agree with him, which I often do, I must dissent from him on this occasion.
I have found this, as ever when a debate is led by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, an interesting, charming and witty discussion. However, I do not see the case for requiring one member of the commission to be ordinarily resident in Scotland. The electoral commission will be a UK-wide body. I do not see why it should be the case that Scotland should be singled out in any particular way or for particular and special treatment.
What we want to do is to bring forward candidates who are the best people for the job and who between them have an understanding of electoral and political matters across the United Kingdom. The commission will be a collective decision-making body discharging its functions across the country as a whole. It most certainly will not be a collection of commissioners, each of whom are individually responsible for a particular part of the United Kingdom. Given that approach, it is our view that we should avoid being unnecessarily prescriptive about who may be appointed. It may be that there are two or three outstanding candidates who are ordinarily resident in Scotland. If so, the question has to be asked: why should not all of them be appointed or certainly considered for appointment? Under the noble Lord's amendment we would be forced to choose only one of them.
When we come to appoint the additional commissioners to chair the four boundary committees, different considerations will need to apply in those circumstances. What we will be looking for there are people who have relevant experience, perhaps of local government, in a particular part of the United Kingdom. It is likely, therefore, that the chairman of the Scottish boundary committee will be someone who currently lives in Scotland or has recently lived and worked in Scotland. But I suggest that we can sensibly leave that consideration to the selection criteria rather than write it on the face of the Bill. With those, I hope, encouraging closing comments, I trust that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister, although, to be honest, he has not made a very good start to this Committee stage. Perhaps I should start by saying how much I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, cannot agree with me on this occasion. I fully accept that he is clearly a Scot. My goodness, after 50 years of living in London his accent has been untainted by this great city. That is certainly to his credit.
But much as I admire the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, living as he has in London for 50 years, I would not expect him to have a detailed knowledge of what exactly is going on in Scotland day-by-day with the new arrangements for elections and the comings and goings of the Scottish Parliament. They are heavily reported in the Scottish press; in fact, to the almost total exclusion of Westminster, something that annoys the Members of Parliament from Scotland in the other place. Occasionally, they break into the national newspapers; for example, Section 28 or--I am going to say it--my friend Donald Dewar's heart operation, from which, I am pleased to say, he is making a steady recovery, although it is early days. That certainly made the national press. All the comings and goings and the differences in elections are not common currency in England.
I suggest that, if the noble Baroness the Leader of the House decided last week that the appointments commission ought to have a person who, it is clear from her CV, comes from Northern Ireland, and another who clearly comes from Wales, and then felt obliged to suggest that the Scot should be the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson--who, as one of my noble friends said, is more English than he is; and he is pretty English--obviously the argument in favour of having some representation around the United Kingdom has been made and has been accepted by the Government.
I attempted to put forward this argument when we discussed the composition of the Monetary Policy Committee. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Paul, is in his place. The noble Lord will remember that I did not even ask for a Scot--anyone from north of Oxford would have done, or anyone who came from the Midlands, although we might not have quite the same activities. I was not nominating the noble Lord, Lord Paul, himself, but that would not be a bad idea. I do not see why his views on these matters should not be heard. The whole object of my argument was that the industrial parts of the United Kingdom were totally without a voice on the Monetary Policy Committee. Frankly, that is now showing very severely: the manufacturing sector, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, is suffering greatly. I do not know whether anything can be done about it, but the manufacturing sector might have a little more confidence, even if the academic appointed to the committee were from a university based in one of the industrial parts of the country.
We have had these arguments before. It is interesting that the Monetary Policy Committee and, in this case, the Government have not thought such a provision necessary, whereas in regard to the appointments commission they did think it necessary, although in one case there was some pretence.
We need to have at least one person who is ordinarily resident in Scotland on the commission. It will have an important role to play in these matters. Indeed, I suspect that when we come to debate amendments relating to Northern Ireland, we shall need to consider carefully whether there should be an appointee who is ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland, given the huge and dramatic changes the Government are making to the Bill.
I am not satisfied and, frankly, I do not want to carry this matter on to the Report stage. I want to see the Government vote against the interests of Scotland. Therefore, I should like to test the opinion of the Committee.
In moving Amendment No. 2, I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 3, 27, 28 and 51. When I first tabled this amendment I wanted to debate two aspects of the commission: first, the kind of people who might be appointed commissioners or, perhaps more appropriately, those who might not; and, secondly, the chairmanship of the Boundary Commissions for the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. It so happens that the Government have now tabled a raft of amendments to deal with the qualification of commissioners and, therefore, I can leave that matter until the Committee comes to government Amendment No. 5.
I should like to hear the views of the Minister on the relationship between the Boundary Commissions and the electoral commission. This is one area in which the Government have decided not to follow the recommendation of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen. As to the Boundary Commissions, on page 154 of the report of the committee one sees:
"11.27 It was suggested to us in evidence that the Election Commission should, among other things, assume the responsibilities of the present Boundary Commissions. This proposal falls outside our terms of reference, and we have neither taken evidence bearing on the point nor considered it in detail. We would only offer the thought that the existing system for the revision of parliamentary boundaries seems to work reasonably well and that to transfer it to the Election Commission might seriously overload that body, whose responsibilities, it seems to us, will be onerous enough as it is. We are not inclined to recommend change".
I freely concede that the committee did not take a firm position on the matter. As the report makes clear, the committee had not taken evidence on the issue. However, having given it a little thought, that was the conclusion at which it arrived. The Government have decided that the Boundary Commissions should transfer, so to speak, to the electoral commission.
The question arises: who on the electoral commission will sit on the Boundary Commissions for the constituent parts of the United Kingdom? That question is addressed by my Amendments Nos. 27 and 51. Amendment No. 51 makes clear that the Boundary Commissions for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should continue to be chaired by judges. I have only one reservation as to that. Occasionally, the chairmen of Boundary Commissions have not quite managed to get the constituencies in far better numerical balance. I have been over this matter before. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, smiles because she has heard the same speech before. I promise that I shall not make that speech again, other than to say that I live in hope that one day it will be realised that in our first-past-the-post electoral system it is quite important to achieve, as near as possible, parity one constituency with another.
I accept that there are a few areas where, for sensible geographical reasons, that is not possible, but by and large it should be done. One of the reasons that people complain that election results show a mismatch with the total vote is the disparity between seats. Although that is not the only reason, it is a contributory factor. I simply put in a little plug in the hope that the judges appointed in future will at least be qualified in higher mathematics, or something of that nature, so that they take into account that important point. I still believe it is important that the appointee should be someone who is trained to be as obviously neutral as a judge. That is why I have tabled Amendments Nos. 27 and 51. I appreciated that if I made it compulsory to have judges as commissioners in order that they could chair the Boundary Commissions, the five appointments as proposed by Neill, and the five to eight as proposed by the Government, would not be enough. For that reason I have proposed an increase in the minimum and maximum size of commission to accommodate Amendments Nos. 27 and 51. In Amendment No. 27 at least four members of the commission are to be drawn from categories a little wider than just judges. I have lighted upon the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life as part of the pool from which at least four members of the commission should be drawn.
My principal objective is to ask the Government why they decided not to follow the Neill recommendation, albeit a mild one, and give this responsibility to the electoral commission. I should also like to hear how the Government intend to deal with the interrelationship between the members of the commission and the chairmen of the Boundary Commissions. Are they to be deputy commissioners or full commissioners? Is the deputy commissioner the way to get round the problem? I am not sure I agree that that is the best solution. I believe that it is better if the chairmen of these important commissions are members of the electoral commission itself. Those are the main reasons for tabling the amendments.
It is important that we properly understand the Bill and know exactly what is happening with regard to the Boundary Commissions. I believe I am right in saying that the Bill contains a rather relaxed timetable when it comes to giving the electoral commission responsibility for boundary matters. If I am right, the next Boundary Commission round, which will take place within the next Parliament, will not be caught by the provisions of the Bill. The Boundary Commission of the next Parliament will be self-standing. It will not be involved with the electoral commission. I may have got that wrong. I shall be happy if I can have the Government's advice on that.
If I am right, can the Government explain why this arrangement will not be started immediately after the Bill is enacted? Why will not the Boundary Commissions to the next Parliament be subsumed into the procedures provided in the Bill? Why shall we have to wait perhaps another 12 or 15 years, depending on the length of Parliaments, before the arrangements come into place?
I hope that I shall receive satisfactory answers so that I shall not have to bother the Committee to divide again within the next half hour. I beg to move.
I speak to Amendment No. 28 in this grouping. It is on the same lines as the amendment suggested by my noble friend although a simpler one. It relates to the chairmanship of the commission; namely, that the chairman should either be a member of the senior judiciary or a retired member. This is along the lines suggested by my noble friend for chairmanship. I can do no better than refer to comments made by the Lord Chancellor earlier today in answer to a Question. He gave a most eloquent exposition of why judges were so suited to head inquiries or commissions of an important nature. This stems from their legal training in impartiality and the ability to sift evidence. It seems to me that all he said today could be applied equally to the chairmanship of the commission. I hope, therefore, that the Government will be minded to accept this amendment, or a similar provision, in view of the great endorsement given by the Lord Chancellor.
I welcome my noble friend's suggestions that the size of the commission should be increased on the lines he suggested and for the reasons he gave.
Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, a couple of specific questions. First, he makes the point about increasing the size of the commission to 11; and under Amendment No. 27 we have some criteria. Does the noble Lord believe that the size should be increased irrespective of those criteria? Does he argue that the size should be increased because of the large volume of work that the commission will undertake? Alternatively, is he increasing the size because he believes that these people should be added to the commission?
Secondly, does the noble Lord agree that all electoral matters would benefit from coming under one commission? Have not local government and parliamentary boundaries been something of a farce? They have overlapped, causing problems. Is there not an argument for putting the Boundary Commission into the electoral commission? Given the volume of work for the commission, is it not sensible first to sort out such matters as the finances and donations and let the commission become established before we bring the Boundary Commission into play?
In principle I support Amendments Nos. 27 and 51, and in particular Amendment No. 28.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, will be good enough to deal with the principle. For example, Amendment No. 27 could provide for three rather than four members, and that the Lords Justices of Appeal and the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary could be retired. For practical purposes that could be a relevant consideration. Also, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life could be excluded from the list. I do not put that forward in a spirit of criticism of my noble friend's amendment but to ask whether the judicial element referred to in paragraphs (a) to (e), whether serving or retired, is acceptable in principle. Perhaps the Minister can deal with that question in due course.
I support the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, may find that it is far more significant than he realises. I think that what I am about to say will shock and stagger all Members of the Committee.
It was generally believed that the Speaker of the House of Commons chaired all four Boundary Commissions. In all parts of the United Kingdom, some of that work was delegated, naturally, to a distinguished judge. However, there was a most astonishing development almost at the end of the last Boundary Commission in regard to Northern Ireland. I speak about the Boundary Commission for the whole of the United Kingdom.
The commission produced a report which was widely acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland--both sides of the so-called community. There came the most astonishing development. I know that the Committee will find it difficult to believe. The Irish Government asked for and obtained a copy. They made representations not to the Speaker of the House of Commons but the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland saying, "This will not do. We have an alternative." The alternative, as they saw it, was to give an advantage to the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. I do not quarrel with that. They have been given a right and an opportunity on many occasions to represent that community. That is not the point.
The Northern Ireland Office immediately turned tail, directed the Boundary Commission--the so-called impartial, neutral commission--to go back to the drawing board and recast the plan for constituencies in Northern Ireland. In doing so, they made the unfortunate mistake of shooting themselves in the foot. They caused the loss of the SDLP nationalist moderate Dr Joseph Hendron who represented in another place the West Belfast constituency. As a result of this bungling and interference by a foreign government, he was replaced by one Mr Adams, who is now the Member of Parliament for Belfast West.
I know that noble Lords will find it difficult to accept that it was not the Boundary Commission which turned tail and changed its mind; it was directed and influenced to do so by the Northern Ireland Office to comply with the wishes of a foreign sovereign government. That raises this question in future. If any other European Union government decides that the output of the new commission is not to their liking, will they, too, be granted the same facilities by a department in Her Majesty's Government to do what they did in the case of Belfast--and in particular West Belfast?
I say with great respect that we have to take the amendment very seriously. We have to ensure that all future boundary commissions are what they are said to be: that they operate, and operate solely, under the authority of the appropriate officers of government responsible to both House of this Parliament. They have to be insulated and protected from outside interference by any foreign sovereign government, particularly as, in the example I gave, they do not understand what they are doing and they disadvantage the very people whom they are trying to help.
I begin by declaring an interest. I am, and was when the report was declared, a member of the Neill committee. I therefore believe that it is inappropriate for me to speak or vote in any way which is inconsistent with the report which I signed. However, subject to that qualification, I regard myself as free to speak and vote on these issues.
I am unhappy with Amendment No. 27. I have been a practising barrister for some 40 years and as a result my regard for the judiciary is great but not unlimited. I believe that members of the electoral commission need a wide variety of experiences and expertise.
The effect of Amendment No. 27, even with the increased numbers proposed in the earlier amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, would be that between 36 and 50 per cent of the membership of the commission would have to be members of the judiciary. I do not believe that that constitutes a commission which would be appropriate for the job it has to do.
I have no objection to Amendment No. 28 because there is a strong case for saying that a senior or retired member of the judiciary should be a chairman of the commission, as is de facto the case with the Boundary Commission in which the chairmanship is purely nominal. However, the minimum number of four is inappropriate.
Perhaps I may deal with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I do not suggest that I have an unreasoned admiration for the judiciary. That is not the point; the point was taken by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. However one regards the judiciary, it is a bastion against that form of disposal. I had not known of that until the noble Lord mentioned it and I am deeply shocked. It is important that the judicial element, however one, as a member of the Bar, may regard it, is seen by the public, and as they would operate in public office, free from any form of pressure.
It is crucial that it should be retained in some form, as proposed by my noble friend Lord Mackay in Amendment No. 27. Therefore, I do not agree with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart.
I now feel duty bound to declare an interest. I am not a lawyer, but I live with a lawyer. Therefore, my views of lawyers must be carefully phrased. I live in reverence of them and have great respect for them.
I turn to the issues raised in this short but enlightening debate. The first point that we must remember is that the electoral commission is a regulatory body. It discharges functions which are vital to it and it must be seen as independent and impartial in its dealings with the supervisory organisations; that is, the political parties. The key criterion for membership of the commission is that it is composed of persons of proven independence and impartiality.
I can see why Members of the your Lordships' House, particularly with its strong judicial element, would be drawn to conclude that that must mean that many such people are involved in the business of the new commission. However, I take to heart the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that we need to have commissioners of wide experience. That is an important point for reflection. Later we shall no doubt debate the association between the commission and membership of political parties. We have made our views clear on that.
I want to draw on some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, about the commission. He was trying to tease us out on the nature of its composition and whether we believed there was a case for going against part of what the Neill committee stated, although not strongly; that is, the need to bring greater co-ordination between the four separate parliamentary Boundary Commissions.
That argument was well made by the Jenkins commission and we are reflecting on its views in order to try to bring together those organisations under one umbrella. We want to bring that work to bear more closely on the regulatory role that the electoral commission will be taking on. That is part of the thinking behind this particular move.
There is no doubt that members of the judiciary have served us well in their work on the Boundary Commission. I do not believe that anyone is arguing against that. No doubt, when we consider further the composition of the expanded commission, as it will be when we bring in the Boundary Commission functions, those people will be in the forefront of our minds in considering who may be selected to carry out this important work.
At this stage, we do not say that they should be the sole beneficiaries of that part of the commission's work because we do not want to rule out anyone at this stage. We believe that it is best to keep an open mind. However, they will clearly have a leading and important role to play and will be active in our consideration when the criteria are drawn up.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, asked why not immediately give boundary matters to the electoral commission. It was a fair question to ask at this stage. We must look at practicalities and we believe that it would be impractical to do that. After all, the work of the Boundary Commission is ongoing. It is into its fifth general review and we do not want to disrupt its important work. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that point.
He also made the point that this position could go on for ever. We do not want that to be the case and we believe that we are likely to see the transfer of the Boundary Commission's functions to the electoral commission within the next five years, when its work on the current fifth review is complete.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, made an important and valuable point about avoiding outside interference. It is important that when we reflect on who will be on the commission we ensure and protect it from that interference. Furthermore, important comments were made about the value of retired judges and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, prayed in aid comments made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor earlier today. We do not rule them out, but we need to have a broadly based commission. That is the kernel of our argument. I am confident that we will have an appointments process that is transparent and non-partisan and which can draw on a wide field of candidates.
I trust that with those comments, which may have been helpful in responding to the points raised, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I listened carefully to what the Minister said in response to the speeches made in support of the amendments. However, apart from telling us that he did not like them he has not gone far in explaining why. Putting the other way round the figures given to us by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and even if these amendments were accepted, that would mean that there would still be between 50 per cent and 64 per cent of members of the commission who would not be either current or retired members of the judiciary.
I would like to hear from the Minister what other areas of independence he would approach in order to find the majority of the members of the commission. When one considers those independent people of whom he spoke, one's mind naturally moves first to the judiciary. I have always felt that judges were the most impartial group of people in the land. However, that belief has been significantly shattered by the behaviour of some of the senior judges in the past few years, but I shall not dwell on that. Even so, and despite those actions, I believe that judges still comprise the most reliable group that one could look to.
I want to hear from the Minister what other groups he is of a mind to approach. He cannot just brush aside these amendments and say that we should be looking for sensible, independent people. At this stage of the consideration of the Bill, he must give us a better idea whom he would consider. I did not hear the Minister deal with Amendment No. 28 in the name of my noble friend Lady Fookes. I did not hear him apply himself to the point which had support from others in the Committee that the chairman of the commission should be drawn from the senior judiciary. I apologise if I did not hear the Minister say that, but I do not believe that he dealt with the point. It is a very important one because without question the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Fookes ought to be accepted, even if nothing else is.
When answering my noble friend Lord Jopling whose observations I wholly accept, and Amendment No. 28, which is distinct, can the Minister deal with the question that I put to him as to what objection he has as a matter of principle, leaving aside numbers, this and that, and odd amendments, to Amendment No. 27--subsection (7)(a)(b)(c) and (d)--if they are serving or retired members of the judiciary? The noble Lord ought to answer these questions.
When the Minister replies can he tell us a little more about how the Government view the Boundary Commissions being linked to the electoral commission? I believe that my noble friend on the Front Bench tabled these amendments specifically with a view to discovering what the Government intend to do about that. The noble Lord said that at some time the responsibility of the Boundary Commission would be moved. In setting up the commission, it is important to know government thinking on that matter. It relates very much to these amendments. In answering, perhaps the Minister can tell us a little more.
I was extremely disappointed about the dismissive way in which the Minister dealt, or rather failed to deal, with my amendment. If I was still teaching and had such an answer from a pupil, I would probably have written, "Inadequate: must give reasons". The most that I was told was that the Government would not rule out a senior member of the judiciary being chairman of the commission. As I say, that is wholly inadequate. If the Minister does not share the admiration of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor as to the worth of senior members of the judiciary in chairing such commissions, perhaps he would be kind enough to say so very firmly and give his reasons.
Before the Minister answers my noble friend's points, perhaps I may add two or three of my own. First, I shall answer some of the points that were put to me. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, asked me whether I was increasing the size in order to accommodate these appointments. That is what I was doing. I entirely agree with her about the overlap between the local government boundary commission and the parliamentary Boundary Commission. We should think about addressing that matter in this Bill. It has always seemed quite crazy that the local government boundary commission can go off on its merry way thinking in terms of local government numbers when along comes the parliamentary Boundary Commission and binds itself to the lines drawn on the map by the local government boundary commission.
That is often why neighbouring constituencies that are similar in many ways are of quite different sizes in terms of electoral numbers. The constituency of Ayr in Scotland, where from a Conservative Party point of view there was a highly successful by-election, is pretty small because of having to obey local government rules. As regards the adjacent constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, represented by Mr George Foulkes, not in my wildest dreams would I think that the Conservative Party might win a by-election there, but that is beside the point. The point is that it is a large constituency geographically.
Because of the Boundary Commission's devotion to local government boundaries, the small constituency had the smaller electorate and the large geographical constituency had a very much larger electorate. I agree with the noble Baroness on this. It may be that this is a matter on which she and I should get together to see whether we can persuade the noble Lord, Lord Bassam--she might have more success than I have had--to look at this issue seriously.
I heard what the noble Baroness said about that workload that that would impose on the Boundary Commission if it was given such a responsibility so soon after enactment. That seemed to me to be a good reason and one that was certainly arguable. I understand from the Minister that when the next boundary review is complete the electoral commission will take over responsibility and the provisions in the Bill will come into effect.
I say to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway that I do not have anything against retired Lords Justices of Appeal, Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and so forth. Sometimes one has a lapse in concentration when writing out a long amendment such as this. I have no problem including the word "retired" if that is what the Government want. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, believes that there are too many judges there. He whispered it in case anyone outside heard and he is in front of a judge tomorrow--of course, professionally. I noticed that he had no problem with the amendment of my noble friend Lady Fookes. As requested, I believe that the Minister should address that more fully.
I was staggered by what the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, told the Committee. It is unbelievable that the Boundary Commission should have bent to pressure. Every political party tries to put pressure on that commission, but by and large, I am happy to say, they all fail. Sometimes political parties believe that another party has put too much pressure on, but I suspect that that is not the case. It seems to me that if my party wants to exert some influence on the Boundary Commission we should recruit the government of the Republic of Ireland to our cause and then all would be well. I liked the unintended consequence, which is something I always tell the Government about in any constitutional arrangement. I do not believe that the government of the Republic would desire Dr Hendron to lose his seat and Adams to win it, but that is the working of the law of intended consequences.
I draw the Minister's attention to Clause 13 where the Boundary Commission's functions are set out. Subsection (4) states:
"Only an Electoral Commissioner or a deputy Electoral Commissioner may be appointed a member of a Boundary Committee; and only an Electoral Commissioner may be appointed chairman of a Boundary Committee".
If the noble Lord does not accept my amendment, does that mean that, at some point in the future after the next Boundary Commission is set up, Boundary Commissions will no longer be chaired by judges? If the noble Lord does not accept my amendment because he does not want too many judges, he cannot have judges from whom to draw the chairmen of the boundary committee. Therefore, I wonder whether we have joined-up government in this Bill. If the chairman of a boundary committee must be an electoral commissioner and we are not to have judges, it seems to me that judges will not chair the boundary committee. Therefore, in order to prove me wrong, I should be grateful to hear from the Minister how he interprets that clause.
If I am right in what I have just explained to the Committee, I believe that we shall certainly need to look at the matter very carefully between now and Report. I quite understand that people who are appointed to the committee can be made deputy electoral commissioners. However, frankly, they are fairly limited in number. Am I right? I believe that they number the same as the commissioners. Therefore, when a Boundary Commission sits for all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, many members of the commission--both the commissioners and the deputies--will be tied up in the work of the Boundary Commission.
I wonder whether the Government have given enough thought to this matter. Perhaps they have simply decided, "It's a long way down the road. If we are not going to do it immediately, we'll bother about it when we get there". I do not particularly believe that one should legislate on the basis of crossing a bridge when one reaches it. I believe that we have reached it now and, in addition to answering the other points, I should like the Minister to explain how he envisages that the system will work once Clause 13 comes into effect.
I am grateful to the Committee for giving me the opportunity to amplify some of the points that I made earlier in responding to the questions raised.
Perhaps I may start with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. I believe that the electoral commission can be well served by having a broad base of professional expertise and support. Therefore, it follows that the argument which I believe started to be developed this afternoon--that somehow that can be guaranteed or ensured only by having a commission full of retired judges, lawyers and so on--does not necessarily follow. I believe that there are many other areas of expertise from which we can draw; for example, the business world, the world of accountancy, the academic community, the regulatory sector generally, the voluntary sector, the Civil Service and, of course, local government. I am sure that all those areas of interest will bring forward expertise from which the commission will benefit greatly.
However, none of that is to say--I believe it was a view developed by Members on the opposition Benches--that we have something against the judiciary, and retired judges in particular. Of course that is not the case. They have our greatest and highest respect, as we heard from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor earlier this afternoon. I am certainly not ruling out their presence on the commission. They may well be among those from whom the commission chairmen are drawn in the future. I believe that that is an important consideration.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, is very keen to see a retired judge chair the commission. Of course, that is an important consideration. However, I do not believe that at this stage it would be right to rule out expertise and independence from wherever it comes; whether it be from the legal profession, accountants, civil servants, former chief executives or whatever. I believe that we must draw widely, and that is the point that we are trying to make.
Perhaps I may address the issue raised latterly by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. Of course, he is absolutely right to say that, from his interpretation of Clause 13, the boundary committee chairmen may not be lawyers or judges. I believe that that follows from the way in which we have set out the legislation. At the moment that is the case, but it need not necessarily be so in the future. After all, this is a new commission. It has a new range of responsibilities. We are bringing together and seeking to merge commissions. However, the electoral commission is an entirely new notion. Of course, a very important part of its work will be to examine local government boundaries in terms of local elections and the boundaries of constituencies so far as concerns other elections.
However, we want to see something that is holistic. That is the general approach that we are attempting to adopt in this matter and it is for that reason that I have made the case that I have this afternoon. Therefore, we want a broadly-based commission--
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am now doing something that one should never do: I am asking a question to which I do not know the answer. I believe that the current position is that judges chair the Boundary Commission. Is that by Act of Parliament? If so, is this Bill repealing that portion of the Act of Parliament? It would be very useful to know the answer. I believe that I am correct in understanding that in future the chairmen of boundary committees will not be judges. However, if that has been the statutory position in the past, are the Government now repealing that statutory position?
The answer to the noble Lord's question is that, yes, in effect, that is what we are doing. I am grateful to him for taking the question further. It may well be that I need to go through the schedules and make clearer exactly where we are effecting a repeal, because that would appear to be the effect of what we are doing with that particular clause.
I was about to conclude my comments. Before I do so, perhaps I may advise the noble Lord that page 181, line 29, of the Bill lists a repeal to Schedule 1 to the 1986 Act. It may help the noble Lord to know where that can be found.
I hope that I have answered noble Lords' points in this discussion. I trust that Members of the Committee will be content with what I have said. I trust also that they will be convinced of the need for this entirely new creature within the body politic. We are trying to create something which is new and different, which has independence and impartiality, and which draws widely in its composition. If we achieve that, I believe that we shall be the better for it. We shall have a useful and valuable regulatory body that takes in a whole range of professional expertise, experience and background to advise us better on how we may regulate our political parties and conduct an important element of our political life. In saying that, I trust that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendments this afternoon.
Will the noble Lord forgive me and allow me to ask him to consider one point between now and Report? The noble Lord keeps saying that it is a question of expertise. I concede that that is, of course, an element. However, it is not a question of expertise when one talks about judges. Here, we are concerned with a political question: the Boundary Commission. It has political connotations and judges are seen as the embodiment of impartiality. I am not putting forward a case that judges have greater expertise than, for example, an accountant or anyone else. Not a bit of it. However, they are perceived by the public to be men of total impartiality and of the uttermost integrity. In a political situation such as this, it seems to me to be utter madness not to accept that point. I ask the noble Lord to seek advice on this issue between now and Report.
Again, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising that point. Is there behind the noble Lord's comments the belief that civil servants, senior local government officers and people drawn from the business world cannot effect the same quality of impartiality and judgment? Is that what he is saying?
I am saying that this is a political question; it is the public perception. The judges are accepted as possessing that quality of total impartiality and utter integrity. That is all I am saying.
Of course, I accept that. Clearly, we must reflect on the balance of the commission, its composition and membership. We shall have to think very carefully about the appointments. Having said that, I believe that I have made the case that other professions and other sectors of life can provide people of the utmost integrity and impartiality. That is what we should be seeking in this exercise.
Like my noble friend, I am rather disappointed, especially as regards her amendment which is a good deal narrower than mine. Certainly, when we discover that the boundary committees are no longer to be chaired by judges, it is reasonable to ask that the Boundary Commission should be chaired by a judge.
I listened to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, put to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. The answer is that judges are probably better at being neutral and unbiased because that is what they are trained to be. I cannot say that most of the rest of us are trained in that way. We may sometimes think we are but that is not necessarily the case.
In many other respects in this country, we use judges because we think they have a training which allows them to listen in a balanced and neutral way to a case, weigh up the evidence, and so on. If the Government take the view that I can be balanced and weigh up the evidence and so on, perhaps they will decide to send me to the Bench. I should not complain too much about that, given the salary which is a good deal better than the expenses for attending your Lordships' House. I do not believe that they will go that far with the argument that judges are just like lots of other people.
I have one further point to leave with the Minister. He did not really answer my question. If I read this correctly, at some stage, when boundary committees sit in the future, four out of the five commissioners could be chairmen of boundary committees. That seems to me to mean that four out of the five will be fairly heavily involved in what they are doing there. That will leave the commission itself rather thin.
When the commission is expanded, as I understand it--and I thought this was a common understanding--the number of commissioners will increase. So it will not be four from five; it will be four from nine. I hope that that is a common understanding.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. As I was asking the question, I realised why there is a reference to "not more than nine" in the Bill.
This has been an extremely useful discussion. I see much more clearly what the position will be in the future in relation to the boundary committees. I am not certain that I am satisfied with the answer and the argument that we should move away from what we have traditionally done. We shall have to consider that before the next stage. However, we have had a good debate, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"The Commission may do anything", and I stress the word "anything",
"(except borrow money) which is calculated to facilitate, or is incidental or conducive to, the carrying out of any of their functions".
That concerned my right honourable friend Sir George Young in another place. He pointed out that under the Bill Clause 8 allows certain things at the request of Clause 3, which allows other things with the agreement of Clause 5 which, however, bans certain other things and Clause 11 which adds other parameters.
The Government then come along with a provision which causes alarm because of its wording. The Minister claimed that this was a mundane little amendment designed entirely so that the commission could obtain secretarial services, perhaps dispose of property and perhaps buy office space. He said that the provision did not extend any of the commission's functions and emphasised the point by saying, "I really mean that". We can agree with him except that the Bill sets out what the Secretary of State can do and what may be done in terms of financing the commission. It seems to me that the overriding power in paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 goes too far and that the Government should find a way of including in paragraph 1 of Schedule 14 a definition of what is intended because at present the alarm bells are ringing.
When the Minister in the other place says that the schedule does not extend the commission's functions, I am sure that he believes that to be the case. But the fact that the commission may do "anything" is what causes us concern. At least the Treasury managed to have some input because the words "except borrow money" are included.
The second amendment--Amendment No. 18--concerns the financing of the commission. I have a number of questions. The first is a simple one to which I am sure there is a simple answer, but I cannot find it. The Bill says that expenditure shall be met out of money provided by Parliament,
"except so far as it is met by the National Assembly for Wales".
I wonder why there is a reference to Wales and not to Scotland. What is the situation in Scotland? Is that dealt with elsewhere in the Bill and I have missed it? I do not seem to be able to find it in the schedules. It would be useful to have an explanation.
The Government have not really said yet how much the commission will spend in the first few years. What is the budget going to be? Are there any estimates? What will the money be spent on?
It is important that we understand what income is proposed for the commission and how likely it is to over-run. What is the likely scale of income? The Government have not said anything on that issue. It is important that we know and understand, at this stage of the Bill, the sums involved. This is a new entity, but the Government must have some estimates. It would be useful to know what they are.
These probing amendments are designed to allow the Government to amplify and explain the position to the Committee. I beg to move.
I am grateful to the noble Viscount for stressing the probing nature of these amendments, which means that my answer can be brief, although it may not be as complete as he would like. Amendment No. 4 would delete paragraph 2 of Schedule 1, which is a standard incidental powers provision, as found in many Acts of Parliament. As a body corporate, the electoral commission will be able to do anything that is incidental to the carrying out of its functions, and that is important. If it tries to do anything that is outside its functions, it will be acting outside its powers.
Those incidental powers include the power to acquire property and to enter into contracts. That principle has been established by case law dating from 1880. Although the matter is not in serious doubt, we believe that it would be sensible to have a clear statement of the position on the face of the Bill.
Paragraph 2 of Schedule 1, which would be deleted by the amendment, has numerous precedents in other legislation establishing bodies corporate. I can offer two examples from legislation passed by the previous administration: first, paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990; and, secondly, paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 to the Pensions Act 1995, which I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, could have told him about. I believe that that Act came into being when the noble Lord was in a senior position in the relevant department. The noble Viscount may be comforted to know that that Act has precisely the same provision as this, as do countless other Acts of Parliament with which I could bore the House for a long time.
I should emphasise that the commission could not exercise its incidental powers in such a way as to extend its functions, which are limited to those set out in the Bill. On that basis I hope that the noble Viscount is satisfied.
At first we were at a loss to understand the purpose of Amendment No. 18, but by saying that it is a probing amendment, the noble Viscount has taken away all our heat and anger--not that there was much in the first place! If this amendment were carried, the effect would be to scupper the establishment of the commission altogether, which we know is not the policy of the Opposition.
Paragraph 14(1) of Schedule 1 is an entirely standard provision in a Bill setting up a public body. The commission will receive some income direct from fees and charges, but, in large measure, it will be funded by voted moneys. The arrangements for setting the commission's budget, set out in Schedule 1, will ensure that the commission is not beholden to the Government, while at the same time retaining a degree of accountability to Parliament for the proper expenditure of public funds. It is believed that the annual running costs will be £2.6 million. I hope that that answers one of the questions posed by the noble Viscount.
The National Assembly for Wales is referred to specifically because local government boundaries in Wales are a devolved matter. Amendment No. 19 will introduce equivalent provisions for Scotland, consequential on a new clause about local government boundaries there.
Without a functioning electoral commission, the control set out in the Bill would be meaningless. I hope that I have given the noble Viscount at least a taste, for example, of the amount of annual money that the commission will have for running costs and that I have answered his question about why there is a reference to Wales but not to Scotland.
I am afraid I did not understand the Minister's reply. On page 102 of the Bill, in Schedule 1, paragraph 14, there is a reference to the National Assembly for Wales to which the Minister referred. He then mentioned why Scotland is not included in that paragraph. Perhaps he can clarify that as I did not understand his explanation.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I accept what he says about Amendment No. 4. He cites the Pensions Act of 1995, which I remember extremely well from the number of hours spent in the Chamber when my noble friend dealt with it. I have two points. First, as it is such a standard clause, why was it not already in the Bill? It causes us to question, as we did when we first saw this lengthy Bill, the confidence that we can have in the drafting of the Bill.
In another place, the Minister's noble friend gave an intriguing answer. He said:
"the amendment is not necessary, in the sense that case law dating back to 1880 makes it clear that a public authority such as the Electoral Commission would in any event have the facility to do anything incidental to its functions".--[Official Report, Commons, 14/2/00; col. 631.]
This is one of those "belt and braces" clauses. We are concerned about the word "anything" but we shall study carefully what the Minister has said and look up some of the examples that he has given.
I am delighted that the Minister understands the serious purpose behind the second amendment in this group. He has realised that it is a probing amendment, designed to aid the Government to educate your Lordships' House on their intentions in the Bill. I am grateful for his explanation of Amendment No. 19. When we tabled our amendment, Amendment No. 19 was not on the Marshalled List, or if it was I did not see it. He has helpfully mentioned the budget. When we start to discuss the functions of the commission we shall have further questions about the budget, but I am grateful for the Minister's answer. In an entirely conciliatory manner, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 4.
moved Amendment No. 5:
Page 98, leave out lines 20 and 21 and insert--
("(3) An Electoral Commissioner shall cease to hold office on the occurrence of any of the following events--
(a) he consents to being nominated as a candidate at a relevant election (within the meaning of Part II) or to being included in a registered party's list of candidates at such an election;
(b) he takes up any office or employment in or with--
(i) a registered party or any accounting unit of such a party,
(ii) a recognised third party (within the meaning of Part VI), or
(iii) a permitted participant (within the meaning of Part VII);
(c) he is named as a donor in the register of donations reported under Chapter III or IV of Part IV or in any statement of donations included in a return delivered to the Commission under section 93 or 117;
(d) he becomes a member of a registered party.").
This is an important group of government amendments that relates to the role of the electoral commission and its ability to command public confidence in carrying out its many and varied functions, in particular its regulatory functions. In that respect, it must be scrupulously independent--as we have already discussed--both of the government of the day, of the political parties and of the political process.
Quite rightly, the Neill committee recognised that a number of consequences follow from that position. The first is that members of the commission should not be people who have previously been involved in any substantial way in party politics. The second consequence cited by the committee is that the UK electoral commission, unlike its American counterpart, should consist of independent persons and not of party representatives. We believe that that is important.
It is important that those restrictions on party political activity should be set out on the face of the Bill to avoid confusion. Government Amendments Nos. 9 to 13, 25, 26 and 52 accordingly provide that no one shall be appointed as an electoral commissioner, a deputy electoral commissioner or an assistant electoral commissioner if they have, in the past 10 years, either held a relevant elective office, been an officer of a political party or made a donation which is recordable under the provisions of Part IV of the Bill. Previous membership of a political party will not in itself be a bar on appointment, but if a successful candidate is a member of a political party, they will be required to resign their membership before the appointment is confirmed. The amendments further provide for the automatic termination of a commissioner's appointment if they subsequently become associated with a political party, either as a member, donor, candidate, office holder or simply as an employee. That follows on logically here.
Similar restrictions will apply to the members of staff of the electoral commission. Those are covered by Amendments Nos. 14 to 16. However, in their case, there will be no bar on membership of a political party. That said, as with civil servants and local government employees, the senior staff of the commission will be subject to non-statutory restrictions of the party political activities they may engage in.
I hope that, on reflection, the Official Opposition will support these government amendments. Perhaps I may say that these are changes to the Bill for which the Opposition Front Bench was pressing in another place. I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said in the debate on Second Reading that those were probing amendments. However, I did not believe him then and I would probably would not believe him if he were to repeat it today. As I said, that was the position taken by the Official Opposition in debates in another place.
It is worth recording that during discussions on Report on 13th March in another place, the honourable Member for Ribble Valley, Mr Nigel Evans, said:
"The Neill report further recommended that the commission should include no party politicians. That is a sound recommendation ... there is nothing in the Bill to prevent past or present party politicians being members of the Electoral Commission, and we hope that the Government will reconsider its composition".--[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/00; col. 37.]
We did not need to reconsider its composition because we made it clear that we were happy with the Neill recommendations. However, there can be no clearer statement of the Official Opposition's view than that made by Mr Nigel Evans. It is a view shared by the Government and reflected in these amendments.
On Second Reading, my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton, and others, expressed doubts about the need for absolute independence on the part of the commission. She argued that commissioners must have a detailed understanding of the reality of running elections and political parties. However, I should like to remind the Committee that a large part of the commission's work will be regulating political parties' income and expenditure. We are not putting in place a system of self-regulation. We take the view that it would be a clear conflict of interest for individual commissioners with party affiliations to preside over such matters. After all, we do not fill the Gaming Board for Great Britain with representatives of the casino and bingo industries.
The Government accept that the commission cannot take decisions in a vacuum, sealed off from the real world of politics and elections. That would be foolish. I fully expect that, in undertaking many of its functions--for example, the review of electoral law--the commission will want to engage and consult in different ways with political parties at all levels. Having heard the evidence from the practitioners on the ground, the commissioners will then have the information they need in order to make an impartial and independent judgment on the issues at stake. By operating in this way, it is simply not the case that the commissioners need first-hand experience of running a political party or fighting elections.
I believe that I have set out the Government's position as clearly as possible and I commend the amendments to the Committee. I beg to move.
My noble friend knows that I still have considerable reservations about these amendments. However, before I address them, perhaps I may point out to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, that during the debate in Committee in the other place, the Minister did say that various efficiency gains would also be realised if the functions of the parliamentary and local government boundaries were merged in one body. Perhaps we should meet and have a conversation about that.
As regards the point we are presently discussing, I have great difficulty in believing that it is possible to form a commission of people with no basic experience of the job that they are meant to supervise or regulate. I do not accept that a regulatory body should be comprised of people who have never participated in the organisations that they are trying to regulate. Furthermore, I do not accept the argument that the commission should look to political parties for specific issues. How would they know how to define such specific issues? I believe that some kind of continuity of discussion needs to be established with political parties.
Indeed, although I take absolutely the points made by my noble friend as regards the Government's response to points that were made in another place, I find it a little strange that the Minister, in accepting many of those points, said on 14th February that,
"There must be a willingness to have people with at least some awareness of the political process on such a commission".--[Official Report, Commons, 14/2/00; col. 642.]
He went on to argue the case by saying,
"Striking a balance is important".--[Official Report, 14/2/00; col. 643.]
I believe that that illustrates the issue here.
One or two strange statements have been made in the amendment. Even if one accepts it in principle, I think it goes a little too far. I am also a little confused because it states that a commissioner should not be a member of a political party, but then, in a later paragraph, it states that if one becomes a commissioner one would have to resign. I should have thought that if one cannot be a member in the first place--in particular if the rule states that one must have been out of politics for 10 years--then one could not resign. Perhaps that point could be clarified.
I do of course accept that people who are currently parliamentarians or major donors to political parties should not be appointed to the commission. However, to return to my earlier comments, I believe that there must be at least some level of expertise on the commission either by using co-optees or possibly by setting up a permanent advisory committee to which the commission could refer whenever it so needed. That may be the solution to the problem here.
In the debate on Second Reading I believe that Members from all sides of the House felt that these provisions were far too restrictive. Finally, in relation to a point that we shall reach later, I should like to refer to the Speaker's Committee. That committee has the Home Secretary, the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. I accept that those people have been appointed to that committee because of the expertise they can offer to the subjects. I believe that exactly the same criteria should apply to the electoral commission.
I was trying to work my way through one particular aspect of this group of amendments before I had to ask my question. However, I shall probably ask it in any case because I am not entirely satisfied that I have understood all the amendments in this grouping.
The question of the membership is difficult. Certainly I am aware that my honourable friends in another place held firm views that membership should be kept as far away from politics as possible. Perhaps the motivation for that view--dare I whisper this to the Committee--was that they are rather suspicious of the present Prime Minister, who loads committees and commissions with his friends. Even if they are not members of his party, they are supporters of his party. I think that my honourable friends are probably right to be suspicious of how the Government behave as regards these issues.
The noble Baroness has made a good point about the need to find people to appoint to the commission who do know a little about the political process, even if they do not know much about the political parties. I have a suspicion that we shall see a long queue of academics forming to join this body. With the exception of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who ruled himself out by becoming a member of a political party, many of us share the suspicion that such academics are at least political pundits who, if they are not members of a political party, then they are pretty keen supporters. That is especially the case if they are psephologists and saying something that we may not like to hear. We then assume that their psephology is tainted by their political colour.
Inevitably we shall be looking at people such as academics because I suspect that the people the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, mentions, such as accountants and businessmen, if they are interested in the way politics work, will be members of political parties and will therefore be disqualified. So the Government will have a difficult task finding commissioners who understand how the political system works but who are not in any way involved in the system from a party point of view.
Two amendments ago the Minister made much of professional expertise being represented on the electoral commission. Perhaps he can help us by indicating where he expects to find that professional expertise. It is not good enough to suggest accountants, businessmen and other similar people as potential members. As I say, if they are in the least interested in the political process, I suspect that they will already be members of political parties. It may be that they are not actual members and just make donations; if they do not donate more than £500 they may be all right. I suppose if they just buy raffle tickets from their next door neighbour, that will be all right. No matter how many raffle tickets they buy, they will still be on the right side of this particular provision and therefore could be electoral commissioners.
The Minister mentioned the Gaming Board, and while not all members of that board are drawn from the gambling industry, certainly some of them are. Another Bill wending its complicated way through your Lordships' Chamber--a Bill which makes this Bill look simplicity and openness itself--concerns the Financial Services Authority. That authority will include members drawn from the very bodies it will regulate. Indeed, the chairman or chief executive (I am not sure what his title is) was, until recently, the Deputy Chairman of the Bank of England. So precedent is not with the Minister, though I understand where he is coming from.
What I am puzzling over, and perhaps the Minister can help me, are the words, "member of staff". Are ordinary members of staff--not a chief executive, not somebody of great importance but, for example, the secretaries--to be barred from being members of political parties? It seemed to me that they were, and then I re-read Amendment No. 14, which says,
"A person may not be appointed chief executive or other member of the staff of the Commission if he is a person who (by virtue of section 3(3A)(b) to (d)) may not be appointed as an Electoral Commissioner".
On examination I find that the Government have missed out the words,
"is a member of a registered party".
So the chief executive could therefore be a member of a registered party. But I thought I heard the Minister say that he could not have been so for the past 10 years.
These provisions produce some confusion which I do not believe we will resolve this evening. We shall have to look at this provision when it appears in the Bill and then work our way through it. I can assure the Committee that the position gets worse when we come to some future government amendments which take up pages and pages and, quite frankly, deserve a Keeling schedule to help us wend our way through them.
I do not know whether the Minister can help with the difference between the chief executive and senior members of the commission staff and the most junior members. If in fact they are not allowed to be members of a political party, will that infringe their convention rights? I have no doubt that the Minister has said that the Bill does not breach the convention. Perhaps he should check whether saying that they cannot be members of a political party actually breaches the convention.
So there are a number of points the Minister may be able to help us with. If he cannot, then we shall have to make amendments on Report to what will be virtually a re-written Bill.
I wish to add my support not only to my noble friend, Lord Mackay, but also to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. I have tremendous sympathy with her points.
I understand the motivation for the amendments, but the amendments in this group appear to be unduly restrictive--I have in mind Amendment No. 25 and the 10-year gap--particularly when one considers some of the practices elsewhere. After all, some people move straight from holding political office (membership of either House) to become judges, yet it is assumed that they are "scrupulously independent", to use the Minister's phrase, the moment that they make the transition. In the other place someone may move from being a practising politician to being Speaker, because his or her experience of the House is invaluable, and assumes immediately a role of independence. So I am not sure why there has to be a gap as long as the 10 years imposed by the amendment. It strikes me that any knowledge one had prior to that time would not be relevant in this context. There may be a case for a gap, but the amendments as they stand are unduly restrictive and there is a case for redrafting them.
I hope the Minister will listen to the powerful and persuasive points made about the need for people to be involved in the commission who have day-to-day knowledge of how political parties work.
A couple of months ago we hit a slight problem when organising the London elections. Highly talented civil servants were, for the first time, thrust into the responsibility of organising an election campaign. From a position of understandable ignorance, given their normal jobs, of how an election should be organised, problems arose that otherwise might not have arisen.
We now have a great deal of experience of people from this country visiting other countries establishing democratic systems. They often work for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. They find that some people who are independent or concerned with the greater good of politics are unable to fulfil their role properly or as well as perhaps others who, through the experience of party politics as agents and organisers, understand how things are done. There is a case for involving people with more detailed knowledge of how parties are organised in the work of the commission.
The United States Federal Electoral Commission has six members, three of whom are nominated by the Republicans and three by the Democrats. As soon as they are nominated they cease to have any political role. But there is no suggestion in the United States that because they were previously active as Democrats or Republicans, that they are not able to do their job. Indeed, I feel that they are able to do their job more effectively because they understand the way in which the parties work.
So there is a case, to some extent, for suggesting that commissioners may be poachers turned gamekeepers in pursuing the parties and holding them more properly to account than perhaps the wider-ranging panel of judges, lawyers and academics, many of whom are just as partisan as those of us who are party activists. Perhaps the advisory committee may be a way forward of involving party practitioners and advising the commission. But a huge amount of work is involved and, for it to work effectively, the advisory committee would have to be an almost full-time standing committee. It would be far better to involve, in a minority, some active party practitioners in the work of the commission to make it successful.
I am sorry to rise again, but the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, reminded me of instances when even as active and participant politicians we have been able to be impartial and independent. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and I first met when we were in Moscow on behalf of the Foreign Office acting as independents giving our expertise to the people, to all parties who were taking part in an election. We did not wear our party hats to do that and we worked closely together. That is a good example--it happens frequently where new democracies arise--of how one can use one's expertise and yet be impartial.
Perhaps I can make two points I should have made earlier. My noble friend said that the suggestion of independent persons rather than party representatives being appointed was a suggestion in the Neill report. Those with political experience who are appointed are not necessarily party representatives. So there has been a misinterpretation of that phrase.
Finally--and I am sorry to ask this question because my noble friend may not have an immediate answer--what happens to a member of a trade union who, as such, pays his political levy in the main probably to the Labour Party? Will he also be excluded from being a commissioner?
I should like to say a few words in response to what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has just said and in support of the comments made by my noble friend Lord Rennard. I am very disturbed about the proposal that basically the more ignorant you are about the party system in this country the more likely you are to be appointed. That seems to me to be an exceptionally difficult concept. Given some of the speeches that have been made today, I very much hope that the Government will reflect on the position before we reach Report stage.
I should like to give noble Lords one analogy. The Minister referred to the Gaming Board and made the point that it would be quite possible to have representatives of the casino industry on it. But he is quite right to say that they do not serve on it. There is no analogy as regards the Gaming Board, the casino industry and the body about which we are talking. Perhaps I may give one example of where ignorance is exceptionally difficult and damaging. I refer to the appointment of the Sheehy Committee by the previous government to look into the organisation of the police service. The then Home Secretary, Mr Clarke, decided that the only people who should be appointed to the committee were those who had had no involvement with the police service. The result was probably one of the most disastrous documents that has ever been produced. Colleagues of mine who were here at the time will remember the debate on Clause 1 of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, which followed directly from the report of the Sheehy Committee.
I urge the Government to consider this matter most carefully between now and the Report stage. I do not believe that involvement with a political party should serve as a disqualification. I very much hope that the Minister will at least be open-minded this evening.
I have enjoyed our short debate. Indeed, I found it most helpful and quite interesting. I fully understand some of the reservations that have been expressed from various corners of the Chamber, but we have made our position pretty clear on the matter. It was very much in response to a requirement for clarification made very volubly in another place. However, there is some merit in the argument that we should not end up with a politically neutered body--that is, one that is completely remote from the world of politics. That would be foolish and it is not our intention. As I said earlier, the commission will not be able to operate in a vacuum.
My noble friend Lady Gould referred to the comments of my right honourable friend in another place about the need to have people with some "awareness" on the commission. That must be right; they must have an awareness of politics. It would be foolish to think that commissioners could work without having that awareness. When I think of the sort of people we might want to see coming forward as commissioners, I am sure that such awareness will be there. For example, I served for a long time in local government; indeed, for over 20 years or more in different guises. During that time, I certainly came across plenty of chief executives. I believe that chief executives may well be that class of person from which we will draw expertise, to name but one. I did not meet one chief executive in those 20 years who did not have some awareness--in fact, they often had a great deal of awareness--of the political processes that operated within his local authority.
Frankly, if those chief executives had not had that awareness, they would not have remained in the job for very long. I am sure that that is absolutely true of the Civil Service and of people from the world of business. After all, this Chamber is full of former businessmen who bring their business experience--if you like, their political experience of their board--into this House and who function to the highest level in the world of politics--
I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend. However, while I accept that people like chief executives, and so on, have political experience--even electoral experience--I must point out that they do not have political party experience. This Bill is concerned with regulating political parties. That is the real problem.
I entirely accept my noble friend's point. However, as my noble friend concedes, the commission will be concerned with regulation. That is where we need expertise. The possession of knowledge and awareness, or perhaps some such involvement at an earlier time in his life, will help whoever is selected to be on the commission to exercise those regulatory functions. That much is clear.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said that this was in a way a plea for an academics' field day. I do not accept that view. Of course, people in the world of academia may well prove to be very good commissioners, but I do not see why the commission should be loaded with academics. I do not accept that at all, although I am sure that many academics will have the sort of experience that we shall require.
One or two further specific points were made and perhaps I may clarify one issue that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, raised about restrictions on staff. I thought that I made it clear earlier, but I shall repeat the position so that it is clear. There will be no bar for members of the commission's staff continuing to be members of a political party. Having said that, civil servants, local government employees and the senior staff of the commission will be subject to non-statutory restrictions on the party political activities in which they may engage. I hope that I have clarified that point. My understanding is that staff at all levels within the organisation, including the chief executive, may be members of political parties. So they will not, if you like, have their human right to be a member of a political party infringed in any way, shape or form.
Perhaps I may pick up a similar point made by my noble friend Lady Gould about membership of political parties and being a commissioner. Amendment No. 25 provides that no one may be appointed if he is a member of a political party. That does not prevent someone who is a member of a party applying for a post. But if that person were selected, he would need to resign before the appointment is confirmed. Amendment No. 5 terminates the appointment of a commissioner if he subsequently becomes a member of a party. I hope that that clarifies the issue so valuably raised by my noble friend.
These amendments are important. They fulfil a commitment that we gave in another place. I am not closed in mind to some of the arguments that Members of the Committee have put forward. I was rather drawn towards the observation made by my noble friend Lady Gould about the possibility of there being a need for an advisory committee. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made a case for such a committee being established on a permanent basis because of the constant need to take advice from those involved in the political process. I shall be happy to give further consideration to those points before we reach the Report stage. If noble Lords who are interested in this aspect of the functioning of the commission and its relationship with the political parties wish to meet to discuss those points with me, I shall, as I said earlier, be in listening mode and have an open door in that respect. Having said that, I commend--
Before the Minister commends the amendments to the Committee, perhaps he could respond to and clarify a few further points. I meant to ask him whether I understood the position correctly. I have written down here that,
"Cross-Bench Members of your Lordships' House are not, by definition, members of a political party. Therefore, Cross-Bench Members would actually be eligible to be commissioners".
Is that the case?
Can the noble Lord say which definition says that an independent Member of this Chamber is not a member of a political party? Some choose not to be a member of a party grouping in this House, but there is nothing which says that they cannot be ipso facto members of a political party.
I fully accept that there may be reasons for Members of the Cross Benches being members of a political party and yet not members of a party grouping in this Chamber, but I suspect that the majority of Members of the Cross Benches are not members of political parties. Therefore, my question still stands; namely, would they be able to be members of the commission, despite the fact that they are obviously Members of one of the Houses of Parliament?
My next point concerns donors to a political party. If someone is a large shareholder, or perhaps the chairman, of a company, and that company, not the individual, gives a donation to a political party, would that individual be eligible to be considered for appointment as a commissioner? Perhaps this is something we should consider further. However, if I heard the noble Lord aright when he responded to my question on whether a member of the commission's staff could be a member of a political party, I think he told me that everyone, including the chief executive, could be a member of a political party. I drew in my breath a little at that. I would not have minded if the noble Lord had told me that people in the commission below a certain level could be members of a political party. However, I drew in my breath when he said that the chief executive could be a member of a political party. I may want to contemplate that matter further.
The noble Lord may wish to contemplate the following proposition. Would he be content to discover that the person who is recruited to be the chief executive of the electoral commission is a member of the Conservative Party or of the Liberal Democrat Party? He might be quite content to find out that that person is a member of the Labour Party, but I wonder whether I or the noble Lord, Lord Harris, would be content about that. We may all wish to contemplate this matter further.
I take the point--my right honourable and honourable friends in the other place were keen to point this out--that the electoral commissioners should not be involved in political parties, although the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Rennard, put forward a good argument on this point. I believe that my right honourable and honourable friends are a little suspicious of the Prime Minister's powers of patronage. Perhaps I share that suspicion, but perish the thought that I should have a suspicious nature! The chief executive is a pretty important person, who will be doing much of the work. I suspect that he will go through the accounts with his accountancy staff. It will not be a case of the commissioners going through the accounts, but the staff. We ought to consider that point.
My final point is one that I should already have made. I refer to the Neill committee's recommendations on the membership of the electoral commission. The report states that the commission should not follow the path of the US Federal Election Commission. The report further states,
"nevertheless, the individual members of the Commission should be acceptable to the leaders of the main parties, who should be consulted in the course of their appointment".
Will that recommendation be followed, as I do not think that it appears on the face of the Bill? Have the Government adopted that recommendation of the Neill committee?
I wonder whether the Government Chief Whip put his foot in it by making the comments that he did from the Front Bench a few moments ago. He asserted that there were Members of the Cross Benches in this Chamber who were members of political parties. Within the past year or two I have heard it said that there has been a tendency for the Labour Party to introduce supporters of that party as new Members of this Chamber under the guise of Cross-Benchers. I always imagined that Members of the Cross Benches were not members of political parties. However, now the Chief Whip asserts that they may be. There is a convention in another place that Chief Whips are seen but not heard. The Government Chief Whip may regret having made that Freudian slip and having let the cat out of the bag.
That is extremely unworthy of the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, appears to assume that Members of the Cross Benches are not members of a political party outside the Chamber. I said that that did not follow. I should not be surprised to discover--I do not know what the position is--that some Members of the Cross Benches are members of political parties but choose not to join a party grouping in this Chamber. That was all I was saying. I understood the noble Lord to imply that Members of the Cross Benches are automatically not members of a political party. I do not think that is the case. I have not let any cats out of any bags; I am simply saying that we do not know what the position is. However, as I say, I should be surprised if there are not some members of some political parties on the Cross Benches. That is all I am saying.
I shudder to consider that I should come between Members of this Chamber in a debate on whether Cross-Benchers do or do not receive a formal or informal party Whip or have a party political affiliation. I am interested in and amused by the debate but it is not one that I intend to be drawn into.
I shall try to respond to the point about donors and political levy payers. If I do not cover all aspects of the matter, I shall write to those who raised this issue. My understanding is that levy payers would not be affected by the measure we are discussing. Neither do I believe that low level donors would be affected in the way that has been suggested. I do not believe that they would necessarily be considered to be active in the political process. Many people are levy payers. They may not even realise that they are levy payers. That may be a matter of regret to some but it is the case. I believe that we can leave that matter on one side.
I have listened carefully to the debate which, as I said earlier, I believe has been useful. I am happy to continue to listen and to receive further representations on some of the important issues we have discussed. I shall endeavour to take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, with regard to the chief executive having a party affiliation. I take note of the noble Lord's concerns. However, I believe that in the real world many chief executives or leading civil servants may have undeclared party memberships; they are sleeping members, if you like. Who are we to say that they should cease to hold that party membership? Towards the end of the 1980s there was much discussion on this subject and members of the party opposite tried to prevent people who worked in local government having a party political affiliation. Concerns were expressed at that time that to move in that direction would infringe human rights. I certainly shared that concern and expressed it at that time.
This has been an interesting debate. As I said, I am happy to receive further representations on this matter. I hope that the Committee will endorse the Government's amendments.
I do not think that the noble Lord answered my point about the Neill committee's recommendation that appointments to the commission should be made with the agreement of the leaders of the main parties. I read out the recommendation in the report which stated that those appointments should be acceptable to the leaders of the main parties.
As far as I am able to give an undertaking, it is an important recommendation and I shall give it further consideration; we have not ruled it out. I shall be happy to clarify the matter later if the noble Lord is content with that.
In moving Amendment No. 6, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 8 and 24.
The amendments concern an important point of principle. The committee will find Schedule 1 to the Bill on page 98. Paragraph 3 of the Schedule deals with the term of office of the electoral commissioners, and paragraph 5 relates to their salaries and allowances. Sub-paragraph (5) of paragraph 3 states:
On page 99, paragraph 5(1) states:
"as may be specified by a resolution of the House of Commons".
Amendment No. 24 relates to Clause 3(1) of the Bill, which states:
"The powers of Her Majesty under section 1(4) and (5) shall be exercisable on an Address from the House of Commons".
The Bill puts all those powers in another place. There is no reference to Parliament as a whole; there is no reference to your Lordships' House. We think that is wrong.
Referendums, elections and political parties are important matters, and this Bill covers both Houses. It is extraordinary that the Government would want to exclude your Lordships' House from having the opportunity for this order to be presented to it. In effect, the Bill states that your Lordships are not allowed to have a view on this issue; that it is purely a matter for the other place; that it is really nothing to do with this House.
This Bill is very important. It concerns the constitution of this country. This House has traditionally been the guardian of the constitution of this country. Excluding it from taking affirmative action on this issue in the same way as another place is quite wrong. Not only is it wrong, but we find it surprising that the Government should do so.
We regard this matter with the utmost seriousness. I hope that the Minister will consider the issue carefully and give a favourable reply. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Lord explained, Amendments Nos. 6 and 24, require that the power to appoint and remove members of the commission would be exercisable only on an Address from both Houses of Parliament as opposed to the House of Commons only, as the Bill presently provides. He makes a case for amending the Bill in that way and prays in aid the important role that this House has in our constitutional arrangements. I understand the argument but I am not entirely in agreement with it.
Similarly, Amendment No. 8 would require the remuneration of electoral commissioners to be approved by an Address of both Houses. The existing provisions are modelled on those for the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General. There is good reason for regarding the appointment of electoral commissioners as also being a matter to be dealt with in another place.
Just a few moments ago, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made the point that there should be consultation between the leaders of the political parties on appointments to the commission. That is very important and very telling. Such leaders are, of course, drawn from the membership of another place.
The key purpose of the arrangements for appointment is to ensure that those appointed have the confidence of the chief participants in the electoral process; namely, the main political parties. Clause 3(2) accordingly requires that the leaders of those political parties be consulted before a motion for an Address is brought forward. If it is right, as I believe it is, that the consultative process should focus upon the parties represented in the elected chamber, it follows that the formal business of moving an Address should be dealt with there too. That is a very important point of principle. Given the functions of the electoral commission, it would be difficult to justify a similar role for your Lordships' House.
With those thoughts in mind, I hope that the noble Viscount will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I am not very happy with the Ministers reply for a number of reasons. He gave a comparison with the Comptroller and Auditor General. That is an entirely wrong comparison because the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General relates to finance. He deals with matters which are purely to do with the other place; they are not matters which come under the remit of your Lordships' House. This Bill comes under the remit of both Houses.
The Minister described the consultation in another place on such issues, but that also is an irrelevant argument. We are not talking about political parties but about an order made to Parliament. We are saying that it should be made to both Houses of Parliament, not only the one. That is quite wrong.
I am sorry that the Minister is not prepared to consider the arguments I have put forward. With that in mind, I shall seek leave to test the opinion of the Committee.
moved Amendment No. 7:
Page 98, line 39, at end insert--
("( ) An Electoral Commissioner may be relieved of his office by Her Majesty at his own request.
( ) In this paragraph "registered party" includes, in relation to times before the appointed day for the purposes of Part II of this Act, a party registered under the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998.")
moved Amendments Nos. 9 to 16.
Page 99, line 34, leave out ("sub-paragraph (2)") and insert ("sub-paragraphs (1A) and (2)").
Page 99, line 36, leave out from beginning to ("are") in line 38 and insert--
("(1A) A Deputy Electoral Commissioner shall cease to hold office on the occurrence of such an event as is mentioned in any of paragraphs (a) to (d) of paragraph 3(3).
(2) A Deputy Electoral Commissioner may be removed from office by the Commission, but only if they").
Page 100, line 13, at end insert--
("( ) A person may not be appointed as an Assistant Electoral Commissioner if he is a person who (by virtue of section 3(3A)) may not be appointed as an Electoral Commissioner.").
Page 100, line 17, at beginning insert ("(subject to sub-paragraph (2A))").
Page 100, line 17, at end insert--
("(2A) An Assistant Electoral Commissioner shall cease to hold office on the occurrence of such an event as is mentioned in any of paragraphs (a) to (d) of paragraph 3(3).").
Page 101, line 5, at end insert--
("( ) A person may not be appointed as chief executive or other member of the staff of the Commission if he is a person who (by virtue of section 3(3A)(b) to (d)) may not be appointed as an Electoral Commissioner.").
Page 101, line 6, at beginning insert ("Subject to sub-paragraph (2A),").
Page 101, line 8, at end insert--
("(2A) The appointment of any member of the staff of the Commission shall terminate on the occurrence of such an event as is mentioned in any of paragraphs (a) to (c) of paragraph 3(3).").
Government Amendment No. 17 is a minor technical amendment. Paragraph 4(4) of Schedule 1 would presently add the electoral commission to the list of other bodies contained in Schedule 1 to the Superannuation Act 1972. It would be more appropriate for the commission to be included in the list of Royal Commissions and other commissions included in that schedule. Amendment No. 17 makes this minor change. I beg to move.
I was going to nod the amendment through, but I should like to ask a simple question. I presume that this matter involves the superannuation of the staff and not the commissioners or the deputy commissioners. I assume that I am right about that. I am getting more confirmation than the Government Front Bench is getting, but I should be grateful for a yes or a no.
The government amendments in this group fulfil commitments given during the Report stage of the Bill in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in response to similar amendments tabled by the Opposition Front Bench. The amendments relate to the electoral commission's functions in respect of local government boundaries and local government elections in Scotland. These are of course devolved matters under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998. As such, it is properly a matter for the Scottish Executive and Parliament to decide whether these functions should be conferred on the electoral commission.
Amendment No. 54 inserts a new clause after Clause 17. Noble Lords will have spotted that this new clause is in similar terms to Clauses 17 and 18. Those clauses empower the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Welsh Assembly respectively to transfer, by order, the functions of the Local Government Boundary Commissions in England and Wales to the electoral commission. The new clause confers on Scottish Ministers parallel powers to transfer to the commission the functions of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland.
We see considerable benefits in one body being responsible for the review of all electoral boundaries. The merger of the functions of the Parliamentary and Local Government Boundary Commissions, under the aegis of the electoral commission, will lead to improved efficiency and greater effectiveness and coherence in the review of all boundaries, from ward level up to Westminster constituencies. It is right and proper that the decision to transfer these functions should rest with the responsible body in each case.
The amendments to Clauses 9, 12 and 135 similarly empower Scottish Ministers to confer on the electoral commission the functions specified in each of those clauses as they relate to local government elections in Scotland. I should add that all the order-making powers conferred on Scottish Ministers by these amendments are subject to the equivalent to the negative resolution procedure, thereby allowing the Scottish Parliament to have the final say.
Finally, government Amendment No. 19 makes a consequential change to Schedule 1. The amendment provides that any expenditure incurred by the commission in discharging any functions conferred on it by Scottish Ministers shall be reimbursed by the Scottish Executive.
Perhaps I may turn to the amendments standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. They have much the same theme as the government amendments, but despite that they are not ones that I can invite the Committee to support. As I have explained in the context of the government amendments, under the terms of the devolution settlement it is properly a matter for the devolved legislatures to determine the extent to which, if at all, functions in respect of devolved matters should be conferred on the electoral commission.
The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly may wish to invite the commission to review the conduct of referendums held on devolved matters. Similarly, Scottish Ministers may wish to consult the commission before making rules in respect of local government elections in Scotland. But in each case the decision must rest with the devolved administrations or legislatures, as appropriate. Clause 9 provides the mechanism by which the advice and assistance of the commission may be sought on such matters. But the important point here is that the initiative should come not from the commission but from the devolved administrations. Given the provisions of Clause 9, I would urge the noble Lord not to pursue his amendments and to support the government amendments.
I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the government amendments. He will appreciate that my amendments were tabled before his. My intention in tabling them was to hold a space so that I could raise the issue of Scotland and why Scotland appeared to be excluded when there were clauses in the Bill for Wales and a clause in the Bill for Northern Ireland.
As the Minister said, the amendments concern the Local Government Boundary Commission. Thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, we have already had a brief discussion about the merits of these matters all being brought under the same umbrella. I came to the Committee armed with the report of the noble Lord, Lord Neill. It states that,
"the Election Commission should have UK-wide authority especially since all aspects of election law (save for local government elections) are to be reserved for the UK Parliament and under devolution legislation".
The report goes on to recognise the importance of the commission being involved in electoral matters in all parts of the United Kingdom. We have already discussed that point, although the Committee has not agreed with me.
One point slightly puzzles me. It might have been tidier if the Scottish Parliament had been asked to decide this issue a few weeks ago. The Bill could then have been constructed on the basis that the electoral commission would deal with the matter. The Bill proposes instead that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly can make the decision at some time in the future. It might have been tidier and more sensible to ask them to debate the matter before the Bill started its progress through Parliament or even before it reached your Lordships' House. We could then have had a substantive clause making the issue clear. However, I am content with the way the provision is put. I cannot believe that the Scottish Parliament will do anything other than ask the electoral commission to take over this responsibility. I cannot believe that the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly will do other than ask the electoral commission to do the same.
I think it is a pity that we did not clear the ground so that we could have incorporated the matter properly in the Bill rather than in the way the Minister has proposed. However, I am content with the amendments. I hope, and rather assume, that the Scottish Parliament will do what is suggested and take advantage of the electoral commission to deal with local government issues as well. I am content with the Minister's amendments. I shall not move mine, which were tabled to allow me to probe, "Why not Scotland?"
moved Amendment No. 20:
Page 2, leave out lines 9 to 34 and insert--
("(a) the member of the House of Commons who is Leader of the House;
(b) a member of the House proposed by the Leader of the Opposition;
(c) six Members of the House of Commons who are not Ministers of the Crown;
(2) The members of the Committee mentioned in subsection (2)(c) shall be appointed to membership of the Committee by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
(3) Schedule 2, which makes further provision in relation to the Speaker's Committee, shall have effect.").
I am not sure whether I can move the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lamont. Unfortunately, he is not able to be present and asked me whether I would move it in his stead. It is grouped with my amendment and the amendments all address the same issue. Therefore, I am sure that my speech will cover what my noble friend was going to say.
We now come to the question of the Speaker's Committee. Perhaps the Minister will explain when he comes to reply the role envisaged for the Speaker's Committee. I initially put down an amendment to oppose Clause 2 standing part of the Bill. I did that largely to have a discussion about the Speaker's Committee and what role it will play and what will be its relationship with the electoral commission. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response on that.
My amendment and the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lamont deal with the question of the composition of the committee. As the Bill stands, one member is to be the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. I am not sure whether that position is currently held by a member of the governing party or whether that committee is one which is always chaired by a member of the governing party. Another member is to be the Secretary of State for the Home Department, who would clearly be a member of the governing party. Another member is to be,
He would be a member of the governing party. So we are possibly at three. Another five members are to be Members of the House of Commons who are not Ministers of the Crown. All five, or four, or three could be members of the governing party, this giving the governing party an overall majority on the Speaker's Committee.
No doubt the Minister will tell me that nothing is further from the Government's mind. I, of course, would believe him. But we are not legislating just for this Government. We are legislating for something that will be here for a while. I have suggested that when we come to the five Members of the House of Commons who are not Ministers of the Crown, we should add the words,
"at least four of whom must not be members of the governing party or parties".
The reason I have added "parties" is that at some time in the future--one never knows--we may follow the example of the Scottish Parliament (although perhaps after seeing it work no one will follow its example) and have a coalition down the corridor. So two of the political parties may form the government. In that case, I should certainly want the four members to be drawn from the other parties, those that do not form the governing party or parties.
My noble friend's amendment is more specific. He prefers to specify a different set of people: the Leader of the House of Commons, someone who is proposed by the Opposition, and six Members who are not Ministers, to be appointed by the speaker. My noble friend is obviously less suspicious than I am because he does not include the qualification that I propose. Dare I say in his absence that I believe that my amendment is superior?
I believe that I have explained the amendment perfectly well and my remarks are made to some extent for the record. I understand that the Speaker of the House of Commons has made her position clear. Much as I can appreciate that, my problem is that, redoubtable as she undoubtedly is, she will not be Speaker for ever. Therefore, I believe that this provision would be better in statute rather than depending on the ruling of the current order of the Speaker's office. Hence I believe that my amendment is preferable to that of my noble friend and I look forward to hearing the Minister accept it. I beg to move.
The noble Lord has spoken to what he described as a superior amendment--he is very good at moving superior amendments; he has a great deal of experience of doing so. The solution is readily to hand. The answer is not to accept either amendment, and I shall explain why.
It is the Government's firm intention that the electoral commission should be as independent of the government of the day as our constitutional arrangements will allow. We certainly have no desire--and I should like this to be placed clearly on record--to use the arrangements for setting the commission's budget and approving its five-year plan--that is the role of the Speaker's Committee--to assert governmental control over the commission's activities. That is not our intention at all. The Government have, in that spirit, accepted the proposal made by the Opposition in another place that the Speaker's Committee will be chaired by the Speaker. Great credit has been heaped on the Speaker for her independence and her robust and forthright manner. That is a tradition of the holder of that office.
Amendment No. 21 would require that of the five non ex-officio members of the Speaker's committee at least four should be drawn from parties other than the party or parties of government. The intention is to ensure a balanced committee. That is a laudable objective. The amendment would not, however, necessarily guarantee a balanced committee. The mathematics would be upset in the unlikely event that the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee were not a member of the governing party.
The Government's view is that the appointment of members of the committee, other than those who are members by virtue of their office, should be a matter entirely for the Speaker to determine. The Bill does not require that the Speaker exercise the power of appointment so as to produce a committee which reflects the balance of parties in another place. That is an important point. On the contrary, the Speaker has already indicated that she intends to appoint one government Back-Bencher, three members from the main opposition party and one member from another opposition party. The committee will, as a result, be perfectly balanced. I hope that in the light of the Speaker's clearly stated intentions the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his "superior" amendment.
In approving the commission's budget and long-term objectives, the Speaker's Committee will have strategic oversight of the commission's activities. It seems perfectly sensible that those with responsibility for law and policy in these areas should have a role to play on the committee. That is why the Bill provides for the Home Secretary and the Minister for Local Government to be members of the committee as well as the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. It is not a question of asserting government control, but a matter of ensuring, importantly, that those with relevant knowledge and responsibilities are able to bring them to bear on the committee's deliberations. The effect of Amendments Nos. 20 and 22 would be to lose that element of the Government's proposals and a degree of accountability.
Finally, Amendment No. 23 concerns what happens if the Speaker is absent and unable to chair the committee. The Bill simply provides that the committee should appoint one of its number to fill the breach. Amendment No. 23 would require the committee to appoint a Deputy Speaker of the House to do so. I can see that in the absence of the Speaker it may be desirable that her place is taken by someone who is similarly neutral. On the other hand, Members of the Committee may consider that it is equally desirable that the committee is presided over by someone who is familiar with its business and its rationale. For that reason, I should prefer to retain the existing provision.
The noble Lord, with his usual wit, commended his "superior" amendment. I hope that in his genuinely superior way he will feel able to be persuaded by my comments and in a sense the government commitment to make sure that the committee is constituted in the way it is and is balanced and helps to ensure that those with the right expertise are on the committee. I invite him to withdraw his amendments.
I yield to no one in my admiration for the present Speaker of the other place, having worked directly under her as a Deputy Speaker in the other place in the previous Parliament. However, the principle remains valid that this provision will remain on the statute book beyond the period of time of the present Speaker. Therefore, it would be more prudent to have on the face of the Bill an absolute guarantee that there would be a proper balance. For that reason, I warmly support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Mackay. I urge the Minister to think again about this point of principle.
I am not certain that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, will be fully satisfied with the explanations that he has received from the Minister. I am not complaining, but I get an uneasy feeling that much of this design is based on personalities as we know them. It is not certain that that happy relationship will exist in three to five years' time.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I should welcome--perhaps not this evening but on some future occasion--a clearer explanation as to what exactly the committee will do and what its exact relationship will be with the commission. The outline is there, but I am afraid that before we can be entirely satisfied we should like a further explanation.
The Minister may want to respond to those points after her has heard what I have to say. I am trying to find out whether the Neill committee advocated a Speaker's Committee. Perhaps I may put that question to the Minister.
If the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, were present, she might say that if we need a committee of politicians to give a strategic oversight and look after the budgetary requirements, that removes some of the political neutrality argued by the Minister when we discussed the members of the electoral commission. His noble friend asked him whether there was not some sense in having some people who had at least been involved in politics and who might therefore be expected to know a little about the way in which elections and political parties work. Quoting my honourable friends in the other place, the noble Lord was rightly determined to stand with them against that proposition, and I understood his argument.
Regarding the Speaker's Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, said, I do not think that I received a very good answer as to exactly what it would do. "Strategic oversight" could be construed as doing a bit of checking to see how it is working. If seven politicians are to sit down to decide whether or not it is working, one begins to introduce politics into it, which is what one seeks to avoid.
I can understand that it should look after the budget. I certainly do not want the Treasury to do that. The Treasury would probably try to keep the budget as low as possible and tell the body to make 10 per cent cuts, or whatever, and justify every move that it made. That would be even worse--dare I suggest--than political control. I am content that a properly balanced Speaker's committee should look at the budget, but I remain a wee bit uneasy about "strategic oversight".
As to my amendment, I accept that in certain circumstances if the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee is a member of the Opposition there will not be a balance. Like my noble friend Lady Fookes, I accept absolutely the assurances of the Speaker about the composition of the committee. However, she will not be Speaker for ever. While that is fine as a start, I believe that the Government should contemplate how the Speaker's ruling can be put on a statutory basis. There are possible ways to do it. I do not want to write an amendment on my feet. However, if the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee is not a member of the governing party, or parties, there will be one less additional member from the opposition parties. I do not believe that it is beyond anyone's wit to draft an amendment to deal with this, and I suspect that it will not be beyond mine when we come to Report stage. I intend to withdraw the amendment.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, for inviting me to make further reference at a later stage to the role and purpose of the Speaker's Committee. I am content to set out in greater detail exactly how we see that working, but it is a matter for further discussion. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, asked about the Speaker's Committee in relation to the report of the Neill committee. Lord Neill's committee makes the case for the Speaker's committee in the following terms:
"11.11 One of the main prerequisites of the independence of the Commission would be its independence of budget. A body whose budget was determined through a government department and which consequently had to fight for resources against competing priorities in government could never be perceived as truly independent. We therefore believe it is essential that a mechanism should be developed for setting the Commission's budget which stresses the Commission's independence while at the same time"--
I believe this to be the critical point--
"retaining a degree of accountability to Parliament for the proper expenditure of public funds".
The report goes on to suggest that one possible model is the mechanism to set the budget of the National Audit Office. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, the NAO's budget is approved by the Public Accounts Commission, which is established by Section 2 of the National Audit Act 1983. That is what we seek to mirror by creating a Speaker's Committee, and we hope that that proposal meets with the Committee's approval.
I take the point about the importance of balance which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. The Government believe that the preferred model set out in the amendments that have been tabled could lead to a situation in which there was an imbalance. However, in setting up the commission and seeking to establish a mechanism for further parliamentary accountability we must proceed on the basis of trust. Surely, the declaration of the Speaker is one to which we can all sign up. While we cannot fetter the discretion of future governments--that is neither possible nor right--there should be an acceptance by the parties that this is the way in which it should proceed in future. It would be unfortunate if we were forced to place that on the face of the legislation.
I shall reflect carefully on what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has said. Without commitment, I shall give the matter further thought. At the moment we are content with the way in which the Speaker has conducted the matter and set out her views about the future. I am pleased to note that at least this evening the noble Lord is prepared to withdraw his amendment.
moved Amendments Nos. 25 and 26:
Page 2, line 46, at end insert--
("(3A) A person may not be appointed as an Electoral Commissioner if the person--
(a) is a member of a registered party;
(b) is an officer of a registered party or of any accounting unit of such a party;
(c) holds a relevant elective office (within the meaning of Schedule 6); or
(d) has at any time within the last ten years--
(i) been such an officer as is mentioned in paragraph (b), or
(ii) held such an office as is mentioned in paragraph (c), or
Page 3, line 9, leave out subsection (6) and insert--
("(6) In this section "registered party"--
(b) in subsection (3)(b) also includes (in relation to times before 1st April 1999) any political party.").
Amendment No. 29 seeks to add to Clause 5 of the Bill one matter that the commission must keep under review and report upon to the Secretary of State. This matter has been the subject of discussion and a degree of consensus among the political parties but nothing has ever happened. I refer to the age at which an individual is eligible to stand for election. Recognition of the fact that 18 is the age at which people have the right to vote and to do virtually everything else, with the possible exception of matters such as adoption--in that case, I believe that a person must be 21--is long overdue. By and large, it is accepted that 18 is the age at which people are responsible. Therefore, a person of that age is entitled to be a representative.
The fourth report of the Home Affairs Select Committee was debated on 7th December 1998 when I drew the House's attention to this matter. I do not rehearse all the arguments then raised, but for those noble Lords who were not present at the time I refer to paragraph 123 of the report of the Select Committee:
"Professor Blackburn suggested the minimum age should be reduced to 18 (the minimum voting age) since there was no sound reason to distinguish between the maturity required to have a vote and the maturity required to represent the electorate in the Commons ... This view was supported by the spokesmen for the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties".
The Conservative Party did not take a strong stand against it either. A personal view was expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson. Surprisingly, the committee said that there was an argument for reducing the age of candidates to 18 but on balance did not recommend the change.
The commission needs to keep this matter under review as a matter of urgency. There is perhaps greater urgency in the field of local government, where so many services are provided to young people; for example, those still in education and those in temporary housing. Young people are those on whom the New Deal is focused. People aged 18 to 24 have a particular perspective on the world which I believe deserves a voice. By the age of 30 many people are car owners. They are in permanent homes. They often have a stable job and a young family. I contend that there is a greater difference between those aged 18 and 30 than between 30 and 55. If their birthday falls in the wrong place, the effect of the law as it stands is to exclude people often until their middle 20s
It is urgent for the commission to keep the issue under review. Although I am concerned particularly with the younger age limit, it should keep under review all issues as regards age. This may be an era in which anti-ageing genes mean that an upper age limit is not applicable. On the other hand, if more people, sadly, develop Alzheimer's the age limit may need to be reduced. The commission should consider and report on both ends of the spectrum. The political parties should not pay mere lip service to the wish to hear younger representatives taking part in decision-making rather than acting as observers. We encourage them to take part in political debate but do not allow them to do so in their own right. I beg to move.
I support the amendment. I have never seen the point of having a democracy in which one limits the qualifications of the people whom one elects--apart from fairly obvious limitations on people who are in prison, and so on.
There are strong reasons for limiting the qualifications of those who elect: they should have a certain maturity. Having done that, one has established the fact that one has a democracy whose electorate is capable of choice. That choice may be wrong but, if necessary, it should be allowed to choose wrongly.
Noble Lords will remember that considerable efforts were expended in seeking to limit the residential qualifications of people who were elected to various councils. I always thought that that was a very bad thing too. We should give the widest possible scope to those who wish to stand for election and are allowed to do so, while limiting the qualifications of those who elect.
I, too, have tremendous sympathy with the amendment. I am a longstanding supporter of reducing the qualifying age for election to 18.
I shall not rehearse all the arguments. We have heard several already. Perhaps I may call attention to a detailed article in the journal, Public Law, in 1980. The most powerful argument is the one put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley: because it extends voter choice. As a general rule, electors should be free to elect whoever they want. It is their responsibility. It is not for us to impose restrictions on them. That is a powerful case.
The arguments are different from those employed for lowering the voting age. The two do not have to be the same. If one has a differential age, it is more logical to have a higher age for voting than for standing for election to public office.
I have tremendous sympathy for the motivation underlying the amendment. I have a problem with the amendment because I am not sure that it is the best way to achieve that goal. I am not sure that the commission should consider the issue. We should grasp the nettle and bring forward a Bill to reduce the qualifying age for standing for election. We have rehearsed the arguments. I should like to see the age limit reduced rather than pass the responsibility to the commission to review the issue. Indeed, I have toyed with the idea of bringing forward a Private Member's Bill on the subject.
I welcome the amendment as a way of putting the issue on the agenda. The noble Baroness has raised the issue previously in this Chamber. I look forward, therefore, to the Government's response on the matter.
I took part in the debate in December 1998 when we discussed whether the age for standing for election should be lowered. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn--he answered for the Home Office--and I were in perfect agreement on the subject: we did not think that it was a good idea.
I am intrigued that my noble friend said one should be able to stand for office at an earlier age and vote at an older age. I do not understand his logic.
I shall endeavour to enlighten my noble friend. The criteria on which the argument is based are completely different. With the voting age one is giving the power to all. One is saying, "You are able to exercise that vote however mature or not you are". It is a universal application. As regards standing for election, the electors make the choice. One is talking about two completely separate matters.
I knew that I should never have asked the question of my noble friend! I am extremely grateful for his answer. It explains why he is an academic and I am not.
I have a more serious objection in principle. For a number of years we have been encouraging further education. There are forums within university systems for people to play a part in political life. I do not think that those in further education should be encouraged to rush off to stand as councillors, MPs, and so on. We should be sending the wrong message. The idea of an 18 year-old suddenly wanting to become an MP almost fills me with horror. Perhaps someone who wants to do so at 18 should be disbarred for a number of years on principle!
He may have done, but he was over 21 when he became an MP. We all want to play a part in politics. The Liberal Democrats have always wanted to encourage the young. Perhaps they think that they can grab people when they are young and innocent. It is not too cynical to say that some of the major parties have thought, "Well, when they grow up at 21 they will join a proper party". However, I do not wish to continue too far on that theme!
There are serious issues to be considered about the age at which we want people to take part in events at political levels. That is not necessarily a matter for the commission but for Parliament. Therefore we on these Benches cannot support the noble Baroness.
First, I congratulate the noble Baroness on having so skilfully got this matter on to the agenda today. We have had a fascinating debate. I also congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, more for his bravery than his wisdom, I think, in taking on the various parties in this House.
I shall not be particularly brave. Indeed, I do not intend to speak as to the merits or otherwise of the arguments that the noble Baroness put forward so skilfully, aided and abetted by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and others. I shall address myself to the question whether the words of the amendment should be added to Clause 5. The Neill committee recommended that the electoral commission should have the duty to advise the Government on the modernisation and revision of electoral law. It will be one of its most important functions, I venture to suggest. Clause 5 gives effect to that recommendation and places the commission under a duty to keep various matters under review and from time to time to report to the Secretary of State.
Amendment No. 29 would add to that list the age at which people stand for election. It is clearly right that this is a matter to which the commission's remit should extend. However, we believe that Clause 5 as drafted already covers that. Subsection (1)(a) provides that the commission shall keep under review, and from time to time report to the Secretary of State on:
"such matters relating to elections to which this section applies as the Commission may determine from time to time".
That would--and I hope that the noble Baroness will listen carefully to the words I am about to use--certainly include the age at which people stand for election. However, it would be for the commission to decide whether the issue required its attention.
I also draw attention to subsection (1)(g), which invites the commission to keep under review and to report on if it wishes the law relating to the matters mentioned in each of the paragraphs (a) to (f). That is clearly relevant in this context.
We do not believe that it is desirable to make separate provision for each and every possible matter relating to elections that the commission should be able to address. It would be a very long list indeed.
Therefore, while expressing no views on the merits of the case that the noble Baroness argued, I invite her to withdraw her amendment on the basis that it is not necessary.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I feel somewhat reassured by the fact that the commission should include in its remit the question of age. However, I would have felt more reassured if the provision had been placed on the face of the Bill. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, I believe that this is an important matter. The noble Lord believed that a Bill was merited rather than the commission choosing to consider the issue at some long time in the future.
The Conservatives' position on the issue does not surprise me. Their belief that standing for election is detrimental to the education of people in further education is not an argument. Many of the people not in further education after 18 are probably the greater users of local government services. I do not believe that age necessarily equals wisdom or the ability to be a good local or national representative.
However, I am grateful for the Minister's reassurances and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
This may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn. I suggest that the Committee stage should begin again at 8.30 p.m.
Clause 5 provides for the electoral commission to keep under review and report on various electoral and political matters, including the regulation of the income and expenditure of political parties. Subsection (3) excludes for the scope of such reviews certain devolved matters, including the funding of political parties under Section 97 of the Scotland Act which is the Scottish equivalent of Short or Cranborne money.
The funding of political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly is also a devolved matter and we therefore need to add such funding arrangements to the list of excepted matters in Clause 5(3). Amendment No. 30 aims to do just that. It would clearly be inappropriate for a public body operating in a reserved area to encroach into matters devolved to either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh or Northern Ireland assemblies. However, while the commission will not be able to review Northern Ireland Short money on its own initiative, it will be open to the commission to advise on such matters as the request of the Northern Ireland Assembly in accordance with the provision of Clause 9.
Amendment No. 322 to Schedule 20 covers similar territory. Paragraph 12 of that schedule amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in order to clearly establish that the whole subject matter of this Bill, with the exception of Part IX, is an excepted matter. The amendment serves to ensure that the arrangements for the funding of political parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly are not thereby treated as an excepted matter. I beg to move.
I believe I understand what the Minister has just said. Am I right in believing that the Short money at the other end and the Cranborne money, as it is called, here are outwith the compass of the electoral commission? We are excluding Northern Ireland and Scotland. Are we excluding Wales as well? Do we not have the equivalent of Short money in Wales? Perhaps more importantly, does the provision cover the Short money paid to the other place and to the opposition parties in your Lordships' House? That money is important for the funding of opposition parties. As the name suggests, it was started by the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, when he was Ted Short. I suspect that at the time he was Leader of the House of Commons. My noble friend Lord Cranborne introduced the provision in order to help the then Labour Opposition. I hope that they were deeply grateful. It is very important to the smooth running of the opposition parties not only in your Lordships' House but in the other place. I hope that the Minister is able to answer my question.
It is important to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, on that point because initially there was great confusion when the Northern Ireland Assembly was established. There was some idea that it would be a beneficiary of what we colloquially call Short money. Like some others present, I was involved in the negotiations at the time of the Wilson government in bringing that about.
It appeared even this morning that a Northern Ireland Executive would be established. I understand now that the order has been withdrawn as has the Bill on policing. I believe that there has been some very serious hitch. It may be that while we had expectations this morning that everything would be back on the rails by the 22nd of this month, that now looks very doubtful. Irrespective of that, I support and welcome the noble Lord's Amendments Nos. 30 and 322 although some of the clauses to which they are linked might require further examination. I know that my noble friend Lord Rogan has given careful study to those detailed matters.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, asks a perfectly simple question. I am afraid that this is one of those occasions when I cannot provide him with a perfectly simple response. I am happy to undertake to write to him. In passing, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, for his support for these amendments. I hope that the Short money which is facilitated by the amendments does wonders for the political process in Northern Ireland which clearly needs as much encouragement as possible.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 not moved.]
Clause 5, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 6 [Commission to be consulted on changes to electoral law]:
[Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 not moved.]
Clause 6 agreed to.
Clause 7 agreed to.
Clause 8 [Involvement of Commission in changes in electoral procedures]:
Clause 8 deals with the involvement of the commission in changes to the electoral procedures. We touched on this at Question Time today. It harks back to the Representation of the People Act which we passed earlier in the year. It deals with experiments conducted by various local authorities last week in local government elections in order to try to find ways to encourage more people to vote. When we were debating the Representation of the People Bill the Minister made it perfectly clear--and we agreed with him--that when the electoral commission was set up it should have a role to play in these experiments. This amendment fulfils the promise that the noble Lord made during discussion of the Representation of the People Bill.
However, I am querying why subsection (1)(a) of the clause uses the word "may". It states,
"The Commission may participate with any relevant local authority".
I believe that it should be an obligation both on the commission and on the local authority to involve each other. I am not necessarily saying that the commission should trigger an experiment although there may be circumstances in which it would be right for it to do so or perhaps say to an authority interested in experimenting, "We believe that it would be really useful if you did such and such an experiment rather than another experiment." It is clear from the experiments conducted last week that that old Scottish verdict of not proven is about the kindest thing one can say. I suspect that in some cases we can probably say, "Proven and really of no great effect at all." Let us consider, for example, the question of early voting. The expense which the authorities must have undertaken in order to open polling stations, if my recollection is right, in London almost a whole week before the poll seems to me to be out of all proportion to the results.
I have some figures which have been supplied, I believe, courtesy of the BBC website. They are not definite--there is a health warning on them--but I believe that they are a fair indication of what happened. In Blackburn, for example, early voting produced votes from 1.45 per cent of the electorate. In Chester, the figure was 1.8 per cent; in Coventry, 1.5 per cent; in Kingston-upon-Hull, approximately 1 per cent; Knowsley, interestingly enough, managed to attain 4.46 per cent; and Norwich, 3.17 per cent. The others were pretty low. Watford attained 3.5 or 4 per cent. However, the turnout in Watford, where a lot of experiments were conducted, was disastrously low.
I believe that I can remember saying to the Government that they should allow only one experiment in one place because they would never be able to work out which experiment had caused the hoped-for increase. I do not know what conclusion one can reach in respect of Watford. I am to some extent arguing against one of my arguments on a previous occasion--one must show fairness and balance in these matters--but I believe that Watford was one place which had a freepost. Yet I believe that the poll there was quite significantly down.
In London boroughs the result from early voting was the same. The Corporation of London achieved the best results: it managed 4.2 per cent. However, that is not a lot; it accounts for only 232 people. I suppose that it is the one place where one might have found people who were not present on polling day and who found it convenient to vote early. One wonders how many of those votes went to Mr Livingstone, given his view of the City.
The voting figures for all the London boroughs at which I am looking were very low. Newham achieved 2.2 per cent, and I believe that that is the highest figure. The rest achieved around 1 per cent: for example, 0.73 per cent at Westminster--a very low figure indeed. With figures as insignificant as those, I believe that one must conclude that the experiment with early voting has probably proved that it has no effect at all on the total turnout. I believe that the conclusion about early voting must be that it is an experiment that can now be put back into its pigeon-hole.
I do not know about some of the other experiments that took place, but I have some figures on postal voting. As we said at Question Time today, there is no doubt that postal voting has led to an increase. The increased entitlement to postal voting certainly increased the number of applications in Amber Valley, Eastleigh, Gloucester and Milton Keynes. However, one must question how many were returned. I believe that we shall know eventually, but I do not know from this piece of paper. The areas with an all-postal vote certainly registered an increase in turn-out. There is absolutely no doubt about that.
As I mentioned to the noble Lord at Question Time, with regard to all-postal voting I believe that one would also have to look very carefully at the level of honesty, or, rather, dishonesty, that takes place. I believe that easy postal voting is very good, but I also believe that it is open to much abuse. It would be a very moral and upright person who, having received a postal vote while his wife and son had gone on holiday (this is rather sexist) leaving the poor man at home to work, did not decide to register his wife's and son's vote at the same time as his own. That would not be at all right, but it might not be so bad if they were all intending to vote for the same party. However, one never knows in these matters.
The temptation for people to use a vote that has come into their house, even though it is not theirs, is quite high. I suspect that we shall have to consider that issue. I do not know how one investigates such a situation because, it has to be said, nobody will own up to acting in that way. As the noble Lord admitted when we discussed the Representation of the People Bill, it is pretty well impossible to ascertain how much fraud goes on unless people vote in place of someone who turns out to be dead or to have left the country. I live in the constituency of Glasgow Govan where, certainly, a fair degree of dubious tactics take place.
The point that I make is that those experiments are important. The Government rightly attached importance to them because even the improvement from postal ballots did not achieve one result (he said looking quickly!) above the 40 per cent level of turn-out. Therefore, the experiment was not startlingly successful, but anything that we do to try to improve turn-out must meet with our approval.
That is where I believe that the electoral commission is so important. It must work alongside authorities when they carry out those experiments. I do not believe that it is any good to say only that the electoral commission may participate. I believe that it must participate right from the beginning so that, as the experiment is set up, it is examined by the commission to ensure that it has been properly run and that it will be properly validated. There is no point in conducting an experiment unless one has worked out how it is to be validated. To be honest, I do not believe that local authorities are in the best position to do that. They do not have the breadth of expertise that the electoral commission will have.
Currently, I do not believe that we can look at another body. However, once the electoral commission is set up, I believe that it should be wholly and fully involved. No experiment should take place without the electoral commission looking at it and, so to speak, ticking it off and, afterwards, together with the authorities, examining the results and analysing them. I have no objection to a local authority writing its own report and sending it to the Home Secretary. However, I believe that the electoral commission should write either a joint, or its own, report and also send it to the Home Secretary. I wonder how long it will take before those reports are, first, available to the Home Secretary and then, consistent with freedom of information--the subject of another Bill with which we shall deal shortly--reported to the public.
I believe that that is important. I also believe that the electoral commission--when it has been set up--will have to consider whether it can look back at the London mayoral elections, in which the number of spoilt ballot papers appears to have been very high. I understand, for example, that Bexley and Bromley had something like 10,000 spoilt ballot papers; that is 6.9 per cent of the votes cast. I believe that this afternoon the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, indicated, if I read between the lines correctly, that the number of spoilt papers in the seat for which he was standing was higher than the number of votes between himself and the winning candidate. Or, rather--I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach--the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, was the winning candidate. I felt that he lacked the confidence of the winning candidate when he explained that, but I understand that he is simply modest. However, the point has been made that his majority was smaller than the number of spoilt ballot papers. It is much more honourable that he raised the question in that way rather than the other way round.
It is a very important point. It cannot be right that we have an electoral system in which that situation can arise, and we must attend to it. Whether it is the fault of the system or the instructions, those are matters in which the electoral commission must become involved. That is why I am doing what is often looked upon as a little game by any opposition; that is, change "may" to "shall" and "shall" to "may". In this case, I do it very deliberately and I mean it. I believe that the commission must participate and, therefore, the milder "may" should be replaced by the firmer "shall". I beg to move.
I support what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said about experimentation. In particular, I have in mind postal votes as an alternative to one going to a polling station, wherever that polling station may be.
I have always supported the proposition of postal votes for those who find it impossible to get to a polling station for a variety of legitimate reasons. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has drawn attention to the possibility of some misdemeanours in the recent London elections. I have reason to believe that in certain areas, votes were stolen on a fairly large scale. It is quite easy to do that in, for example, a block of flats with one common post-box. In some cases, the votes that went astray, were misused or stolen may have run into double figures in a single, relatively small block of dwellings.
As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, it is early days yet as regards the commission but it would do no harm just to suggest to it that experiments sometimes have very serious drawbacks. It would be prudent not to embark wholesale on certain experiments until all the necessary safeguards are in place.
I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Mackay. It is extremely important that the commission should be involved in all these pilot schemes, in association with the local authorities.
However, if the Government insist on keeping the "may" rather than the "shall", what would the position be if the commission wanted to be involved with a local authority scheme and the local authority refused? Who would have the powers in those circumstances?
I rise briefly to support my noble friend's amendment. He made a very telling point about it.
Here we are setting up a body which has particular skills to look at electoral matters and it would be remiss not to draw on that on a consistent basis because this electoral commission will have skills which local authorities lack.
To determine the effect of these experiments requires fairly sophisticated tools. It is not sufficient to look only at where there is an increase in turn-out. That will not demonstrate a causal relationship between the experiment and the increase in turn-out. That could be for other reasons. It is necessary to look at the turn-out in adjoining authorities. There may be a 2 per cent increase where there has been an experiment but next-door, there is a 3 per cent increase and there has been no experiment.
There is a problem if it is the local authorities which must present the reports because they are likely to look at the matter in a fairly insular way and do not necessarily have the skills to undertake the task. They may not have the resources because there may be cost implications if the necessary surveys are to be undertaken; namely, to ask people why they are voting. That cannot necessarily be done, on the face of it, by looking only at the voting figures.
It is a fairly sophisticated task. The body which has been set up under this Bill will have the skills to undertake it. Local authorities do not. In order to look at the matter consistently, that duty should be imposed on the commission so that it can do that in relation to all the experiments and not on the basis of choice.
It has been an extremely interesting debate on a very topical subject. Not surprisingly, the Government have not yet reached any conclusions, firm or otherwise, on the pilot schemes which were experimented with during the course of the past week or so. One reason is that the figures are only now coming to light and the figures as such do not in themselves necessarily give the correct answer, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, made clear.
We can go this far, that the all-postal ballots scheme was the most encouraging of all the schemes which took place. I am happy to be able to tell the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, that there is a ward in Stevenage, I believe, where the turn-out was 49 per cent, compared with 37 per cent in the rest of the borough. So that was over the 40 per cent which he mentioned. But on the face of it, the most encouraging sign so far is the all-postal ballots scheme.
There is little else that I want to say today, following the Starred Question and the discussion which we have had about the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, referred to the moral male who would be filling in the votes when he should not be for his wife and son who were on holiday and he said that he thought it might be better if they voted for the same party. I am not sure that it would not be slightly more moral if they voted for different parties in those circumstances. But perhaps it does not matter because I am sure that there are not many people like that.
Clause 8 extends the functions of the commission so as to include a role in relation to pilot schemes. Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 makes provision for local authorities to bring forward proposals for pilot schemes for the purpose of testing electoral innovations, such as early voting and electronic voting at local government elections.
As Members of the Committee will be aware, 32 local authorities ran 38 pilots at the recent local elections in England. We shall have to wait before we come to any firm conclusions about them and as to whether any particular innovations should be rolled out nationally. But initial indications suggest that there were mixed results.
It is clearly right that the electoral commission should have a role in future pilots. This Bill already provides the commission with a broad remit in relation to electoral law, as was said in our debate on Amendment No. 29, and with a role in providing advice and assistance to other authorities in relation to electoral matters. It will also have an important role in promoting public participation in the democratic process. Those functions very clearly dovetail with the rationale behind the arrangements for the conduct of pilot schemes. The Bill therefore provides the commission with a clear role in relation to those arrangements.
Clause 8 provides that the commission may participate with a local authority in submitting proposals for a pilot scheme. We envisage that a local authority may wish to draw upon the knowledge and experience of the commission on the framing of the proposals and that the commission may have a particular interest in testing a particular innovation. Amendment No. 35, however, would require that the commission must participate with local authorities in the submission. We see no advantage in compelling the commission to co-sponsor each and every pilot scheme. We see some advantage in local authorities having the right, provided it is generally agreed by members of that local authority, to submit that it should have a pilot scheme in its area.
In any event, the idea that the commission must participate in the submission of proposals for pilot schemes sits rather oddly with the effect of Amendment No. 36, which would ensure that the commission had a role in scrutinising such proposals. In fact, this amendment adds little to the provisions of the Bill.
I would draw the noble Lord's attention to paragraph 14 of Schedule 20 which makes a number of amendments to Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000. First, where the commission does not co-sponsor a pilot scheme, the Secretary of State will be required to consult the commission before making an order providing for the implementation of a pilot scheme put forward by a local authority on its own. So the commission will be in a position to scrutinise and offer its views on proposals which it has not itself been involved in preparing.
Secondly, the commission will itself be responsible for the preparation of the report on a particular pilot scheme which will include an assessment of the scheme's success. The 2000 Act does not provide for the "approval" of such an assessment. However, Section 11 of the Act enables the Secretary of State to roll-out a successful pilot scheme to local government elections generally. Paragraph 15 of Schedule 20 to this Bill amends Section 11 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 so as to provide that an order under that section may be made only on the recommendation of the electoral commission. So hidden away in the schedules of the Bill we go some way to meet the demands and wishes of a number of noble Lords. I hope that with that explanation the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and for drawing my attention to Schedule 20. I am not sure whether I read that far, but as I have scribbled out something in the middle of page 179 I must have. Perhaps I did not realise the significance of the two amendments to the Representation of the People Act. From the Minister's explanation and from my brief read of it, I understand that the electoral commission will be fully involved if the Secretary of State ever decides to roll out an order--the most vital position--and that he would do so only on the recommendation of the electoral commission. That is good. I thank the Minister for drawing my attention to that. That goes some way to satisfy me.
If the electoral commission has to make a recommendation it will have to study the details of the pilot scheme before it can come to a conclusion. The reality will be that the electoral commission will look at every scheme just in case the Secretary of State decides to roll out one of them. It would be a pretty foolish local authority that did not involve the electoral commission in any experiment that it was running. The Minister has gone some way towards meeting my concerns and those of my noble friends. On that satisfied note, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 37:
After Clause 8, insert the following new clause--
(" . The Commission shall, at the request of the sponsor of a Bill for an Act to provide for a referendum under section 97, give advice on the wording of the question or questions to be employed in that referendum.").
In moving Amendment No. 37, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 225. If we are to have referendums it is important that they are conducted in a manner that is professional, rigorous, consistent and neutral. I believe that there will be general assent to that proposition. The electoral commission, under the terms of the Bill, is to be set up to assist in fulfilling those criteria. It is to make reports on the administration of referendums; it is to keep under review, and may issue reports on, matters relating to referendums; and it may issue advice on referendums, at least to certain bodies. I believe that the Bill should go further.
We are setting up a body that clearly is to have knowledge on the conduct of referendums, yet we are not explicitly drawing upon the services of that body to assist in one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, tasks involved in any referendum: drawing up the question that is to be put to the people in that referendum.
At Second Reading I touched upon the problems involved in setting the question. It is crucial that the question is both neutral and unambiguous. Ensuring that a question is free of bias--not simply political bias--can be extremely difficult. At Second Reading one of my noble friends spoke of the need to produce a clear question to which people could answer a simple yes or no. My understanding is that that is not what one should do. There is no difficulty in agreeing that the question should be clear, but there is a problem in inviting a yes or no response. I gather that there is a propensity for some people to want to be positive and therefore to vote yes, which builds in a certain bias to the process. It is far better to put propositions and to ask voters to indicate with which one they agree.
Ensuring that a question is unambiguous is also a difficult task. I suspect that if the Minister wanted informed assent to that point, he need look no further than to his noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who in a previous incarnation in market research had to wrestle with that kind of problem. At Second Reading I touched on the problem of ensuring that the question does not permit of different interpretations. I drew attention to research that found a notable element of "mistaken" voting in some state referendums in the USA; that is, people voting contrary to how they thought they had voted. If that phenomenon is to be avoided, the question has to be clear and unambiguous. That may require pilot surveys and may not necessarily be achieved by debate alone in a legislative chamber.
Clearly, there is a case for drawing upon a body capable of offering informed advice. We are creating such a body under the terms of the Bill. I appreciate that this amendment is not necessary to give effect to the recommendations of the Neill committee but I believe it to be a reasonable and logical amendment in terms of what the Bill seeks to achieve.
Under Clause 9 the commission may offer advice and assistance on those matters in which it has skill and experience but it may do so only to relevant bodies. The relevant bodies are listed in Clause 9(5), and the British Parliament is not included, although every other national parliament is. Clause 9(3)(b) empowers the commission to,
"provide advice and assistance to other persons which is incidental to, or otherwise connected with, the discharge by the Commission of their functions".
That may be taken to encompass giving advice on the wording of any question in a referendum, but it is not clear that it does so. I want to make the point explicit.
My amendment provides only that the commission shall give advice when requested to do so on the wording of a question. There is no requirement that that advice has to be accepted. The final say remains, as it must, with Parliament. The amendment seeks not to limit Parliament but to assist it in determining the question in any referendum.
Amendment No. 225 provides that the sponsor of a referendum Bill shall certify that the commission has been consulted on the question to be asked. It is up to the sponsor to decide what to do on the basis of that advice. Doubtless Parliament will want to know what use has been made of the advice.
At Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, indicated that the Government did not have a closed mind on the subject so long as any amendment did not give a decision-making power to the commission. I hope that is a fair representation of the Minister's position. I have no problems with the caveat that he entered. In the light of the argument that I have advanced, I hope that the Minister will give the amendment a fair wind. If he accepts it as it stands, I shall be delighted. If he indicates that it requires re-drafting, my basic point will be proved, as I did not seek advice on the wording. I beg to move.
I rise to support the principle behind this amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has said, the Minister indicated some flexibility at Second Reading so I hope that we shall hear more on that today. Ultimately, the question itself has to be the responsibility of Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, I do not believe anyone should fear that this amendment takes away from that. I feel that that point should be stressed in case the wrong interpretation is made.
However, the issue is complex. We must take care to avoid multi-option questions and that the questions cannot be vulnerable to alternative meaning, as has happened not in this country but elsewhere. Those are compelling reasons why it should be tried and tested by an independent body to ensure that its regulation is correct. I hope that the Minister will give a fair wind to this amendment.
I shall speak to Amendment No. 229 which I have tabled in this group of amendments. It deals with the same issue; namely, the nature of the question to be asked. However, I deal with it in a rather more vigorous way than does my noble friend, in that my amendment would make it mandatory to obtain the approval of the commission before a Bill containing provisions for a referendum could be laid before either House of Parliament.
Having listened to my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, it is clear that they would not agree with my argument that the commission should be the body to take the decision rather than Parliament. I must say that it is probable that my noble friend and the noble Baroness are right about that--the final and fundamental approval should rest with Parliament--but I suspect that, given the kind of conditions that my noble friend's amendment would lay down, Parliament would be foolish not only to consult the commission but also to take on board what the commission had to say.
This is an important issue. If one is to have referendums then the question itself is one of the key elements. I do not need to labour the point, but if one changes the nature of the question, one can change the answer. I agree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, when she says that multi-option questions should never be tried in referendums in this country. At this time of night I shall not bore noble Lords with examples from other countries where multi-option referendums have not worked at all, but those examples are on the record.
Even single questions, where the question could be open to misinterpretation, must be avoided. Twice in today's debates in Committee we have discussed the London elections where clearly a great many people did not understand the instructions. I would guess that that is where most of the spoiled papers came from. People were offered two votes and told that they "must" or at least "should" vote twice. The implication was that one vote should go in one column and another vote in the other column. I am not registered in London so I did not vote, but according to people who did vote and whom I know understand forms, documents and even Acts of Parliament--as was the case with one person who told me about this, a lawyer--they were just about to obey the instruction when they decided that it could not be right. Two votes had to be cast in two separate columns. I do not know if that is a fair reflection, but I then met another London voter who volunteered exactly the same information.
Clearly there was a problem, although I am sure that many very clever people thought that they had written the voting instructions in the clearest possible way. However, it is obvious that they had not written them in the clearest possible way. I suspect that the reason that happened was that those people had had no experience of these matters.
That is where the electoral commission would come in. It will be in a position to take advice and learn lessons from other parts of the world, as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Norton. It will be able to acquire expertise and, because it will know that referendums will form an important part of its business, it will be in a position to undertake pilot work to ensure that the question is indeed unambiguous. The issue of referendums is the most important one here. That is because, frankly, I suspect that if we were not anticipating the advent of referendums in our system the need for an electoral commission would not be nearly as pressing.
Indeed, the first appreciable pressure for an electoral commission was expressed in a report from a joint body set by up the Electoral Reform Society and the Constitution Unit: the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums. I should not like to embarrass her, but I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, served on that commission. She will recall that at the time when the Scottish and Welsh referendums were set up I was insistent that some of the recommendations of that commission should be taken on board. Interestingly enough, at paragraph 107 the report concludes that,
"The final decision on the wording could be made by the Government confirmed by Parliament (on the basis of a Government's proposal), drawing on the advice of the Independent Commission".
That is almost too weak. My noble friend's approach is the right one and, on reflection, I am probably being too vigorous. I am attempting to take power away from Parliament, which I would never dream of doing.
I believe my noble friend's approach is a better one than mine. I should like to hear the Minister say that the Government will come forward with something along the lines of my noble friend's amendment on Report in order to make sure that the electoral commission has a clear role in devising the question.
One of the important points about a referendum is that members of the public and the parties involved in it must be satisfied that it is run fairly so that the loser will accept the result. That is crucial in referendums. We shall no doubt discuss a number of factors later in the Bill which are part of building up that confidence. The most important of all may be that the question asked is fair and the answer achieved is therefore clear and fair.
I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the points made by both my noble friend and, perhaps more importantly when we come to these matters, his noble friend, and give us some indication--possibly for the first time today--that he will either accept the amendment or take it away and come back with a better one.
I may have a solution to the problem put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I am in favour of and support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, would like to make the provision obligatory; he would like the commission to override Parliament. I suggest that the middle way is to make certain, not that it is obligatory, but that the advice is made public. The general public and the legislature will then know what has been suggested and either accepted or rejected. That might almost meet the problem. I commend it to the Government.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the objectives of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. My noble friend Lord Rogan and I survived two referendums where, in one case, the question was settled by a government department and, in the other, more recent case, the question was set by agreement with a foreign government. Some of us protested mildly about that idea but were told, "You must not rock the boat because you will send the wrong signal." So we had to cave in, to our shame.
Problems arise with regard to the commission being restricted to the role of tabling a draft which can then be mangled by some other authority and finally approved by Parliament. I do not take away from the sovereignty of Parliament. I suggest there is need for an impartial, powerful, firm body to do more than table a draft. It should bring forward a draft in such a way that anyone opposing it has to give good solid reasons why they disagree with it. In that way we would achieve a much fairer result. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, we would achieve a result broadly acceptable to the electorate in general.
I have been sitting here reflecting on all that has been said in the Chamber this evening. It reminds me of what brought me into politics--a referendum.
There was an issue in the village where I was brought up, Great Bentley, as to whether or not a village hall should be built on the village green. My mother was on one side of the argument and I was on the other. A referendum was held. The beauty of that referendum, as I recall, was that it was a simple one to determine. She lost, and I won. I have reflected a lot since then on referendums being a good way of resolving issues. I know it is not something that always finds favour in your Lordships' Chamber, but it certainly helped on that occasion.
One of the last things I did in local government was to propose a referendum on the potential location of a football ground. We went for a simple approach under legal advice but without the benefit of an electoral commission, and I was encouraged. It was suggested by the local Green Party that we should have a multi-option referendum. We rejected that motion. I am pleased that that is something which your Lordships hold as being important. In retrospect, I rather wish that I had made the acquaintance of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, because I am sure that he would have fuelled me with all the relevant arguments to resist that somewhat better than I did at the time.
We have before us three suggested new clauses that would confer on the electoral commission a role in relation to the questions included in a Bill for a referendum. As the sponsors of the new clauses have explained, the new clauses seek their target in somewhat different ways. It is not often that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, disowns his own argument, but it was an enjoyable experience. Indeed, to hear him advance someone else's argument was even more enjoyable. However, it is right that we look at the principles involved.
The idea that the electoral commission should have a role in relation to a referendum question is one that caught the attention of many noble Lords during Second Reading. It is an intuitively attractive notion. As we made clear in another place, the Government see some attraction in it. I believe that I can say that we intend to continue our consideration of this issue, taking account of what has been said this evening, and with, perhaps, a view to bringing forward our own amendment at a later stage. There are some bear traps and some of the contents of the amendments currently before the Committee do not represent the way to proceed.
Some countries have systems that allow a referendum to be held on the petition of a certain number of voters, without a special Act of Parliament to authorise it. A proposal for a similar scheme will actually come before this Chamber later in our proceedings. In such a scheme, it is obvious that a body is needed to administer the referendum in the widest sense. That would almost certainly include setting the question; otherwise, it must be accepted that there would be a risk that the question, or the consequences if an affirmative answer were given, would simply not make much sense.
However, under the system that we have a major national referendum will always be authorised by a special Act of Parliament. I do not believe that we would want to do anything that would undermine that fundamental principle. Indeed, I think that there is a degree of consensus on that point. The terms of the Bill, including the question to be asked, will be the subject of keen debate in both Chambers and, no doubt, in the country. In those circumstances, everything will be very much in the open. The referendum campaign organisations, which will be limbering up, will be quick to draw points to the attention of their sympathisers in Parliament, but Parliament will then decide.
That system has worked well in the past. Even with hindsight, I do not believe that anyone would be able to show that any of the questions asked in past referendums has been misleading or loaded. No government would do themselves much service on a matter likely to be the subject of intense political debate by trying to push through what one might say is a "phoney" referendum question. Nor, in my opinion, would any group opposing the wording of a referendum do itself much good by seeking to cry foul in advance or to quibble over the form of the question without due cause. Some people have tried over the years to mount arguments of this kind about the referendum on Common Market membership in 1975. But I do not believe that anyone has ever been greatly impressed by those arguments.
Therefore, I suggest to the Committee that there is no obvious or gross mischief that necessarily needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, given that there is to be an electoral commission on the scene, the question can quite properly and reasonably be asked: why cannot some advantage be gained by involving it? What harm would it do? There is, of course, some risk and we may perhaps return to that point. The risk is that of getting the electoral commission--this is important--involved in a political quarrel. I suggest that we need to find a solution that avoids that risk.
Our present thinking is that that might be best achieved if the electoral commission were able to advise on whether a proposed referendum question will be clear to the electorate. I believe that that lies at the heart of this particular issue. It will be in everyone's interest that a referendum question should be clear and intelligible; indeed, I believe that intelligibility is the key in this respect. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made that clear. He said that such matters should be neutral, unambiguous and clear. Those are three important tests. It will be in everyone's interest if that point can be separated from when the referendum should be held and whether the question is essentially the right one to be put.
I believe that in 1975 there was much discussion on whether the ballot paper should refer to the European Community or to the Common Market. It would be a clear advantage to have impartial and objective advice on that kind of matter. However, that is a world away from Amendment No. 229. This amendment seems to me to be somewhat extraordinary. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, recognised that. It would make it unlawful, perhaps even impossible, for a Bill for a referendum to be introduced without the electoral commission being consulted--and not merely consulted, but giving its approval. That would undoubtedly undermine the role of Parliament and the freedom of Parliament to involve itself in active debate.
I hope that I have been sufficiently warm on this issue. As I say, we want to consider the matter further. I am happy to consider further discussion outside the Chamber. We wish to bring forward our own amendment. In doing so we should focus on intelligibility. I believe that is the matter that we are discussing. I also hope that in suggesting that noble Lords withdraw their amendments this evening they will feel confident of the Government's good intentions. I hope that the amendment that we bring forward will satisfy the points that have been raised. I suggest that the amendments be withdrawn and that we consider the matter further before we bring forward our own amendment.
Before my noble friend decides whether or not to withdraw his amendment I hope that I may say a few words. I think that we are all probably grateful for the Minister's comments. I am almost tempted to remind him of what his noble friend Lord Peston said at the beginning of his speech yesterday. It is perhaps a little unkind to do that now, but what we have just been told is a step in the right direction. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, said,
"I for one should like to see a more dispassionate approach to the Committee stage. That involves greater tolerance and a willingness to listen on all sides. Government briefs with the word "resist" typed all over them can no longer be the norm. I have always believed, and my experience of Whitehall stretches back to nearly four decades, that that is for the convenience of officials, not Ministers, and they sell it as a kind of macho principle. But if Ministers have to be macho, no one can blame the Opposition or sundry Back-Benchers for showing what they can do by flexing their muscles".--[Official Report, 10/5/00; cols. 1575-1576.]
The Minister clearly took a lead either from his noble friend or from myself when I suggested that my amendment was not perfect by any manner of means and that I would resist it if I was the Government Minister.
I fully accept the arguments that have been made against my suggestion. However, if my noble friend wished to test the opinion of the Committee on his amendment I would certainly support him. However, I suspect that he will not test the opinion of the Committee but will test the Minister by accepting the invitation to withdraw the amendment and see what the Minister brings forward at Report stage. I certainly look forward to that as I believe that it will go a long way to improve this part of the Bill.
I am most grateful for what has been said by speakers on all sides of the Chamber and for the support for the amendment. I take the points that have been made by the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont of Whitley and Lord Molyneaux. My Amendment No. 225 was intended to move somewhat in that direction although I realise that it does not fully meet the point that by getting a sponsor to certify that he has consulted the commission it would be open to Members to ask what advice had been given. I recognise the problems inherent in that.
However, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I do not want to spoil things in the light of his opening comments on what brought him into politics by saying that I am opposed to referendums. However, my view is that if we have them they should be clear and rigorous and there should be a body that can advise on the wording of questions. That is an important task, as the Minister conceded. I believe that the electoral commission is the most appropriate body to carry it out, not least because we have to ask what is the alternative body to carry out that task. I am grateful to the Minister for the points he has made and in the light of his positive response I have no hesitation in not pursuing the amendment at this stage. I look forward to seeing what is brought forward at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 38:
Page 7, line 9, at end insert--
("(8) The Scottish Ministers may by order provide that subsection (7) shall have effect as if the words "other than a local government election in Scotland" were omitted.
(9) Section 146(5) shall apply to an order made by the Scottish Ministers under subsection (8) as it applies to an order made by the Secretary of State under this Act and the reference in that section to enactments shall include a reference to any enactment comprised in or in an instrument made under an Act of the Scottish Parliament.
(10) The power of the Scottish Ministers to make an order under this section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the Scottish Parliament.").
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 9, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 10 agreed to.
Clause 11 [Policy development grants]:
This rather large group of amendments makes important changes to the scheme in Part II of the Bill for the registration of political parties. These changes, however, address two quite separate issues. I shall endeavour to explain each of these in turn as simply as possible.
The first issue concerns the application of the controls on donations in Part IV to Northern Ireland parties. I do not wish to pre-empt the stand part debate on Clause 65, but it may assist the Committee if I explain some of the background to that clause in order that these amendments can be considered in their proper context.
The Neill committee gave special consideration to circumstances in Northern Ireland, including the Good Friday agreement. It concluded that there was no alternative but to exempt, at least for an initial period, Northern Ireland parties from the full rigour of its proposed scheme. The Government reluctantly accept that conclusion, and Clause 65 therefore includes a power to exempt Northern Ireland parties from the controls on donations in Part IV.
As currently drafted, the protection afforded by a Clause 65 order is to be made available only to those political parties which have one or more members elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly or to the United Kingdom Parliament for a Northern Ireland constituency. This definition of a Northern Ireland party obviously excludes a number of parties--including the Conservative Party--which unsuccessfully contest elections in Northern Ireland.
In responding to the draft Bill published last July, the Neill committee expressed concern on two grounds about the operation of Clause 65 as presently drafted. First, the committee pointed out that a political party which secures only one seat at an election and loses it in the next would, in losing that seat, also lose the protection conferred by Clause 65. The committee felt it to be unsatisfactory that the protection should vary in this way. Secondly, the committee argued that the clause placed those parties which had so far unsuccessfully fielded candidates at elections at an unfair disadvantage.
The Government fully accept that the protection afforded to Northern Ireland parties and their donors by a Clause 65 order should not be dependent on electoral success. It should be open to any party which contests an election in Northern Ireland to benefit from the terms of Clause 65. The amendments secure this objective by establishing a separate register of Northern Ireland parties. This is the effect of the new Clause 21 to be inserted by Amendment No. 63. Having established a separate register of Northern Ireland parties, Clause 65 can then define a Northern Ireland party by reference to a party registered in that register.
In broadening the definition of a Northern Ireland party we need to ensure that we do not create a situation in which parties operating on a United Kingdom-wide basis can escape the ban on foreign funding by channelling overseas donations through their Northern Ireland branches. In order to guard against this possibility, Amendment No. 180 provides that where an order made under Clause 65 is in force it would not be possible for a party registered in the Great Britain register to accept a donation from a party registered in the Northern Ireland register.
There are a couple of other amendments in this group relating to Clause 65 which are worthy of particular note. Amendment No. 179, which seeks to amend Clause 65 itself, makes it crystal clear that any order made under subsection (1) of the clause is to apply equally to every Northern Ireland party. It has been suggested that the exemption would apply only to Sinn Fein. This is not our intention. A donor to any Northern Ireland party may risk discrimination or intimidation, and it is therefore clearly right that all Northern Ireland parties should benefit from an exemption order.
Finally, on the Northern Ireland aspect of this group, Amendment No. 316 to Clause 146 adds the order-making power in Clause 65 to the list of delegated powers subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. This fulfils an undertaking given by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Mr O'Brien on Report in another place.
I turn now to the quite separate issue dealt with by these amendments; namely, the problem faced by the presence of wholly independent political parties operating in different parts of the United Kingdom but with the same or similar names. This problem is particularly acute for the Scottish Green Party.
The Scottish Green Party is a wholly separate political party from the Green Party in England and Wales. But because of the way the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 operates, the Scottish Green Party has been prevented from registering in its own right. That is essentially the result of the protection afforded by that Act to a party's registered name. Under the provisions of the Registration of Political Parties (Prohibited Words and Expressions) Order 1998, once a party has been registered it is not possible for another party to register with the name of an existing party qualified by words such as "English", "Scottish" or "Welsh". Accordingly, once the Green Party had registered, the Scottish Green Party could not register using that name.
I understand that for the purposes of the 1998 Act the Green Party and the Scottish Green Party have reached an accommodation which enables Scottish Green Party candidates to stand in Scottish elections with the agreement of the Green Party's nominating officer. While such a pragmatic solution is possible, given the limited purposes of the 1998 Act, such an arrangement cannot withstand the financial requirements placed on parties by the Bill. The Green Party can no more be expected to account for the income and expenditure of the Scottish Green Party than can the Conservative Party be expected to account for the income and expenditure of the Pro-Euro Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats for the Liberal Party. Each of these is a wholly independent organisation which should be allowed to register and comply with the provisions of the Bill in its own right. These amendments will allow them to do so.
The key amendments are those to Clause 25. Parties applying for registration on the Great Britain register will be required to specify the part or parts of Great Britain in respect of which the party wishes to be registered. The new clause to be inserted by Amendment No. 103 makes transitional arrangements for existing registered parties. Under these arrangements it will be possible for a party to confine its registration to, for example, England and Wales. This would then enable a "sister party" to be separately registered in Scotland. It will of course be open to any party to take advantage of these new arrangements. I commend these amendments to the Committee.
I should like to speak about the impact of these amendments on Clauses 20 and 65 and the far-reaching effects which they may have.
As some Members of Committee may be aware, I am currently chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest political party in Northern Ireland. Thus I could argue that we need the most funds of all parties for politics in Northern Ireland. With local council, local assembly, Westminster and European elections, plus referenda, Northern Ireland parties are forced to go to the electorate more often than the remainder of the United Kingdom. Politics and political activity cost more to fund proportionally in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, I should be the last person in the Committee to seek to curtail political donations.
I should like to address two very important questions: first, why should Northern Ireland be treated differently from any other part of the United Kingdom; and, secondly, what are the implications of such a course of action?
I am very concerned that the amendment appears to differentiate between one integral part of the United Kingdom and the remainder. It provides for one set of arrangements for England, Scotland and Wales and then treats Northern Ireland separately. That simply cannot be right.
The citizens of Northern Ireland elect Members to another place in exactly the same manner as their fellow citizens in England, Scotland and Wales. They are governed by the same Government as their fellow citizens in England, Scotland and Wales. Why, therefore, should political parties in Northern Ireland be treated any differently from their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales? I believe that we should treat the United Kingdom as a whole and not introduce some form of twin-track democracy whereby Northern Ireland is treated separately from Great Britain.
I know I am not alone in wondering why the effect of this amendment will be to permit political parties in Northern Ireland to do things which in England, Scotland and Wales would bring prosecution and retribution in the courts. The Government claim to be trying to get rid of even the faintest trace of fraud and corruption from the electoral process, an aim which I and my party wholeheartedly endorse. Yet proposals deemed good enough for political parties in England, Scotland and Wales are somehow unnecessary or unsuitable for political parties in another part of the Kingdom--in Northern Ireland.
I do not wish to appear cynical--perish the thought--but a cynical observer might be moved to remark that the only reason for treating Northern Ireland differently from the remainder of the United Kingdom is to accommodate a certain political party operating in Northern Ireland; namely, Sinn Fein/IRA. If the Government are to permit foreign donations to political parties in Northern Ireland, they must be aware that such a measure will benefit Sinn Fein/IRA above all other parties, for it is Sinn Fein/IRA which raises a vast proportion of its funding abroad, most notably in the United States of America. The effect will therefore be that, courtesy of the British Government, Sinn Fein/IRA will have an unfair electoral advantage.
This particular measure will be of no help to the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Alliance Party or even the SDLP. It is scarcely credible that it is the Government's deliberate plan that Northern Ireland should be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom in order to accommodate Sinn Fein/IRA. But even if that is not the intention, it will certainly be the effect.
Another implication which follows from this is that once the principle of treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom in electoral terms has been established, there is a danger that a twin-track democracy could become a triple-track democracy, or even worse, if arguments were to be advanced for separate treatment for England, Scotland or Wales, thereby leading to further fragmentation of the United Kingdom.
In conclusion, therefore, I must oppose this amendment on the grounds that it does not treat all parts of the United Kingdom equally and sets a dangerous precedent for the future well-being of democracy in a politically unified United Kingdom.
In putting forward these amendments--52 in all--the Minister referred to two major parts of what he is seeking to achieve. On the first, we have just heard an interesting and important speech from the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I look forward to hearing what other Members of the Committee think on that point. The Minister will not, I think, have received it with great gratitude, whereas I am offering him great gratitude for the second part of what he was saying.
The concession which allows the Green Party and the Green Party of Scotland to be separate, and to work that way--which is clearly a matter of equity and not of particular concession--is an important one and we are very grateful for it. Later, we shall come to a question that has been touched on by the Minister; namely, the great strain that will be placed on small parties in terms of fulfilling the Bill's provisions on monetary returns and the work of treasurers. That difficulty will have to be faced up to, and I hope that we shall be able to put forward amendments to change the Bill as drafted. In the meantime, I thank the Government for this concession to the Green Party, the Scottish Green Party and any other party that finds itself in the same position.
I hate to bring a serious note of dissent into the cosy atmosphere set up by my noble friend Lord Mackay and others, but this is a serious political amendment. First, I wonder why it comes at this stage of the Bill as a government amendment. Why was it not in the Bill as originally drafted? Why was it not given the openness of debate in the House of Commons and the press comment that would follow? That is typical of this Government.
Secondly, I support the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, in his view that the provision sends the wrong messages. Is the Home Office really talking to the Northern Ireland Office? We do not have joined-up government; of course we do not. One bit does one thing, one bit continues to do another and each suits itself. I give those in the Northern Ireland Office some credit. Things are not going too well for them and they might feel some comfort at receiving a little credit from this side of the Committee. Anyone in the Northern Ireland Office who has any sense knows that it is nonsense to send this kind of message to the majority of people in Northern Ireland. They do not want to be seen as different from the inhabitants of England, Scotland and Wales.
I live in Northern Ireland. We are British people, we are part of the United Kingdom, with our representatives in Westminster. When it comes to elections and the treatment of political parties we do not want to be treated differently. I find it almost offensive that the Government should think of doing so. They are doing this for one reason only that I can think of; namely, to kowtow to another sovereign government; namely, the Government of the Republic of Ireland.
I shall not continue on this point. I think I have made the message clear. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, certainly has. I say to the Minister that he can be assured that we shall not leave this matter. Although I do not speak from the Front Bench, I have the backing of my party. We do not like this amendment.
This group of amendments is very large and diverse. That has caused me a good deal of difficulty in speaking to it. I have two matters to deal with, one being the question of Northern Ireland. The other is entirely different: it is relatively minor and, I hope, totally unlike Northern Ireland, relatively uncontroversial.
Perhaps I may refer first to Northern Ireland. I speak as a member of the Neill committee. We took a great deal of evidence on this matter. We held hearings in Belfast at which we heard the views expressed of most of the major parties in Northern Ireland but not of Sinn Fein or the Democratic Unionists.
We were persuaded that Northern Ireland was in a different situation from that which prevailed in Great Britain. There are, and always have been, a number of differences. For example, if one looks back at the period 1921 to 1972, Northern Ireland then had a devolved government with very extensive powers which no other part of the United Kingdom enjoyed. Northern Ireland also has an entirely different party structure. In addition, a significant minority of the people of Northern Ireland, perhaps 40 per cent, regard themselves as primarily citizens of a different country and not the United Kingdom. That is different from the position in Scotland where everybody regards themselves as Scottish, although there may be differences of opinion as to whether they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom.
It is not only a question of Northern Ireland being different from Great Britain. More importantly, the Republic of Ireland is different from other countries which we would regard as foreign. Undoubtedly, Ireland has special status. It is a country whose citizens are entitled to enter the United Kingdom without passports. More particularly, Section 2(1) of the Ireland Act 1949 provides:
"It is hereby declared that, notwithstanding that the Republic of Ireland is not part of His Majesty's dominions, the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the United Kingdom".
We believed that that made it difficult for us to regard donations from the Republic of Ireland as foreign ones for the purposes of our report. We deal with these issues in paragraphs 5.32 to 5.41 on pages 75 to 77 of the report.
While I recognise the great strength of feeling expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Glentoran, the Neill committee came to a different conclusion which the Government adopted. Therefore, it is in a sense our responsibility. The Government acted on the basis of our report and not independently of what the committee said.
The committee was well aware of that obvious problem. However, if one looks at the matter pragmatically, it is virtually impossible to do anything about that matter.
I turn to an entirely different and, frankly, much less serious point. One of the matters with which this group of amendments is concerned--the Minister did not touch on it in his opening speech--is the registration of what are described as "minor parties". As the Bill is drafted, my understanding of the purpose of the amendments--I may be corrected--is that all local authority elections are to be regarded as relevant elections for the purposes of Clause 22. This means that anyone who wishes to stand in any local election under a party designation can do so only as the nominated representative of a registered political party. As the Bill stands, unamended, registration as a political party brings with it all the obligations of reporting on donations, and so on, which apply to large-scale parties.
Amendments Nos. 77 and 93 are part of this group; I am not sure why. I believe that they should not have been but there they are and it is impossible to ignore them because there will be consequences if we do so.
Presumably someone in the Home Office realised that it is inappropriate to require a group of people who wish to stand only in parish or community council elections to adopt all the burdens which attach to registered parties. Therefore the amendments create a new class of registered parties, described as minor parties. Those will be parties which intend only to stand in parish or community council elections in England or Wales.
The Government have introduced amendments--I assume that this is the reasoning behind them--which will reduce the burden on such groups by requiring them to register but relieving them from a number of burdens which go with registration. The real question is this. Why require registration of groups which contest only parish or community councils? Why should a group of people in Ambrige who want to run a slate for elections to the parish council, as the Ambridge ratepayers have to register as a political party? That seems seriously unnecessary and exceedingly bureaucratic.
I have attempted to deal with the problem by Amendments Nos. 61 and 62 which are not included in this group. Unfortunately, they have not been grouped with the relevant amendments. However, if the amendments are passed, Amendments Nos. 61 and 62 will be effectively pre-empted. Therefore I should like briefly to explain them.
Amendment No. 61 deals with the problem simply by redefining relevant elections--that is, elections which can be fought only by registered parties--as excluding elections to local authorities which are not principal authorities. Parish and community councils are not principal authorities within the meaning of the Local Government Act.
Amendment No. 62 confers fall-back power on the Home Secretary to prevent candidates standing under confusing party names. I would not expect regulations to be needed for elections at parish council level but there is a possibility, so a power is, by my amendment, included.
I ask the Government to think again on the issue. Why on earth should rules about registration apply to parish council elections? Why not simply let the ratepayers of Ambridge put forward their slate without having to go through the rigmarole of registering as a political party and paying the fees which will no doubt go along with that registration? I ask the Minister, therefore, not to move today those amendments which relate only to minor parties but to use the gap between now and Report stage to reconsider whether it is necessary to make provision for minor parties, or whether it would not be infinitely simpler and easier, as I believe, to take parish council elections broadly out of the registration scheme.
I suggested that this group of amendments was broken up. I tried to suggest ways of doing so but quickly ran into the sand because the minor parties issue and the Northern Ireland issue sometimes appeared in the same amendment. This is an appalling piece of drafting and forward planning and an appalling way to treat the Committee and the other place. It will receive a whole chunk of new material in Lords amendments.
I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who explained the minor parties issue in the amendments. The Minister did not mention minor parties; his speech did not contain a single word about them. I tried to work my way through the amendments, but I am not a lawyer. That is why I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for doing so. However, when I read subsection (1A)(d) in Amendment No. 77,
"contests one or more parish or community elections",
I wondered why we were doing this. The Minister made no attempt to answer that.
I wondered whether there had been an attempt to block up what the government officials thought might be a loophole; that a major party might decide to allow the existence of a small unit which was a minor party, which would not need all the reporting restrictions and which could obtain cash from somewhere or another and pass it on. I am not sure whether that is possible under these arrangements, but perhaps the Government ought to examine that closely.
However, the proposals are extraordinarily complex. The Government say that they are going to remove from the small parties standing in parish community elections most of their obligations, including having a treasurer, submitting a financial scheme and statement of account and the rules on donations. It certainly reduces the regulatory burden, but it still leaves the party with the problem of understanding this complex legislation and working out what does and does not apply to it so that it can register.
It was incumbent on the Minister to explain to the Committee why the amendment had been put forward, but he made no attempt to do so. He will have to make an attempt in summing up because we cannot even pick and choose what amendments we might decide to reject. I am not minded to try to reject anything I want to reject at this time of night, but the point has been well made.
When at the Report stage we see the Bill in a better form, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, will deal with the minor parties issue in order to save me finding someone to help me through it.
Perhaps I can assist the Committee because I am due to answer Amendments Nos. 61 and 62, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, which deal only with minor parties. I am conscious that some of the amendments in this group deal with minor parties alongside the Northern Ireland issue. Perhaps it would be acceptable to Members of the Committee if the minor parties issue was left until we deal with those amendments, when I shall attempt to answer. I have examined the issue because those two amendments are the only ones in the group. If the government amendments presently before the Committee are passed, then on Report noble Lords can look at the Bill and return to the issues at that stage. I am trying to find a way through what is becoming a thicket and taking up a lot of time.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for trying to help us. The problem remains that there is a kind of interweaving of the issues. I considered trying to amend his amendments, but I would have needed a cold towel and many hours to do that. It would have been extremely difficult. The real problem is that Amendment No. 93 concerns the registration of minor parties. There is nothing before Amendment No. 61 of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about minor parties. I suspect that if we pass something before that amendment, as the Government invite us to do, it will knock out the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I do not believe there is a procedure for discussing such an amendment.
That being the case, I believe that we are all right. Therefore, we can leave the question of minor parties until we come to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I believe that I have made most of the points, but they are worth underlining. It was not until the Minister spoke about the Green Party issue that I realised that these amendments had anything to do with that issue. As I have explained to noble Lords a number of times, I am not a lawyer and this is particularly difficult territory.
I apologise to the Committee. In subsection (1B) of Amendment No. 58 there is a reference to minor parties. There is no explanation of that. Procedurally, I believe that there would be no great difficulty in ignoring that because it is only part of the amendment and can be struck out by an amendment at Report stage. The real difficulties arise when we reach Amendment No. 63 and subsequent amendments.
I am sure that the noble Lord is right. We should proceed in the way which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, suggested. I had not noticed where the Green Party came into it. I recall the issue because it was one that I raised during the Scottish and Welsh referendums. There was not only the Green Party, but also what we know in Scotland as Tommy Sheridan's party, but what is properly known as the Scottish Socialist Party.
The whole issue is that we only need this pile of legislation because of the change to the electoral system. It was simply so that registered parties could appear on the top-up list that we needed all this complexity. Even though the Conservative Party in Scotland has been the beneficiary of the complexity, I wonder whether it is worth it in the longer term. Perhaps, after the London elections last week, the Government may also be wondering whether it is worth it.
I did not appreciate that the Scottish Green Party issue was going to be resolved in this manner. To be honest, although the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, spoke about it, I did not manage to work my way through the amendments to see exactly how they do what is necessary for the Scottish Green Party. I am pleased to hear that they do. I presume that they also do it for the Scottish Socialist Party, which is right. As I say, it was a major issue when we addressed the Scottish referendum Bill because it would have stopped both the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party. Those parties achieved one seat each. I am not sure that it would have stopped Mr Dennis Canavan who also gained a seat.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. Perhaps I may ask him whether he shares my anxiety that, even if we had, at a different time of day or at a different sitting, the time to go through thoroughly all the various--to my mind, conflicting--amendments, whether we would still find a great deal of overlap and contradiction, and whether we would find that a slab of the Committee stage of the Bill had been inadequately covered.
I believe that it will be inadequately covered--certainly so by the other place. We are experiencing difficulties with the way in which the Bill has been drafted and with the way in which these two quite separate issues have been woven together in a complex manner. That is not the best way in which to deal with these issues. I must say to the Government that I do not believe that they have served the House or the cause of clear legislation at all well. However, we shall be returning to the subject of the minor parties.
Therefore, I leave that matter and turn to the part of the Bill which refers to Northern Ireland, which the Minister did explain. I wish to make an interesting point which is probably out of order, or at least it is out of the order of the Bill, but which is totally relevant. If I heard the Minister rightly, the whole justification has regard to funding. I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, did not raise the question of whether that represents another little separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain. There are two registers and, therefore, the idea somehow arises of two separate countries.
Of course, one could logically have solved the Scottish Green Party problem by having another register for Scotland, where there is a Scottish National Party and two or three other Scottish variations in the titles that parties take. Therefore, one could have a separate register for Scotland. However, a separate register is being chosen only for Northern Ireland. Like my noble friend, I have my suspicions that the issue goes a little further than the question of funding. However, the question of funding is complex.
Again, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, did the House a service by explaining clearly the problem experienced by the Neill committee. That was that one or perhaps two parties which operate in the North of Ireland operate also in the Republic. That is a difficulty from which one cannot escape. How does one resolve it? The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, pointed us in the direction of the 1949 Act which states that the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country. Therefore, I wonder idly, if it is not a foreign country, why cannot its electors or nationals give donations to any British political party? That would be one way, at least, to make it all square so that it would not look odd. One would not then need two registers. After all, if citizens of the Republic can come to this country on Monday and register to vote on Tuesday, and if the Act is as clear as it was in 1949, that would seem to be a solution to the problem.
However, no one raised--and the Minister entirely ducked--the fact that the Neill committee said that the definition of permissible sources should include citizens of the Republic of Ireland resident in the Republic and subject to compliance with the Republic's Electoral Act 1997. That is perfectly clear. I understand the argument for doing that. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and my noble friend Lord Glentoran also understand it. That is why I say that, although I would not necessarily approve of it, at least I understand the argument for saying, "Let us go back to the 1949 Act and allow a citizen of the Republic to donate to any British party". Then we do not need to make Northern Ireland look almost like a separate country.
However, the Government have gone further than that because Northern Ireland parties can take money from a donor anywhere in the world. One does not have to get up early in the morning--one does not even have to bother to get up in the morning!--to know exactly what is behind that. It is not for the benefit of the Ulster Unionist Party or any of the Unionist parties, and it is probably not for the benefit of the SDLP; it is intended entirely and completely to allow Sinn Fein/IRA to continue to source the very money that has created the mayhem in Northern Ireland. I think it is appeasement. I do not like it one little bit.
I am prepared to listen to the argument about the Republic because I understand that. I do not necessarily agree with it. I think there may be a more elegant solution if the Government chose to take it. But to say that Northern Ireland is different and that parties in Northern Ireland--and that really just means one party--can have donations from anywhere in the world they like is, frankly, appeasement, as my noble friend said.
But it is worse than that and the Neill committee had evidence about that too. I do not carry any brief for them, but in Scotland and Wales there are two nationalist parties which want to divide the United Kingdom. They do not want to belong to a different country; they want to create their own countries of Scotland and Wales.
I can do little better than quote Mr Magnus Linklater at paragraph 5.8 of the Neill committee report. Magnus Linklater is the husband of one of our colleagues in your Lordships' House. He is a journalist of considerable standing in Scotland. He is even allowed to write for The Times in London, which just shows his standing. In his evidence he said:
"The government has announced it intends to ban foreign donations and there may be an argument for barring companies based abroad from donating to Scottish party funds, since their motives in doing so would certainly be open to question".
I presume that he was thinking that they were donating to one of the Unionist parties in order to keep the Union together. He went on to say:
"But what about individuals? It is said that Scotland's greatest export is its people and many of them have achieved great success abroad. Even second or third generation Scots retain a passionate interest in their native country. Provided donations over £5,000 were declared, why should they not help the party they believe best represents the interests of Scotland?".
If you replace Scotland with Ireland, you get exactly the argument to which the Government have signed up. My question is obvious.
To be fair, Mr Dafydd Wigley, on the same page, talking about Plaid Cymru, said:
"If it is decided that sums of more than £5,000 are an appropriate threshold for transparency, clearly that transparency should be equally effective for citizens living abroad. I would not like to deny the good people of Patagonia the right to contribute to Plaid Cymru if they so wish. Unfortunately, I do not imagine that many of them are rich enough to make a large contribution. Equally, there are people who will as individuals identify with the UK without necessarily being UK citizens".
I could go on. Mr George Reid, the Vice-Convenor of the Scottish National Party--although I do not think he is that now because is the Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament--in his evidence reminded the committee that in North America the Scottish National Party has about 1,000 registered supporters. It is a valid question. Why should the Scottish and Welsh diaspora not be allowed to contribute to the political parties which they think best represent the interests of their native country--perhaps we can call it the old country? Why can they not do it if the IRA and Sinn Fein can do it?
Is it not just a little nauseating for a democracy to accept that distinction when SNP and Plaid Cymru have never, ever suggested that they might use any kind of violent means to achieve their ends. So it would appear that if you are a nationalist party which is quite happy with a bit of violence you can have special circumstances made for you, but if you are a nationalist party which pursues fully democratic, peaceful methods you have had it. I do not think that that is a good signal to send out. It may be convenient for the Government to send out that signal and it may make life easier for them, but I do not believe that it is honest. Therefore, I am profoundly unhappy.
I was profoundly unhappy about Clause 65 before I came to the Committee today. That is obvious because I have tabled a Motion that that clause should not stand part of the Bill. When we reach that point, it will not stand part of the Bill if I can persuade enough noble Lords to agree with me that it is illogical. But when I see a separate register being created, I become even more concerned.
This has not been a happy little debate. That is partly because of the way that two issues of some importance have been wrapped together but it is mostly because one of those issues seems to me to strike at the very heart of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I know which side I am on when it comes to that particular debate.
We have had a wide-ranging discussion that has touched on three separate sets of issues. I shall start with the kind comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, about our attempts to ensure that we enable the Scottish Green Party to operate effectively. We are delighted that we have managed to solve that problem.
I am grateful to your Lordships for having agreed that we should deal with the issue of minor parties at a later stage. I believe that they pose separate sets of issues, although I understand why the confusion crept in with regard to the grouping. I take on board the admonishments made in relation to that.
Turning to the comments made by the noble Lords, Lord Rogan, Lord Glentoran and Lord Mackay, I accept the sincerity and the integrity with which many of the observations were made. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, called for equal treatment. He asked why Northern Ireland should be treated differently. That is a proper question to pose in the context of the debate, although I do not necessarily agree with his conclusions.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is unduly suspicious in his assumption of what lies behind the amendments. In this legislation it is certainly not our intention to suggest in any shape or form that we see Northern Ireland as somewhat separate, as being floated off, or independent. I cannot sign up to the notion that in some way we are setting up a register to advance that position. That is not the intention of the Government at all.
In effect, in these amendments we give life to two of the recommendations that were carefully detailed by the Neill committee. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, clearly and helpfully explained why those recommendations had been made. Recommendation 20 of the Neill committee report says:
"The Government should consider in the context of the development of the peace process whether it would be expedient to introduce a short term and reviewable exemption from the reporting requirements in respect of donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland".
That goes to the heart of this issue. That is how we see it. We do not see this as a "for ever" set of amendments. It will have to be kept under review because we believe that Northern Ireland should be treated like everywhere else, but we are mindful of the practicalities of the situation. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, honestly accepted that a different situation persists in Northern Ireland because of the relationship between Northern Ireland and the South of Ireland.
The noble Lord cannot have read his own Bill. It goes much further than the Neill committee report that he has just read out. It is not a case of electors in the Republic of Ireland being allowed to donate to Northern Irish parties, but of foreign donors being allowed to donate. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, pointed out under the 1949 Act, "foreign donors" does not mean the Republic of Ireland, but, quite bluntly, it means America. The noble Lord will have to address that matter if he wishes to convince us of the merits of his argument.
I return to the point that, in moving the amendment, it is not our intention to facilitate the movement of funds in that way. Our challenge is to deal with the particular and peculiar circumstances that persist in Ireland. We have to work on that basis.
This has been a long debate. That is the Government's position. We accept that there are special circumstances in Ireland. The legislation attempts to reflect that. While I understand the questions and some of the difficulties posed in the debate, I invite noble Lords to accept that point at least. Having made those comments, I commend the amendments, in general, to the House.
No, I do not think that we can leave it like that. I ask the Minister for the third time: will he justify the departure from the suggestion of the Neill committee that special circumstances in Ireland meant that donations could be received by parties in Northern Ireland from citizens of the Republic of Ireland? That is what it states in Recommendation 29.
Am I wrong about the Bill? Does it not go as far as I have said? Or am I right to assert that in fact the Bill states that foreign donations--donations that do not come from the Republic of Ireland--can be made to a Northern Ireland party? Frankly, if I am wrong and that is not what it states in the Bill, then let us hear the correction from the Minister now. We would all be very relieved.
However, I do not think that I am wrong. The exemption is for Northern Ireland parties; namely, for Sinn Fein/IRA, although the Minister has not addressed or confirmed that. However, I do not believe that he can give even one other example of another Irish political party that receives donations from outside the island of Ireland. Let us put the matter in those terms. It comes down to this: can he at least justify the exception to be made for one Northern Ireland party from the rule that exempts all the legitimate, democratic, non-violent political parties in the United Kingdom from foreign donations? Will he address the point that I made about Scotland? No, he absolutely ignored it. If he does not have an answer, then he simply ignores the question.
This is not good enough and it is not going to get the Minister through this debate. All I can say is that it is a jolly good job that it is 10.30 at night rather than 3.30 in the afternoon.
Perhaps I may confirm that my noble friend Lord Rogan and I are not in any way opposed to contributions made by citizens of the Irish Republic to parties either here in Great Britain or in Northern Ireland. What concerns us--and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has made this point clearly over and over again--is not a question of only £100,000 here or there. We are discussing the millions of pounds that come from sympathisers of the IRA in America.
If anyone doubts the willingness of Irish-American citizens to donate, look at the reports coming today from Washington. A trial has begun concerning 100 new weapons that had been purchased for the IRA with Irish-American money. They had largely been dispatched and were on their way to the United Kingdom for use against United Kingdom citizens.
We are not in any way unwilling to help to facilitate citizens of the Irish Republic either as regards their voting rights here in the United Kingdom or as regards financial contributions either from them or to them.
Again I shall return to the point I made that we are giving effect to the report of the Neill committee. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is right to refer to Recommendation 29. When he spoke earlier in this debate, he appeared to accept that. Even if he did not like what it might then necessarily facilitate, he accepted that that was the case.
The issue is simply this: we accept that we are giving rise to a situation in Northern Ireland which is less than we would like to see. It must be acknowledged that it is not perfect. Nevertheless, it is the case that Northern Ireland parties will undoubtedly benefit from donations made by citizens of the Republic of Ireland. Having accepted that, clearly there are some difficulties, but that is the basis on which these amendments have been tabled. They are not designed peculiarly to benefit one party. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that they will benefit more than one party. The noble Lord himself referred to the SDLP and he should expect that to be the case.
This is a difficult situation, but I believe that we must deal with it practically and pragmatically. That is what we are trying to do at this point in this legislation. I understand completely the fervour and determination of the arguments put forward by the noble Lord and others, but we have got to deal with real politics, not politics as perhaps we would like them to be.
We see this as part of a process. At the end of that process and over time we can expect to see the situation change in Northern Ireland. At that point we shall review this exemption. That is what we must look to in the longer term.
Before the noble Lord sits down, can he clarify the effect of the amendments on the Bill? As I understand it, under Clause 65 there is an unrestricted power for the Secretary of State to enlarge the category of permissible donors, which could therefore go beyond those who are resident citizens of the Irish Republic. Is there anything in the amendments which enlarges that further, or is the issue really about Clause 65?
My understanding is as the noble Lord explains it. I shall go away and look again at the effect of the clause and the amendments together and advise the noble Lord and other Members of the Committee accordingly.
That is still not good enough. My attention has now been drawn to Clause 65 which says:
"The Secretary of State may by order make provision for extending in relation to each Northern Ireland party".
That was changed by the Government in the other place from "a" in the original Bill to "each" and they are now changing it back to "a". Do not ask me why. Ask the Government, and do not rely on getting an answer.
"The clause continues: and for such period as is specified, the categories of permissible donors specified in section 49(2)".
In Clause 49(2) we know that a "permissible donor" is an individual registered on an electoral register.
The Minister must not just pray me in aid. I said that I could understand the argument in relation to the Republic of Ireland, although I felt a more elegant solution would be to allow all British parties to accept donations from electors in the Republic of Ireland. That at least would not be building this Chinese wall, if I may call it that, down the Irish Sea.
But we come back to the point the Minister has not answered. Is that what the Government are going to do? Are they going to say that any foreigner--that means a citizen of the United States, let me be exact about to whom we are referring--will not be able to donate to an organised party? If the Minister can say that a citizen of the United States will not be able to give a donation to an organised party, we will all go home at least a little happier.
But I do not believe the Government can say that. Unless it has changed, government policy was that Sinn Fein needed the money it received from America. That is what this is all about. If it is not, I am sure we shall all be pleased to be told. If, in fact, as a result of this debate, people in North America are unable to give money to political parties in Northern Ireland, we shall have made more progress today than I would ever have thought possible at three o'clock this afternoon.
The noble Lord is pushing me further and further on this point. I fully understand that. I should love to be able to give the cast-iron assurance he seeks. But there is no practical way I can do that.
Of course it would be preferable if we could stop donations from the United States flowing into Northern Ireland via the Republic. Of course we all want and seek to see that. But no one can make that promise absolutely from the Dispatch Box; it is not possible to do so.
I fully understand the strength of the point being made. But the intention is to exempt Northern Ireland parties from the provisions of Part IV as a whole, and they may not be subject to the ban on foreign donations. The order will apply for four years, certainly in the first instance. I hope that that explanation takes us somewhat further. It is something to which we can return on Clause 65.
I am sorry to intervene again at this stage, but the situation now seems to me to be extremely unsatisfactory. These are absolutely central issues that we are now being asked to decide after 10.30 in the evening. If these amendments are agreed, we shall not be able effectively to return to them. Amendments Nos. 39 and 40 are purely drafting amendments and there is no objection to them. But the later amendments give rise to very important issues. Would it not be possible--and, indeed, appropriate--for the Government not to ask the Committee to agree those amendments tonight but to withdraw them and bring them back for debate on Report when the whole situation will be a great deal clearer than it is now?
That is a very helpful suggestion. I must point out to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that I believe we will be able to amend these amendments after they are incorporated in the Bill when we consider the legislation on Report, but, frankly, that is still very unsatisfactory. We shall be asked to pass a series of amendments when we have exposed the fact that the Government have no particular policy in this respect. I should have thought that a "yes" or "no" answer would be terribly simple. I would not have continued with the argument because frustration had eventually forced me to remain in my seat, but the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has-- the Minister will be sorry to hear--given me a new lease of life.
It is a simple question: can a person in the United States give money to a British political party? As I understand it, the answer is, "No, they cannot". Can a Scotsman who lives in the US give money to the Scottish National Party to help the old country? No, he cannot. Can an American give money to an Irish political party for the old country? Either he can or he cannot. Either the Government intend that he can, or they intend that he cannot. It is terribly simple. Indeed, I believe that we deserve an answer.
I understand some of the confusion that has arisen as a by-product of this debate. However, I return to the argument clearly laid out in the Neill report. We are trying, by way of these amendments, to ensure that we put that properly in place. I believe that the real issue is contained in Clause 65--
I appreciate what the Minister has said, but he is just coming to the point that I had intended to make. The Neill report had been produced well before this Bill was drafted. I still fail to understand why, if it was thought necessary, these amendments had not been incorporated in the Bill before it ever entered the other place. Equally, I am very suspicious--and this is the key to the point that I wish to make--because it seems to me that Clause 65 gives the Government and Secretary of State powers to make special provision if and when it seems to be necessary by an order that will be justified in both Houses in the proper way.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister again, but he made the point a few minutes ago that it is impossible for Her Majesty's Government to stop Irish American citizens sending money into Northern Ireland. By the same token, is it impossible for any nation in the Commonwealth to send money through the post to England for the Conservative Party? What is the difference?
The important thing about the Bill--this goes to the heart of the debate--is that we are trying to regulate and legislate to control the process of donations so that we have an entirely understandable and transparent situation. That has been part of the debate that we have had this evening. I can understand where some of the confusion has crept in.
I have tried to clarify matters as best I can. I have been pushed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, to suggest that these amendments take us further than was intended in the Neill committee report. I do not believe that to be the case. I believe that we can return to these matters on later clauses and obviously we can consider them further at Report stage. On that basis it is entirely possible for us to endorse the amendments this evening. I accept that the debate has been less than clear but I believe that we have now achieved greater clarity. I hope that the Committee will therefore accept the amendments.
Would not the Committee be perfectly in order to accept Amendments Nos. 39 and 40 tonight while reserving the right to return to the other amendments in the group on the next day of the Committee stage?
I hope that I can help on a matter of procedure. I am not familiar with the argument that is being proposed here and therefore I shall not address that. It is important to realise that, provided amendments are not agreed to in Committee on a Division, they can be returned to on Report. I suggest that the easiest thing to do is for the Committee to accept the amendments tonight, although not as the result of a Division. That will then give time to reflect between now and Report on the best way to deal with the problem we are discussing, if it can be dealt with. As I say, provided the amendments are not accepted as the result of a Division--that cannot be reversed at Report--they can be amended on Report.
I am grateful for the Government Chief Whip's comments. As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said, surely we can accept Amendments Nos. 39 and 40 this evening. The other amendments in the group could be debated on the next day of the Committee stage as we are unlikely to reach them this evening.
I had hoped that we might have progressed beyond Amendment No. 56 this evening, but, the way things are going, that is probably unlikely. I am now being pushed to end the day's proceedings at Amendment No. 55. However, as has been said, probably the right way to proceed is to accept Amendments Nos. 39 and 40 this evening and then take the matter on from there.
moved Amendment No. 41:
Page 7, line 40, at end insert--
("(c) a registered political party is "represented" if there are at least two Members of the European Parliament belonging to the party who--
(i) are Members for a United Kingdom electoral region, and
(ii) are not disqualified from sitting or voting in that Parliament;
(d) a registered political party is "represented" if there are at least two Members of the Scottish Parliament belonging to the party who are not disqualified from sitting or voting in that Parliament and that party also stands candidates in elections to the House of Commons;
(e) a registered political party is "represented" if there are at least two Members of the Welsh Assembly belonging to the party who are not disqualified from sitting or voting in that Assembly and that party also stands candidates in elections to the House of Commons; and
(f) a registered political party is "represented" if there are at least two Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly belonging to the party who are not disqualified from sitting or voting in that Assembly and that party also stands candidates in elections to the House of Commons").
Having reached the end of that marathon, I now turn to policy development grants. Policy development grants for political parties are good provisions which I certainly welcome. I welcome them in particular on behalf of my party. My amendment seeks to give my party--and other parties which find themselves in the same position--the status which is needed to access policy development grants. Clause 11(1)(b), as at present drafted, states,
"a registered political party is 'represented' if there are at least two members of the House of Commons belonging to the party", etc.
I belong to a party which, although it has no Members in the House of Commons and only one Member in the House of Lords who has got there by, shall we say, sideways movement, nevertheless achieves under fair, or reasonably fair, electoral systems, 11 or 12 per cent of the poll where we stand for election. That has been the case when we have gained representatives in the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament and in the London Assembly. We therefore comprise a significant political party in this country.
We believe that the definition of "political party" should depend not only on having two Members of the House of Commons but also on the kind of representation set out in my amendment, which is the kind of representation that my party has at the moment.
I hope that the Government will be friendly towards this suggestion. I have no doubt that my ex-colleagues in the Liberal Democrat Party will be fairly supportive of my amendment. I remember the time when it, too, would not have qualified as a political party under this kind of set up. They had only five Members of the House of Commons, three of them by agreement with other parties. It could just have qualified--but only just--and only then by pushing it. The party at that time certainly was not polling 11 per cent all over the country, as we are.
I hope that Members of the Committee, of all parties, will have some sympathy with the point I am making. I hope that the Government will feel able to meet us on this issue. I beg to move.
The noble Lord, Beaumont of Whitley, will be glad to hear that we have great sympathy with his amendment. We think that it raises an important issue. I am surprised that his former colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches have not yet spoken, but no doubt they will wish to intervene and tell the Committee what they think. It is obviously an issue that affected them in the past and no doubt they will feel able to support their former noble friend.
It is an interesting issue which the Minister should consider very carefully. As the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said, policy development grants are important. We should not exclude from development grants a recognisable political party which gains a substantial share of a vote. We look forward to the Minister's reply and to hearing what the Liberal Democrats have to say on the subject.
I am not used to the Conservative Party being so keen and enthusiastic to hear from the Liberal Democrats. It is most welcome, even at this late stage of the evening.
I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, that we on these Benches are very happy to support the amendment. In the interests of fair-mindedness, it is right and appropriate to support the Green Party's claim to an entitlement to a grant for its policy development work. We on these Benches believe that all parties are entitled to some support from the state towards what they do, not only in issues of policy development.
Having looked at the Green Party's policies, it would seem that putting public money into developing them further would probably be in everyone's interest. Therefore we support the amendment.
I hate to spoil a party when it is getting into full flow. I fully understand the purpose of the noble Lord's amendment, which is to widen eligibility for policy development grants. On the face of it, that seems a perfectly reasonable and fair objective. The noble Lord is right to pose the question: "Why should the big parties share out this public funding between them while smaller parties are left to struggle on with their meagre resources?"
But, as with so many of the questions raised on the Bill, the answer is in the Neill committee report. The Neill committee envisaged that policy development grants would be available only to parties represented in the House of Commons. Given the rationale for such grants, it is clear why this is the case.
The committee saw the development of ideas and long-term policy as one of the key functions of political parties. However, the committee was concerned that political parties were increasingly hard-pressed to keep up with the cost of campaigns and were, as a consequence, increasingly less able to devote resources to the development of long-term policy. This left them less prepared for the possibility of office.
Clearly this is only a real problem where there is a realistic chance of a party achieving office. With due deference to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, I think that even he would accept that the chances of the Green Party getting close to achieving political office are some way off in the future.
The purpose of the policy development fund envisaged by the Neill committee is not to provide financial support and assistance to a myriad of smaller parties. It is primarily to help those parties that enjoy what I think we can best describe as "significant electoral support" in the fulfilment of one of their functions.
Any widening of the eligibility would serve only to reduce the amount of money available to those parties which it was intended should benefit from the fund and thus reduce the effectiveness of the scheme. I doubt whether the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, will be convinced by that argument to withdraw his amendment in those terms, but that is what was envisaged. That is how the noble Lord, Lord Neill, saw it. For those reasons we believe that the amendment should be rejected.
Before the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, replies, perhaps I may ask the Minister a question. The argument about funding is straight copy from a Treasury brief. I do not think that the Minster can get away with the argument that if small parties were included there would be less money for big parties. If more parties are included it takes a very small top-up to make sure that the big parties get what they originally thought they should. It would not be a substantial amount of money. Therefore, I have to say to the Minister that it is a fairly disingenuous argument. We are talking about a matter of principle here, not a matter of squeezing money out of the Treasury.
The important point is that we have a situation here where the Government have brought in devolution. There is now a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. Paragraphs (d) and (e) of the noble Lord's amendment specifically mention "Scottish Parliament" and "Welsh Assembly" as a form of qualification. Surely, if the Government really believe in devolution and supporting the principle of devolution, they must recognise that the House of Commons and your Lordships' Houses should not be the only criteria for policy development grants. We have devolution. Perhaps there is an answer here. Perhaps the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly could decide on their own to give policy development grants, or perhaps we should put a clause in the Bill giving them power to do that. Perhaps the Minister would care to answer that question?
The noble Viscount develops an interesting argument but I suspect that it is something which is a devolved matter: it will be for them. We can have further argument and debate about that. However, the noble Lord, Lord Neill, was clear that these policy development grants should apply only to those parties that were represented in the House of Commons. That was the basis on which he reported. There has been criticism that we have tried to cherry-pick and depart substantially from the Neill report recommendations. We are trying not to do that. That is precisely the case in this particular instance. I can well understand why the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, would like to seduce us into helping and assisting the Green Party and other minor parties further in this way. But we are not minded to do that.
We return to the principles set out in the Neill report. That is the basis on which this piece of legislation has been drafted, based and developed. No doubt if the devolved assemblies wish to give support to parties within those assemblies, certainly in terms of providing them with policy support, they will do so. I understand that that is part of the intention of the new administration that has been formed for London. I understand that the mayor is keen to see all parties assisted and supported within the assembly. Perhaps that is the way forward. We do not believe that we should make available state funding to minor and small parties that are not properly represented in the House of Commons. For that reason we resist the amendment.
I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on this subject. I referred particularly to the London elections but introduced a reference to this point as well. I received a very sympathetic letter. It is clear that this is a matter on which the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee were making a judgment on a situation as they found it. They found representation in the House of Commons the right one to choose.
I object to the idea of making a judgment that my party is one which would never have power. I remember the days when the Liberal Democrat Party--the Liberal Party as it was then--was very much at this kind of level. One sees how it has grown since. Indeed, the great Labour Party is not unashamed to have it as some kind of partner. What kind of partner, we are never quite sure, but nevertheless as some kind of partner. All over Europe, the Green parties, with fairer methods of election than on the whole we have to our House of Commons, are being represented and are partners in government.
I do not think that you can make a judgment that the party to which I belong will not be a party of government. You can say that it will not be a party of government in my lifetime. But there was a time when my nearest and dearest used to say to me that the Liberal Party would never be a party of government in my lifetime. They have been proved wrong.
There is a serious point of principle here. I am delighted with the support I have received from both the Front Benches on this side of the Committee. I certainly intend to return to this matter at a later stage. It is only fair that we should give the Government, who in some ways are showing themselves as prepared to think again and in others are being forced to think again, the chance to look at this matter once more. Equity demands that the amendment should be passed. I shall certainly bring it back at Report stage in the hope that the Government will think again. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.