1 Clause 1, Leave out Clause 1 and insert the following new Clause— "Piloting conduct at European and local elections
(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 Lords amendment 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—
1E Because it is not necessary to seek further advice from the Electoral Commission.
The Lords do not insist on their Amendment No. 1D to Commons Amendment No. 1C to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1E but propose the following amendment to Commons Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Lords Amendment No. 1D—
1F Line 3, leave out—
"(d) North West."
The Commons disagree to Lords Amendment No. 1F to Commons Amendment No. 1C, for the following reason—
1G Because it is appropriate to pilot postal voting in four rather than three regions.
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1F to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1G.
It is hard to credit that we are still debating this Bill. This issue in the Bill has been to the Commons four times. If we divide today, it will be the fifth time that this House has voted on the issue in opposition to the Commons.
In the optimistic hope that anyone is interested in the issue, perhaps I may summarise what is about. It is essentially about a piloting scheme to try to increase turn-out in the European and local elections and to see whether, by universal postal balloting, that can be done. The evidence from local government on why that is likely is strong, but never have we undertaken such an experiment at regional level.
The debate between us is not about the principle of a piloting system, but whether we should carry it out in four regions or in three regions. It defeats me to understand how this House can believe that it is a point of principle on which it should stand in the face of the Commons four, potentially five, times. I cannot conceive how it could be a point of principle that there should be three regions rather than four. The latter is the view of the Government and it has been asserted by the Commons.
To focus on the specifics, after these many, many stages, we are now debating whether the north-west region should be added to the other three regions that are to be piloted in the June European and local government elections. After a lengthy—some might call it tedious—process, we are now all in agreement in both Houses, and I think between the parties in this House, that it is desirable that we should carry out all-postal ballots in three regions at least. It has taken a while to get there, but we have reached that point. We disagree on whether the north-west should be added to those other three regions.
At heart, it is not an issue on which, I believe, that the Lords has any strong case to claim that it has a constitutional right to stand in the face of the will of the Commons, because it comes down to a judgment by the Government that it is desirable to pilot in four regions rather than in three. Why is the north-west suitable for a pilot as well? First, the Electoral Commission, in its report, when it was asked for its advice, stated that the north-west was potentially suitable, but that there were some areas of concern on whether elections could be securely and safely carried out in that region. The commission made it clear, if it needed to be done so, that the Government were entitled to undertake further discussions and explorations to see whether the commission's concerns could be addressed.
We have had those further discussions and all that one needs to know from those is that regional returning officer and the electoral returning officers for the relevant authorities in the area believe that all-postal ballots can be carried out successfully in the June elections in the north-west. Therefore, it is suitable for such a pilot.
The second reason why we are clear that a fourth pilot should be carried out is that north-west has, as we have identified at earlier stages of the Bill, particular areas of complexity and challenge in terms of the those elections. When we discussed the issue, all three parties had an open, perhaps even a positive attitude, towards the potential of all-postal ballots, at least in local government elections in the future. I have not heard voices against that. However, for us to be able to carry out at some date in the future all-postal ballots in local government elections, if that is what the Government propose and Parliament agrees, we will certainly require us to be satisfied that in areas where there is complexity, or where there may have been concerns about fraud, we can find satisfactory solutions to those problems.
The Bill makes significant progress in that respect by putting into legislation additional checks and safeguards to limit fraud. Some of those measures resulted from the good debates that we have had in this House and the representations that we have received.
Therefore, it is important that we now test those measures in practice and research their effect. Security issues have now been given a higher profile by the debates in this Chamber, not least by the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. We will not know whether those measures work unless we test them and research what happens. The electoral returning officers say that it is safe and secure to do so, but we have to study the issues and to see whether the measures work in practice.
Therefore, we will learn more about whether all-postal ballots could, at some future date, be carried out effectively, at a regional as well as at a local government level, by testing them in a fourth region and properly evaluating our findings in the ways about which I have spoken previously in our debates. The final reason why it is beneficial to include the north-west is a straightforward, practical one. Many local authorities in the north-west have already been carrying out their local elections on an all-postal basis. In October, they will carry out the regional referenda on an all-postal basis. It seems bizarre in that situation, when there are other good reasons for them to be holding all-postal ballots, not to allow them to maintain the consistency of all-postal ballots in June and all-postal ballots in October. It is hard to see how this House sees it as a point of principle that it has a constitutional right and duty to assert its primacy over the Commons. In short, the Government are entitled to their judgment that it is beneficial to include a fourth region in the pilots for the reasons that I have set out.
I turn to the issue of the constitution. Without, in any sense, being flippant, I bring to the attention of the House what has been said by a number of our Members. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, referring to the issue, stated:
"Of course, on something like this, eventually the Lords will give way. They must do".
When the Bill was last considered in this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, stated:
"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— amen, I say, to that. However, she went on to state—
"I had understood that that was an accepted procedure at least twice. The third time, we have to accept the inevitable".—[Official Report, 25/3/04; col. 859.]
It seems to me that she adequately captured the constitutional conventions and traditions of this House.
The Commons has already disagreed with this House four times on the issue. If this House again divides on it, it will be the fifth time that it has opposed the measure.
My Lords, will the Minister explain why he keeps banging on about the constitutional issue, when the reason the Government continually lose over the matter is that they are putting only around 100 of their Members into the Lobby when they have 182 Members in this House or thereabouts? Surely, it is the fault of the Government themselves for not rallying their own supporters to get their own business through.
My Lords, I do not want to weary noble Lords with arithmetic, but the Government's party has 28 per cent of the vote of this House. I am not making a major complaint about that, because it is not healthy, as has been the case in the past, that the party of government has an overwhelming majority. However, that is a fact.
My Lords, I accept the arguments that the noble Lord has made but it is very rare that on a political matter, which suits the party in government with a vast majority in the House of Commons, such a Motion is put before this House. Even if our procedures are altered, every second chamber in Europe is regarded as the protector of the constitution. I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that this looks like political jobbery. The Minister ought to answer that.
My Lords, I was about to turn to the assertion that I believe has been made in another place and at times here—perhaps more softly and expressed with the usual courtesy of this House—that a particular issue lurks beneath this matter. All I can say is that I have seen no academic evidence whatever that an increase in turnout through postal balloting benefits one party at the expense of another. If there is such proper academic evidence, I invite noble Lords to bring it to our attention. No doubt the issues arouse much excitement on the part of agents but there is no evidence that an increase in turnout through postal ballots helps one party at the expense of another. That needs to be put absolutely clearly on the record. I see no malign motive of the kind that has been asserted.
So, what do we have? We have a judgment by the Government that we should include four regions. There is no constitutional reason whatever that I can see for this House to assert its will in the face of the Commons. With the greatest respect, but with the greatest clarity, I ask this House to bend to the will of the Commons on this issue.
My Lords, this will be the second time that this House has considered insisting on its compromise amendment that there should be three all-postal pilots in the elections in June. The issue of principle concerns simply how these kind of decisions should be taken. By insisting on this amendment we are insisting on a compromise between two all-postal vote regions as desired by the House, all political parties except the Labour Party, and as originally recommended by the Electoral Commission, and the position of the other House and the Labour Party that there should be four all-postal vote regions, supposedly coincidentally all in the more pro-Labour half of England. This is not, therefore, a simple issue between an elected House and an unelected and only partially reformed one. It is about how changes to voting rules should be decided when the parties involved cannot agree.
Anyone listening to this debate—perhaps there are a few listening for the first time—should know that Parliament established the Electoral Commission, in the words of the Minister at the time, in order to,
"reinforce the integrity of our electoral arrangements".
However, the Government are now seeking to ignore the Electoral Commission on the fundamental issue of how many all-postal elections there should be in June and, specifically, where they should be held.
We have offered a compromise based on accepting entirely the view of the Electoral Commission on the fundamental issue of how many all-postal vote elections there should be and where they should be. In considering our position it is of some significance that the compromise of three regions based on the recommendations of the Electoral Commission is exactly what the Government originally asked for. The problem lies with an inexplicable and late change of mind by someone in the Labour Government who wants to insist on changing the voting rules, abolishing the right to vote at a polling station in the areas that are most important to Labour despite the risk of significant fraud taking place that could change the result in many of the local authority elections.
With entrenched positions established, why should we continue to insist, as we have done so strongly so far? First, we have compromised. You do not have to be a mathematical genius to work out that the amendment for three regions is a fair compromise between the positions of wanting two or wanting four regions to have all-postal pilots. This compromise has much wider support in both Houses of Parliament than has so far been reflected in the Division Lobbies.
Secondly, in a dispute between parties about the rules, you need an arbiter, and you should abide by the view of that arbiter. That is a democratic and fair principle. If the Government, or whichever Minister is ultimately responsible for this sequence of events, remain unwilling to compromise, that will be seen as behaving like the batsman who is declared out by the umpire but who refuses to walk.
Thirdly, I acknowledge that we must think carefully about what precedent we have in this House for the exceptional step we should now take in insisting on a compromise. There have been few occasions for such insistence since the passing of the Parliament Act 1949. But one such important precedent was what happened in 1969 when this House insisted upon its amendments to the House of Commons redistribution of seats Bill. That was an attempt by the then Labour government, with the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, as Home Secretary, to reject the Boundary Commission's proposals for redrawing the boundaries of the Westminster constituencies. With hindsight that was seen by some in that Labour government as a shameful and undemocratic episode. The measure was blocked by the House of Lords, preventing a majority in the House of Commons abusing that majority.
Not long after I entered this House I had the great privilege of talking with the late Lord Longford. He gave me much good advice about issues of principle and speaking in this Chamber. His contributions to the House were on many occasions outstanding, clearly principled and are very much missed. He made a very significant contribution to the debate in 1969. In response to the Labour government's attempts to gerrymander the Boundary Commission's proposals, he said:
"I am sorry, as a citizen and as a member of the Labour Party, because we claim to stand for higher standards, and it is depressing if we have persuaded ourselves that it is all right because the Tories have always done the same".
He made a powerful case for this House insisting on an issue where a government were trying to change the voting rules in defiance of all other parties and of the independent body charged with making recommendations on such issues.
In the same debate Lord Byers, speaking from these Benches, said of the government's position:
"I do not like this attitude to electoral problems, and I think the House of Lords, if it is to do its duty, must reject these various devices by the Government. This is a matter of principle on which a House of Lords, reformed or unreformed, would still be invited by my side of the House to take the same position. It seems to me the Government have only one thing in mind. It is to use all the means they have to secure party advantage for this coming General Election, and it is our duty to say 'enough is enough'".
If noble Lords insist on this amendment, we are again inviting the other place to accept a compromise. If we continue to insist, we are saying that those who try to change the rules, fail to achieve consensus, ignore independent advice and refuse to compromise must accept responsibility for what they are doing. But if wiser counsels prevail within the Government, the Government can have the Bill and the three all-postal pilots which they originally said that they wanted. If the role of this House is to make the Government think again, we must make them think again very hard this afternoon. I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1F to Commons Amendment No. 1C to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1G, leave out "not".—(Lord Rennard.)
My Lords, I want to make it clear that there is not a great deal of unanimity about whether there should be all-postal balloting in local elections. I am not certain that that is something to which we have all agreed but, for today's purposes, it is not very relevant.
As the Minister said, it is the fifth time that we have debated amendments—it is not the fifth time that we have debated this amendment, but the second time—finally to decide on the regions to be included in the European pilots. We have rehearsed the problems over and again, as well as the views of the Electoral Commission, which—I do not need to remind the House because it has been said before—is the body set up by the Government to oversee elections and give them advice.
The Electoral Commission has been nothing if not consistent with that advice, which is that four electoral regions are too many. That view was reiterated in the letter received from its chairman to which we referred at some length and which we debated last time. That strong advice was made very clear to the Government from the Electoral Commission. Four regions are too many because it is a test of more than one-third of the electorate. We have said before that that can barely be called a pilot. It is a very substantial proportion of those who will vote at the elections.
The surprise about this extended debate is not that the Opposition have been so insistent on the Government following their own initial intentions—that there should be no more than three electoral regions. They invited the Electoral Commission to put forward up to three electoral regions, and I remind the House that that is what the amendment that we proposed last time with the support of the Liberal Democrats, and which has been moved today, is intended to achieve. It is a compromise that both opposition parties put forward last time, but which the Government have so far resisted. They have done so obdurately. The three regions in the Government's mind have now gone up to four, despite the advice from the commission.
What is even more surprising is that the argument has begun to turn on the desirability of those European regions being used as a test bed for the referendums for the regional assemblies. The elections are the only regional ones that take place. The European regions will translate themselves into the regions for regional assemblies. The fact that the regions were a test bed for the regional assemblies had stolen over us during our discussions, but it was never tacitly admitted until the Minister popped the cat out of the bag a couple of weeks ago. He made the admission again today.
My Lords, I am very sorry to interrupt but I have to correct a misinterpretation of what I said, as I did in the previous debate. I made it absolutely clear last time that I had never used the argument that the regions were a test bed for regional referendums, and explained that I did not think that a sound reason, yet the same accusation is being made of me. I find that surprising. What I said and said again today was that, while there were other good reasons, there was a further reason of maintaining the consistency of the same type of election. That is a completely different argument from that of a test bed.
My Lords, we are debating semantics. The Minister said earlier, quite rightly, that three of the four regions would be the regional assembly regions. That is precisely what they are, in terms. The election would be a test bed for those referendums, however he puts it. The whole question of the regional assemblies takes the matter out of the remit of the Minister and puts it into the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister, who has taken an active interest from another place. We therefore need to ask who is running the show.
We are very conscious that we are putting great pressure on the Government to come to a decision—a decision that represents their own initial thoughts. Despite what we have heard from time to time from Labour Peers, that is what this House should be able to do—to say to the Government, "Think again. This is where you started. This is where you should end". The advice from the Government on all sides goes against the line that they propose to take.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, put forward powerful arguments about both the Government doing that and the precedents set in this House in the past. My strong recommendation to my colleagues is to support the amendment.
My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. I have not spoken until now, because I hoped that there would be agreement on the issue. I tell the Minister how deeply disappointed I am that it has come back yet again after the attempts made in this House to reach a compromise. If I understood him he said that there was no point of principle in the matter, but there is a deep point of principle. I was elected to the other place in the backwash of the events that surrounded the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, and the attempt to repudiate the parliamentary Boundary Commission report at that time.
The lesson learnt from that was that, at all times if possible, any change in electoral practice should be by all-party agreement. I remember the occasions on which, when issues arose, it was agreed that they would be put to a Speaker's Conference in which all parties would be represented, because all parties recognised the overwhelming desirability of there being all-party agreement in matters of such sensitivity. The Minister will be unable to persuade other parties in this House that there is not political consideration in the proposal that he put forward. That is the belief in many quarters and precisely the trap into which the Government have fallen.
In the present circumstances, the matter is even more important. The Government have overriding power. The Minister talks about government and the Commons. The Commons is the Government, but the enormous majority that the Government have enjoyed for the past seven years means that they have absolute power. But with absolute power comes responsibility, and it does not include the right to ride roughshod over other political views that happen to be different from theirs. In this case, the principle in which many of us believe very strongly is that electoral changes of any kind should, wherever possible, be done by agreement, and that the Government should seek always to achieve that.
If there is difference and argument, the existence of some independent voice is particularly valuable. If the Government do not have their own appointed Electoral Commission to support them, their position is extremely difficult. I hope that, on reflection, the Government will recognise the value of preserving that all-party consensus on the arrangements made in future about changes in electoral law, and realise that compromise is needed on this issue, as it will be needed in future when further arguments arise about changes in electoral law and practice.
My Lords, I, too, shall be brief. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, was right to remind the Minister that there were philosophical disagreements at earlier stages on the Bill about whether there should be compulsory postal voting. Indeed the Minister will recall contributions that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and I made questioning the desirability of having electors sitting at home casting votes at an early stage in an election campaign that totally changed the dynamics of that election campaign. It also added the problem that any people who might be have been convinced by the arguments as the election proceeded would have been unable to change their minds later, because their votes would have already been cast.
We also both referred to the problem of people simply being at home and not caught up in the civic duty to cast their vote at a polling station—and how that could change the nature of the election. Before we proceed to make such fundamental changes, there needs to be a considered argument. I accept the comments of the Minister that we could at least make an evaluation after pilot schemes have been conducted over whether or not such changes are still desirable. However, many of us remember what happened four years ago when we considered the nature of the European election. We were told that the closed party list system would be reviewed after those elections. That was a monumental change to the way in which we conducted elections in this country. It was a retrograde step, because for the first time it took away the right of a British citizen to be able to cast their vote for a named candidate. Instead they would have had to consider a "take it or leave it" list and vote for a political party. I felt that that was wrong, I spoke against it at the time and I am sorry that we have not had the chance to reflect on the matter, because, like so many of such matters, it will become set in stone—as will compulsory postal voting.
Like the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, at earlier stages I pleaded with the Government to try to reach consensus about this issue. For all of us who have been members of political parties, although looking at the matter now from the purely dispassionate point of view of an independent, it is obvious that if there is no agreement between the political parties about the conduct of an election or electoral systems, there will be misgivings and allegations will be made of unfair practices. It will not matter which party those allegations come from. It will only add to the existing deep public cynicism about the way we conduct politics and will leave people with a bad taste in their mouths. That is in no one's interest.
So, why is the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, inviting us to take this to the wire? It is surely to be able still to try to find a way of reaching some agreement—not just between the two Houses but between the political parties. That is the best way to proceed on sensitive matters of this kind. No one is impugning the integrity of the Minister, who is one of the most highly respected Members of this House, but the way that we have arrived at this conclusion is highly undesirable.
My Lords, I shall be brief, which the House will welcome, so that we may put this matter to the test. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is correct to say that this is not the fifth time that the amendment has been debated, but it is the fifth time that a debate has taken place about whether the north-west should be part of the pilots.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, suggested that only the Labour Party was in favour of this change. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, both the SNP and Plaid Cymru also supported the changes in the last two Commons Divisions.
My Lords, I am saddened, as those parties will be, that it is a cause for mirth. That is sizeism in its extreme.
I am more used to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and his Benches historical analogies from the 17th century rather than the modern period and I am not sure which of them I know less about. Nevertheless, his comments were regarding whether changing the boundaries was legitimate or not and I shall go no further into the historical record. We are not talking about changing the boundaries, we are simply arguing about whether there is benefit in testing whether all-postal ballots should take place in the north-west in the June elections, given that they will take place in the October elections in any event. It is not the same type of issue.
Not for the first time, the advice given to the Government by the noble Lord, Lord King, is good. It would not be wise to seek to make changes hastily or rationally, to issues, however relatively technical or trivial—which this matter is, at heart—without seeking to achieve consensus. We have sought that, perhaps laboriously, in our discussions on the Bill. I have sought to set out why we believe there is good reason for balloting in four regions, rather than three.
My Lords, The Minister said that the Government had sought consensus. As I understand it, the compromise in the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is the only compromise that has been put forward. It appears that the Government's attempt to seek consensus is, in reality, to stick to the ground that they have stuck to previously and on which they have so far failed to persuade the other parties of their view. If the Government fail in that, they need to consider their position carefully.
My Lords, no government lightly returns to this House with the frequency that we have on such an issue without considering their position very carefully. We would be fools if we did not do that. But that reflection, and the attempt to put before this House why we believe that there are good reasons for the insistence, is why we have asserted that position. I shall say no more.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, signalled that the change in the dynamics of elections was an issue that required careful study. That is exactly why I have affirmed to this House that I want the Electoral Commission and others to take an extremely active role in investigating how such a process works before this House considers any future changes in that respect.
For those reasons I ask this House not to insist on the amendment to the Commons' wishes.
My Lords, the issues of principle are clear. First, should one party be able to choose a different voting mechanism for different regions in the country that take place in simultaneous elections, according, perhaps, to partisan advantage? Or is there a different way that we should decide such issues? Secondly, should we aim for compromise and consensus? Three is the only mathematical compromise that I can think of between four and two. I invite the House to show that it has purpose and to show the same mettle that it had in 1969. The Minister said that it is a different matter between gerrymandering the boundaries and changing the voting mechanisms. I suggest that both situations are similar and I would like to test the opinion of the House.