Lords Amendment

– in the House of Lords at 11:29 am on 1 April 2004.

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Votes in this debate

1Leave 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. The Lords insist on their Amendment No. 1F to Commons Amendment No. 1C, for the following reason—

1H Because it is appropriate to pilot postal voting in three rather than four regions. The Commons insist on their disagreement to Lords Amendment No. 1F to Commons Amendment No. 1C, but propose the following amendment to Commons Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Lords Amendment No. 1F—

1J Line 13, at end insert— "( ) The declaration of identity must contain a statement advising the voter that the ballot paper should be completed by him—

(a) outside the presence of any other person, or

(b) in the case of a voter who requires assistance, in accordance with such advice as is provided for in the pilot order."

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. 1F and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1J in lieu thereof.

I respect and like this House. It is a privilege to come to this place and to put the Government's case before it. But, on this issue, we cannot go on meeting like this. Time is against us. I shall not speak at length, but first, for those who may be new to these rather repeated discussions, let me reiterate why the Bill matters and why, after this House has done its best to scrutinise this issue vigorously, I believe that now is the time to listen to the other place. However, I hope to leave some points of clear comfort to the House that the issues that lie between us on these matters will be the subject of study, monitoring and report back at a later date.

Why does it matter? It matters because essentially we are addressing whether it is possible to increase the turnout of the public who vote in European and local elections in June. I do not need to go on about why that matters given how poor turnouts have been at both the European and local level: 24 per cent at the last European election.

We have a substantial measure of agreement across the House on this Bill. That may not be apparent to the outside world, but there is a keen interest—I use words no stronger than that—in all parties to see whether postal voting can raise turnout in a sustained way. There is a consensus that at least the three regions should be piloted and the argument is about whether or not a fourth region is suitable. When asked for its advice, the Electoral Commission signalled that the fourth region, the north-west, was potentially suitable. The commission identified some areas of concern which it was open to the Government to explore further. The Government have explored those issues further. The regional returning officers and electoral registration officers for the region have told us clearly that they believe they can carry out an election in the north-west safely and securely.

There are also benefits in undertaking a pilot in the north-west, in particular to focus on some of the issues of complexity and to address the concerns that have been expressed about whether all-postal ballots can be done safely, without fraud. Therefore we ought to undertake a pilot in the north-west to test whether the strengthened measures that we have put in the Bill—with due acknowledgement of the effort of some Peers to bring forward those strengthened measures—have, as we hope, a desired effect.

As I have expressed on previous occasions, the Government have made the judgment that, on balance, it is desirable to have these four regions. The Commons have supported that opinion not once but on numerous occasions, and I believe that it is right for the Government and the Commons to have their way on this issue. It has been said on previous occasions, and I respect it, that one should seek consensus on electoral or constitutional issues. That is right in principle, but cannot be—how shall I put it?—an absolute veto on change. If it were an absolute veto on change and we did not make any movement on electoral or constitutional issues until all views, all voices and all parties were unanimous on both the measures and the timing, we would have constitutional arrangements that were fossilised and out of date. On that issue, I would expect that there is a consensus at least between some parties. Progress has to be made on constitutional issues and sometimes that necessitates having to move forward faster rather than slower.

I shall not go into great detail, but there have been occasions in the past when previous governments have changed our constitutional and electoral arrangements such as, for example, in the abolition of the GLC. There was no trace of consensus on that issue whatsoever. I disagreed with the absolute abolition of the GLC, but I did not think that the government of the time were acting unconstitutionally in terms of doing so.

Let us focus on the present rather than on history. The position is that I am afraid that this issue is now as much about the powers of the House as about the Bill itself. But, as I said during a previous debate, the Government have 28 per cent of the vote in this House. I make no complaint about that. It is not good, I believe, for any government to have an overall majority in this House, and that is the Government's position. However, certain implications flow from that.

It is also right that this House can and should ask the other place to think again. That is what a scrutinising and revising Chamber is all about. I would hate a situation in which this House did not do that powerfully and strongly. Moreover, it is beneficial that at times it does so twice, because it forces a government to think, "Are we right on this issue? Could improvement be made? Should we make adjustments? How can we develop consensus?" Going through such a process twice has a further benefit: it draws the attention of the media and the public to the issue and it allows the potential for public opinion to swell around an issue if that public opinion wishes to do so. Although this is not part of any written constitution, it is a part of our processes and is beneficial. Therefore I respect and value the way in which this House is able to challenge government to think again.

But the situation we are in seems to me to be at risk of going further than that. Opposition parties, because of what I have said about the turnout, have a majority over the Government in this House. We do not have absolute and rigidly clear procedural rules. Some would say that they wish never to see them. In that situation, a responsibility is placed on all of us, government Ministers or others, to consider what is the limit of our legitimacy. Does the issue merit it and how far should we go? Ultimately, that is a decision that each individual Member must make for themselves. In a sense one is asking, "Is this an issue of such constitutional importance that we ought to take this beyond the limits of anything that we have ever seen before in terms of the relationship between the two Houses?"

As I have signalled previously, I have respected the opinions of other Members on these issues and I have been saddened that we have not always been able totally to agree, but I am a realist and I would not have expected that. On this issue, however, it is inconceivable how the matter of four regions rather than three regions could be seen as a constitutional issue that justifies going to the extent that we have. Time is against us and today we have to try to find in this House some way of moving forward with the good grace and spirit normally exhibited in this place.

All I would say in conclusion is that this Bill is about a decent endeavour. It concerns an endeavour to increase turnout. I cannot believe that all noble Lords do not share that endeavour. The Bill is an experiment; it will die one day after the elections. It does not put something into the constitution permanently, rather it is about trying something once, and once only, and seeing whether it works. The process will be researched, evaluated and reported on by the Electoral Commission, and I hope that at some stage this House will have the opportunity to debate the report so that, in a sense, we can rerun our debates based on what the commission has to say. No doubt we shall point fingers at each other according to how we interpret the evidence that is presented.

This issue has to be resolved. While I am not expecting Members to change their views as to what they would prefer to happen, I do ask the House to think seriously about whether this is an issue on which we should provoke something that will feel close to a disproportionate constitutional tension—I use no stronger words—between this House and another place. If these four regions carry out pilots, some 2 million more people will vote in the European and local elections to be held in June. That in itself is a good endeavour that I would wish this House to support. For these reasons, I ask the House to support the Commons and to resist the amendment which has been tabled by the Liberal Democrat Party.

Moved, That the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1F and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1J in lieu thereof.—(Lord Filkin.)

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

rose to move Amendment No. 1K, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1F and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1J in lieu thereof, leave out from "House" to end and insert "do insist on its Amendment No. 1F but do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1J".

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, as ever, the Minister has been most reasonable in making his case. It is my sincere belief that if all Ministers in this Government were as reasonable, we would not be where we are today. Gerrymandering is a serious charge to make against a government and one that should not be made lightly, but it is one to which the Government have opened themselves up by rejecting the opinion of the independent Electoral Commission that there should be only three all-postal pilot schemes in the elections on 10 June, and its opinion that there should not be one in the north-west on that day.

Those of us who have attended the debates on this issue will know that the Government sought the advice of the Electoral Commission on which three regions were most suitable for experimentation with all-postal voting. The amendment I have tabled today will give the Government what they said they wanted: all-postal pilots in the three regions deemed most suitable by the Electoral Commission. So why is there such controversy over my amendment, which gives the Government what they said they were asking for when they introduced this Bill?

The problem arises from the strange sequence of events surrounding the sudden and publicly inexplicable change of mind by the Government over the number of all-postal pilots that there should be for the European and local elections and, in particular, their disregard for the advice of the independent Electoral Commission, established by Parliament to be the referee in such issues.

Those who have followed these debates will know that the commission first found only two regions suitable for all-postal pilot experiments. The position of this House, therefore, was that only two pilots should take place. Sadly for some in the Government, those were not the two regions they most wanted.

Throughout most of the time that we have debated this issue, the government position has been simply that the Electoral Commission left it open to see whether a third region might prove suitable. When the Government went back to the Electoral Commission for advice, it said in a letter dated 23 March that,

"if a third region were to be chosen on the basis of the criteria that we used it should be Yorkshire and the Humber".

So this House moved a compromise and suggested that three regions were appropriate, as recommended by the independent Electoral Commission. Sadly, that was still not good enough for someone in the Government who wanted the whole of the more Labour-inclined north of England included but nowhere in the less Labour-inclined south of England.

In this House, we have stuck by the position of the independent Electoral Commission: that the Government are trying to have more pilots than are necessary for testing and that the risks of fraud, particularly in the council elections, where a handful of votes in a handful of wards may well sway the outcome of those elections—

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, I was not intending to interrupt because nearly every argument has been used. However, as one who has always believed that the Liberals believe in democracy, surely the noble Lord must agree that the higher the poll, the more representative it is. It is unprecedented for an unelected House to refuse not once, not twice, but six times on this issue. Why do the Liberals want to have a low turn-out? Is it because they see that they might lose councils such as Liverpool?

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, there are many ways of improving turn-out. Perhaps we should have had weekend voting—I think that would have been a better experiment. Perhaps in the local elections we should have proportional representation so that councils would be more representative of the people who vote in those elections and are more enthusiastic about taking part. I am in favour of experimentation. We are supportive of the pilots, but the principle at stake is who should decide this issue. Should it be one party using its majority or should there be an attempt to reach consensus? If there is failure to achieve consensus, should the independent Electoral Commission arbitrate? I believe that it should.

The commission says that the risks of fraud outweigh the benefits if there are four experiments. It says that the north-west is not suitable. It says in its most recent letter that the position has not changed since December.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, does the noble Lord realise what he has just said? He asked who should decide. Surely the decision is made by the elected government of the day. They represent the British people. The Liberals should acknowledge that the governments of 1911 and 1949 were not Tory. This House had at that time a built-in vast majority of Conservatives yet they opposed both the Liberal and Labour governments elected in the other place. But their strategic retreat on both occasions enabled legislation to be passed. This must happen now otherwise the validity of this House is even more disrespectful.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 11:45, 1 April 2004

My Lords, I ask the noble Lord to consider what I have to say on the constitutional issues. I understand the precedents of previous practice and the 1911 and 1949 Acts. I believe that what I am arguing is entirely consistent with what Parliament decided in 1949 in relation to the power of this House, but I urge the noble Lord to hear me out.

Our debate is not about the principle of all-postal voting in elections or elections in which people have a choice whether to vote by post or at a polling station. No doubt in future we will have debates about which systems are appropriate for which elections. But the constitutional issue now is whether a government should be able to hand-pick which regions they want for different voting systems.

If the amendment is carried, not a single person will be denied the right to vote by post. Every voter in the north-west will have the right to choose to vote by post or at their usual local polling station. But we will at least know that they want to vote in that way and that they really exist. We will know where they want their ballot paper delivered to and we will be much more certain that the individual who is entitled to receive that ballot paper will be returning it.

If the amendment is carried, voters in the north-west will be in exactly the same position as the Government want voters to be in the West Midlands, the south-west, the south-east, Scotland and Wales. If the Government genuinely wanted more experimentation in defiance of the Electoral Commission, surely they would not simply have picked places in the north of England and none in the south. Surely a better experiment would have been one east of the Pennines and one west. So this amendment is not about denying anyone the right to vote by post. It is about denying a government the potential to abuse their large majority in one House in order to pick and choose which regions have which voting system according to the interests of their party. That cannot be right.

It is an established constitutional principle that governments should not interfere with the findings of the boundary committees, whose work has now been overtaken by the Electoral Commission—important work in relation to the redrawing of Westminster constituencies. I referred on Tuesday to the role of the House in defeating attempts by the then Labour government to do so in 1969. That is an important constitutional precedent. It highlights the importance of having two Houses of Parliament—one may have primacy in almost every area but the other one must prevent an elected House abusing our democratic mechanisms, whether by blocking the introduction of new constituency boundaries or by changing the mechanisms of voting in only the places that suit the party in power at the time.

It is a principle accepted in many countries that there should be a bipartisan approach on electoral issues and independent advice to give guidance where there is deadlock. Some noble Lords may recall the dispute in Texas last year, when Democratic members of the Texas legislature left to stay in a hotel in a neighbouring state so they could not be present to permit the Republican members redrawing all the boundaries in Texas in favour of the Republican Party. If I could suggest that we on these Benches could adjourn to France for a few days and block this measure, I would most readily do so—but I cannot.

A number of noble Lords opposite told me after the vote on Tuesday that they knew that my amendment and the principle were entirely right. I know that many Members in another place who might also have spent their time working on and debating other issues have told me that their view is that the Government should have compromised on three regions.

So I appeal now to all parts of the House to continue acting against an over-mighty Minister in charge of local elections who should, in my view, be supporting the Electoral Commission in this matter and making a compromise that safeguards the integrity of our democratic system and the electoral processes instead of acting, as if in a football match, as though it is all right to over-rule the referee while acting as manager for one of the teams. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1F and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1J in lieu thereof, leave out from "House" to end and insert "do insist on its Amendment No. 1F but do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1J".—(Lord Rennard.)

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, at this stage of these rather extended proceedings I do not propose to rehearse again the reasons why we are here still discussing this issue, as they have been rehearsed adequately by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. They have been aired on at least five previous occasions and prior to that in Committee and on Report, and they relate primarily to the difficulties that the Government have created for themselves by not accepting the strongly held and now settled view of the Electoral Commission, that the north-west is an unsuitable region in which to pilot all-postal voting; and the Government have ignored their original decision to hold the pilots in up to three electoral regions. That is a position that could have been achieved if the Government had accepted the amendment, agreed by a majority in this House, several sittings ago.

I say with some temerity that it is the Government's own obduracy which has created this situation. It was not the opposition parties that set up the Electoral Commission; it was this Government. The opposition parties have not twisted the arm of the chairman of the Electoral Commission to maintain his position about the north-west. How could we? The one consistency that there has been through all of these proceedings has been the view of that commission. The chairman has held firmly to that despite the enormous pressure to come to heel that has clearly been put upon him by the Government.

We have confidence in the chairman, and the Government should be satisfied that in him they have a public servant who is truly independent of them and has demonstrated that. We have confidence in his views on this matter and are deeply concerned that the Government have chosen to try to go against the commission on this significant electoral issue. It is a significant issue. If the Government succeed today, they will do so against the advice of their own advisers. Over one-third of the electorate will take part in the pilot—a huge number—and we have questioned on many occasions as to how a third of the electorate could be deemed as a "pilot". It will put in place a procedure that separates the electorate from both its candidates—since it is hard to campaign when voters are completing their ballot papers over several weeks—and the ballot box, which is a symbolic and practical representation of our democratic principles. It paints on too large a canvas the possible difficulties associated with that experiment.

The Minister has pointed out on several occasions that the four regions in which the Government wish to hold the pilots are those which will be voting in the regional referendums. I welcome the Minister's comment today that there will be a report on the pilots and that it would be discussed in this House. But can the Minister say if the Government expect that the Electoral Commission will be able to produce a report on the pilots in good time for them to be taken into account before the referendums are set up and take place? It is essential that, if the pilots are to be informative for the regional referendums, the information that comes from them is in the public domain and has been considered by Parliament long before those referendums are undertaken.

There will be elections on 10 June. That gives us a very little parliamentary time in which the Electoral Commission can reach its views within that time and before the referendums take place. I would be grateful if the Minister would enlighten us on that aspect.

The Government bear responsibility for the position they find themselves in. Electoral changes, as my noble friend Lord King said on Tuesday, and as has been alluded to today by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, should have all-party support. Any government who tamper on their own with the democratic constitution of this country do so at their peril. We need unanimity of view. It is clear that there is no unanimity of view on this matter. It is also clear that the Government, in their original intention, long since could have had the Bill passed. Any consequences of the delay up to today for the four regions which will ultimately carry out the pilots will lie firmly in the Government's lap. I will recommend that my colleagues again support the Liberal Democrats' amendment.

Photo of Lord Clark of Windermere Lord Clark of Windermere Labour

My Lords, I hesitate to intervene in the debate. I am conscious that I have been a Member of this House for only a little under three years, although I have had almost 30 years' experience as a Member of Parliament in one capacity or another.

I intervene to address the narrow problem that we are debating, which is also a critical problem. In a sense, the original issues have now been escalated to a much higher level. I am referring to the issue of the principle of the primacy of the elected Chamber; also, the right of this House to express a view, to delay and to ask the elected House to think again. Those are the two concepts which I find difficult to reconcile. They are not incompatible but their relationship is delicate. When we are discussing the matter for the sixth time, it becomes even more delicate.

When we are trying to balance those two concepts, we have to examine a number of principles—one of those concerns whether the House is really being even-handed on this issue. It might be argued that that is a matter of opinion. But I tried to harden that up and took the trouble of examining every vote in this House since 1970 to see how many times, under different governments, this House overturned a decision of the other House. It might be helpful to your Lordships if I briefly highlighted them—there are only five sets of figures, but they make my point.

Under the Conservative government of 1970–74 this House voted against the government on only 5.9 per cent of occasions. In the following Labour government of 1974–79 that figure was not 5 per cent—the House voted against that government in 80.4 per cent of the votes. I stress that the figure is not 18 but 80 per cent. Under the Conservative government of 1979–97 that figure of voting against the government fell from 80.4 per cent to 8.4 per cent of all votes. In the Labour Government of 1997–2001, this House exercised its right to vote against the government in 21.4 per cent of votes. Since 2001 this House has voted against the Government on 38.2 per cent of occasions. So far in this Session, that figure is above 51 per cent. I am trying not to be controversial, but I believe that fair-minded citizens who look at those figures will draw their own conclusions.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, I would like to address the same point and make clear that the comparisons made by the noble Lord, Lord Clark, are not entirely fair. For most of the time from which he took those figures, the Conservative Party nominally had an enormous majority in this House and could act virtually as a free agent. However, that majority was independent because it did not require to be elected, it had not been put in place by anyone to whom it owed a duty and therefore, as regards a Conservative government, it was unreliable.

I can illustrate that from personal experience. In 1985, I was in charge of the Local Government Bill to abolish the Greater London Council. During the proceedings on the Bill, my Leader, Lord Whitelaw, put to me the proposition that the opportunity should be taken in the Bill to abolish the Inner London Education Authority. That proposal to abolish a democratic body—which this House was not—was to be made in a Bill which had been through the other place. I was able to tell Lord Whitelaw that much as I wished to support him, I would certainly not be able to get it through our own ranks or this House and would probably lose the Bill too. That does not appear on the radar screens put up by the Minister. The figures relating to the period in office of the Conservative government conceal a significant influence on government policy which is not apparent in the figures.

Photo of Lord Holme of Cheltenham Lord Holme of Cheltenham Liberal Democrat 12:00, 1 April 2004

My Lords, we had a most interesting introduction from the Minister about constitutional issues, which have been dwelt on by the noble Lord, Lord Clark. Traditional arguments were advanced about the respective powers of the two Houses and how, since 1999, they should operate. I want to raise a different constitutional issue. It was raised 30 years ago by Lord Hailsham; that is, the danger of elective dictatorship.

To be fair to the Government, they have done a great deal in their period in office to mitigate the danger of elective dictatorship and to put in place proper checks and balances. What they have done on devolution to Scotland and Wales and on the Human Rights Act are good examples of checks upon the unrestrained will of a government with a large majority in the House of Commons—a majority which I need hardly remind your Lordships from these Benches rests on a minority of the electorate.

One of the Government's most valuable reforms has been the creation of the independent Electoral Commission to ensure that electoral matters are dealt with objectively in the public interest, rather than forced through Parliament in the interests of partisanship, separating the players from the referee. No one in either House would want to question the care and competence with which the Electoral Commission has approached its work.

It is therefore all the more sad that the Government have been prepared to use their majority in the Commons to try to override the clear advice of the Electoral Commission. Even at this eleventh hour, I hope that the Government will think again. What kind of signal will be given about the health of our democracy if the advice of the Electoral Commission is disregarded, if its authority is therefore undermined, and if this is done in the perceived short-term interests of the governing party? At the least, it would be a dangerous precedent.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative

My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, were alone in the argument—if it were not for the forces arrayed behind him elsewhere—I would be persuaded by him. He was sweetly reasonable, accommodating and courteous. We have come to associate those virtues with him and I respect him for them.

On the other hand, he has not answered the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard: what on earth would the Government lose by accepting the amendment? My suspicion is that they would lose a certain amount of face. On the other hand, they might take credit for being generous. But I suspect that the face which will be lost if the amendment is carried today will not be that of the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, but that of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Deputy Prime Minister is not a man given to accommodation—not a man given to a ready understanding of the point of view of the other side. Here we are, dealing with the electoral machinery and it is dangerous that a well established convention should be waived aside at the will of a Deputy Prime Minister to suit himself and his belief in regional government.

I would find it difficult to do anything other than support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, unlike most noble Lords who have taken part in today's debate, I have clung doggedly to the Bill, having been present during every minute of every stage as it has gone through this House. I share one thing in common with the Minister; that is the sincere hope that this is the last time we have to debate it in this House and that we can reach a conclusion. It is vital that those responsible for the arrangements can organise the elections.

I should declare that I am likely to be on the ballot paper on 10 June in the north-west. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, who intervened in the speech of my noble friend Lord Rennard, that the people in the north-west who are running scared about these elections are not us and not even the Conservatives, but those in the Labour Party in the region. They are petrified by the prospect of being slaughtered in these elections. That is what this is all about.

I agree with the Minister, who said when we debated the Bill two days ago that an all-postal ballot will not make much difference to the results. He pointed out that no academic research has shown that there is a difference. In practice, there has been no academic research on the question at all. The general view of our party is that all-postal ballots will make no difference to the results in any part of the region. But that is not the view of the Labour Party in the region and that is the motivation behind the proposal.

I have had great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, since I first met him some 40 years ago. Like him, I came into this House after the first stage of its reform. The situation here is now very different indeed from what it had been in perpetuity before that time—for as long ago as anyone can remember. Yesterday, the Leader of the House quoted Lord Rosebery on the matter. I did not think that there was British politician left who quoted Lord Rosebery in evidence on anything, but we know that the Leader of our House now does so—and she is welcome to him.

But the present situation is different. The previous Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said that this House now has more legitimacy. Those were her words. If that means anything, it means that occasionally we have the right to insist, at least within the parameters of the Parliament Acts, which are the laid-down legal frameworks.

I am no expert on the British constitution—I merely observe what happens to those aspects of which I have been part over the years. In this House, I observe that after the passage of a Bill most disagreements between this House and the House of Commons are not resolved by this House conceding 100 per cent. They are resolved by a sensible compromise being reached between the two Houses. That is what usually happens. It is a matter of fact.

The truth is that on this Bill, the sensible compromise has had to come from this House. It is the compromise between four areas, which the Government suddenly decided they wanted having first said none and then three, and the two areas which the Electoral Commission said were possible. We have compromised on three areas with the commission. I want to know why that compromise was not accepted by the House of Commons.

Perhaps some of what has been going on in the undergrowth should be put on the record at this stage. After this House first voted for two regions to take part in the pilot, a number of informal approaches were made, mainly to members of the Conservative Party in different places, to ask whether we would compromise on the issue of three regions. I understand that the message sent back at that time was, "Not at this stage".

Nearly three weeks ago, informal approaches were made by some of the more sensible people in the Labour Government and by people associated with them to the opposition parties in this House to ask whether we would compromise on the issue of three regions. As I understood it, the deal was that we would have to choose three regions because the Government could not decide.

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

My Lords, I regret interrupting the noble Lord's interesting speech but, as a point of truth, I invite those with whom I had those conversations to confirm that the two propositions set out by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, were never, in fact, put. There was never a proposal from the Government that the opposition parties should put forward the option of three regions or choose that. Meetings were arranged to hold discussions, but at each of those meetings with the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Rennard, I made it clear that I was not in a position to have any discussion whatever.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am happy to confirm that, in all my conversations with the Minister, no such agreement was suggested with the noble Lord opposite on any occasion.

Photo of Lord Cope of Berkeley Lord Cope of Berkeley Conservative

My Lords, I can also confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said so far as concerns the meeting that he held with me.

Noble Lords:


Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, of course, I am perfectly happy to accept what the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, has said. I never suggested that the discussions had taken place with the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. It is my understanding that informal discussions took place at senior levels and I shall stick to that. I am not suggesting that the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, took part in those discussions.

We all know that the reason that the Government have not been able to compromise on the issue of three regions is that some senior members of the Government in the north of England were not able to reach an agreement. People in Yorkshire, led by the Deputy Prime Minister, put their foot down in relation to Yorkshire, and people in the north-west, led by some of the equally extremely able politicians in the north-west, including, I believe, the chairman of the Labour Party but many others too, some of whom have spoken in this House, were not prepared to compromise on the matter of the north-west. That is why we have not been able to achieve the kind of sensible compromise which would have resolved this matter at least a fortnight ago and which could have allowed the elections to be organised far more quickly than has been the case.

If there is a problem between the Houses, that is not the fault of this House, which has sought to compromise; it is the fault of the Government, who have been obstinate and who, for whatever political reasons of their own, have refused to understand that the compromise was on offer and that it was a sensible thing to do. I shall say one final thing.

Noble Lords:


Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, who knows? This may be the last occasion that we debate the Bill in this House. But this will not be the last time that these matters are raised because the question of compulsory postal voting—the substantive issue that we are discussing—is a matter of fundamental constitutional importance. It puts at risk the whole question of the free vote, based on the secret ballot, and unless—I am sorry; my phone is ringing. There are times when one would like to curl up and crawl under a bed. Unfortunately, there is not room under my Bench.

The whole question of compulsory postal voting puts at risk the fundamental constitutional matter of the free vote and the secret vote, as entrenched in the Ballot Act 1872. Until answers to those questions are provided, those of us who are concerned about these matters will continue to raise them and to complain and object to what some of us see as the Government playing fast and loose with the most important and fundamental matter underlying our democracy. The fact that noble Lords opposite believe that this is a matter for hilarity is something which shows—

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord for one moment. He has made some very impressive points but, whatever one may think of them, does he realise that the longer he goes on, the more he is destroying them?

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the noble Earl will be very pleased to know that I have finished.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 12:15, 1 April 2004

My Lords, I shall be brief. I want to respond to only one or two of the points raised in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, with whom we have worked on the Bill vigorously for quite some time, suggested that the Government might have chosen some regions in the south rather than all the regions being in the north. I believe that it is important for the House to understand the process by which the regions were considered.

The Electoral Commission was asked to give advice on which regions might be suitable for pilots. It identified two that were suitable. It then identified Scotland and, I believe, two others that were potentially suitable. The remainder, it said, were not suitable. In deciding which regions should be piloted, the Government worked strictly down the list in the order in which it was given to us by the Electoral Commission. I do not believe that it would have been open to us, in wisdom, to have gone outside that list in the way that was suggested.

Secondly, I mark the point that has infected this debate at times—that is, whether there is a party-political advantage. I shall repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said; I am sure that that will be welcome. There is no academic research that I know of that indicates that postal ballots favour one party or another. Agents become massively excited about this issue but I believe that, at this stage, the evidence is particularly inconclusive and uncertain.

I also want to address the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. It was a good question concerning whether evidence from the Electoral Commission on how the pilot had worked in the four regions would be available in time to inform practice on the regional referendums in October. As the Bill states, the commission must report within three months of the election. Therefore, its report would be available before September. If there are any early lessons to be learnt in advance, I believe it is particularly important that we try to receive them if they would help to improve electoral practice. Where such information can be shared, we would share it with opposition parties, as one would expect.

I shall cut to the end. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, said that there was a danger of elective dictatorship. That is an important issue, and it is partly the reason for having this House. Clearly, one recognises that that is partly what we do: we balance the majority in another place. But there is also a danger of an unelective dictatorship. The situation that I sought to signal to noble Lords was that the current situation—that is, with the Government having no overall majority in this House—is likely to be the status quo in the future. I consider that to be good. But the implication that flows from that is that a coalition of two opposition parties—either in substance or on any particular issue—could always, always block the will of the other place. We must reflect on that because of its serious constitutional importance.

I was simply signalling that where an issue has massive constitutional merit, this House will no doubt take it to the line. But the question whether four or three regions take part in a regional pilot is a third division, rather than a first division, issue. I find it astounding that we might wish to test our conventions beyond any previous limits. For those reasons, while I respect, and do not expect to change, the views of other Members, I believe that now is the time for us to cease our resistance in this respect.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister and all who have worked with him on the Bill for the careful consideration given to much of what I have said. I know that they now believe that closure must be brought to the matter. On what the Minister has just said about which region should have all-postal pilots, the original government brief given to the Electoral Commission did not consider any regions in the south at all. It looked only at regions in the Midlands and further north. Scotland was a third choice of the commission, Yorkshire and Humber the fourth and the north-west the fifth. The Electoral Commission remained of the view that four pilots would be too many and that the fifth choice—the north-west—was no longer suitable.

The issue is not about whether to have three or four pilots, nor is it about the unelected House of Lords or the elected House of Commons; the issue is whether an independent body should decide the matter and whether Parliament collectively should act upon the will of that independent body. For that very important reason I want to test the opinion of the House.

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

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 108; Not-Contents, 138.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Lords Amendment

Aye: 106 Members of the House of Lords

No: 136 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

Motion agreed to.