Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:14 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 7:14 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, I feel very much better for the noble Lord's last comment and much relieved.

On the next issue, I pray in aid the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen. His expertise on this is probably greater than that of any other noble Lord. There are matters on which he criticised the Bill. Although he says we should have done this sooner, he praised the Government on the move towards individual registration. He made the important point that this is a serious move towards individual registration and is bound to take some time if it is to be done properly because it affects voters all round this country. It took some time to become successful in Northern Ireland. There was a drop in registration when it was first brought in there. I ask noble Lords not to rush ahead of themselves in asking for some ridiculous timetable for this important step.

I was heard in some parts of the Chamber to say that we would start collecting personal identifiers from August 2010 to August 2015. What I meant to say, and what I think I said, was autumn 2010 and autumn 2015. I make that point if I was wrong.

As far as pilots for individual registration are concerned, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would like this to be a pilot case. He may recall better than most of us the provisions for the collection of personal identifiers from electors on a pilot basis that were brought forward in the Electoral Administration Bill 2006. Those provisions were removed and replaced with provisions for the universal collection of postal vote identifiers brought forward by my noble friend Lord Elder in response to a consensus around the House that we should get on with it.

Moving on to the commission itself, there were some issues around the fourth member with some political experience. Nominated commissioners—those with political experience—will not be party representatives just as they were not, I believe, on the noble Lord's committee. We believe that it is right that there are four nominated commissioners—there was some support around the House for that—allowing the perspective of one smaller party to be heard. This was a recommendation from the CSPL. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, also had a view on this. The proposal that there should be some members of the commission with some political experience was supported by all parties during the Commons stages.

My noble friend Lady Gould, who also has huge experience in this field, asked about candidate spending rules. The Electoral Commission said before the Public Bill Committee in the other place that it would aim to publish draft guidance on the Bill's original proposals in January and then finalise its guidance as soon as possible after the Bill has completed its passage. However, I think it would say that that is an indicative timeframe rather than anything more precise.

I was asked why compliance officers are needed. The background to this is that there have been frequent complaints about the burden of compliance with the 2000 Act, particularly from people with very busy roles. We have heard of some of the difficulties that local parties on all sides have found and those of Members of Parliament. An honourable friend in the other place tabled an amendment seeking to achieve this. Opposition parties did not dissent and thus the proposal was included in the Bill, appeared on Report and has come to this House.

Compliance officers are intended to assist elected office holders with requests of compliance set down by the 2000 Act. However, they do not absolve office holders from responsibility for compliance themselves. I look forward to discussing compliance officers in Committee. Any holder of a relevant elective office—that obviously will be a Member of the other place, a Member of the other Parliaments and Assemblies in the UK, or a member of a local authority in London and elsewhere—will be able to appoint a compliance officer.

My noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis asked what discussions had taken place with the Electoral Commission and others concerning the Bill. We are in regular contact with the Electoral Commission at all levels and we are aware of its views on the Bill, much of which it supports, I am glad to say. It does not support everything in the Bill but we have an honest and open dialogue with it which we hope will continue to be constructive. We believe that the measures in the Bill concerning the Electoral Commission will assist it to do an even better job than it has so far done.

I thank all noble Lords for the part they have played in this Second Reading debate. I anticipate and look forward to the Committee stage.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.