"Piloting conduct at European and local elections

– in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 18th March 2004.

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Votes in this debate

(1) An election to which this section applies (a pilot election) must be held—

(a) only by postal voting, and (for that purpose)

(b) in accordance with provision made by the Secretary of State by order (a pilot order).

(2) These are the elections to which this section applies—

(a) the European Parliamentary general election of 2004 in a pilot region;

(b) a local government election in England and Wales if the poll at such an election is combined with the poll at an election mentioned in paragraph (a).

(3) These are the pilot regions—

(a) North East;

(b) East Midlands.

(4) Postal voting is voting where no polling station is used and a person entitled to vote in person or by proxy must deliver the ballot paper by post or by such other means as is specified in a pilot order.

(5) A pilot order—

(a) may modify or disapply any provision made by or under a relevant enactment;

(b) may contain such consequential, incidental, supplementary or transitional provision or savings (including provision amending, replacing, suspending or revoking provision made by or under any enactment) as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate;

(c) may make different provision for different purposes."

The Commons agree to this amendment with the following amendment—

1A Clause 1, Line 15, at end insert—

"(c) Yorkshire and the Humber;

(d) North West."

The Lords disagree to Commons Amendment No. 1A to Lords Amendment No. 1, for the following reason—

1B Because it is appropriate to make provision for no more than two pilot regions, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.

The Commons do not insist on their Amendment No. 1A to which the Lords have disagreed, but propose the following Amendment to Lords Amendment No. 1 in lieu of that amendment—

1C Clause 1, Leave out lines 16 to 18 and insert—

"(c) Yorkshire and the Humber;

(d) North West.

( ) Postal voting is voting where no polling station is used and a person entitled to vote in person or by proxy must deliver by post or by such other means as is specified in a pilot order—

(a) the ballot paper, and

(b) the completed declaration of identity form.

( ) The declaration of identity form is a form which is delivered along with the ballot paper and which is completed by being signed—

(a) by the person to whom the ballot paper is addressed, and

(b) by a witness to that signing whose name and address are clearly marked on the form."

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Commons Amendment No. 1A to which the Lords have disagreed. For the convenience of the House I will also speak to Amendment No. 3C.

At this stage in parliamentary proceedings it is sometimes difficult for those who have not been closely following the cut and thrust of ping-pong to know exactly where we are and why we are where we are. So, in the optimistic hope that there might be one or two who are listening to our debate, I will seek to reassess or reaffirm why this issue matters and why the Government and the Commons have taken the position that they have on it.

Let me address first of all the question of why postal ballots matter. This House knows from previous discussions that we have a serious problem in our society about the reduction in the proportion of the population that is taking part in formal democratic processes. We have turn-outs in local government elections where on average the turn-out is less than one-third of the electorate. We had a turn-out in the last European Union elections in the United Kingdom when only 24 per cent of the electorate voted. We had a turn-out in the last national election when only 59 per cent of the electorate voted. In terms of turn-out in local government elections and European Union elections we had the lowest turn-out in the European Union.

I do not think that that is an issue that divides the parties. I think that there is a common concern that it is worrying; it matters, it weakens the mandate, it weakens the participation of people in formal democratic processes and there is always the anxiety that it opens the door, if only slightly, to the rise of extremist positions or parties. Therefore, for all these reasons I do not think that there is a difference of opinion that we have to find legitimate ways of trying to increase the participation of the public in our elections. Postal ballots matter because, although no one—unless he was foolish—would advance the argument that they were the only solution they represent, the only technical solution that has been found so far in a range of experiments with techniques of balloting that has been shown to have a significant impact on turnout. We have piloted postal balloting at local elections in this country for three years. As a consequence, we have acquired some good, deep experience, which shows that, on average, turnout has risen by 15 per cent in local elections in which postal ballots have taken place. Fifteen per cent may not sound like a big percentage, but when it is added to a turnout of 32 or 33 per cent, it is a very big percentage, and it means that we have raised participation in local government elections by almost a half.

I do not think that there is an issue between the parties on that. There is open-minded and strong interest in all the parties in the potential importance of postal balloting. We also know, because the evidence from the Electoral Commission and others is clear, that the public like postal ballots, the elderly like them, and the disabled like them.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

Young people like them.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am reminded of that as well.

The essential question before us is whether such ballots would also increase turnout in the European Union elections. We have never piloted them at European elections, and therefore I would be surprised if the issue divided us. Getting positive engagement by the electorate in European elections must matter, and it is therefore important to see whether postal ballots would have that effect. The pilots are also about testing whether pilots can be carried out successfully on a larger scale—a regional scale—even though they have previously been carried out only on a local scale. That is why it matters; and, indeed, is what the issue is all about.

So, what appears to divide us at this point in proceedings? I think that there are two issues: one is the question of which regions, and the second is the question of how big a pilot should be. The question of which regions hinges on the process by which the Government asked the Electoral Commission for advice—I stress the word "advice"—on which regions looked most suitable for conducting postal ballots at the combined European and local elections in June. The commission said that two regions were clearly and positively suitable; four were possibly suitable; and the other four were not suitable. It also said clearly that it was open to the Government, as hardly needed saying, to explore whether, having considered the areas about which there was concern, they wished to add additional regions. That is what the Government have done. While considering the list of the possibly suitable, we established from that process that Scotland was not possible, because the electoral returning officers there were not confident that they could conduct a ballot. We could not—and should not—have done one in Scotland, as there was no certainty that it could be delivered.

I shall not go into detail, because the Front Benches know the issues as well as I do. With Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west, we considered issues of scale, commitment of returning officers, security, safety and fraud, through an active process of discussion and engagement. We came to the evidence-based conclusion that it was reasonable to carry out pilot elections in those two regions as well. In other words, we are satisfied, as are the regional returning officers who carry the legal liability for the elections, that it is safe and secure to carry out elections in the north-west and in Yorkshire and Humberside, as well as the other two. Our debate is about the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside.

I turn to the next question that may divide us: are four regions too large for a pilot? In a sense, that issue engages with the Electoral Commission. The commission was asked for its advice on which regions were suitable. It was not asked for its advice on how big the pilot should be, but, as it was entitled to, it gave a view. It is perfectly positive about two regions, could probably live with three, but thinks that four may go further than is necessary for a pilot. At heart, that is what we are debating. Without pushing the point, the debate is about whether three or four regions should take part in the process. The commission has said that it thinks that we could do what needs to be done in the pilot in three regions, without needing to go for four.

Why do the Government and the Commons feel so clearly that it is important that we have four regions? I shall summarise the reasons. The first point that I shall make, before going into detail, is relevant to the amendment that we will debate later: it is an issue for the Government and Parliament, not the Electoral Commission, to decide. I have the greatest respect for the commission and its chairman, but Parliament is there to make such judgments. They are often fine judgments about how issues should be addressed. That is as it should be, and it would be strange for this House or another place to concede that role to an external body.

Why four regions? First, as I have said, we will learn more from the complexity and diversity that we will get from those four. The four regions are not the same. There is more complexity in the north-west. The area of Yorkshire and Humberside is different, and we will have a better pilot by having evidence from those regions. Secondly, this is the last time until 2009 that we will be able to pilot postal balloting on a regional scale. As a consequence, we would be foolish not to try to maximise the opportunity for learning. Next, the two regions that we are talking about—the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside—will have all-out postal ballots in October 2004. That is an important reason. They will have those all-out postal ballots as part of the regional referendums. That proposal has been warmly welcomed by the Electoral Commission. The commission thinks that it is a good thing that we should have postal ballots in the regional referendums for three out of the four regions that we are talking about in October 2004. It said so clearly and on the record.

It may seem to some in the House slightly bizarre that we have a position in which the commission, like the Government, is positively recommending that we use postal ballots for regional referendums but do not use them for these ballots. That might be a debating point, but there are also some practicalities involved. Many local authorities in the two regions that we are debating have until now conducted their local elections by postal ballot. If the amendment to the Commons proposal were to be carried, local authorities that had carried out their elections well and properly by postal ballot would have to revert to traditional methods in June and go back to postal ballots in October. To the Government, that seems bizarre. It also seems strange to the Electoral Commission. It argues for keeping stability in the electoral arrangements, for obvious practical reasons.

For these reasons it seems to the Government that it is a judgment as to whether three or four regions are worth while. The judgment of the Government, supported by another place, is that on balance four is right and three is less good. In essence that is what I believe the debate is about.

There is also concern in what the Electoral Commission has said about whether the Government might be at risk of moving from pilots to universal postal balloting by a process of elision without having put in place what the commission believes to be right, which is individual voter registration. We do not intend to slide from pilots to universal application by a process of elision. We are looking very seriously indeed at individual voter registration. That is the position and the essence of the issues.

I shall now say something about Amendment No. 3C. We had a recent debate on that in this House. In another place the Government have made a concession on the point to sustain the traditional practice of individual voter witnessing on postal balloting. We do not believe that the evidence supports it, but in a spirit of seeking to narrow the differences between us and to show that we are not obdurate, we have made that concession and stand by it.

This process is obviously taking time and the delay is affecting and hurting those persons who have a real-life job to do in organising the elections. I am concerned about that as I am sure are the Opposition Benches. It would be good if we could bring this matter to a conclusion quickly and cleanly because none of us is gaining by the delay.

As a consequence of these changes we will learn more. If another place has its way, 2 million more people will vote in these regional and local government elections than would otherwise be the case. I shall not go into detail but I can substantiate that arithmetic without difficulty. Many more people will vote in the elections. Democrats that we are, that must matter to us for the reasons which I have signalled. Another place has now expressed its view twice on this issue and it has done so in the full knowledge of the views of this House. A strongly argued concession has been granted. I urge the House not to seek to frustrate the will of another place on this issue.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Commons Amendment No. 1A to which the Lords have disagreed.—(Lord Filkin.)

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

rose to move Amendment No. 1D, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No.1C in lieu of Commons Amendment No. 1A, at the end insert "but do make the following amendment thereto",

1DLine 3, at end insert—

"but, in the case of either region specified in paragraph (c) or (d) above, a pilot may only take place if it is specifically recommended by the Electoral Commission in a report which is laid before both Houses of Parliament after the coming into force of this Act."

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I want to make clear at the outset something which I believe I have made abundantly clear throughout our proceedings. While we are not totally engaged with the prospect of all-postal voting, we recognise that there is a rationale which says that it is necessary to see whether all-postal voting is a way of carrying out elections. We expect that there will be a number of ways of ensuring that election turn-out is increased and that all-postal voting may not be the end of the story. There is a reasonable rationale for saying that the experiment which has already been carried out on a limited basis at local elections should be tested on a slightly larger scale. We are not trying to frustrate the Government's intention to extend the experiment to a regional basis.

What we have been concerned about is the extent of that experimentation. I am not content with the way in which the Minister has put forward the view of the Electoral Commission. I say firmly and clearly that the commission was of the view that four regions was too many because it extended the vote to too great a proportion of the electorate.

Four regions will involve more than one-third of the electorate in pilot voting. I said in Committee and I say again now that I do not believe that one-third of the population can be considered as a pilot: it is almost an all-out election. We need to ensure that the test-bed areas are coherent and ones which satisfy criteria which have been laid down.

The Government have ignored the advice of the Electoral Commission that it could identify positively only two European election regions and their associated local government areas as being ready and able to hold all-postal elections in June. For the Government arbitrarily to decide that they would hold the elections in four regions despite that advice has run them into enormous problems.

The Government's original intention was to limit the experiment to up to three regions—I emphasise that that was the original brief given to the Electoral Commission—and four did not come into it. The commission was asked to identify up to three regions. The view of the commission was that there were only two regions which it was confident could carry out the pilots, with four others, as the Minister rightly said, which might be possible. But each of the remaining four had difficulties and the Electoral Commission could not possibly recommend any of them.

Despite these cautious words and caveats, the Government, without further consultation with the Electoral Commission, swung into action and declared that these experimental elections would be held in four regions, a step beyond even their own first unadvised thoughts.

While we have suspected all along that this was certainly to buoy up or dry run the elections for the regional assemblies, it has never been put, I believe I am right in saying, in such clear terms as the Minister used today. We have fenced round this, but we have never had such a clear indication that that is precisely what we are doing; namely, test-running the regional assembly elections. The House may want to take note of that.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I am so sorry to intervene, but I did not say that. I was very careful not to say that because that is not a good argument. I said that the process of moving from postal ballots to traditional and back to postal is not good administration for electoral returning officers. That was the linkage I made between these elections and the regional referenda.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I listened very carefully. I am clear that he said that these schemes were being promoted in the regional assembly areas. I shall read Hansard and if I am wrong I shall apologise to the Minister. I am pretty clear that that was the indication.

We debated at some length the rationale behind the Government's intentions and the Electoral Commission's views which have been clear. However, it is not only that the commission has concerns about the regions proposed by the Government when it carried out its initial review, but as I have already said, it was extremely dubious about the pilots being held over such a large proportion of the electorate. It believes that it is far too large to achieve the aims of finding out the limitations and difficulties, if any—and there may not be—of scaling up the previous pilots from small local elections to regions of hundreds of thousands of electors. It seems to us clear that four regions are far too many.

But we realise now that the Government are in a serious bind. Time is running out to establish the administration of all-postal votes on such a large scale, and decisions must be made. We are therefore offering the Government an opportunity to see if there is the way out of this problem. Our amendment could help the Government. After a further review, the Electoral Commission may feel that it could recommend one or other of the regions—Yorkshire and Humberside or the north-west—to carry out the pilot in three regions. That was the Government's original intention and it would therefore be consistent with their views before they decided to ignore their own intentions and the advice of the Electoral Commission.

However, I must make it clear that the Electoral Commission could make such a recommendation only if it had carried out a thorough review, taken soundings from largely the same sources as it previously consulted, and formed conclusions against its own criteria as well as the Government's—because that is what the Electoral Commission did previously—that one or other of the two regions was now ready and capable of running a pilot. If the Government are concerned that that recommendation would not come back before Parliament, that is in their own hands, because such a recommendation could indeed be brought back to Parliament before a decision was made. There should be no question of the chairman of the Electoral Commission, who has shown remarkable independence of view and consistency, being duffed up by Ministers to reach a conclusion in which he does not believe.

Were the amendment to be accepted, there would be a further review of both additional regions and a recommendation that one or the other could be included, that one or the other should be excluded or that neither was able to meet the Electoral Commission's criteria. In the latter case, the Government would have to resort to using two electoral regions. However, the Government could have the chance to achieve their original goal of using three regions. The commission would have an opportunity to subject the regions involved to an additional analysis, draw conclusions and, based on those, decide whether the Government should be restricted to the two regions originally recommended or could include one additional region. The electorate, being worried by the experiment, would therefore be reduced one way or another.

We have debated this matter on several occasions. As I said, time is running out, but there are valid reasons why the Opposition parties in this House have been very clear. If the Government seek advice, they should take it. They should not ignore it or seek in any way to try to influence the decision. Our amendment could enable the Government to run the pilots in three regions. We recognise that, if the Electoral Commission cannot recommend an additional region, the Government will have to stick to two. After all, that was the original recommendation. The Electoral Commission was set up by this Government to give advice. That advice has been clear and we believe that the Government can now afford to take it again and reach an outcome for this matter. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No.1C in lieu of Commons Amendment No. 1A, at the end insert "but do make Amendment No. 1D thereto".—(Baroness Hanham.)

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 12:00 pm, 18th March 2004

My Lords, I rise in support of Amendment No. 1D, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. Of course, at this stage of the debate, there are few new arguments to consider. Arguments about whether the Government are right or the Electoral Commission is right have been considered at some length by your Lordships, who have voted twice, heavily in favour of allowing the Electoral Commission's view—that there should not be four postal pilots—to prevail. Therefore, I will dwell on only a couple of particular arguments advanced by noble Lords opposite. The first goes back to the very role and purpose of the Electoral Commission.

The Government argued strongly for the creation of the Electoral Commission in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and for it to have a role beyond that of simply policing our existing electoral mechanics. In support of the creation of the Electoral Commission, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, noted:

"A number of Members of your Lordships' House have long argued for such a body to reinforce the integrity of our electoral arrangements".

He also said that,

"the electoral commission will be much more than simply an enforcement body. Another key function will be as the moderniser of our electoral system".—[Official Report, 3/4/00; col.1087–88.]

It is therefore right that this amendment, which relates to such dramatic changes to introduce postal pilots in half of England and almost half of the local authorities that have elections this year, should not be made without the express approval of the Electoral Commission.

I also remind the Minister of what he said in a Written Answer on 17 December 2003. He said that the,

"Electoral Commission was asked to recommend up to three regions or nations that might be able to pilot all-postal voting".

When the commission could recommend only two regions, he said:

"We remain keen, however, to proceed with all-postal voting in three regions", and he added:

"it is right that we do not rush into a decision on the third pilot, given the advice from the Electoral Commission".—[Official Report, 17/12/03; cols. WA 147–48.]

It appears that the advice was valued by a Government anxious to have three rather than four pilots. The amendment would allow for some consistency of approach from the Government and for what they are often fond of calling "joined-up thinking". It seems logical, therefore, that there should not have been any further progress beyond the two agreed regions towards all-postal pilots without the proper involvement of the Electoral Commission.

As we considered on Tuesday, it is alarming that a Labour Government can engage so directly with returning officers charged with conducting the elections fairly, but who are the employees of Labour councils fearful of their re-election, and can exclude the independent Electoral Commission from those deliberations. It could not be clearer from the commission's letter of 4 March that it considers that the logistical problems and risks of fraud and so forth outweigh,

"what we might learn from four regional pilots as opposed to two".

Everyone has the right to vote by post in these elections. The issue is simply whether it is right for the Government to proceed to order that ballot papers should be delivered to every name on an electoral register, which many of us know to be wildly inaccurate, without the express support of the independent body that was established to help to avoid the appearance that any change in electoral mechanics is made only for the advantage of the party proposing those changes. I think not, and I urge noble Lords to support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, I shall address the House only briefly. I rise because of something my noble friend said about the difficulties that could be created in areas where there has been a postal ballot if we reach a stage when there is no postal ballot this time but there will be a postal ballot for the regional elections.

Before moving on to that matter, I want to reinforce the message about the advantages that have been gained by postal voting. I refer particularly to Chorley, where I live. The turnout in the previous election in Chorley was about 30 per cent. With postal ballots, that went up to 62 per cent. Last year, between 58 and 59 per cent of the electorate in the area participated. What is going to happen if there is no postal ballot this time? Many of the people are going to find difficulty in knowing where the polling stations are. Indeed, many young people who did vote might not bother to vote. Coupled with that, in Chorley itself there is a large reorganisation of the wards taking place—up to 20 per cent—and that means it will be even more difficult for people to know where the polling stations are, creating tremendous difficulty for them.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in the general election next year the voters lucky enough to vote in Chorley will presumably have to find those very same polling stations. We will revert from postal balloting in an autumn referendum to traditional voting in a general election. Or is the plan to have all-postal voting in the general election, something that we do not yet know about?

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, forgets that in the north-west there will be a referendum in between, which will be a postal vote. They will be reverting to a postal vote, which will make it even more difficult. Could the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, tell me whether he is opposed to a postal vote for the referendum? Or is it in his interest that there might be a low poll? I invite him to comment on that.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, many of our concerns about the all-postal experimentation have been about fraud. It seems to me that across an entire region the margin of fraud may be a small percentage, and perhaps that is a risk you can take. I have argued on a number of occasions that in these crucial local authority elections, also taking place in June, a handful of votes will determine the outcome in a number of wards and councils. For that reason it is wholly inappropriate to have all-postal voting without proper safeguards in place. If we are dealing simply with the European elections, it might be a different matter.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, apparently it is all right for local elections but not for European elections. It seems very strange for a democrat, particularly from the Liberal Benches, to argue in favour of a low turn-out in European elections. It means—there is no doubt about it from the figures I have given—that it will lead to a higher turn-out in European elections.

On fraud, after the postal votes had taken place there was opinion poll testing in Chorley, requested by the Electoral Commission and done by national polling organisations, that found no evidence of fraud. What the Electoral Commission said in relation to the last pilot schemes is rather interesting. It said that it has,

"no reason to believe that pilot schemes have to date resulted in an increase in the incidence of electoral offences".

It was not just Chorley and Trafford that had taken part previously. It went further than that, because Blackpool, Bolton, Hyndburn, Salford, Saint Helens and certain wards in Preston also took part in postal voting. So it is quite a large proportion of the north-west region.

On 27 October, in Manchester, there was a meeting of all the returning officers in the north-west and, almost unanimously—except for two returning officers instructed by their local authorities—all returning officers were of the opinion that postal voting should cover the whole of the north-west. Indeed, the representative of the Electoral Commission who was there said he would report back. The returning officers gained the impression from what he said that they would be among the regions that would be favoured, because of their views. I put that to noble Lords, in the light of talk about returning officers. It was the view of independent returning officers that it would be better to do it.

Another point is that the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, is standing in the European elections in the north-west. It will be to the shame of this House if it turns down postal ballots in the north-west and we enable the BNP to gain a seat in Europe. The lower the turn-out, the greater the advantage to the BNP and the more likely that it will gain a seat.

I say to the Liberals that I am really amazed to hear the spokesman from the Front Bench this morning talking not about increasing the vote but about decreasing it. I say this with sorrow because, while I have had many criticisms of the Liberal Party, I have always believed they are democrats. Indeed, they join me in believing in an elected element in this House, so I do find it unusual of them. I also say to the House as a whole, surely, at the end of the day, it is for the elected House, not an unelected House, to take that decision. I find it amazing that an unelected House should interfere with making it easier—not harder, and that is what your Lordships are doing—for people to cast their vote in a democratic election. If you go down that road once more, you are storing up trouble for a House that has been elected by no one.

Photo of Lord Thomson of Monifieth Lord Thomson of Monifieth Liberal Democrat 12:17 pm, 18th March 2004

My Lords, I would like to ask the Minister to answer a general question. I put this with due diffidence, as I have not so far taken part in these discussions but have sat, followed and read them carefully. I would like to follow up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I would personally like to seek an assurance from the Government that—in making their judgment and asking Parliament to make a decision on this particular issue of how far regional postal voting should go—they do not have in mind at all to introduce an all-postal general election in this country. That would be a very serious step indeed. I listened carefully to the Minister's very closely argued and very fair analysis of these particular proposals, but I did not hear one word about the secrecy of the ballot. It is that aspect of moving from a traditional voting system, which we fought for very hard in the previous century, to an all-postal vote that most concerns me.

My earliest memory of participating as a leg soldier in my first general election in 1945, in a rural area in Scotland, is of visiting all the potential Labour voters, to deliver the literature to them and to show that we were very anxious that they were sure to cast their vote. There were not very many of them in my particular area: the stationmaster; the postmaster; a few people in that category. I was then on duty as the Labour Party observer at the village polling booth, a first experience for me. I was a total novice. In my innocence, when the people I knew were Labour voters arrived, I went forward to say hello to them. I realised, when they walked past me, stony-faced, that I had made a dreadful error which I have never subsequently made. But I did realise how sacred is the value of this secret ballot. Many circumstances have changed since 1945, but there are new aspects to the social composition of the electorate in this country. With my experience of elections, I really have to be reassured that there is a reliable secrecy of ballot attached to a postal voting system.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I did not intend to speak today because I spoke at some length during the progress of the Bill. However, I am motivated to do so by my old friend—although he is not my political friend—the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, who is now laughing at me.

I shall make three brief points. First, backing up what my noble friend Lord Rennard said in his intervention on the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, whichever way this goes, there will be authorities that change from one form of voting to another and then back again, at fairly frequent intervals. Therefore, frankly, what the Government have given as an argument is simply not an argument. In my part of the world, we shall be moving from ordinary votes to postal votes and back to ordinary votes. People will have to cope with that, whatever happens.

Secondly, the noble Lord said that in the north-west a large or significant proportion of local authorities were affected. In fact, I believe that it is about 10 per cent that have had all-postal pilots. There is no guarantee that they will even have all-postal votes in their local elections next year. So it is backwards and forwards.

What really got me going, and what let the cat out of the bag, was when the noble Lord talked about Mr Nick Griffin. I shall be spending much of the next two-and-a-half months doing my very best to ensure that he does not get elected in the north-west; it would be a disaster, as the noble Lord says. But the noble Lord seems to put forward the idea that one changes an electoral system in order to achieve a particular outcome—rather than on matters of principle. In this House we have mainly discussed matters of principle in debating this Bill but, from what I have heard about their debates, they have not done so in the other place. At least we have stuck to the issues before us. To suggest that the reason for changing to an all-postal vote in the north-west would be to stop Mr Griffin winning is actually playing to the advantage of the BNP. There is not doubt about that.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, I did not suggest that we should change to stop him winning. What I suggested was that it would be more difficult for him to win if there was postal voting, as recommended by the returning officers of the region.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I do not believe that changing to postal voting will make it more difficult for the BNP to win a seat. I am quite happy to discuss the matter in detail with the noble Lord to establish why that is so. Many traditional Labour voters in traditional Labour areas are apathetic about voting for the Labour Party and will not vote for it. If there is an all-postal vote, they may well use the much easier way of voting to vote for other parties, such as the BNP. In my view, the balance is neither way.

Having an all-postal ballot will not make any difference at all in the north-west to the results of the elections. I do not want to see such a ballot in the north-west, but for other reasons entirely—reasons particularly related to the widespread electoral fiddling that has been taking place in some parts of the north-west in recent years. That includes the part of the north-west that the noble Lord once represented in the House of CommonsNelson and Colne. I believe that the motivation for such a proposal in the north-west is entirely political, because the Labour Party believes that it will do better in the elections. I do not believe that to be the case anyway; I believe that, whatever happens, the results will be the same.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I wish to say a few words in response to the points made by those on the Opposition Front Benches. I shall not detain the House for long.

In response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, I assure him that the Government have no intention to carry out the next general election on all-postal ballots. We have expressed an interest in moving towards local government elections being carried out on all-postal voting, but there are clearly significant issues that we must explore and discuss. That will not be immediate.

The noble Lord is correct in saying that I did not say much about secrecy. That is not because the issue has not been an important part of our explorations on this Bill—it has been. However, in essence I sought, the last time we discussed the matter, to summarise very succinctly where I believed that progress had been made in trying to deter fraud, detect it if it happened, assess the effect on voter confidence and investigate proactively what level of fraud actually took place, as opposed to the levels that were reported. I have signalled those four points as the foundations, and I do not believe that there is much between us on the importance of all those measures. I am not saying that those matters are unimportant; as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would be the first to remind us, those issues are very important.

I turn to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. Much has been made during this and previous discussions about the fact that, after the Electoral Commission's report, the Government did not discuss with the commission but did discuss with regional returning officers whether they could securely and effectively carry out the elections. More is being made of that point than it merits. The Electoral Commission was itself explicit in saying that it was completely open to the Government to have further discussions to see whether the issues on which uncertainty or concern had been raised by the commission could be addressed. That is exactly what has happened.

I shall not go into detail on the question of returning officers being compliant, whether at regional or local levels. I was once, as a chief executive, offered the role of returning officer but declined it because, although the emoluments were generous, I was not sure that I could give it the amount of time that the seriousness of the issues justified. Therefore, I delegated it to the borough solicitor, who was exactly as a borough solicitor should be—utterly impartial.

I turn finally—because we have discussed those issues previously—to a further reason why I do not believe that the amendment should be carried. It is more of a technical reason, rather than to do with the fundamental issues of principle. I found that on two counts the amendment was flawed; that it was ambiguous in two respects.

If the House is asking the Electoral Commission specifically to recommend, it is not clear on what basis it is being asked to recommend. On the one hand, is it on the grounds that such elections in such a region could be delivered effectively and securely? On the other hand, is it on the basis that it would be a good idea to have four regions rather than three? There is an ambiguity in that respect.

There is a second ambiguity, which became apparent only when the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, spoke to the amendment. She saw the word "either" as meaning "one or the other". We and our lawyers saw quite clearly that it meant, if the test was met, either the north-west or Yorkshire and the Humber, or both. There is confusion about the meaning of the amendment. Therefore, if for no other reason, I ask the House not to support it.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I shall not tangle with the Minister over the English language, but "either" seems to me to mean "one or". I have never heard a definition of "either" that did not say that.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I regret to interrupt but there is a three-way disagreement on this matter. When I was giving my interpretation of "either", those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench were strongly agreeing with how I interpreted it.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Shadow Minister, Law Officers (Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, on the question of interpretation, I have to say that I agree with the Minister.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for his helpful intervention. However, I made it clear in my speech what the amendment is about—and I am sure that it will be on record. It is about saying to the Electoral Commission that there is a possibility of one more electoral region—in other words, three. As things stand, that possibility can become a reality only if the Electoral Commission goes back over the ground that it covered before—

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, perhaps I can help the noble Baroness. The Electoral Commission made it absolutely plain in its letter of 4 March that four pilots were too many, for all the reasons that it set out. It is open to the Electoral Commission only to consider a third pilot.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that even more helpful intervention—that one really was helpful.

The amendment would clearly provide the Government with an opportunity to see whether the Electoral Commission is prepared to recommend one more region. If it were, that would be acceptable. If it were not, then it would not. The opportunity here is for the Government to have three regions. There is no question of this amendment being used to enable the Government to go for four. I want to make it very clear that the amendment is not about that; it is there to see whether the Government can have a third region, as originally intended, but based only on a recommendation following a review by the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, who I have known for years. I am sorry to have to say that she can state at the Dispatch Box what she believes she intends by her amendment but, as a matter of law, what I have stated is the fact. If this amendment is carried, it is open for either three, or four, or two to be the product of this process.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that remark. As I said, we have debated this issue at length. I have made very clear what our amendment is intended to do. I have made clear the intention behind the amendment: that there should be an opportunity for the Government to have a third region and that the Electoral Commission should review whether that is possible. This is a matter for the House. I think that it is now time to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1D) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 135; Not-Contents, 106.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — "Piloting conduct at European and local elections

Aye: 133 Members of the House of Lords

No: 104 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

Motion, as amended, agreed to