"Piloting conduct at European and local elections

– in the House of Lords at 2:33 pm on 25th 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 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 the Bill in lieu of that amendment—

1CLeave 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.' The Lords agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Commons Amendment No. 1A, but propose the following amendment thereto—

1D Line 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." The Commons disagree to Lords Amendment No. 1D to Commons Amendment No. 1C, for the following reason—

Because it is not necessary to seek further advice from 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 beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1D to Commons Amendment No. 1C, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1E.

We are in an unusual situation. This is the fourth time that this issue is being considered by this House, and I hope that it will be the last.

With regard to Amendment No. 1D, it is clearly not appropriate to delegate decision-making on this issue to the Electoral Commission. In response to the Deputy Prime Minister's request for clarification, the Electoral Commission has made its position clear. It said:

"We very much recognise that the choice of pilot regions for all-postal voting is for Government and Parliament to decide. The Commission's role is advisory and it is not for us to say yes or no to pilots in particular areas. However, it is imperative that a decision is not further delayed".

The Electoral Commission has therefore given a clear view that it is this House and another place that should make these decisions: it is not for us to hide behind it.

We are therefore back where we were when we last debated this—which, I suggest to the House, essentially turns around two questions: which regions and how many regions? However, I think that the position has moved on somewhat. It is now clearer that the Electoral Commission has accepted the Government's position that Yorkshire and Humberside is suitable for a pilot in the combined elections in June. The debate, therefore, is about the north-west.

As I sought to set out in our previous discussion on this matter, after the Commission had indicated that the north-west was potentially suitable for a pilot in the combined elections in June, the Commission also made it clear that it was open to the Government to have further discussions with the relevant authorities, to see if the concerns that they had identified about the complexity in the north-west could be met. As I have indicated, the Government have done just that, as is their responsibility, and the regional returning officer and the returning officers in those authorities have made a clear statement to the Government that they believe that they can carry out all-postal ballots in the June European and local elections, and do so soundly, securely and safely. The Government's view, therefore, is that there is no good reason not to have the north-west included as a pilot region.

We see that there are four regions suitable for carrying out pilots of all-postal ballots, and it is important to deepen our understanding of piloting. If we needed any reminder of why this is important—I promise the House that I will not repeat the argumentation that I made, and already hear sighs of relief in the Chamber—I would draw the attention of the House to the publication by the Electoral Commission this week of its Audit of Political Engagement.

This is not a party political issue but one which binds us all in concern, given the appallingly low level of public engagement with politics and voting in our society. I will say no more on that for now. It is perhaps an issue for reflection and discussion, to which we should return at another time in this House on a non-partisan basis, because we do share these concerns.

I mention it only in order to emphasise that it is for no trivial reason that we are exploring and learning as much as we can about whether it is safe, sound and beneficial to change our voting system to all-postal balloting. We are doing so because it is important to address this issue of increasing turnout and political participation in our society.

I suggest to the House, therefore, that there is clearly an emerging consensus from the Government and the Electoral Commission—if I have read the thrust of the amendment by the Liberal Democrats correctly—that Yorkshire and Humberside now look safe and sound for an all-postal ballot. The issue is whether we are talking about three regions or four regions in relation to these ballots in June.

Why four? If anything, there is a shade of difference between, on the one hand, the Government and the Commons who share a view and, on the other, the Electoral Commission. If I understand the Electoral Commission's position clearly—and I think I do, because it has been straightforward both in correspondence and in discussion—it believes, first, that we can learn most of what we need to know about piloting from three regions, and therefore one does not need to go to four to do so. Secondly, it has an anxiety about moving through a process of incremental drift from pilots, to what it thought might effectively be all-out postal balloting, without having put in place some of the security arrangements that we discussed in our earlier consideration of the Bill.

These issues are judged ultimately by Parliament and the public rather than by the Electoral Commission. As I have said before, I have respect for Sam Younger and the Electoral Commission. However, this is an issue of judgment, not a black and white issue. The judgment turns on whether we will learn anything more from piloting the arrangements in four regions. From my perspective, and that of the Government and the Commons, it is self-evident that we would learn more by doing that. As we have discussed in previous debates on the Bill, the north west is different. It has specific issues that are interesting and important and potentially challenging. Learning from piloting in that context will be beneficial for us all in making measured judgments about when we should move to all-postal balloting for local elections. So we will learn more if the north west is included in this process.

The second reason the Government are clear that on balance it is sensible to pilot in four regions is a different one. I do not think that the commission and the Government are at all at odds on it. Both the commission and the Government agree that it is desirable that we carry out all-postal balloting in the three regions, which of course include the north west, that will have regional referenda in October. That is clearly the Electoral Commission's position. It has supported the Government's statement of intent.

Therefore, from my previous comments and what is clear in the recent correspondence from the Electoral Commission, there is no issue about the north east, Yorkshire and Humberside, which will have regional referenda. The debate is whether it is sensible to expect the north west— where many of the local authorities will have carried out their previous local authority elections on an all-postal ballot basis—to move in the June elections to traditional arrangements and then to revert back, in October, to all-postal ballots. The Electoral Commission is entitled to its view. The Government are entitled to their view as well. We think that we will learn more from piloting in four regions rather than three. We do not want the slightly bizarre position in which, if this House sustains its view, some local authorities in the north west will move from postal ballots for local elections to traditional ballots for the elections in June, and then move back to postal ballots in October.

I ask the House whether that seems sensible. Does that seem an issue of fundamental principle on which this House would want to take a constitutional stand in the face of the will of the House of Commons? That is the final issue that we have to look at.

This House, of which I am privileged to be a Member, has a duty and a right to scrutinise legislation. I have a respect for the way in which it goes about that. I think that the House, while not doing that perfectly, does it well. However, we know that the constitutional settlement is that this House scrutinises legislation and gives its view and its advice to another place. It is the duty of the other place to consider that view and advice and then to make its decision. The conventions of our place are that, ultimately, after this House has been assured—sometimes, if necessary, by a process including more than one testing—that the other place has come to a considered assessment, in the round, of the reasons for its view and that it has considered this House's opinion, the Commons have their way and we grant them their way.

That is not for a trivial or petty reason. While this House has great merits, it is not elected. The constitutional settlement in this society is that, after this House has done its job and drawn the attention of the other place to areas of concern, ultimately it bends to the will of the other place. The Commons have expressed their view on this issue three times after they have considered our opinions. I do not think that it is right or proper for us to resist their will any more. We have done our job. They have considered our views. They have come to an opinion—not once, not twice, but thrice.

I will say no more on that, but I will remind the House of the view of the Wakeham report. While the report did not find fulfilment in every respect, it did largely capture the view, on a cross-party basis, on the constitutional settlement of this place. The report said:

"It is right that the House of Commons should be the principal political forum and have the final say in respect of all major public policy issues, including those expressed in the form of proposed legislation".

It continued:

"More generally, the second chamber should be cautious about challenging the clearly expressed views of the House of Commons on any public policy issue".

This House has given its view and advice three times, and the Commons have now clearly expressed their wish in this respect. The Commons must have their way, not simply because that is our settlement, but because the argument that divides this House and the other place turns essentially on a judgment on one region—on whether we will learn more or less by its inclusion, and whether this is a drift towards roll-out. I have clearly said that it is not a drift towards roll-out. We do not intend to move in that direction without proper processes and safeguards.

The Commons must have its way. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1D to Commons Amendment No. 1C, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1E.—(Lord Filkin.)—

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 2:45 pm, 25th March 2004

rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that this House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1D to Commons Amendment No. 1C to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1E, at end insert "but do make the following Amendment to Commons Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Lords Amendment No. 1D"—

1FClause 1, Line 3, leave out—

"(d) North West."

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this amendment is a new proposal not previously considered in the other place, to allow for three postal pilots to take place, in the hope that it is a way in which to resolve this matter. I will argue that this is a compromise—splitting the difference between the view of one House and one political party that there should be four pilots, and the view of our House and all other parties that there should be two. We in this House, and everyone but the Labour Party, have sustained a view that the independent Electoral Commission's opinion on the scale and places for piloting should be pivotal in our considerations. This is not a technical issue on which there could be a variety of opinions worth debating. It is, I think, a very principled one—that no one party should choose different voting mechanisms for different places according to its own interest, based in this case on fears that the electorate will not turn out to support it.

Perhaps a different way of resolving the matter of testing postal pilots might have been to allow each of the parties to nominate one region for polling. That would have been rather more democratic than the Government's proposal that there should be all-postal voting in the northern half of England—where the Labour party wants it most, where Labour support is most concentrated, and where most Labour councillors are fearful of re-election—and none in the south, where Labour support is at its weakest.

The majority of Members in another place say that it is up to them to decide on methods of voting as they represent the party that received most votes at the previous election—albeit just over four in 10 of those voting, representing only about one in four of those entitled to vote. An opinion poll today suggests that only about four in 10 people know who their Member of Parliament is and only about three in 10 say that MPs are doing a good job. Reading yesterday's debate, one can see why.

One reason that they should not decide this issue alone, without consensus and in opposition to the Electoral Commission, is that they have a vested interest in the decision. That is why the issue regarding where the line should be drawn between electoral experimentation and simply rolling out a different voting system should be left not to one party to decide to its own advantage but to an independent body charged with helping to avoid the kind of dispute between the parties that we now have.

Parliament—which to some people means only one House— should decide, it is argued, on the fundamental issue of whether or not to do away with ballot boxes and have all postal voting. But we cannot have the Government picking and choosing which regions should have which voting mechanism according to their own electoral advantage. The Government say that they are not effectively changing the voting system; they are experimenting with it only through pilots. However, the question of what is a limited number of experiments and what is simply rolling out a different way of voting is an issue on which most parties and the independent Electoral Commission cannot agree with the Labour Government.

The Government asked Parliament to agree to postpone the local and London elections until 10 June so that they coincided with the European elections. At that stage, they did not want all postal pilots; or, if they did, they were not at that stage being honest about it. That would have been a major factor in considering whether or not to agree to the rare measure of postponing local elections. That matter was agreed on these Benches but on the basis of a false prospectus about how those elections were to be conducted.

The Government then surprised everyone by asking for there to be three all-postal pilots although at this stage they accepted the role of the Electoral Commission in deciding which three might be suitable. When the commission said that only two regions were in a position for them positively to recommend the idea, the Government maintained that they wanted three pilots. The Electoral Commission now says that three pilots, including Yorkshire and the Humber, can be carried out according to the agreed criteria of balancing logistical problems, fears of fraud and acceptance of the principle. It states in a letter yesterday that its objections to the idea of all-postal pilots in the north-west remain today just as they were last December.

This amendment offers the Government what they say they have wanted throughout most of a lengthy process of consideration of the issue. I believe that it would be churlish of them to reject it. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that this House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1D to Commons Amendment No. 1C to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1E, at end insert "but do make Amendment No. 1F to Commons Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Lords Amendment No. 1D".—(Lord Rennard.)

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, I wish to intervene and perhaps lay on the record for students of proceedings on these matters what the position is in relation to votes in the House of Commons. What is clear to me is that in the past month a decision has been taken among groups of Opposition Peers to exert considerably more pressure on the Floor of the House by calling votes at inconvenient times and insisting on voting on issues which are clearly in contradiction to the position taken by Members of the elected House. In so far as I believe that the inevitable course we are on is one of crisis in the relationship between the two Houses, I should like to set down for students of these issues where we are on this Bill.

Photo of Lord Tordoff Lord Tordoff Liberal Democrat

My Lords, perhaps I may—

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, I shall give way in a few moments. Perhaps at this stage I could refer to an Early Day Motion tabled in the House of Commons two and a half weeks ago which refers to similar attempts to sabotage government legislation on the Criminal Justice Bill. Students of these issues may wish to know that it is EDM 847 in the Official Report of the House of Commons. It deals with Clauses 41 and 42 of the Criminal Justice Bill. The Motion concludes that it,

"condemns unreservedly those Peers who pay lip service to the primacy of this House;"— that is the Commons—

"believes the issue to be considered in this case is not the merit of the clauses"— on that occasion it was dealing with jury trial—

"on which honourable Members are entitled to have differing views but the abuse of the constitutional relationship between Lords and Commons and questions the commitment to democracy of unelected Opposition Peers who reject the primacy of the elected House".

On this occasion there have been four votes—

Photo of Lord Tordoff Lord Tordoff Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the fact that somehow the timetable was being dictated by the Opposition in your Lordships' House. That is clearly not true. The timetable of this House is in the hands of the Government, certainly with the support of the other parties. The idea that somehow the timetabling that brings issues into this House at times that are unacceptable to Members of the Government is clearly wrong.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, the timetabling of the debate today inevitably must be in the hands of the Opposition whose decisions on these issues have led to this debate.

Photo of Lord Tordoff Lord Tordoff Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the timetabling of this debate today is not in the hands of the Opposition. The fact that this matter has come back from the Commons at this time today is not a matter for the opposition parties. It is a matter for the Government. If the noble Lord does not accept that, he should talk to his Front Bench about it.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, the noble Lord should talk to his own Front Bench in the House of Commons. Those Members will tell him that the Government have won in another place on four separate occasions. I am arguing that if this repeated defeating of the Government on this important issue had not taken place, we should not be sitting here today. Therefore, the responsibility for the debate taking place today falls precisely to those who have placed the Government in this position.

Let me set out the figures so that students of these matters will know. The Government's position in the Commons was carried on 16 December with a vote of 357 to 135. It was then taken for a second time in the Commons on 8 March. The Government's position was upheld by a vote of 269 to 166. It was then taken on a third occasion in the House of Commons and was carried by a vote of 312 to 115. It was then taken yesterday in the House of Commons and was carried by 308 to 185. The noble Baroness may look frustrated by the use of these figures but the reality is that these are elected Members of Parliament expressing their view in the Division Lobbies of the House of Commons.

The noble Baroness and noble Lords opposite might like to know what they are saying about these matters in the House of Commons. Mr Winnick said:

"Is it not an outright impertinence for those in the unelected Chamber to try to set down voting procedures when the House of Commons has made its decisions? Should we not tell them so now?".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/3/04; col. 956.]

Mr Lindsay Hoyle said:

"It has quite rightly been stated that the matter before us is for the House to decide, because we are the elected House, we represent the people and we represent the electorate out there. Therefore, does my hon. Friend agree that this decision should be taken here, not by an unelected House".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/3/04; col. 956.]

Mr Leslie, the Minister, replied:

"My hon Friend hits the nail on the head. An important constitutional principle is at stake. The House of Commons has made its views known on a number of occasions, yet the second Chamber has been acting not in a revising capacity, but perhaps in a blocking capacity".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/3/04; col. 956.]

The reality is that we are blocking. We have blocked with votes of 169 to 110, 174 to 130, 135 to 106, and no doubt the intention of Members of this House is once again to block the measure today, or basically the principle of the four pilots. All I say to the House is that we cannot go on like that. At some stage, someone has to consider what primacy means. It seems a pointless exercise if people argue in this Chamber that they believe in primacy—I have heard it repeatedly, certainly over the past six to nine months—and set out deliberately to defeat the Government, having voted on three separate occasions and the fourth occasion is coming up today. My case stands on the fact that we are now taking on the other House in a way that it finds unacceptable.

Furthermore, what we are doing will have major implications for the relationship between the Houses. There is deep frustration in the House of Commons about what is going on in the House of Lords. When I came down here, I was advised that it was not a particularly political place—that people set out to revise legislation, argued passionately, and had extremely good debating arrangements. I have heard some of the finest debates in all my 23 years in the Palace of Westminster in the House of Lords. But the reality is that we are moving on from revisory debates into the area of blocking the Government on issues that are of vital importance. On this occasion, on the basis of the amendment, we are blocking on the question of whether people in the north-west of England should have the right to vote in the elections by way of post—I mean, whether there should be a postal vote.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 3:00 pm, 25th March 2004

My Lords, the noble Lord has not taken part in our debates until today, so it is entirely understandable that he might not have a complete grasp on what we are talking about. The amendment is not about whether people have a right to vote by post, but the reverse—whether postal voting is compulsory, with people not having the right to go to a polling station.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, I qualified what I said. If the noble Lord reads Hansard, he will see that I made a change and mentioned the right to an election by postal vote, which means that everyone would vote with a postal vote.

I have sat through previous proceedings on the Bill and heard the noble Lord's contributions, which have been very interesting. He obviously feels quite strongly that there is a problem of fraud in his part of the country; he referred to it on a number of occasions. The Electoral Commission set out in its report another explanation of why it has taken the view that it has, although it makes reference to fraud in parts of that report. I have difficulty understanding why people in Cumbria should be punished for the actions of a small minority of people somewhere else in the north-west of England. That is really what is happening. The case that the noble Lord has always put has essentially been about fraud. He has probably been the motivating force behind much of the debate for the exclusion of the north-west of England. I presume that he gave evidence to the Electoral Commission. Do I presume correctly that he protested to it about problems going on in his part of the country?

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, if the noble Lord is inviting an intervention, I cannot resist. I did as he said in the past, when the fraud took place. My concerns are not about one small part of the north-west, but about a very large part of it.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, all I suggest is that the noble Lord's statements of evidence to the commission will certainly have influenced it in the judgment that it made, despite the fact that the report in December states that that is not necessarily the case. Should other people in the north-west of England be punished? If there is a problem in small localities in the country, sort out those localities. Do not let everyone suffer because of a problem in a small number of localities. That is at the heart of my objections today, in terms of the recommendation before the House.

I am sorry to speak to the House in such a way this afternoon, but I believe that there is a developing crisis in the relationship between the two Houses. It stems from the fact that we are moving from a revisory role into something much more sinister, and we are going to pay the price for it.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I have not been in this House very long but, in the time that I have and the time that I have spent on the Front Bench, I have not heard such a threatening speech from a Labour Member, nor one that was probably so misjudged.

We have spent a long time on the Bill. I remind the House that the Bill is about promoting all-postal piloting in two or three European areas. It is designed precisely to extend all-postal piloting to European elections. It is not about denying people votes or an all-postal vote, but asking whether all-postal balloting in a less limited pilot than has yet been tried—they have been in local elections—is sustainable on a larger basis.

The Government have had the benefit of the advice of their own commission. The Opposition did not set up the Electoral Commission—the Government did. They had a long report from it, part of which said that it thought that it would be suitable for two European electoral regions to be part of the electoral pilot, and that four others might be able to take part. For each of those, however, there was a problem. That is the situation. We have discussed the processes and the anxieties that we have all had about all-postal balloting. We discussed the really practical issues; the noble Lord may have sat in on those debates but certainly did not take part in Committee, on Report or at Third Reading.

We now have a situation in which we have to decide whether Parliament agrees with the Government that there should be four regions. Initially the Government never asked for four regions. They initially asked the Electoral Commission to promote three regions and then, quite suddenly, announced that there would be four. I chided the Minister in our previous debate because he suddenly let the cat out of the bag on why there should be four regions. We had a small contretemps on whether he had said something or not. However, it has been confirmed today that, of those four regions, three would be those involved in referendums for the regional assemblies in October. We now have a bigger canvas than we had before. We are talking about not simply European pilots, but the referendums in October.

I do not really want to get stuck on constitutional issues, but my understanding when I came to this place—I was extremely proud of it—was that I was a Member of Parliament. I believe that this House has a right to ask our Parliament to consider further matters as and when it believes, in the majority, that that is correct. We have now reached a stage where the amendment would enable the Government not only to have their Bill, but to have three electoral regions. That was where they first started. The argument has not really been about three; we discussed two and have now moved to see that there could be three.

Let us think on the matter a bit further. When we discussed it last week, we said that the Government should seek the views of the Electoral Commission about a third pilot area, and that those views should be brought forward after it had consulted all those whom it had previously consulted in the electoral regions—it could go and talk to both the Yorkshire and Humber and north-west regions.

I do not know whether noble Lords opposite have seen the letter from the chairman, who now accepts that the electoral administrators in Yorkshire and Humberside are more positive about the process. The Deputy Prime Minister's letter to the commission, which generated that response, was apparently written on 22 March—although we have not seen a copy of it. The chairman of the Electoral Commission's response was on 23 March. That was not long enough for him to have consulted more widely than the electoral officers, if that, and certainly not to have looked again at the previous consultations.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

But, My Lords, the noble Baroness keeps referring to electoral returning officers in the north west.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, Yorkshire and Humberside. Instead of that I understand that the noble Baroness said that they were more definite about such matters in Yorkshire and Humberside compared with the north west.

Noble Lords:

No!

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, if the noble Baroness did not say that, I withdraw.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, when last we debated this issue we suggested that the commission's views would be helpful, but that there should be no question of the chairman being "duffed up"—my words—by the Deputy Prime Minister in order to form those views.

An additional interesting facet in the interchange between the Deputy Prime Minister and the commission is a Written Answer given today in the other place to my honourable friend Philip Hammond. It says that at a meeting between the Deputy Prime Minister and the commission both parties agreed that all four of the regions announced by the Deputy Prime Minister were capable of running a successful pilot. In the light of what we know, and in the light of what has been said by the chairman of the commission in his most recent letter, dated 23 March, we know that that is, if not disingenuous, certainly not quite as accurate as has been put forward in this reply.

I must accept that the commission, despite the fact that I do not believe that it has had time to undertake further consultation, has given its view that Yorkshire and Humberside would be capable of conducting a pilot. But the Government ought to recognise that in that letter the chairman, who has been very robust and consistent about the matter, has stood firm on his original decision that the north west was not a suitable area for an all-postal vote and said that there were no merits in piloting in four regions. I have the letter with me and if noble Lords wish to see it they may do so.

The Government will recall that if all four regions were involved, it would mean, on the commission's assessment, that over a third of the electorate would be taking part in a pilot. That is a situation that is clearly untenable—my words not theirs. The Government should now give up their absurd determination to proceed to four regions. Today they will have the opportunity to take forward the proposals in three regions because, however reluctant I am, we will support the Liberal Democrats in their amendment. There is, and should be, no connection between the European pilots and the referendum in October. What is important is that there is a limited pilot of a scale of a region, so that any lessons that need to be learned about all-postal voting on a slightly larger canvass can be learned.

The pilots do not need to be in the same regions as the referendums, but they do need to be held and assessed before there is any question of them being translated forward. While we all rant on about the constitution, it would be fair to remind the House that what we are doing in the pilots is disconnecting the voter from the ballot box and, by and large, disconnecting the voters from the candidates. This is not a matter to be taken lightly. It is an extremely serious decision for the House and Parliament to be making. I have given the reasons why we will support the Liberal Democrat amendment, but I reject any suggestion that my party has in any way been behaving improperly in trying to ensure that the pilots take place in a rational way, as supported by the Government's own advisers.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, like the noble Baroness opposite, I have not been in the House all that long. I know that I am a Member of Parliament, but, perhaps differently from her, I accept that I am a Member of Parliament with very limited powers. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours made a case. It may have been a touch abrasive for noble Lords opposite, but I think he was saying that this House has to recognise its constitutional responsibilities. I am not going to talk about the substantive element of the amendment. I shall talk about the fact that we, not only in word, but in deed, must recognise and acknowledge the supremacy of an elected House, and that we have a stewardship which is answerable to the people.

The Government have taken their decision and at some stage this House must recognise that the political decision has been taken. It has been taken not by the Electoral Commission but by the Government. It is not a conscience issue; it is not a moral issue; it is a political issue. This House does scrutinise and revise but we must reach a stage when we acknowledge in deed the supremacy of the elected Government.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, will the noble Lord read the Acts of 1911 and 1949—one from our party and one from his? He is saying a good deal more than is said by those Acts.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, I am certainly not given to reading the historical circumstances which have just been described by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, but I am concerned with practical politics and with the British people being represented by elected Members of Parliament.

If we want a future and if we want to be able to advise the government of the day—not only a Labour government but perhaps a Conservative government again one day—we have to recognise our limitations. As far as I am concerned, we should now support the Government's wish—because they are the elected body.

Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative

My Lords, I had always understood that as well as being a revising Chamber, we have a duty to cause the Commons to stop and think again. I had understood that that was an accepted procedure at least twice. The third time we have to accept the inevitable, but before that, we have not only a right but a duty to delay and to cause them to think again.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 3:15 pm, 25th March 2004

My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words in response to the points raised in this debate. I will seek to keep them succinct, because I am not optimistic that I will necessarily turn the debate on what I say.

I acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, opened his speech by signalling that this was an attempt to move towards the position of the Government and the Commons. What I shall now say does not detract from that in any way. I am slightly confused about the stance of the opposition party on this issue, because the honourable Member for Somerton and Frome, David Heath, yesterday made clear in the other place that if we had been moving to universal postal ballots at this point he would perhaps have supported that. I refer to col. 966 of the Commons Official Report. He set out why he took that view. That was a bold statement but it is considerably at variance with the nicety of debate that we are having here about whether four is too many, but three is enough. In another place, the Liberal Democrat Front Bench was clearly saying that a universal postal ballot in these elections would be worth having a go. Be that as it may.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, also said—this is not the first occasion on which it has been mentioned—that potentially these issues may be rooted in evil party political hopes and fears. All I would say on that is that I have asked officials for what evidence there is that postal balloting will affect one party to the advantage of another, and they have failed to provide me with any. There is much party political rhetoric and excitement among political activists on this point, but there is not much evidence to support it either way.

There is one further point that I should bring to the attention of the House, because it matters to all of us. It is clear that the delay consequent on the Commons and the Lords not being able to agree damages the process and the prospects of these elections. In a worrying way, it damages them whether or not they are carried out by postal ballots or by the conventional electoral mechanisms. I would not make such a statement without having evidence for it, because that would risk alarming the House. I have such evidence from officials who have had discussions with returning officers. These matters are never black and white. One never moves from a position in which everything is fine to the following day when suddenly everything is disastrous. It is simply that the risk rises as the delay continues.

I was absolutely clear when I said that I share the expression of respect for the revising and scrutinising function of the House. I believe that the House is absolutely right, even when it is against the Government, to mark the issues that concern it and to bring them to the attention of the Commons. But we have done that three times on this issue, and three times the Commons have said, "We disagree. This is our view". Therefore, that is why, without making more of it than one should, we should reflect on this issue at this stage over and above the merits of the issue. As your Lordships will know from what I have said on several occasions, for the reasons that we have set out, I believe that there are sounds merits in terms of moving to four.

With regard to the Deputy Prime Minister's letter to Sam Younger, it is available for inspection in the Library of the House.

The issues with regard to the north west have always been essentially about whether elections could be carried out effectively. The view of the Government and of the regional returning officers is that elections can be carried out there successfully.

Finally, if I understood her correctly, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, spoke about disconnecting the elector from the ballot paper and from the ballot box. We are experimenting with moving on from the traditional way of voting. We seek to do so for a good reason, which would benefit all parties and democracy. I will repeat the figures. If, as I believe we should, we pilot all-postal ballots in the four regions in the June European and local elections, 2 million more people will vote in those elections. We should take note of that, because I believe that that is earnestly desired by anyone who holds democracy in this country to be important. For all those reasons, therefore, I urge the House to support the position of the Commons on this issue.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, we could and perhaps should have had a wholly different debate about the conduct of the European elections, perhaps with an all-postal ballot system being tried across the entire country in the European elections. However, the Government's proposal was to have the local elections postponed from May until June to coincide with those elections. Because in those local elections a handful of votes in a handful of wards may be determined by different voting mechanisms, it is inappropriate to suggest that we should have such widespread all-postal voting this time round. That view is entirely consistent with what I and my friend in the other place, Mr David Heath, have argued; namely, that we could perhaps have had all-postal voting for the whole of Europe. However, we cannot have the Government, for their own interests in those important European and local elections, picking and choosing which regions should have all-postal voting.

If I may paraphrase the Minister's arguments throughout the debate—I am sure that he will correct me if I am wrong—he has told us repeatedly that although the Electoral Commission in its report dated 8 December originally recognised that only two regions were suitable for all-postal balloting, it was open to the Government to hold further discussions to discover whether or not the barriers suggested by the Electoral Commission could be overcome. If that is the case, I would refer noble Lords to the letter from the Electoral Commission dated 23 March 2004, in which it is said:

"We note that the electoral administrators in Yorkshire and the Humber, the next in ranking, are now more positive about running pilots than when we discussed them at the end of last year. The considerations as set out in our December report regarding the North West have not changed".

The Government's case has been based on whether the considerations taken by the Electoral Commission in December could change. The independent Electoral Commission now says that, in its view, those considerations, based on fears of fraud, lack of acceptance and logical difficulties, have not changed. I therefore believe that it would not be right for the Government to try to proceed with all-postal pilots in the north west.

Throughout these debates, and today, the Minister has repeatedly used the phrase, "The Minister, the Government and the other place", as though three separate bodies were arguing for this measure. In fact, only one body is arguing for it, that being the Labour Party

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. What he says about the commission's view is quite correct. However, the electoral returning officers, with the exception of two who were guided by their authorities, decided in October that they were in favour of postal balloting in the north west, and they fully expected the Electoral Commission to endorse that.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the independent Electoral Commission's report of 8 December reported that there was widespread opposition among returning officers in many parts of the north west to the idea of all-postal balloting, and the independent commission said that it did not want that. The Government then said, "Things have changed and now they do want it". Yesterday we had the categoric word of the chairman of the independent Electoral Commission that nothing had changed since the publication of its report on 8 December. It seems to me that one party is arguing for this proposal and that every other party and this House and the independent commission are in favour of the other side of the argument. When there is an issue of dispute between the parties and the two Houses, it seems to me logical to allow the view of the independent Electoral Commission to prevail. Its very clear view is that perhaps to—

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

My Lords, on that point, the Electoral Commissioner himself—and I respect him for the clarity with which he expressed the constitutional position—was explicitly clear that the decision as to which regions should be piloted was not for him. Although he would give his opinion, it was for Parliament to decide.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the vote must indeed be taken by Parliament, but it seems that Parliament cannot decide and that the parties cannot agree between themselves. When between the two Houses Parliament cannot decide, when the parties cannot agree on the basis of consensus, and when not a single Member of Parliament of another party, other than the Labour Party in another place, has supported this proposal—

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. When he says that Parliament cannot agree, he seems to be saying that the House of Lords has the same level of supremacy as the House of Commons. I remind noble Lords opposite that Lloyd George once did something to ensure that the Government had supremacy in the Lords.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, there must be few occasions on which an unelected Chamber may challenge an elected one, but things to do with electoral mechanisms must be those sorts of things; for example, if a government with a majority in the other place decided that we should not have an election within five years of the last one but that we should wait six, seven or eight years.

When governments decide to use their majority in another place on electoral issues, perhaps we should think more carefully about whether one party with a majority in one place should change our electoral rules or whether we should do what we said we would do four years ago. When we established the Electoral Commission, we established a body to avoid such arguments between the parties. That is what I think we should now be doing.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, it might help my noble friend if I pointed out to noble Lords opposite that Parliament took the decision to put off a general election in June 1940. I have read the debate on it in this House, and the House agreed that as it could stop it at any moment it liked, it did not therefore need to.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that intervention and, as ever, helpful historical lesson.

In conclusion, the issue of whether there should be three postal pilots has not yet been put to the other place. I believe that it should be put as a fair and honourable compromise. On that basis, I would like to test the opinion of the House.

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

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 159; Not-Contents, 122.

Division number 5 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — "Piloting conduct at European and local elections

Aye: 157 Members of the House of Lords

No: 120 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.