My Lords, perhaps I will wait for those people to leave who are, disappointingly, not staying for the vigorous scrutiny of this Bill.
Clause 5 ensures that media outlets-specifically, newspapers, periodicals, the BBC, S4C in Wales and other licensed broadcasters-are not caught by the spending restrictions in place for the referendum, as outlined in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. As yet another case of the consequences that befall legislation that is brought forth in haste and without time for pre-legislative consultation, Clause 5 was added to the Bill as a government amendment in Committee in another place.
The problems with the Bill, as introduced, were highlighted in the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place, which brought to the attention of Parliament the ambiguous position of the media under the funding rules, as drafted. Unlike the spending limits that apply to elections, the definition of referendum expenses includes any material which provides general information about the referendum or puts any argument for or against the referendum question. As a result, for example, a newspaper editorial would constitute referendum expenditure.
I think that noble Lords on all sides of the Committee would be in favour of seeing as well informed a referendum campaign as possible, and newspapers are likely to play a vital role in that process. We obviously cannot have a situation where they are restricted from writing about the referendum, so the inclusion of Clause 5-or something like it-was necessary, but we believe that it can be improved. We are concerned that as a consequence of the planned combination of the polls on
Clause 5 refers to exceptions to the 2000 Act's spending rules for the proposed referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons so Amendment 39AA, the first in this group, seeks to emphasise that the broadcasts which are exempted are "referendum campaign" broadcasts. Referendum-related materials and party election materials must be differentiated. Our second amendment, Amendment 39AB, picks up the same point. If political parties are allowed to use their election broadcasts to argue the merits of the referendum, that could lead to claims that the argument is being weighted more on one side than the other. Party election broadcasts should be about the elections for individual officeholders, not the referendum. If they are about the referendum, that leads to the possibility of the expenditure being distorted. The changes recommended by our amendments are important. It should be in the interests of all parties and none that clarity over the administration of press coverage and expenses during the election period is maximised.
I am happy to say that the Electoral Commission has commented on the second of our two amendments. It says that Amendment 39AB has the effect that party election broadcasts during the referendum period will not be broadcast if they contain references to the merits of different electoral systems or to the referendum. In other aspects of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, such as those relating to party spending, different electoral events are considered as distinct for regulatory purposes and the Electoral Commission says that, to be consistent with this, election broadcasts should not be permitted to encourage people to vote for a particular referendum result. It also goes on to say that it is worth noting that Section 127 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 currently prevents broadcasters transmitting any broadcast where its purpose, or main purpose, is, or can assumed to be, to further a referendum campaign for a particular outcome other than by the designated referendum campaign broadcasts.
I am not sure whether the effect of Section 127 in the context of combined elections-combined with the referendum, which is the position here-would prevent the broadcasting of a party-political broadcast that also includes material that relates to or for the arguments in relation to the referendum campaign. Therefore, our second amendment says that party election broadcasts should not be broadcast,
"if they contain references to the merits of different electoral systems or to the referendum on the alternative vote system".
That appears, as a matter of principle, to be supported by the Electoral Commission. I would be interested to hear the Government's view both about this and about the effect, in this respect, of Section 127 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
These are important matters because one political party is united; I say united, but that may be an overstatement. However, one political party has support for one electoral system, while two political parties-Labour and Conservative-are divided on the issue. Actually, I do not know if the Conservatives are divided on the issue as to whether they support AV or not. Having one political party that is supporting the change-even though it is described by their leader as a "miserable little compromise"-means that these issues of expenditure are important, because if the change is not made, or if the matter is not dealt with by the Bill, you can have one political party spending money on it and the others not being able so to do because they are divided, not because of the limits.
My noble and learned friend has more experience of reading these Electoral Commission reports than I have, but is it not unusual that the whole thrust of what the Electoral Commission is saying about his amendment seems to be almost entirely supportive of it but does not contain a recommendation? The Electoral Commission makes a clear recommendation for one or two of the other clauses that it is commenting on. Does he have any information that I do not have on the basis on which it makes an argument and then does not reach a conclusion, as opposed to the occasions when it makes an argument and does reach a conclusion?
First, I agree with the premise on which the question is based; when the Electoral Commission opposes an amendment-of anybody's; this is not just to do with party-it says so. It does not, however, appear to support amendments; even when it gets right to the point where logically it should support them, it does not say that it is supporting them. All I can do is say that I note the same approach as my noble friend Lord Grocott. I have no idea why it does that.
My Lords, I support the amendment because it is vital that we have a level playing field wherever possible during the referendum campaign. Section 127 in the 2000 Act contains some ambiguity which really needs to be clarified. The way the legislation has been framed worries me because, if the 2000 Act might be misunderstood in this area, there is the possibility of expenditure bleeding over from political campaigns for the Scottish Parliament, or whatever, into the referendum campaign. The Conservative element of the coalition-I will keep drawing a distinction between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat elements in the coalition-may well want to place a different emphasis in that campaign. The Conservatives might wish to block electoral reform wherever possible and use their party election broadcasts to do so unless there are adequate safeguards built into the legislation. Equally, the Liberal Democrats might take a converse view and argue that they support electoral reform. They may wish, despite their reference to it being a miserable little compromise, to advocate the use of Queensland AV and use their money available for election broadcasts to promote that issue.
Can we have a clear statement in the Minister's response today that he would not expect parties in the coalition to adopt that particular ruse, and that the legislation that will govern these matters is absolutely clear when the referendum campaigns take place?
My Lords, will the Minister cast his mind back to the 1979 referendum on the Scotland and Wales Bill, which was the first referendum on whether to establish a Scottish Parliament? He may recall that this issue was extremely significant during that campaign. It was then the position of the Labour Party in Scotland to support the yes campaign, although it was accepted that not every member of the party would take that position. Indeed, there was a Labour "vote no" campaign as well.
A party-political broadcast was made by the Labour Party at that time in support of party policy for a yes in the referendum, and was the subject of an interim interdict by the no campaign which resulted in it not being broadcast. I say this with some feeling because I produced and directed the said broadcast, and I thought it was rather good. The late Robin Cook and Mr Brian Wilson successfully secured an interim interdict. I see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in his place; perhaps he would be able to elucidate for us whether or not that interim interdict still applies. I still think that that broadcast should be shown.
Lest your Lordships think that this is a fairly abstruse part of the legislation, I say that it is actually a quagmire. There will be differences, perhaps even in the Liberal Democrats, because there are those who do not accept that AV is proportional representation. Perhaps even the Deputy Prime Minister, who sees it as a miserable little compromise, might decide to seek to block any party-political broadcast.
I have two points. First, I say to the Minister that this is not about party-political differences, but about a point of real, practical differences that require attention. Secondly, I am not sure about the differences between English and Scottish law on these matters; I defer to my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. I can remember some of my colleagues in the Labour Party in England being completely flummoxed by the fact that it was possible to get an interim interdict on a political party for this purpose.
It may be painful for the Minister to cast his mind back that far-as it is occasionally for me; I am just grateful that I can still do it.
My noble friend has sent my mind even further back. Was it not the case that she, I and the late John P Mackintosh appeared on a party election broadcast in 1974, when we went rather further in that broadcast than Labour Party policy at the time and committed the party to Scottish devolution? Does that not indicate the power of party election broadcasts?
My noble friend brings back even more painful memories, because also taking part in that election broadcast was Mr Jim Sillars. In fact the late Professor John P Mackintosh, who by coincidence had been my professor at university, actually committed the Labour Party to full tax-raising powers for a Scottish Parliament as well and it took some years to finesse the policy afterwards.
While people probably go and switch on the kettle whenever there is an opportunity to watch a party-political broadcast, I urge your Lordships to take this matter particularly seriously. Seeking and opposing an interim interdict is an extensive and diversionary activity and I urge the coalition to take my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton's amendment very seriously.
I think that my noble friend should arrange a special showing of that election broadcast in the House; I would like to see what I missed. On a more serious note, I support my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. He has hit on an important point. It is worth remembering that there are different electoral systems within the UK for different elections, so it needs to be made clear that we are separating out the referendum from the party-political agenda. The second amendment is particularly important in this respect. I would have thought that there was a strong case for the Government simply to accept that amendment, although they may want to reword it. I hope that in due course they will say that the principle that my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench is putting forward is right and ought to be protected.
I support my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer's amendment. The need for it reflects in part the baleful effects of the Government's plan to have the referendum on the same day as other elections, because inevitably there will be a cluster of party-political broadcasts as part of the campaigns. That means that a ban of this kind is all the more essential because there will be a temptation at times for various parties to include the referendum in those broadcasts. Of course, it is possible that the referendum will not take place on
Let us take a case whereby the referendum is held at a time when the coalition has broken up, which seems a more likely prospect today than it would have done about a fortnight ago. In that circumstance, the Conservatives would no longer have any inhibition about campaigning flat out for what they believe in, which is that AV is a bad thing, and they could well wish to devote a party-political broadcast-or party-political broadcasts, come to that-to smashing into AV, if only in the hope of defeating their erstwhile friends in the Liberal Democrats on something that they greatly want.
The idea of party-political broadcasts, although they are propagandist things, is that they are balanced; everyone gets a go at one, so they cancel each other out. Within a referendum campaign, however, to allow for party-political broadcasts arguing one side of the case where it is a matter of chance whether or not there is a party-political broadcast arguing the other seems to be an extremely unfair way to conduct the campaign. I therefore support my noble and learned friend's amendment.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment of my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench. I shall start with my usual obsession and say that, on reading the amendment and indeed the Bill, I was motivated by my usual and, I would say, well founded lack of trust in the behaviour of Liberals in these matters. My noble friend Lady Liddell has mentioned various referendums-or referenda-but, being parochial and from the Royal Burgh of Rutherglen, I shall bring it down to the Royal Burgh level.
As I have mentioned previously, we had a local council campaign regarding local government reform in 1994-95. It was an all-party campaign. Everybody behaved themselves, except guess who? We had the local Liberals trying to slip in leaflets and bits about themselves as if the campaign was somehow theirs. It caused great annoyance among the rest of the voluntary committee and they were reprimanded.
No doubt somewhere in the Chamber somebody will jump up to say, "How parochial and petty". I plead guilty to that. However, I am further reinforced in my position on this amendment by comments from my noble friend Lady Liddell. I have an awful guilty feeling that, as part of the Labour no campaign, I contributed to the finances to seek the interdict that she referred to. I am quite sure that she will have a word to say to me later about that.
As my noble friends Lady Liddell and Lord Foulkes pointed out, the election broadcast compounded or, even worse, took advantage of pushing the boundaries of what were the rules and what was policy. Though it is absolutely wrong, the temptation will always be there. This should be very well controlled in order to make sure that election broadcasts are not hijacked for narrow political purposes.
The two amendments relate to an extremely important part of this Bill. The Government were obviously quite right to have a clause in the Bill that, as far as broadcasting is concerned, deals with fairness in a referendum. However, I am glad that we do not have a written constitution. I would be very concerned if someone tried to hand over the way in which we run our country from a constitutional point of view to the lawyers.
I can see that the issue of referendums and how we conduct them is important. I will certainly not go down memory lane, apart from remembering the debates about setting up the first referendum, on the Common Market, in 1975. There were long debates in Parliament about lots of these kinds of issues-about how to make sure that it was fair. I am absolutely certain that we did not get it right on that occasion; we certainly did not get it right from my point of view because I voted no. There is no doubt that each time these things are discussed, we refine and improve the rules relating to referendums.
I do not know what speaking notes the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has, but I hope that he recognises the significance of this, not least-and perhaps in particular-because, if there is any logic whatsoever in the constitutional changes that are proposed by this Government and if there is a referendum on the voting system in the House of Commons, there must surely be a referendum on any proposal to scrap the House of Lords, whichever way one considers the arguments, although the Committee will be relieved to know that I do not have the slightest intention of going into those arguments now. Presumably, if we get this clause right, when another Bill comes down the track that provides for a referendum on an even bigger part of our constitution, we will have rules about fairness that all of us can agree to. We are heading in a direction, whether we like it or not, where constitutional changes will be referred to referendums. I hope that the Government will look at these amendments sympathetically.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for bringing forward this amendment. I agree entirely with the last point that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made that the pattern of using referendums since the 1970s has been to learn, modify and improve. That will probably go on.
The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, gave a very good example of an injunction being brought against an election broadcast. I am always fascinated by the difference between English and Scottish law. When I ask, "What is the difference?", the answer that I get in the Ministry of Justice is often, "They do it much better in Scotland". That is just a passing observation. I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, still does not trust the Liberals. I really thought that we were beginning to bond. I will have to do more work on my charm offensive.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, was quite right: this clause was brought in as a specific amendment suggested by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to address the guidelines for broadcasters. There is a principle to consider. Would it be right for party election broadcasts for the local and devolved Assembly elections, which will take place on
I am advised that there are defects in Amendment 39AA that would bring in ambiguity. We could perhaps test that. On the second amendment, I suggest again that the noble and learned Lord does not press it and that we have further discussions to see whether it can be improved and clarified. Before the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, breaks open the champagne, I should add that my speaking notes contain lines that I have not heard since "Beyond the Fringe". They say: "What I am saying does not mean that I agree with his amendment, but nor should it be assumed that I disagree with the amendment".
We all know that the final line of the "Beyond the Fringe" sketch was, "But neither should this be taken as an abstention". I suggest to the House, quite genuinely, that-as the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, reminded us-getting this wrong could cause all kinds of trouble with the best of intentions.
Could the noble Lord, Lord McNally, be doubly helpful? It occurred to me as the debate was taking place that we have not touched on the internet. That is now a far more powerful medium in elections and campaigns. I wonder whether the discussions that he is proposing could encompass the internet as well.
I am sure that that intervention has been noted. Indeed, I am looking forward to an e-mail on Monday that says: "Sorry, can't get down today. Snowed in. G Foulkes". Perhaps I am hoping for too much. As I say, I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, will take what I have said in the spirit in which it is intended. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, we refine these issues each time. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, rightly reminded us of how things can go badly wrong. We would like to talk further about this.
If the noble Lord is saying to me, "In principle I agree about the problem that you have identified, so let's talk about how we solve it"-the problem being that no political party should be allowed to use its political broadcast to promote or demote any of the electoral systems at issue-I am more than happy to wait until Report stage. The noble Lord read out parts of his brief in a jokey manner, but that gave him complete room to say, "No, we are not going to make any changes". Therefore, I need something a little more than what he said. I need an indication that in principle he accepts the broad problem that we have identified.
I am afraid that I cannot do that. I am offering to talk very seriously about this. I say in a strictly non-jokey way that there are issues that we have to look at if we are not to fall into innocent traps, as the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, reminded us. There would have to be discussions without preconditions on either side. If the noble and learned Lord wishes to press the amendment, I shall resist-and that would be a mistake for both of us.
My Lords, it is worth noting that the clause referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is from the general statute dealing with referendums. This is not a question for just this referendum; it may be a question of whether what has already been put into the general procedure is sufficiently accurate. I think that I am right in saying that at the moment a party-political broadcast in connection with a referendum is allowed, so long as that is not the principal or main purpose, or some such phrase, of the broadcast. It may be that what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and others have identified is a question of whether or not that general provision is wise or whether it should be modified. The question may go somewhat further than just this referendum and that issue needs to be looked at.
That is quite right and we would deal with it. However, I am suggesting that we have discussions about it without preconditions. I am grateful for the intervention of my noble and learned friend. He raises another issue that we can take on board when we look at the matter. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is not the only one who supplies lifeboats, although he is not here today.
It is because I want to be able to discuss this, look at its implications and try and get it right. I do not want to make these kinds of commitments over the Dispatch Box. After all the complaints of the Opposition on this, my good will wears thin. When a Minister makes a straightforward offer to look at a real problem and get it right, I can only say that one begins to despair-although perhaps not for a few hours yet. No, I will not really despair. The offer is there. I hope and I think that we can get this right.
My Lords, I am grateful for all the interventions. I am also grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. I completely agree with what he says. Section 127 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 currently prevents broadcasters from transmitting,
"any broadcast whose purpose (or main purpose) is or may ... be assumed to be ... to further", a referendum campaign. I agree with him that there are wider ramifications than simply in relation to this. I completely trust the noble Lord, Lord McNally, so I am more than happy to accept his assurances and I am more than happy to discuss the matter in the spirit in which he has made the offer. I am absolutely sure that the two of us will be able to reach a solution that is acceptable to both of us. Furthermore, I am grateful to the noble Lord opposite. I should tell him-although I am sure that he will not believe it-that I was aware that, if I pressed the amendment to a vote, I would not be able to bring the matter back, but I think that the Committee is grateful to him for reminding us of that. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 39AA withdrawn.
Amendment 39AB not moved.
Debate on whether Clause 5 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, the Question is that Clause 5 stand part of the Bill.
Will the noble Lord forgive me? It seems to me that at the moment we do not have a Motion before the House to debate. Until we get to that stage, people should not be making speeches.
My Lords, I did put the Question that Clause 5 stand part of the Bill.
I am sorry about that. What is the process within the department? The noble Lord will take back the proposal made by my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench. Are there additional consultations within each party and within each element of the coalition about an amendment that might be further considered; or is it simply dealt with in the private office? I am trying to understand to what extent each element within the coalition will be drawn into discussion on the acceptability of any amendment which the Minister might be prepared to consider.
Perhaps I may detain the Minister and the House for just a couple of minutes on the clause stand part debate. I hope that we can continue in the spirit that the Minister extended in his response to my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench. Does he agree that this debate illustrates the problems of holding the referendum on the same day as the other elections? It is inevitable that one matter will spill over into another. As my noble friend Lord Grocott reminded your Lordships a few moments ago, those of us old enough to have participated in the 1975 referendum campaign well understand the bewilderment expressed by people, who were not necessarily politically involved or that concerned about the result of the referendum, at the way these arguments crossed party boundaries. Indeed, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will accept that it would be impossible completely to restrict expenditure in the way that the previous amendment, so ably moved by my noble and learned friend, tried to do.
I hope that he will look carefully at that amendment. Again, in the spirit in which this debate has been conducted today, I hope that he will see the sheer difficulty, if not impossibility, of doing all these things on the same day. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will reflect on this. I am seeking to help out his party. I do not know how to support AV. I am firmly in the first-past-the-post camp. However, from his own party's point of view, it is inevitable, given the economic situation and the actions of Her Majesty's Government-I will not go into them here-that there will be some degree of unpopularity for the Liberal Democrats. That will spread over into the whole debate about the electoral system that we are to adopt, and I am quite relaxed about that.
I have a great deal of affection for the noble Lord. After all, he used to represent my home town-with a different political interest, of course, but let us put that to one side. If we are to have a sensible referendum and a sensible debate about the matters that we should be discussing, rather than the ins and outs of economic or coalition policy, then the noble Lord should look carefully at the amendment. I know that he has promised to do so but perhaps he could go a little further and adopt the very sensible suggestion made by my noble and learned friend.
My Lords, I rise briefly to ask a further question to which I hope the Minister will address himself. The clause provides protection against something in a newspaper, other than an advertisement of course, or in a periodical or in the broadcasting media specified, being regarded as election expenses, but it does not say anything about expenses incurred via the internet. Does the protection extend to that medium?
The question about the internet is very important. Following on from the noble Lord's point, can the Minister comment on information about the referendum that may be made available by the Electoral Commission on the internet? The Electoral Commission is entitled to issue neutral educational material concerning the referendum question but, in practice, I think that it is extremely difficult to be absolutely sure of the neutrality of any such material in such a presentation. The materials put out by the authorities in the New Zealand referendum led to considerable controversy, as there was an argument that, in listing the pros and cons, they were not impartial. I do not want to go on about this but I should be grateful for the Minister's comments because the point about the internet and the Electoral Commission is very important.
My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken in these debates. On the day on which we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the launch of YouTube, I think it is right that we raise the whole question of the internet and particularly that "channel", although that is not the right word. Anyone could place a video on YouTube expressing their views in the hope that many people would watch it, and that could change the nature of the way in which we voted if there were not some way of controlling it. To be honest, it is extremely difficult to control what goes on YouTube but there certainly has to be something in the legislation that at least tries to do so.
My Lords, I indicated in my remarks on the first group of amendments that I proposed to Clause 5 that the clause was introduced to deal with the problems identified by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place. In principle, we think that it is a good thing, although other issues need to be dealt with, including the point about the internet made by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont.
I have one question for the noble Lord in relation to that. On the face of it, any expenses incurred in making a broadcast for a referendum-for example, if you got Steven Spielberg to produce it and my noble friend Lord Puttnam to direct it, or the other way round-would not count as expenses. Is that really the Government's intention?
On a general point, can the Minister say what principles underlie Clause 5 and, in the light of those principles, what is the answer not just to the questions that I have raised but to those raised by other noble Lords?
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their questions. The principle is that the clause was inserted in response to the committee in the other place asking for clarification. We have put Clause 5 into the Bill to ensure that media outlets are not caught by spending restrictions that are in place in terms of publishing information about the referendum. The media play a vital role in building public awareness and presenting facts and opinions on the matters raised by the poll. This amendment ensures that the media's ability to carry out that role and to exercise the usual freedom of the press and broadcast media is not restricted in any way. That was our intention.
On the point that the noble and learned Lord has just raised, I will have to check again with the Electoral Commission, but I believe that if in making a referendum broadcast, one or other of the campaigns was to indulge in the kind of expenditure to which he referred, that would be counted as expenses.
Does not this whole debate point up very clearly the absurdity of holding the referendum on the same day as other elections? It will be completely impossible to police the distinction which the Government seek to make between coverage that is referendum-related and coverage that is election-related. What if a programme or an article discusses both those topics together? It cannot conceivably work. My noble friend Lord Snape reminded us of how perplexing and confusing voters found it in 1975 when they found politicians of different parties on different sides of the argument. If I remember rightly, that referendum was not held on the same day as other elections; but it still caused people to scratch their heads. It will be completely impossible to sort this out if the two processes are carried forward on the same day. Will not the Government now accept that?
I do not mind the constant argument about how people are going to be confused by this, but one lesson that we have learnt since 1975 is that a referendum and elections can be held on the same day, because we have done it. There is no reason why the two cannot be run together. To be absolutely clear, the extra expenses would come under Schedule 14.
I did not say that, but that gives the opportunity for another intervention.
In that case, as the noble Lord agrees that it was not the 1975 referendum, which specific referendum was it? When was it held and what election was it? It was certainly not in Scotland, where there is a very important election on
I did not say that it was in Scotland. As my noble friend just reminded me, the London elections were held on the same day as a referendum. Come on, let us carry on.
If there were advertising on the internet, that would be caught. Again, I am quite willing to look at the issue of the internet. I do not accept the intervention by my noble friend Lord Lamont. I think that the Electoral Commission has acted impeccably, and I have every confidence in it. I was one of those who supported from the very beginning the idea of experienced politicians serving on the Electoral Commission. Happily, all three major parties plus Mr Reid from the SNP now serve on the Electoral Commission, and I think that it is all the better that there are people who have had direct experience.
As I said, I do not think that there is any problem about this. As was said during debate on the amendments, we will look at the specific points raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in his second amendment. What happens in the coalition is a matter for my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who is handling this from the Cabinet Office with my honourable friend Mr Mark Harper. I will, as always, report to them on the debates in this House. We will then discuss, on a governmental basis, our response to them. It must be to the great depression of the Opposition to know that we do this in a seamless fashion which produces none of the frictions alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours.
I am not trying to delay matters; I really would like to know how this works. The noble Lord said that it is dealt with by the Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Harper, but is there consultation within the political parties about concessions that they might be considering making? This is very important. It is about political parties in many ways?
I have every confidence that those in government know how to consult the political parties they come from. I see no problem here and I have certainly not encountered one. As will have been noticed throughout the debate, on my Benches my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard are both plugged into and expert on these matters for the Liberal Democrats. The noble Lord's concern is touching, but I can assure him that it is not a problem.
When Ministers consult with political parties about the processes that it might be appropriate to incorporate into this legislation, can the noble Lord assure us that they seek to act in a spirit of disinterestedness? After all, it would not be appropriate for the Government to stack the system so that it would benefit what the parties perceive to be their particular interests. Can he assure us that the Government's hands are clean in this process?
Absolutely clean. The problem about this, and the reason we are having such difficulty in convincing the Benches opposite, is that our whole aim is to get fair votes on the basis of fair constituencies, which obviously discomforts them.
Can the Minister be more specific? He has called upon, so he says, the best brains in the Liberal Democrat Party to assist him in these matters-and I am sure that they will be joined by the best brains in the Conservative Party, the Civil Service and everyone else-but can he give an inkling as to how those best brains will be able to differentiate between the expenditure on local and regional elections and referendums? It is a simple question. Just give us a clue.
I suggest that the noble Lord looks at the 2000 Act. The schedules are mostly based on existing law. Elections were conducted like this before so perhaps he should find some experts in the Labour Party to help him with his problem. I do not see the problem that he is raising-or the problem that I suspect the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is about to raise.
Regrettably the Labour Party is not in government; he and his colleagues are. It is a simple question and it is no good referring back to the 2000 Act. As far as I am aware, elections have not been held on the same day as a referendum-ever-in the United Kingdom. The noble Lord referred to the London elections, the assembly and the mayoral elections, but this is a completely different situation, with regional and local elections and a national referendum about the voting system being held on the same day. Can he quote a precedent for this-or at least give us some idea of how the Government are going to tackle the problem of limiting expenditure in these circumstances? So far he has failed to do so.
I may have failed to convince the noble Lord, but we are going to do so on the basis of existing legislation and the provisions of this Bill.
I asked the question because I knew the answer. My noble friend Lord Maxton said, "Don't ask a question if you don't know the answer to it". What I am not clear about is this: whenever we raise issues, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has to go back to the Deputy Prime Minister to get agreement. What happens if he is taken ill or is abroad at some major conference or something like that?
I do not know. That would really stump us. I would probably have to go and ask the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, what happened when he was in Government.
My Lords, I am not seeking to make this an even more protracted discussion but the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Snape, took me on another saunter down memory lane. One of the issues that confronted the referendum in 1979 was that some non-political players became involved in it-business leaders and trade union leaders-some of whom put a considerable sum of money into their own personal campaigns, taking on media advisers, et cetera. I am going to ask a question to which I do not know the answer. How would this legislation unscramble that kind of expenditure? You may well have someone intervening in the referendum campaign and, as a side swipe, having a go at a political party that was standing in that election in Scotland. This is about the disentangling of non-political players from the referendum campaign in terms of their expenses and the impact that this might have on the outcome. Sorry, it sounds very convoluted, but I can see it being a nightmare, particularly when election agents have to submit their election expenses.
The Electoral Commission has very clear rules. We have laws about electoral expenses. If there were those kinds of problems that the noble Baroness suggests, I am sure they would be challenged at the time. It might speed things up if people did not preface their interventions by assuring me that they were not trying to delay matters and just got straight into the question.
I am sorry to press the noble Lord further but I know of a scenario in 1979 where some business leaders became involved in the referendum campaign and put considerable sums of money towards it. I can see an actual situation emerging. I will not name the people here but I can think in my head who they would be and who would use it as an opportunity not to take a swipe at my party but to take a swipe at the noble Lord's party. It is not clear in electoral law how those expenses will be allocated.
Before the noble Lord seeks to answer that question, this debate has got to a stage where people seem to have forgotten that a statute dealing with referenda was passed by the previous Administration. It deals with all of these questions in considerable detail. There are some additional questions because as time has gone on more difficulties have emerged-for example, in relation to the internet-but there are already considerable provisions in the law about that. It is important to remember that this debate should be about this particular Bill and its particular circumstances.
Do we not need to learn the lesson from, for example, the referendum on a regional assembly in the north-east, where the no campaign was led by business interests? That campaign was relatively well-funded and was clearly against Labour Party policy. In effect, therefore, it was significantly in the interests of the Conservative Party. Does the Minister feel that the lessons of that experience have been adequately absorbed and that the existing legislation to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, referred satisfactorily covers such circumstances? Or does he feel that the legislation governing referendum expenses needs to be brought up to date in the light of that example of how money can be spent in a political cause but not overtly by a political party?
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, mentioned the internet. Perhaps I may give an example to follow on from what my noble friend Lord Howarth said about business people. Sir Sean Connery is a major benefactor of the Scottish National Party, but he is not a taxpayer in this country. He is not therefore bound by rules on expenditure if he is spending that money on advertising via the internet rather than by other means. I presume that there will be other business people, some from the Conservative Benches, who may be in the same position; that is, they are non-taxpayers but can use their money to influence the referendum through the internet in a way that is uncontrollable by the Act.
A little while ago, Members intervening from this side said quite reasonably that they were not trying to delay proceedings by more than they needed to and were being as succinct as they could. The Minister said that it would speed things up if noble Lords would stop saying that. Will he consider an offer whereby we stop saying that if he stops implying that this side is trying to filibuster on this Bill, when it is trying to subject it to correct and proper parliamentary scrutiny?
I will leave it to the general public to read these debates and make their own judgment about that. Just as on the broad principle of the Bill, of fair votes in fair constituencies, we are eager and willing to take our case to the public. Let those who read Hansard be the judge.
I have explained why Clause 5 is in the Bill; I have listened to an amendment suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and, without commitments on either side, have offered to discuss it further; and I have listened to a number of other points, including the internet issue, which I think will be a subject of continuing discussion in the regulation of our parties. However, a point which has been accepted and which I made in responding the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, and others is that we have continued since the 1970s to learn from our experiences and to refine and improve regulation. I pay tribute to the party opposite for taking, with our support, a great number of measures to implement controls on spending and regulate elections via the Electoral Commission. Many of these matters are of great interest, but I think that Clause 5 should stand part of the Bill.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6: Control of loans etc to permitted participants
Moved by Lord Falconer of Thoroton
39AC: Clause 6, page 4, line 3, after "15A" insert "and as if the Schedule set out in Schedule (Limits on referendum expenses by permitted participants) to this Act were inserted into that Act as Schedule 14A."
My Lords, I wish this was as simple as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said. The difficulties in this area spring from the inappropriateness of parts of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and its rules on expenditure as applied to this particular circumstance. I referred in the first set of amendments to the effect of those rules, which would make editorial material in newspapers part of the expenditure and show how inappropriate they are.
This next set of amendments shows another inappropriateness. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, is in his place, because the amendments that I propose in this group were prefaced in remarks made by the noble Lord in the debates on the PPERA-if I may call it that-in 2000, where he emphasised the inappropriateness of imposing limits on political party expenditures in referendums when the campaigns on referendums cut across political parties. I fear that these amendments are needed because of the inappropriateness of the rules to which the noble Lord referred.
Limits on spending by permitted participants in the planned referendum on this voting system will be guided by those rules. Clause 6 of the Bill under discussion today makes it clear that the rules will apply with some modifications. Clause 6, and the inclusion of Schedule 9 to this Bill as a supplementary Schedule 15A to the PPERA, explain these modifications and centre largely on providing detailed rules to control the funding of, and spending by, permitted participants who are not registered parties: in other words, individuals, organisations, companies, trade unions and so on.
Amendment 39AC paves the way for Amendment 126 and is presented to the House as a further modification of the PPERA 2000 rules. As debates on the PPERA back in 2000 exposed, the referendum campaign expenditure limits, which were put into law, are potentially misguided. The PPERA states that in the case of registered parties, spending will be limited according to the share of the vote received by an individual political party at the last general election. Schedule 14 of the PPERA, which our Amendment 126 seeks to replace, dictates that if a party received between 20 and 30 per cent of the vote, it can spend up to £5 million. Between 10 to 20 per cent of the vote, the limit is £4 million. The scale goes down to £500,000 for any party that polls below 5 per cent of the vote; £500,000 is a large amount for a single permitted participant to be able to spend, even if that participant is a party of many members.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said in the debate on the PPERA on
"The key mistake the Government have made is to define the caps by reference to political parties".
He explained that by saying:
"One reason that we have referendums ... is to settle issues which cut across party lines. While parties are essential to general elections in order to simplify choice on many different issues, referendums are single issue campaigns".-[Hansard, 3/4/2000; col. 1133.]
The noble Lord is, as ever, wise. It is right that the designated yes and no campaigns are permitted to spend equal amounts of money in the referendum campaign. By being designated as the lead campaigners, they are the mouthpiece on each side of the yes/no campaign. However, political parties should not be able to spend this much. They should not dominate the campaign. If a political party has a particular view, as one political party has here, in practice it will spend all its money-which will be £5 million, if it is 20 to 30 per cent-in favour of the particular voting system that it supports. That allows much more money to be spent on one side of the campaign, because a political party supports it.
We therefore propose Amendment 126, which Amendment 39AC paves the way for. In Amendment 126, which is almost the last in the group and is on page 28 in the up-to-date Marshalled List, we reduce the amount that a registered political party can spend on the referendum from £5 million to a maximum of £500,000. Some people may think that that amount is too large, but it deals with the very point that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, raised, which is a good point: namely, that we should look at these campaigns on the basis not of political parties but of whether there is going to be a level playing field. If we allow a political party to spend as much as £5 million, we give a huge advantage if any one of the political parties supports one or other of the particular voting systems.
Finally, there is a separate point in our schedule. The PPERA permits all other permitted participants designated by the Electoral Commission-those that are not designated as the lead yes or no campaign or political parties-to spend £500,000. Frugal times or not, that is a large amount of money. We are concerned that the rules as contained in the PPERA, which are due to apply by way of Clause 6 of the Bill to the planned referendum on the electoral system, would therefore allow a huge range of permitted participants to seek to get the limit of £500,000 and thereby allow one side or the other in effect to get around the limits.
Our amendment makes essentially two points: not to refer to limits by reference to political parties, because that fails to understand the point of the referendum; and not to have a system that has such a high limit-namely, £500,000-for permitted participants, as that allows for abuse. That is why we propose Amendment 39AC, which would pave the way for our proposed new Schedule14A, which would be inserted into the PPERA. That would ensure a level playing field. I am afraid that this problem is another indication of the unsuitability of the PPERA rules as they apply to referendums. I beg to move.
Will the Minister comment, at least for my benefit, on one aspect of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said? How will the Electoral Commission distinguish between the designated lead organisation and other organisations and decide whether they are truly independent of it? My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay was quite right to remind us that the rules in the PPERA were set down for referenda. None the less, all sorts of problems come with these rules. That is the point that some people on the other side were genuinely making, and that I was making when I intervened earlier. In many ways, these rules are inappropriate.
I am particularly worried about how you identify the designated lead organisation. The very fact that there is a body in this country that actually decides that there is a permitted lead organisation in a campaign makes me quite nervous. It gets rather close to the situation recently when the United States Supreme Court overthrew many of the rules relating to campaign contributions because they were interfering with the freedom of individual citizens to spend their money and support causes they wanted. I can hardly remember what I said a decade ago, despite the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, reminding me, but one of the points that I raised then was the interference, as I saw it, in certain basic freedoms: that a government organisation will decide who the lead organisation is, and that other organisations will be subject to this that or control.
These rules, frankly, made me very uneasy at the time, and I remain uneasy. Will my noble friend tell me how he envisages that the Electoral Commission will distinguish between expenditure of the lead organisation and whether another organisation is genuinely independent or not? Some of these organisations are very interconnected.
On a point of clarification, does the noble Lord accept that the Electoral Commission is absolutely not a government organisation, that it is independent from government and can therefore do something that perhaps a Government cannot do?
Of course it is independent. That is how it was set up. I intervened earlier with a comment about the Electoral Commission that I was rather nervous about making, and I hesitated to make the comments directly; in some of the evidence presented to the Constitution Committee by at least one academic, the independence of the Electoral Commission on this issue of electoral reform was brought up. I am not saying I agree with that, but it was brought up-it was mentioned in a submission to the Constitution Committee by a well respected academic. When bodies exist on a permanent basis, such as the Electoral Reform Society, what constitutes routine non-campaign expenditure for them and what has to count as an item of spending in the campaign? At what point does academic and educational activity become a form of campaigning covered by the PPERA? I am afraid that these rules are full of holes and really quite impractical.
My Lords, on the question of how these rules are applied, I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and I have a philosophical difference. As I said earlier, I supported the 2000 legislation and the setting up of the Electoral Commission. I am not in favour of the untrammelled process of elections. You need rules and checks and balances if you are going to offer a level playing field in these matters. Much of what was done during the period of the previous Government was worthy of support in making our electoral systems fairer and more transparent in funding and process. What is clear about the process is that much of what is in the Bill, although it is a fairly thick Bill to look at, and certainly what is in this clause, rests on tried legislation that is already in place.
As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, have rather compellingly pointed out to the Committee, there are real and practical problems with the existing rules. Does the noble Lord consider it to be the responsibility of the Government to iron out these difficulties and to put into place a more satisfactory set of arrangements, or is he saying that it is for the Electoral Commission to modify the rules as it thinks best? If the latter, is he satisfied that the Electoral Commission has the freedom and scope actually to do that?
The answer has to be yes, as if we did not have that confidence in the Electoral Commission we would be in a very odd place. As I said, we support the trusting of the commission, which will publish guidelines on how these rules will operate. It is for the designated organisations and the other parties campaigning to work within those rules.
No one is suggesting that the Electoral Commission is not to be trusted. The question is whether the commission has the scope under existing legislation to make the changes that may be necessary.
Part of the debate is how much the changes need to be made. We believe that they do not and that the existing rules and regulations will stand. We see no reason to change the current legislation on spending limits for this referendum. Quite apart from seeing no compelling reason of principle, we should consider the practical effects. We are not far away from the start of the referendum period and changing the rules at this late stage could penalise permitted participants unfairly. In particular, we do not agree that there should be different spending regulations for this referendum compared with others, as the amendment suggests. We do not agree that there should be this distinction and we believe that the current spending regulation framework should apply to this referendum.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak on this because I spoke rather a lot the other day, which resulted in the noble Lord, Lord McNally, wishing for snow in Scotland. I do not want him to create undue problems for the new Transport Minister up there but we have just heard, for the umpteenth time, that this has to be got through because if we do not pass it that will create problems for a referendum on
All sorts of anomalies can arise. We have had a number suggested-if I had had more time, I would have written down some that have come up during our past few days' debates-and each time we raise them, there is a general frisson around the Committee that there is a problem there. Then the Minister puts his head down, reads out a brief and gets on to the next business without really considering the problem.
Perhaps I might give an example, which is not relevant to this issue but is a parallel issue that can be used. In the Scottish Parliament elections, the SNP suddenly realised that if it put itself down on the list as "Scottish National Party", it would come low down the list. Everyone who has been involved in elections knows that if you are top of the list, you get an advantage from that; if your name is Arbuthnot, you get that built-in advantage. The SNP changed the designated name of its party to "Alex Salmond for First Minister". It put down the name of the candidate, then "Alex Salmond for First Minister" in brackets, and that came above Labour, Liberal and Conservative. It came right at the top and it got a lot of votes as a result.
Things have been changed now, because we realised that it was a mistake. That is how these anomalies arise. That is why it is very important that this kind of legislation is scrutinised carefully by us here. I have been involved in, I think, seven municipal elections as a candidate, and seven parliamentary elections as a candidate, most of them successful, and many people here have been involved in many more; my noble friend Lady Liddell has been organising them-she has been in charge of them-and many of my noble friends have been involved in them. That is why we should be scrutinising this and thinking of the practical difficulties that arise.
The Deputy Prime Minister is determined to push this through-because of his ego, says one of my noble friends, although I would hesitate to say that kind of thing. He is anxious to get it through and we are being forced into an artificial timetable. My noble friend Lord Rooker has managed to join us now. He provided the lifeboat for the Government. At some point, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will undertake the kind of consultation in relation to the date of the referendum as he is going to undertake in relation to the previous amendment, as requested by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. If the noble Lord, Lord McNally, came to this House within a week or two and said that the Government had accepted the import of my noble friend Lord Rooker's amendment, and that they were now going to have the referendum on, let us say,
I will ask a very simple question, to which I am sure there is a very simple answer. It is about limits on individuals. My noble friend referred to an industrialist in Scotland during the course of the campaign to which she was referring. What happens if a rich man or woman in the United Kingdom decides that they have got several million pounds to spend, and they do not want to spend it through a political party in influencing the outcome of this referendum, and they decide to split up their allocations whereby they fall within statutory limits? It may well be enshrined in legislation somewhere but I just think it should be on the record, during this debate, whether that is a permissible activity under either this law or the 2000 Act. That is my very simple question: what controls exist to ensure that private individuals do not seek to manipulate the result?
My Lords, briefly, the very point that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has mentioned is the one that has particularly worried me: the rich men and women who have made plenty of money-worked hard and earned the money-and decide to influence the political process with an influx of money into either individual constituencies, as sometimes seems to happen, or on a national campaign. I do not think that is right. I am seriously interested in the response of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to that, because I am certainly interested in taking up his offer of widening and deepening the bonding that has taken place between the two of us.
I am also inspired to speak very briefly following the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who mentioned that he really cannot remember what he said a few years ago. None of us can remember everything we said a few years ago, but sometimes there is relevance in what we say. The referendum is being driven by politics. The date is being driven by politics. We are told that we should not revise and scrutinise because
"I think referendums are awful. The late and great Julian Critchley used to say that, not very surprisingly, they were the favourite form of plebiscitary democracy of Mussolini and Hitler. They undermine Westminster".
That is the bit that interests me.
"What they ensure, as we saw in the last election, is if you have a referendum on an issue, politicians during an election campaign say 'Oh, we're not going to talk about that, we don't need to talk about that, that's all for the referendum'".
This refers specifically to the euro campaign. The quote continues:
"So during the last election campaign the euro was hardly debated. I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn't have anything to do with them. On the whole, Governments only concede them when Governments are weak".
That was Chris Patten, now the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes.
My Lords, this is proving to be a most illuminating debate. When the Minister replies, can he illuminate us further? I got rather confused between two arguments that he is putting, both of which are perfectly sustainable but which are simply impossible to run together.
One argument is that there is nothing wrong with the present law; it absolutely deals with everything. I do not think that that argument stands up because it has been destroyed by the arguments of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, but it is a perfectly sustainable argument by its own logic. Another argument which the Minister came to later, however, says, "Well, the law may or may not be right, but it would be totally confusing to participants if we changed it now". That is a sustainable argument that leads to a clear conclusion: if it is going to confuse participants, we need to put the referendum date back, as my noble friend Lord Foulkes said, sort that bit of law out and then go ahead with the referendum.
The Minister can take either line as far as I am concerned, and the House will take its view on whether it supports it, but he really cannot run both lines simultaneously. I know that the late Jimmy Thomas said that if you cannot ride two horses at once you should not be in the circus, but it gets a trifle tricky if they are galloping in opposite directions.
However, I am not trying to ride two horses at once. We are saying that we are confident that the present regulations are robust enough for conducting this referendum. I have paid tribute before: the PPERA 2000 regulates these campaigns and parties, individuals and other organisations are controlled by that regulation. Donations above £7,500 have to be declared to the Electoral Commission and made public as another guarantee of transparency.
The Electoral Commission itself has welcomed this clause, and says that the provisions will provide transparency about the use of loans and similar arrangements on commercial or other terms to fund campaigning. Registered campaigners will be required to report certain information about such transactions in their referendum expenses return, along with the information on donations that the PPERA already requires them to report.
We have already referred, several times in this debate, to how referendums have influenced the development of law. There is no doubt that this referendum will provide an important test of the PPERA framework. The Government have said, in their response to the Lords Constitution Committee report on referendums, that we will review the effectiveness of the PPERA generally after the referendum. In addition, the Government note that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has said that it will examine whether any changes are necessary in the rules relating to the funding of referendums, as part of the wider review into party-political finance.
Basically, we are tightening up the rules on finance in Clause 6. The amendments are not necessary. The Bill contains the necessary schedules to run this referendum fairly. We have confidence in the Electoral Commission and its powers to run it fairly. We hope that the House will not-
Will the Minister reply to a specific question so that we have on the record exactly what will stop the abuse that I have referred to? It might come about that an individual with a large amount of money, surpassing any limits enshrined in legislation, wishes to influence the campaign. What is to stop an individual doing precisely that?
For a start, each of those donations would have to be declared. There you have the conflict between my noble friend Lord Lamont's philosophy and what I suspect is that of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and myself. I do not want to see big money distorting elections or referendums. We have a set of rules and regulations and a degree of transparency that we believe gives sufficient protection.
Transparency does not deal with the problem that I am referring to. If I can exaggerate to make my point-and I will-suppose that someone said, "I've got £20 million. I want to spend it on this referendum, and I'm going to slot it through, by way of various systems, into the campaign". Transparency might well reveal that, but that does not deal with the problem. What is going to stop it?
I strongly suspect at the moment-I shall come back and correct this if I am wrong-that nothing would stop it, any more than it would be stopped at a general election.
Reductio ad absurdum, of course, wins many arguments, but many of the problems that have been raised from those Benches are not realistic. We can test the House on this. We have confidence in the rules and regulations, many of them laid down by the previous Administration. We are as interested as anyone else in ensuring that the referendum is conducted in a fair and transparent way, and we have confidence in both the legislation and the Electoral Commission.
But is it not astonishing that the Liberal Democrats are sitting in their places and not intervening? One would have thought that they had a particular interest during this campaign to ensure that big money could not influence the result in the way that I suggest? Why do they not get up and say something?
Because I think that they suspect bogus arguments when they see them.
All right, we can spend a lot of time on this. I am not going anywhere. If the noble Lord wants to get up again then he can, but the argument about £20 million being spent on the campaign could have been used in any election in the past 100 years. It is not going to happen in this referendum.
We are not talking about an extreme and highly unlikely possibility; we are talking about the possibility that someone with perhaps £2 million to spend could parcel it out between different beneficiaries who would all then campaign on one side of the referendum argument.
The Minister just said two things that are in conflict. He said that he had confidence in the rules and regulations as they are now but, when he was asked by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours what there was to stop this kind of abuse, he said that he frankly suspected that there was nothing. Those two remarks are in conflict with each other. This is a very important issue. We need to know the answer to the question, and if that answer is not satisfactory then the legislation needs to be amended to ensure that such abuse cannot take place.
I just wonder if the biggest lump of money that has interfered with elections over many years has been that of the large trade unions. They come together as a bulk with a huge amount of money, bigger than that of any individual.
Could the noble Lord address something very specific that I suspect will happen? If a wealthy person domiciled in Monaco buys up all the billboards in Scotland for example as part of his or her campaign for or against the question in the referendum, what means are there of accounting for it one way or another? Is there a transparent way that it can be accounted for as the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Campbell-Savours, have asked? It is not a mischievous question-it is an issue that could arise.
Such expenditure would have to be reported to the Electoral Commission, and it would then be published. Actually, I will not bother with this advice. I have every confidence in my advisers but this would provoke another 10 interventions.
In relation to that very correct question, the Minister says that it is down to accountability and that they would have to make it public. The problem, however, is that the accountability and the public announcement come after the referendum, not before and not during. So what if the individual has spent the money? It will not matter.
Those expenditures are reported on a regular basis. If there was an attempt at such an intervention, it would probably play quite a negative part.
Does the Minister agree that the referendums for setting up the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were conducted within five months of the general election in 1997 and that no such problems occurred during the course of those campaigns? Furthermore, since the Political Parties, Election and Referendums Act 2000 has been in place, we conducted the referendum for the north-east regional assembly, again without any of these problems occurring. Noble Lords in the party opposite introduced these rules in 2000. They have survived to 2010 without there being any attempt to change them. The evidence of the north-east regional assembly referendum campaign is that no such problems arose.
I have taken all those points in. Fortunately-and to my great pride-I do not remember some of the minutiae of the various campaigns in the same detail as my noble friend Lord Rennard. The Opposition can raise all kinds of hobgoblins and things that keep them awake at night but the truth is, as my noble friend has just reminded us, that the PPERA has worked well. The provisions in this Bill are tried and tested. I do not object to this legislation having thorough examination. As I have said, we are willing to spend as long as the Opposition want on this matter. In fact, we might have a few late nights to see if we can focus our minds on it. For the moment we are confident that we have the legislation in place. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment and for Clause 6 to stand part of the Bill.
Whether the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, is tempted to do so or not, I come to the assistance of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on this matter. All three major parties have had difficulties over the years with donations. I am not talking about the trade unions, on which there was a rather irrelevant intervention. I do not know where the noble Lord who mentioned them has been for the past 30 years. Various pieces of legislation-still in force-were passed by Conservative Governments to stop trade unions passing any money on to any political party without the permission of the party membership, which is not something that applies anywhere else.
To return to the amendment, all the parties have had these problems, including the Liberal party. After all, their biggest donor at the last election subsequently went to prison. I do not make that point in any political sense; I know the Liberal party had no idea that the donation came from someone who turned out to be fraudster. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said that legislation already exists to take care of political donations and it will do so as far as the referendum is concerned. However, I have just illustrated the weakness of that legislation. The reason for legislation being toughened up over the years is that it is apparent that people evade it. If I might speak for the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, his point-and one made in interventions by my noble friends-is that the present legislation is palpably inadequate and we should all concede that. If we are to have this referendum, particularly on the same day as other elections, that legislation ought at least to be looked at. I hope that is helpful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I am not sure what is on that piece of paper, which he looked at carefully, other than perhaps, "Maybe we don't agree with you either and you're on your own".
I apologise for intervening before my noble friend speaks; I do not want to encourage anything that would prolong this debate. However, he says that the laws governing referendums have worked very well and have been in existence for 10 years. Yes, they have been in existence for 10 years but, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, pointed out, there has been only one referendum-a very local referendum about whether there should be a north-east assembly. I do not know what the expenditure on that referendum was but I dare say that an upper cap of £5 million was not a great problem. When the Minister says that it is tried and tested, it absolutely is not. It was tried in the north-east and that is all.
There is the problem, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, reminded me that I raised a decade ago and which I have alighted on again, of groups splitting up. How do you ensure that a so-called independent group is not related to the designated group? This is a real problem. As the Minister pointed out, my worry is not about rich people intervening. I always remember that it was the millionaire Engels who subsidised Karl Marx. I am surprised that the other side of the House is not more in favour of rich people. My fear is just that these limits will be completely meaningless because so many organisations will claim that they are independent. I do not wish to name the different organisations that favour changing the voting system but there are a lot of them.
I asked the Minister how you distinguish between the money that those organisations spend day by day now, before the campaign begins, and the money that they will spend during the campaign. What will be defined as a campaign contribution? The Minister can say that we have legislation to cover this but it has not been tried on any significant scale. If he cannot give some guidance today, perhaps he could answer these questions on another day of the Committee or at a different stage of the Bill. They are genuinely of concern, or they certainly are to me.
I am sure they are of concern. How we govern referendums and finance political parties will rightly be of continuing interest to this Parliament, the political parties and the political process. We are confident that this legislation and the powers of the Electoral Commission are strong enough to ensure that this referendum is carried out fairly and transparently. Many of the concerns that have been raised will be tested. I have already said that, as with other referendums, we will learn from experience.
I am sorry, but the Minister is proposing a referendum which will change the constitution. That is what the referendum is about and, as his leader reminded us, it is the most important constitutional change since 1832. I hope that the noble Lord does not think that the questions being asked-it is the first that I have asked-are trivial or "hobgoblins", or some other phrase. He has constantly repeated the mantra: "Fair votes in fair constituencies". I do not like tripping down that road by using that language, but I might as well. How about ensuring that it is a fair referendum? That is what these questions are all about, and it would be simply too late to consider them "after we have changed the constitution". That may be the result of the referendum, although I fervently hope not, and it would be too late to say, "Sorry we got the expenditure rules wrong; we will put them right next time". If the noble Lord cannot see that the issue needs to be addressed now, before the referendum, I suspect that not just those of us on both sides who have been asking questions, but a lot of noble Lords who have not felt it necessary to contribute to this debate may feel that a straightforward answer is required.
The straightforward answer is that the question will be never ending. We will always be looking at how these things are regulated. We will always be looking at whether the rules can be tightened, improved or made more transparent. The question is whether you can conduct a referendum on a fair and transparent basis under the terms of the legislation proposed in the Bill. It is the opinion of this House and it was certainly the opinion of the other place that we could do that. The questions raised on the opposite side may be reasonable, including the question on the funding of political parties, which again will be an ongoing matter. That is why the Committee on Standards in Public Life is looking at that very issue, and this party and this coalition Government will legislate on the funding of political parties.
Of course the Minister is right to say that there will be continuing debate on this range of issues. However, on the specific issue of potential abuse to which the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, alerted us, and which my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours and others agree should be taken seriously, the Minister said just now that in his view nothing in existing legislation would safeguard against that abuse. That is very worrying, and it will not do for the noble Lord to seek blandly to assure us that the legislation is probably good enough and that we should proceed with it. The Government have had plenty of time to think about these issues. This Bill was introduced months ago, and it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the rules governing the conduct of referendums are sufficiently rigorous to provide against such abuse occurring.
But if the Opposition, or even my noble friend, are putting forward hypothetical threats to the fair conduct of the referendum, I am not sure that any piece of legislation on God's earth can meet every imagined threat.
It was not forensically identified. It was suggested that there are ill-defined millionaires wandering around with ill-defined amounts of money. We believe that this legislation is robust and transparent enough to deal with those matters. If it helps, I will at some later stage-and I have already demonstrated that I have absolute faith in my advisers-take the-
And this one says, "Have a go at Rooker, while you are at it". I will take away this issue of the roving multi-millionaire splitting up his money. If I was related to him, I would want him sectioned before he spent the family fortune. In the mean time, I again ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment, and I ask the House to adopt Clause 6 in due course.
My Lords, it is important to identify what we are trying to achieve here. I think everybody in this House would agree that the right expenditure limits are those which create a level playing field. Both sides should be subject to the same limits. The difficulty about the rules that apply from PPERA is that that does not appear to be the case on the facts of this particular referendum. Perhaps I may identify two specific circumstances as to why that is. The way that PPERA deals with the limits is by setting three separate limits, which are cumulative. The first limit allows the designated lead organisation on each side-the leading campaign organisation for "yes" and the leading campaign organisation for "no"-to have a limit of £5 million. That plainly demonstrates equality there. The second limit allows each political party that got between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the vote in the previous election to have a cumulative limit of £5 million. That is added to the £5 million for the designated lead organisation. In the current arrangements, we have two political parties that express no view on whether they support the change to AV and one political party that supports the change to AV. The effect on the facts of this case is that there is the designated lead organisation limit of £5 million, and in addition there is £5 million that the Liberal Democrats get to spend on the campaign. Therefore, there appears to be an uneven playing field right from the start.
Separately and in addition to that point is the point made by practically everybody around the Chamber that, if you are an authorised participant-either an individual or a corporation-you can donate up to £500,000. Therefore, there is very little difficulty for somebody who supports one of the campaigns-whether they are companies, individuals with families, or a group of people who have a particularly concerted view-to give, in effect, an unlimited amount of money to one or other of the campaigns.
Our proposition is that, first, you should reduce the amount of the limit for political parties, because otherwise you reach an unfair result. That is precisely the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, made in 2000. It is obviously correct in relation to this because it obviously leads to a limit of £10 million for the "yes" campaign and a limit of only £5 million for the "no" campaign.
Regarding the rich individual, no answer of any sort was given by the noble Lord. I would have been prepared to accept some answer in relation to, first, the party-political point and, secondly, the point about rich individuals. However, not one answer came. The noble Lord merely said, "We are confident that the rules are okay". This is the same Minister who, in the debate on the previous group of amendments, agreed to go away and think about changing the rules, which he said were not adequate to deal with the position. He is shaking his head. He is right: he did not agree to that but he agreed that he would discuss it, which rather implied that he accepted that there might be something wrong.
Perhaps I may quote what the Electoral Commission says about the two amendments that we are putting forward:
"These are significant changes to the provisions for spending limits at UK-wide referendums set out in the Parliamentary Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. Parliament may wish to consider whether the change might affect the ability of campaigners to put their arguments effectively to voters and the potential implications of changing one aspect of the PPERA rules on campaign spending without further consideration of the overall regulatory structure".
Therefore, the commission is saying, "Don't change anything because that might lead to the whole thing falling apart in some way".
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, says, "If we have made a mistake in relation to these rules, we'll learn from this". I think that when we are scrutinising this Bill, our obligation as a House is to consider the merits of the changes that have been proposed. We should not treat the referendum-on a matter which Mr Nicholas Clegg has described as the most important electoral change since 1832-as an experiment but we should have the courage of our convictions and change the system if we think it is wrong. Surely the one thing that we have learnt from America is that money does buy elections, and all the rules that we introduced were intended to stop that happening. However, these rules do not contain fair limits that apply to both sides.
The noble Lord was so good on the first group of amendments and so bad on this one-in that he gave absolutely no explanation and did not really deal at all with the arguments-that I have no option but to test the opinion of the Committee.
Moved by Lord McNally
39B: Clause 6, page 5, line 3, at end insert-
"( ) Schedule 19C to the 2000 Act (civil sanctions), and any order under Part 5 of that Schedule, have effect as if offences under paragraph 8(1) to (12) of the Schedule set out in Schedule 9 to this Act were offences prescribed in an order under that Part."
My Lords, it is reassuring that the power of argument and eloquence still triumphs in this House.
Clause 6 and Schedule 9 to the Bill ensure that all permitted participants in the referendum that are not political parties are covered by the same regulations regarding loans as already apply to political parties that campaign in the referendum. The Bill does this by creating a new regime for the regulation of loans to permitted participants which closely reflects the rules that already govern loans made to political parties in Part 4A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Part of this regime is the creation of 13 new offences applicable to those permitted participants in the referendum. Again, these offences replicate the offences that already apply to major political parties through Part 4A of the 2000 Act.
This amendment seeks to apply the Electoral Commission's new civil sanctions powers-they came into force by order on
It was not possible to prescribe the new loans offences that the Bill creates in the order so as to apply the civil sanctions regime to them on 1December. That is because the new loans offences have not yet been approved by Parliament and will not be approved until this Bill obtains Royal Assent. However, the order that came into force on 1December prescribes the existing offences regarding loans to political parties. This means that there would be a disparity between how political parties and other permitted participants who receive loans to fund their referendum campaigns could be sanctioned if we were not to apply the civil sanctions provisions to the new offences by making this amendment. Our amendment will ensure that civil sanctions powers are also available for the new loans offences and will close off this disparity. The result is that any permitted participant who commits a loans offence after Royal Assent could be subject to civil sanctions imposed by the Electoral Commission. I beg to move.
My Lords, I detect some inconsistency in the Minister. He is using this legislation to introduce new rules concerning loans but he has spent a considerable amount of time this afternoon telling the House that it is not appropriate to use this legislation to change rules in respect of other matters that may arise in the conduct of referenda-for example, expenditure on publicity or the rules governing the donations that authorised individuals may give. Why is it okay for the Government to change the rules here where it happens to suit them and not in those other respects?
May I ask for clarity? I found the Minister's comments confusing. He seemed to be saying that, because the rules were not ready, we could not change this, but he was setting aside time or something-I did not understand that bit-so that we could change it at a later date. I think that he needs to explain that a bit better.
These rules will come into force once the Bill becomes an Act. This amendment merely brings the legislation into line with the new civil sanctions that the Electoral Commission is bringing in for political party operations-civil sanctions that I greatly welcome, because they give the Electoral Commission a degree of flexibility in getting discipline into elections rather than the constant threat of criminal sanctions.
The civil sanctions in relation to the referendum will not apply until this Act is passed. The civil sanctions that are being brought in apply to elections and the conduct of parties in elections. The amendment merely brings the Bill into line with what was done on
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is probably too young to remember the referendum of 1975, which was shamelessly rigged by the Government of the day-a Government of whom I was a member. The no voters were allowed to have a leaflet published and distributed at public expense, as were the yes voters. But the Government then brought out a third leaflet, which said yes; it was rather bigger, as I recall, than either of the other two leaflets. The referendum was therefore totally rigged. The rigging was done not by rich millionaires, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, seems to fear, but by the Government of the day. Can we have an assurance that there will be no repetition of that behaviour?
I am sad to say that not only am I old enough to remember that referendum but I was adviser to the Foreign Secretary of the day. My memory of that referendum, which gives me real confidence about this one, is that the Labour Government had an agreement to differ, which allowed the various parts of the Labour Party to campaign vigorously on either side of the debate yet come together again after the decision of the people. That is why I have every confidence that the same will happen again next May. I have no doubt that individuals in the coalition will take different views. I think that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde has said that he hopes to campaign up in Scotland with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, which is a frightening thought for anybody.
Like my noble friend Lord McAvoy, I was part of the no campaign in the 1975 referendum. I remember that the government leaflet was not as balanced as everybody thought; in fact, it was very much in favour of the yes vote. Will the Minister answer the question that my noble friend Lord Gilbert put? Do the Government intend to produce a leaflet in favour?
No, the Government do not intend to produce a leaflet. No, the Government do not intend to rig the referendum.
I think that the Electoral Commission will publish some guidance on the conduct of the referendum, but it certainly will not make any judgment on the question to be put before the people. The one thing that I do remember about the 1975 referendum is that it gave a resounding 2:1 yes vote.
According to the Bill, the Electoral Commission is going to produce a leaflet explaining the AV system; it will go through every front door in the country. We would like to see a draft of that leaflet, because that is where the value judgments come in. How will it explain this rigged, dishonest AV system, which is so open to abuse? As I have said, I will be forced to vote for first past the post if that is the alternative.
If there is to be a leaflet from the Electoral Commission-I find that idea difficult, because the Electoral Commission will have an attitude that comes through-will it give a full and detailed explanation of why AV has not always worked and will there be an explanation of why the first past the post system is on occasion thought to be better? That is the only way in which there can be an unbiased leaflet. If it merely explains AV, it will lead people to believe that the system is sensible, when it manifestly is not, because the leaflet will have the Electoral Commission's name on it and will therefore be taken more seriously than it would be if it did not. It seems wholly unacceptable that the Electoral Commission should interfere in something that is none of its own business.
I think that the opponents of the yes vote are already getting their excuses in. The leaflet will help people to make a decision and factually explain both systems. I am not sure that the outcome of the 1975 referendum owed itself to a government leaflet in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, suggested.
I am only glad that my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace was not here to hear of that dreadful omission from the 1975 leaflet.
Perhaps I may help the Minister. I attended a meeting of the Electoral Commission in the House about two months ago. The commission was so scrupulous about not wishing to indicate any view that it found it difficult to answer questions, which Members listening to its explanation of what was going to happen found hardly credible-indeed, they started laughing. It is trying to be independent, but it would be very helpful if we could see some of the leaflets that it is planning to put out.
I will not promise that this Committee on the Bill will become a drafting committee for a leaflet, but I share the noble Lord's view of the Electoral Commission. It is nobody's poodle; it will take its responsibilities very seriously. If it says that it is going to produce a factual leaflet, I believe it.
I declare an interest as one of the parliamentarians who offer advice to the Electoral Commission when it asks for it. It recognises the problems involved in making a bald statement. It seems to me that it faces the alternative of making a very bald statement that the alternative vote is this and the first past the post system is the other, so that both sides are covered in a very limited way, or of getting into descriptions. That is where you hit the rocks, because as soon as you start describing systems you inevitably talk about advantages and disadvantages, even if it is by implication.
There is a real problem both for the Electoral Commission and ultimately for this House. How far does the commission offer advice on what should be done by a Government or by this House as opposed to simply stating what the current position is or what it would be if a certain amendment or change was made? There is a case for saying either that Parliament rather than the Electoral Commission should decide all the details or that the leaflet must be agreed by the various parties in advance. It is quite a minefield. There are other people in this Chamber who have been at meetings with the Electoral Commission. I do not doubt that it is trying to do its best, but there is a genuine difficulty as to what powers it leaves to Parliament to define and describe and how much authority it takes in trying to describe without falling into the trap of being biased, however unintentionally.
I support what the noble Lord has said. A leaflet describing the pros and cons of different electoral systems cannot be factual, as there are values and opinions. The assertion that one voting system means that people will have more than 50 per cent of the electorate's support is open to argument. Of course you can go into a certain amount of detail about whether a fourth preference is as valuable as a first preference, but the argument is even more complicated than that. Surely the Government ought to consider the possibility that there should be no leaflet of any kind from the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission has chosen two designated organisations, both of which will receive public funds. Why not leave it at that? Why do you have to have somebody listing the pros and cons in a way that will inevitably be attacked from both sides?
My Lords, I am tempted to ask, as the Irishman did, "Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?". I cannot at the moment see where Schedule 19C to the 2000 Act, on civil sanctions, gets anywhere near the issue of the leaflet. If we can all discuss anything anywhere in the Bill, I have several suggestions about what we might discuss. We can come back to this later. I think that it is an important issue but it is not covered by this group of amendments. Please can we have some time later to discuss the issue? I sympathise with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, is making, but it ain't here.
As we drift down this stream, we do, I confess, go into inlets and rivulets.
This provision introduces civil sanctions in relation to criminal offences set out in Schedule 9. As I understand it, the criminal offences, of which there are 12 in paragraph 8, are designed to ensure that either permitted participants or authorised-
Sorry, there is not much point me asking a question if you are chattering away.
She has got two ears. I agree with that. I will go on. I am sure that the fact that she has two ears has some significance to the story.
There are 12 offences identified in paragraph 8. The purpose of the offences, as I understand it-though I stand to be corrected by the Minister-is that the only people who should be spending money in relation to the referendum are either permitted participants or authorised participants. Therefore the purpose of the criminal offences is to prevent expenditure by anyone other than those people. The way that this is dealt with, as a matter of the criminal law, is to say that if there is a transaction where in effect somebody else's money is spent, either directly or through a permitted participant or an authorised participant, it is made a criminal offence by paragraph 8 of Schedule 9.
The essence of each of the criminal offences, as I read them-again, I stand to be corrected-is that you have to know if you are committing a criminal offence that either as an authorised or a permitted participant you are using somebody else's money or as an individual providing the money you know that you should not be spending it on the referendum. Know or ought to know, I should say. What I am interested to know, and that seems a perfectly sensible structure, is what the circumstances are in which it will be decided to bring criminal proceedings and what the circumstances are in which it will be decided to employ a civil sanction. Obviously it will depend on the facts in every case but if know or ought to know is part of it, what distinctions will people rely on in order to determine whether it is civil or criminal? This will be important, because paragraph 8 is obviously intended to be a deterrent to people from breaking the law in relation to the limits that apply-
Does the noble and learned Lord agree that the fact that we are debating sanctions in a sense validates the questions that were asked about how the rules were applied, because the sanctions and the fines follow those who break the rules? All the questions about what constitutes one organisation and what constitutes a separate organisation are deeply relevant to the points that he is discussing.
I completely agree. I find the idea that we should not be talking at some length about authorised participants and permitted participants entirely wrong. That is why the Minister's response to the last series was so disappointing. The last series went right to the heart of the issues that relate to the funding of the referendum, because everybody around the House wants a situation in which the same rules are imposed on everybody. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, got a slapping from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for raising the question of the government leaflets, although it was obviously a slapping that he was quite able to cope with. That seems to be the one area where it is authorised to spend money that does not come from an authorised participant or a permitted participant.
I do not dismiss as a joke what my noble friend Lord Gilbert said. Presumably one of the most significant sources of what will be regarded as reliable information in relation to this referendum will be what the Government themselves or the Electoral Commission-I cannot remember which-produce in relation to these leaflets. That will probably be where one of the most significant amounts of expenditure will be. However, I return to my question to the noble Lord-
Before the noble and learned Lord returns to his question, as he must, did he note that when the outbreak of violence took place on the other side-I think that he called it "slapping"-the Minister calmed it by saying that we could talk about all this when we get to Schedule 1? Has he noted that Schedule 1 makes no reference whatsoever to this leaflet and is of no relevance to it?
I have been glancing through the Bill, because the reference to the crucial issue of the leaflet hit me by surprise. The Minister looks irritated every time I make a suggestion; that seems to be the effect that I have on him. This is what Committee stages are for. Sometimes almost out of a clear blue sky a very important issue arises. It seems that we are not going to debate this now. The only part that I can see immediately thumbing through the Bill that refers to the role of the Electoral Commission is on page 19. It says:
"The Electoral Commission must take whatever steps they think appropriate to promote public awareness about the referendum and how to vote in it".
I cannot see anything that refers to leaflets. That is quite probably ignorance on my part, but that was the nature of the debate.
My noble friend should turn over the page and see sub-paragraph (2) at the top of page 20. That is permissive, whereas the paragraph that my noble friend read out is compulsory. There is a real problem in paragraph 9 of Schedule 1 about the leaflet and the information. There will be a long debate on sub-paragraphs (1) and (2) of paragraph 9 when we get to it, because what is in the Bill seems quite contradictory to me.
The offences under paragraph 8 are knowledge and ought-to-know offences. Can the noble Lord give some indication, because it will obviously be important to the people involved, of what circumstances will determine whether the sanction is civil or criminal? The offences have maximum terms. What is the maximum civil sanction that can be applied? Who will determine whether it is a civil sanction or a criminal sanction?
First, I do not believe that the role of the Electoral Commission is as passive as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, suggests, as was demonstrated by the fact that it suggested a better question for the referendum, which was taken on board by the Government and implemented in the Bill. I supported the establishment of the Electoral Commission and welcomed the introduction of political input into its deliberations. I remember when we first discussed it, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and others and I pointed out that there was a necessity to have some sensitivity about how political campaigning was carried on by mainly voluntary organisations. The Electoral Commission has performed its duties well, and I have every confidence in its being able to carry out its responsibilities under the Bill.
I am glad to hear the Minister affirm his confidence in the Electoral Commission. Does he repudiate the very unkind remarks about the chair of the Electoral Commission made by his right honourable friend Eric Pickles a few months ago? The chair came under heavy personal criticism from his right honourable friend.
I shall not comment one way or the other on extraneous interventions like that, for goodness' sake.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, gave me a slap about getting irritated, but the point is that these election rules and regulations-most of the schedules to the Bill-are straight lifts from existing legislation put in place by the last Labour Government, so it comes as a surprise that people who were Ministers in that Government suddenly find all kind of loopholes and dangers in that legislation. We have transposed into the schedules existing legislation, bringing it as up to date as we can with this amendment and this clause.
I am not a lawyer but, as far as I understand it, the civil sanctions have been brought in because, as I said earlier-and this is not in my brief but from my understanding of it, so perhaps if I am wrong one of the experts behind me can correct me-the criminal sanctions in the existing legislation were felt to be far too heavy-handed, particularly as they applied to volunteer officers in political parties. A range of civil sanctions were brought in that allowed the Electoral Commission a degree of flexibility, from giving a little advice to an errant officer to applying heavy sanctions. That flexibility was intended in bringing in civil sanctions. The decision on how to apply them is one for the Electoral Commission.
As noble Lords know from briefings sent to them, the Electoral Commission is following very closely these deliberations and listening very closely to the points made by noble Lords on all sides. I have every confidence that, if a point is made that the Electoral Commission thinks is of substance and needs to be dealt with, it will not hesitate to bring this to the attention of Ministers and Members of the Opposition, just as it has done in the past. The clause is a fairly narrow one to make provisions regarding the regulation of loans and bring the regulations under the referendum up to date with the legislation already introduced on
I do not want to continue the discussions that we have had other than to close them down. This is all the fault of my old and noble friend Lord Gilbert, with whom I had the great pleasure to be an international observer at the first free elections in Mongolia, which was quite an experience for both of us-and an even bigger experience for the Mongolians. I should say, in case I misled the House or the Minister, that I did not intend to imply-and I do not think that I implied-that the Electoral Commission was passive, which was the word that he used. I simply tried to describe the dilemma facing organisations such as the Electoral Commission as to whether Parliament should make more detailed rules, or whether they should make them and keep things on a very simple basis. That is a very important debate, but it is one that we get to under Clause 9.
In the same spirit, I think that I misrepresented Schedule 1, and therefore the Minister, because there is a proposal in there on which it would be possible to hang a discussion of a possible leaflet-namely, the public information measures. I apologise for that and ask the Minister to confirm that it would be fully in order for the House to have a proper debate about the very important issues raised about the leaflet when we get to Schedule 1.
I give that assurance and sincerely hope that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has it on his list to deal with that schedule.
Amendment 39B agreed.
Clause 6, as amended, agreed.
Schedule 9 agreed.
Clause 7 : Interpretation
Moved by Lord Bach
40: Clause 7, page 5, line 27, leave out "the Lord President of the Council or"
I can make this point fairly briefly, but it is a point of some significance and I should be grateful for the Minister's response. The amendment looks, rather unusually, at the interpretation clause of the Bill. Clause 7(1) says that,
I have been lucky or unlucky enough to take a number of pieces of legislation through your Lordships' House, and to hear many others taken through it. Bills with interpretation clauses have, as a standard, defined "the Minister" as "the Secretary of State". That seems pretty sensible and uncontroversial and has the advantage of having been used traditionally. In this case, it would be whoever is Secretary of State for Justice at the relevant time, although, as I understand it, strictly speaking it could be any Secretary of State who would be entitled to take the orders through, which is why "Minister" appears in the Bill. But to say,
"the Lord President of the Council", in this Bill is, it seems to us at least, to personalise the position. I shall explain why.
The role of the Lord President of the Council, whoever that may be at a particular time, is set out on the website of the Privy Council and defined as follows. It says that that person:
"Presides at Privy Council meetings, including any Emergency Privy Councils ... Considers for approval a number of Statutory Orders concerning Health Care, Veterinary, and Scottish Higher Education matters ... As a member of the Privy Council Committee for the Affairs of Jersey and Guernsey, reviews Laws and Orders relating to the Islands, and makes recommendations to Her Majesty concerning their approval ... Deals with Ministerial correspondence and Parliamentary Questions relating to Privy Council Business, such as the appointment of High Sheriffs ... Determines cases, where the Lord President acts as University Visitor, in a private capacity".
None of these duties relates to any of the duties placed on a Minister in relation to the provisions of this Bill.
The real reason why page 5, line 27, reads as it does is to capture the current Deputy Prime Minister's responsibility for constitutional reform. He is the Lord President of the Council as we speak. This is the current Deputy Prime Minister, whose responsibilities regarding constitutional reform are also exercised by the current Lord President of the Council, by virtue of them currently being-of course-the same person. This alignment, however, is not in the job description of the Lord President of the Council, as I have attempted to explain to the Committee.
This inclusion is wrong. Simply and plainly, it is wrong to write this responsibility into law in the interests of one individual-the person who happens at present to hold that position. That individual, of course-the Deputy Prime Minister-will not be Lord President of the Council for ever; it is doubtful whether any successor would want the responsibility of signing an order into effect. That is not part of the responsibility-normally-of the Lord President of the Council.
If the Bill had said, "'The Minister' means, in this case, 'the right honourable Nick Clegg'", we would think that a bit odd. If the Bill remains as it is, it might as well have just done that. Why not do what is done in every other Bill that certainly I have been involved with, and just say that "the Minister" means "the Secretary of State"? I beg to move.
My Lords, this is not the greatest matter before us, but it is an important one and I support the amendment. If there is one rule that one learns in life, it is that making two people responsible for something is a recipe for it not getting done properly. There is not one person to blame or to take the lead and it leads to confusion and non-action. That is my first point. My second point relates to precisely the other side of the coin of the argument put by my noble friend Lord Bach; namely, the present occupants of this position. On the one hand you have the Justice Secretary, who is a passionate supporter of first past the post. On the other hand, you have the Deputy Prime Minister, the Lord President, who is a passionate supporter of AV. They have come together in this coalition and that is simply a fact.
But honestly, there is scope here for mischief-making-and I used to be a journalist. There could be real mischief: for example, the Justice Secretary waits until the Lord President of the Council has gone off for the weekend to make some amendment or order under the Bill to suit his book. More likely, there will be journalistic mischief-making, where the fact that these two gentlemen agree on the Bill when they do not agree on the subject of it is elevated and makes a good diary paragraph. I am sure this Government's backs are extraordinarily broad. They probably do not read the newspapers at all, and are not the least interested in the gossipy things that I suspect might arise from this, but it does seem a completely pointless goal to leave without a goal-keeper, so that anybody can have a pot-shot at it.
My Lords, one of my problems at the moment is that I can hardly stray into these debates without finding that somebody stirs me up. That has happened on this occasion. I was Lord President of the Council for five years, probably longer than anybody else since the war-with the possible exception of Herbert Morrison-or indeed, since the role was created.
I am strongly inclined to stick with my noble friend; he will be glad to hear that, I hope. The clue to this is what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, which completely refutes what has just been said-I am somewhat surprised to say-by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. The phrase used in legislation-I do not know how it was done when there used to be Ministers as well as Secretaries of State-is "Secretary of State". It is not "Secretary of State for Justice"; it is not "Secretary of State for this, that or the other". It means that any Secretary of State, constitutionally, can exercise those powers. The point from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, falls in my view, because any confusion that there is is basic and written in and just goes on.
My point therefore, and declaring my former interest, is that I do not see why the Lord President of the Council, who is certainly a Cabinet Minister and with the status of a Secretary of State, should not have the same ability to do what all other Cabinet Ministers designated as Secretaries of State can do. I stick with my noble friend.
I think I am now 2-1 up in the interventions of my noble friend Lord Newton; I am very pleased about that. It is an interesting thought. I am surprised that the other side should leap on this to assume that it was the Secretary of State for Justice. As I explained, I am here in my capacity as Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, and covering Cabinet Office business. When I studied my constitutional stuff at university, I learned that "Secretary of State" was a portmanteau term in government, not specific to any one person.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, talks of scope for mischief-making. For half this Committee, we have constantly been told that this project has been driven through by Nick Clegg and Nick Clegg alone. If we go through the various Hansards, we will find that Nick Clegg has been named more often by the Opposition than any other single person. The Government have put into the Bill who has the responsibility for this legislation. It applies to something that will be carried out next May, when we will be celebrating the first of the five years of Nick Clegg being Lord President of the Council, but nevertheless it is relevant to this Bill. It is simply a matter of common sense to have him named. I agree with my noble friend, Lord Newton. In the past, there have been people who have carried the dual title of Lord President and Secretary of State because of that curious anomaly of what Secretaries of State can do. As I remember it, it used to be only the Minister of Agriculture who was not a Secretary of State. All the rest were. I am sure it is not mischief-making.
The arrangements in the Bill make sense. They allow the Deputy Prime Minister to take key decisions with nationwide effect, but also enable decisions with a specific territorial flavour to be made by the territorial Ministers. For this reason, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I shall of course withdraw the amendment but this is an interesting point because, as far as I know, it has never been done before. If the Minister has some precedent for it, I will be proved wrong. What most upsets me about the whole debate is having stirred up the noble Lord, Lord Newton. I do not enjoy doing that at all, although he does not seem much stirred up to me.
Then I feel much better for that. I still do not see why both positions are there. If the Minister is right in his argument, why are the words "Secretary of State" included at all? Why is it not just the Lord President of the Council or, if the Government want to put other Ministers in, why not say the Prime Minister, too, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer? I do not see why both names are there when the precedent is that it is the Secretary of State, but perhaps-
Could the answer be that there is some concern among those involved in the "pro" campaign that the Lord President of the Council might be identified with Mr Clegg, who himself will be identified with the most derogatory remarks about the electoral system that is being promoted?
My Lords, I was trying to be as polite as I possibly could be. One of the dangers of personalising it in this way, as I think my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours is hinting, is that Mr Clegg may be either so popular that his name, as it were, in making the orders means that what he wants will occur or, heaven forbid, so unpopular that whatever he does or suggests means that what he wants will not happen. To that extent, I agree with my noble friend.
If there was to be anything specifically territorial, the Secretary of State could take responsibility there. That is my interpretation of it, but there is no great mystery about it. It is simply that, as I said at the very beginning, the Lord President is steering this Bill. He steered it very successfully through the House of Commons and we are doing the same.
The Minister is being unfair to himself. The Lord President of the Council was hardly seen in the House of Commons while the Bill went through it. I think that he moved the Second Reading and did not appear again until Report. But we are seeing a great deal of the noble Lord, which is of course always a huge pleasure.
I am a bit confused about something that the Minister said about the territorial responsibilities of the Lord President. Having been a Secretary of State for Scotland, I am not absolutely clear that that is the position. It might be helpful if the Minister could seek greater clarity from his inestimable advisers.
This is about the Lord President's territorial responsibilities. With the ability of my friends opposite to become confused, I should never have intervened again. I am sorry, for it was a very bad mistake as the noble Lord was just about to withdraw.
Can I press the Minister a little bit on his statement just now that the Lord President-the Deputy Prime Minister-steered this legislation very successfully through the House of Commons? Is his concept of successful passage through that House that the Bill was programmed and that very important sections of it were not examined either in Committee or on Report? Yes, the coalition got its way in the House of Commons but the upshot of that is that there is a particular duty on this House to examine the Bill in the most minute detail, precisely to make up the deficit caused by the failure of the House of Commons to examine this legislation properly. What does the Minister mean by successfully steering the Bill through the House of Commons: that the Bill should be properly scrutinised, or simply that the Whips should ensure that it passes without being scrutinised?
I have been around Whitehall and Westminster only for about 40 years, but during the whole of that time people from the Opposition Benches have stood up and made that speech about various bits of legislation. In fact, as noble Lords opposite will know, the time offered in the other place for scrutiny of the Bill was positively extravagant, matched only by the verbosity and time-wasting of the spokesmen for the Opposition, who used every opportunity to waste time exactly so that somebody at this end could make the complaint that the noble Lord has just made-and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, knows that more than most.
When I took this Bill on holiday to read in the summer, it was 153 pages. When it arrived in this House, it was 300. Yet the Minister has the brass neck to say that the other place was time-wasting, when the Bill doubled because of 286 government amendments that were put into the Bill in the House of Commons. Come off it!
Perhaps I might make a helpful suggestion to the Minister to move things on, because we are getting into other waters. He said something incredibly helpful just now: that this is intended to give part of the powers to be exercised by a Secretary of State for Scotland and a Secretary of State for Wales-by a territorial Minister; that is what the noble Lord said, as he will find when he checks in Hansard-and part of them to be exercised by the Lord President. That is perfectly sensible and a very good description. All he therefore needs to do is to agree to introduce at the next stage of the Bill an amendment that makes that clear and we can move on.
I would not have intervened again, except for the way that the Minister addressed his last comment. That was not helpful. It is where he actually makes matters worse. My noble friend Lord Rooker is exactly right. The noble Lord talked about his vast experience but I know of many experiences of both kinds of Government increasing a Bill by piling in extra clauses that then come before this House. It does not help to try and score a party-political point. The other side of the argument is that on the last occasion we debated this-I forget which day that was-I quoted from a Conservative MP's letter, which stated very clearly that he had only five minutes to discuss an issue of great importance and did not have time to speak at all on the main debate for it. There were members of the Minister's Government complaining about lack of time.
My advice to the Minister is not to get into this party-political knockabout. A Bill like this, which is very important to the Government but very complex, will inevitably expand over time if it is hurried through in the way that the Government are doing. That is what has happened and that is why all those extra clauses, to which my noble friend Lord Rooker referred, have been added. It also explains why some people on the Minister's own side who were opposed to certain aspects of it complained about the lack of time in the House of Commons. I simply say: for heaven's sake, drop this idea that it's all one party's fault. That is nonsense.
Does my noble friend agree also that the fact that the Bill has been added to on such a massive scale by the Government during its passage through the House of Commons-indeed, we have just been examining a new government amendment-indicates that it was prepared in great haste? Yet at the same time, the Government are insisting that the Bill must move very fast indeed towards the statute book. Can it be right to prepare a Bill so hastily that large-scale improvisations have to be made by the Government in extending it, even as they insist that it is rushed through and therefore skimpily scrutinised?
My Lords, I have to rise in relation to the rather casual accusation made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that it was just time-wasting down the Corridor. As the noble Lord will know, because he has been a Member of Parliament himself down there, the effect of the guillotine Motion-although he was perhaps not there when there were guillotine Motions-is that certain amendments are not reached because there is not enough time. The idea that they talked on and on to make it last seems to be misplaced. The worry about what the noble Lord said is that that casually dismissive remark is the sort of remark that is then used to dismiss parliamentary scrutiny of Bills-"we can dismiss what is being said because it is all time wasting". I thought one of the principles on which his party and the other party with which he is now in coalition put to the electorate was that we would respect Parliament more rather than treating it with the contempt he has just shown.
Before my noble friend sits down, I refer him to column 843 of House of Commons Hansard of
I have been around this Parliament for 40 years and I do not need lectures from the noble and learned Lord about respect for its traditions and for its importance. I did not suggest anything other than something he knows darn well. For as long as I have been here, and long before, Governments have brought in guillotines and Oppositions have complained about lack of time and scrutiny. That is all that I said. That is all that is in Hansard. I am not going to take lectures from the noble and learned Lord about respect for this Parliament and its institutions. I have given my life to this. I believe in it passionately. I respect it as much as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, respects it. No more, no less. But I am not being lectured to or allowing my words to be twisted. I am simply saying something that every noble Lord knows is a simple truth-nothing more, nothing less-and certainly with no disrespect to Parliament.
More than one person has commented that the Opposition spent overlong on certain parts of the Bill and then used that as an excuse for not dealing with other parts of the Bill. Just as I have argued with colleagues who have got a little tetchy about the Opposition's tactics, I know full well that, as one of my old text books used to say, the principal weapon of an Opposition is delay. I do not object to that, but neither do I fail to recognise it when I see it.
This is a Bill of 300 pages-and I do not apologise for repeating this-which plans to change the constitution of our country. I hope the noble Lord is not arguing that to spend five days-I am speaking from memory now, but I am pretty certain that I am right-on the Committee stage in the House of Commons and two days on Report is an inordinate or generous amount of time. I hope he is not suggesting in any way, shape or form, that the time that we have spent in this House on the scrutiny of crucial groups of amendments is any more than they properly deserve. If he does think that, I would appeal to him to let us know which group of amendments should not have been discussed or were addressing anything other than very serious matters about our constitution. He gives the impression that he is very irritated-perhaps I am wrong, perhaps we are over-sensitive on this side-at every criticism of the Bill, and at any suggestion for any amendment. If that is the way he responds, I suggest he talks to his noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who has the capacity most of the time, at the other end of the scale, for making us think that what we are saying is important-what he privately thinks I do not have the faintest idea but I will give him the credit for giving that appearance-and at the same time being amused, not being tetchy and not being irritable. We could have moved on a great deal more quickly with this amendment. The noble Lord has wasted time.
While I am on my feet, the next amendments after mine are six government amendments. I hope that the noble Lord will not do anything other than a proper courtesy to the House in explaining these amendments in proper detail. I absolutely assure him that neither I nor any of my colleagues, and I suspect any on his side of the House, will accuse him of time-wasting.
My Lords, I am surprised that my little amendment has developed into the excitement that we have enjoyed in Committee for the past few minutes. I have one serious point to make. I ask the Minister to reconsider his attack-maybe he did not mean the words, I do not know-on a particular individual at the other end who is a colleague of mine in the opposition justice team. It is an unwarranted attack on an individual. If the noble Lord wants to attack tactics, that is fine, but do not attack an individual, a Member of Parliament, for doing what most of us would consider to be his duty-and indeed what the noble Lord did so well when he was sitting on the Opposition Benches just a few months ago. Before I withdraw the amendment, I ask the Minister to consider-
I do not want to prolong this, but this is the result of this place not having a Speaker. In the other place, if anybody down there had said about somebody up here what was said by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, the Speaker would have ruled it out of order. You are not allowed to criticise named Members of this place down in the other place. There is no benefit to it, because we do not get anywhere doing it. We have no Speaker here to stop that kind of immature comment and we ought to have.
If the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, wants to call me immature, that is part of the rough and tumble of politics. I am not going to say sorry. For goodness' sake, again, I really hope that people outside read Hansard and then they can make a judgment about the handling of this Bill. I am willing to go into the details of this and argue it. We have had everything from the Mongolian elections to the sensitivities of-the Member for the Rhondda Valley, was it? I cannot remember which one it was.
I am extremely disappointed that the Minister, who is normally a parliamentarian of the highest order, should on this occasion not think it right to withdraw what he said about an individual Member of Parliament. I very much regret that. It tempts me very much to call a Division on this amendment, but it is a temptation that I will resist, because I think it would be a mistake-
Yes, spoilsport I may be, but on the basis of the debate that we had about the issue itself, the proper thing is to withdraw my amendment which I intend to do. However, I give the noble Lord just one last chance. Why not just say he is sorry for what he said about an individual Member of Parliament? His criticism has been heard. Why not withdraw it now? I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 40 withdrawn.
Moved by Lord McNally
40A: Clause 7, page 5, line 34, at end insert-
""registration officer" has the meaning given in section 8 of the 1983 Act;"
My Lords, if, when he reads Hansard, the Member for Rhondda is hurt by my remarks, I will try to comfort and reassure him that there was nothing personal in them.
These are minor and technical amendments which ensure that there is single definition of "registration officer" which applies throughout Part 1 of the Bill. This single definition replaces the existing definitions given in the various provisions in Part 1, but does not change the meaning. The amendments provide that "registration officer" has the meaning given in Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. For England, Wales and Scotland, the individual is the officer who has been appointed to this role for the relevant area. In Northern Ireland, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland is the sole registration officer. I beg to move.
A drafting point: there appear to be random definitions contained in Clause 7(1). For example, we do not have definitions of "regulated transaction", "responsible person" or "relevant donations", which are terms referred to. Yet, suddenly, we have a definition of "registration officer". What is the basis upon which some terms are defined in Clause 7(1) and not others? Will this not lead to confusion?
As I understand it, this is an attempt to clarify the specific case of "registration officer". We do not anticipate the kind of confusion that the noble and learned Lord anticipates in other definitions, but it is important to have a common definition for registration officers.
I do not want to be a total brute here, but will the noble Lord write to me? It is pretty clear what "registration officer" means throughout the Bill, but if you do not also define the other terms, there is the possibility that there will be some difference among courts as to what it is meant. Can the Minister set out the basis for selecting some terms to be defined but not others? If he would like to write to me about that, I would be perfectly happy. However, if we are trying to make this Bill a little better, setting out that basis is worth while.
The noble and learned Lord has brought an entirely new atmosphere to the debate for which I am most grateful. I offer to write to him on the specific point.
Amendment 40A agreed.
Moved by Lord Grocott
40B: Clause 7, page 5, line 37, leave out subsection (2) and insert-
"( ) A Westminister parliamentary constituency, as it exists on the day of the referendum, is a "voting area" for the purposes of this Part."
My Lords, the amendment could not be simpler in its objective. It would shorten the Bill, and is about how the election will be conducted and declared. It refers to Clause 7(2) of the Bill, which says, in defining the various voting areas, that they shall be,
"a district in England ... a county in England ... a London borough ... the City of London ... the Isles of Scilly ... a constituency for the National Assembly for Wales ... a constituency for the Scottish Parliament ... Northern Ireland".
My amendment simply deletes all that and replaces it with the most commonsense way to consider and declare an election relating to the House of Commons: to say that the results will be declared on a constituency basis. It basically replaces 10 lines with two.
I am emboldened in moving the amendment, not least by the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in his responses in various other clauses, where he has repeated time and time again that his intention is to follow as closely as possible what happens in parliamentary elections in all the details of how this referendum is conducted. I could quote any number of examples, and that is precisely what my amendment does. For example, in the debate the other day on whether voting in the referendum at the age of 16 should be allowed, the noble Lord said in rejecting the amendment:
"Then as now, the Government's position on the franchise and in all other aspects relating to how the referendum is run is that we should follow the arrangements for parliamentary elections".-[Hansard, 13/12/10; col. 464.]
That is precisely what I am doing with the amendment.
Noble Lords may ask why. What is the point of having elections conducted and returned on the basis of parliamentary constituencies? The clue is in the Title to the Bill: the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill. My reason for moving the amendment is that the Bill goes to the heart of the relationships between constituents and the Member of Parliament. That is what it is about, and why I and others are so concerned about it in many ways.
I will concede, perhaps the only concession I could make to supporters of the alternative vote system, that the proposal has the merit of not disconnecting Members of Parliament with their constituencies. I have long believed-and this is why I support first past the post more than any other system-that, to use the cliché, the jewel in the crown of the system of parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom is that there is this close link between Members of Parliament and their constituencies.
I am not criticising AV in suggesting that the results should be declared on a constituency basis. I am saying that the constituency results are important. Of course, I freely concede that the most important result of a referendum is to know what has happened nationally. You total the votes up and see who has won and who has lost; that is basically what happens. As I have said, however, this is about constituencies and the verdict of people in their constituencies. During the referendum, if noble Lords ignore the national picture for a moment, we are in effect saying to people, "For generations, your parents, grandparents and perhaps in some cases great-grandparents have returned Members of Parliament from this area"-which we hope is a coherent area, but we will come to that later in the Bill. "Are you happy with how you have been choosing your Members of Parliament? Because some people are saying that they are dissatisfied with how that is done".
By returning the results in individual constituencies, you are at least relating the conduct and outcome of the election to the very heart of what this change in our constitution, should it be carried, is about. It is, frankly, pointless and irrelevant to do as the Bill does: to declare results on the basis of boroughs in the United Kingdom, for example. What on earth is the basis for that? Does it tell us whether the borough of this, that or the other voted for or against the referendum? Nor do I understand the significance of declaring one constituency for the whole of Northern Ireland.
As the noble Lord knows, I share his view about the connection between a representative and his or her constituency. He and I take that seriously. I am sure that he has looked at the evidence given by the Electoral Commission, to which many tributes were earlier paid for its independence and the care with which it is preparing for this. Therefore, does the noble Lord note that it summarises its view on his amendment by saying that it would create an unnecessary risk to the successful delivery of the scheduled elections and referendum? That is pretty specific. Will the noble Lord address that point? We are sympathetic to his general point. Our concern is the practical issue.
I will address that point precisely in a moment. I am currently simply pointing out that, in relation to a normal parliamentary election, to have the various categories of electoral district as laid out in the Bill offers meaningless figures. It is particularly confusing in Scotland and Wales, where the results of the referendum debate-which is, I repeat, about parliamentary elections-will be based on the constituencies of the National Assembly for Wales and the constituencies of the Scottish Parliament. I do not know too much about Scottish politics, but I do know that the constituency boundaries for Scottish parliamentary elections are different from the constituency boundaries for the House of Commons. It is suggested that that is not the appropriate area in which to consider and declare the results, but it simply makes the whole operation more confusing if they are declared on a different basis.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, rightly drew my attention to the wording of the report by the Electoral Commission. I do not think that I have ever been referred to by the commission before, so this is a moment in my life-I do not know about anyone else's. I have to say that I have a fair bit of concern about what the commission has said, and I hope that when he sums up the Minister does not simply repeat it but gives some credence to the points that I am making. The commission says that:
"Amendment 40B seeks to change the voting areas for the referendum so that they are the same as UK parliamentary constituencies"- the simplest possible proposition, of course.
"The voting areas currently in the Bill reflect the voting areas for the scheduled elections on
That is a statement of fact, but now comes-for me, at any rate-the contentious bit:
"We understand"- this is the Electoral Commission, the independent body to which the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord McNally, have paid tribute-
"that it is the Government's intention that the referendum should take place on
Bearing in mind the unprompted mini-debate that we had earlier about how neutral the Electoral Commission could be, were it to provide a descriptive leaflet of AV on the one hand and first past the post on the other, the commission's comment on this amendment rang alarm bells in my brain. It is not commenting in any shape or form on the merits of the argument that results should be by constituency; it is commenting on the basis of whether this would be convenient to the Government, who want the referendum on
What is even more significant and concerns me, although I cannot believe it to be true, is that the Electoral Commission appears not to have seen the result of the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Rooker and carried, which gave the Government all the flexibility that they might need to deliver the Bill in a timely way with proper scrutiny. As it now stands, the Bill says that the referendum does not have to be held until October next year, which would give plenty of time for the oddity in the way that these election results are declared to be rectified.
This is not rocket science. Having a general election on the same day as local elections-maybe this is helping the Government, I do not know-is a tried and tested operation. To repeat myself, I am suggesting that the referendum should be counted just like general election constituencies. I have not done an exhaustive list, but we know that this year's general election was held on the same day as local elections, as were those in 2001 and 1997. I am certainly not likely to forget the election in 1979 that was held on the same day, when the electorate decided that I should spend more time with my family; that is an election that I will not forget in a hurry. The idea that somehow the electoral administrative machinery cannot cope with dealing with results by constituency on the same day as local elections seems to be negatived by experience.
I am concerned that the Electoral Commission, no less, should be advising us to turn this amendment down-and I hope that I have demonstrated that it is at least worthy of consideration-on the grounds that it does not meet the Government's timetable. When the Minister comes to respond to this, I hope that he does not use that argument. As I said when I intervened on my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer earlier, I feel a bit hurt by all this, or maybe he should, because when he proposed the amendment earlier today he was able to quote the Electoral Commission as broadly agreeing with what he was saying but it did not recommend that we should vote for his amendment. Now it broadly disagrees with what I am saying but it is telling the House to throw it out-and, by implication, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, obviously takes it very seriously. Perhaps I should not take this personally.
I wonder whether the noble Lord is trying to make it difficult for the referendum to be held on
Since the degree to which we are genuine is being tested at the moment, the House will simply have to accept my absolute, total, 100 per cent, categorical-I cannot think of any other adjectives-assurance that when I tabled this amendment, I did so, believe it or not, because I thought that it would be a better referendum if the results were declared by constituency, which is never normally a problem in general elections. It came as a surprise to me that the Electoral Commission thought that there would be all sorts of administrative problems in doing so, particularly-I am repeating myself now, I know-because time and again local elections and parliamentary constituency elections have been held on the same day.
I hope that the Minister's notes do not say that this is just another silly amendment from the Opposition and that it should be knocked down. I hope that he recognises that there are people who have lived and worked in areas of this country, many of them for generations, who are used to the system under which they are operating and who wish to cast their vote-though not enough of them, I believe, as I fear that the turnout will not be very high. Still, there is a good possibility, although perhaps this is wishful thinking, that the majority will decide that they think the system under which they have been operating is quite good, and they should be allowed to express their own views within their own individual constituencies. That is all that my amendment is trying to do. I beg to move.
My Lords, I did not really see the significance of my noble friend's amendment when I was reading through the Bill, and I missed this.
I am thinking back. I know that we are going to be told that the 1975 referendum was not declared by constituency. If I remember rightly, one of the arguments used at the time was, "It would be very uncertain if MPs who had campaigned on one issue about the EU found that their constituents had gone against them". I recall it being a bit mixed up. I was part of the no campaign, in that sense-I certainly voted no, anyway. In this case, though, the issue is very personal to the MPs concerned because it is about their voting system.
Take the districts. I used to represent part of Birmingham. The whole of the city gets lumped together, no one gets embarrassed about which way a particular constituency has gone and everything is in the melting pot. It is easier to count when all the constituencies have been lumped together, but where does that leave the Members of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament elected on that day? They will be out campaigning. The results will be declared in their constituencies for AV or not. So, you will be covering it up for some so as not to cause embarrassment, but not for others.
I am unaware of a constituency called "the Isles of Scilly". If I remember right, the Isles of Scilly are part of a constituency on the mainland. That is my understanding. Why on earth are they singled out in this way? On Northern Ireland, I hope that we will not have the argument about there being an east and a west and a green and an orange. We do not want any arguments about which constituency went which way. We do not want any arguments about lumping it all together. You cannot use all these arguments to defend this set of voting declarations. Whichever you use for one is contradicted by the other.
It cannot be being done for the administrative convenience for the Electoral Commission. It is not doing the counting. The counting officers are doing the counting-a well-oiled machine, highly sophisticated in counting votes in this country based on wards and constituencies. I freely admit that a little bit went wrong but not on the counts. Why deviate from that? Why deviate from the tried and tested system that we know works for counting? People know where to go. They know where their counts are. The type of people who do the counting go to the same place virtually every year and are almost on a permanent contract. Why interfere with a system that works? I have offered up some of the issues.
I would like an explanation about the City of London. Normally when there is a count for the constituency, are we referring to the City of London as the city or as the constituency of the City of London, because it is not quite the same, is it? I am not certain. I am a bit out of touch. Is it a constituency or not? I am not certain why the Inner and the Middle Temples should be treated differently. It is reasonable to have an explanation for each one of these because the answer to one has to contradict the answer to another. So I await with interest the response of the noble Lord, Lord McNally.
I support my noble friend Lord Grocott. This referendum is to be about the choice of a parliamentary voting system, so it is bizarre not to declare the results on the basis of parliamentary constituencies. If it were a referendum about how local government is organised, one might see some sense in the stipulations-districts, counties, London boroughs and so forth-that are set out in Clause 7(2). However, those units are irrelevant to the question at issue in this referendum, so my noble friend's case is self-evidently sensible.
I also join my noble friend in his mild but firm stricture on the intervention of the Electoral Commission. The proper responsibility of Parliament is to ensure that the system put forward in this Bill is well designed. The expedience for the Government of ensuring that the referendum takes place on
My Lords, I rise briefly to indicate my support for my noble friend Lord Grocott's amendment. As a former Member of Parliament for a Scottish constituency, I can bring a perspective as to how this will be viewed. As my noble friends have said, this proposed referendum is on a voting system for Westminster. It seems incongruous and, quite frankly, plain daft that the results will not be declared on a constituency basis. These days, when people are looking for more transparency and accountability from MPs, it is absolutely right that, if it is an embarrassment to the MP if the constituency goes a different way from the way he or she campaigned, that should be known. So be it-that is the way it is.
As a unionist, I take exception to the fact that Scottish Parliament seats seem to be given primacy over Westminster seats when it comes to a voting system for the Westminster sovereign UK Parliament. It is wrong in principle and sends out the wrong messages. It will give further incentives and justification for those in nationalist politics in Scotland to continue that drive to say that somehow we in Scotland are different from our friends, neighbours, relatives and colleagues in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. No, we are not. We are all part of a British state. As well as being proud of our individual countries, we are British citizens. There is nothing wrong with that at all.
These proposals are an indication that the Bill has been rushed. Time and again we have come up against things which it would seem common sense to do but which are not done. The fact that these things have not been done is not part of any great malicious master plan, in my view. It is the result of a rush to judgment and to get this Bill through. There is a whole host of things in this Bill that should have been more carefully thought out. There are plenty of experienced people on the other side who I am sure, if they had had their time, would have framed the Bill more accurately and thoroughly.
I totally accept that people have different opinions in Scotland but for my part and, I am quite convinced, for the majority in the constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West the Westminster Parliament is-I say this without any disrespect to the Scottish Parliament-the prime Parliament. I can imagine hearing the howls of anguish-"Trust the perfidious English!"-if the Westminster Parliament organised a referendum for the voting system for the Scottish Parliament that did not give due respect to the Scottish Parliament, the forum for which it was proposing a change in the voting system. What is good for the goose etc.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has paid tribute to my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer for lowering the temperature a wee bit. It is certainly not in my nature to up the temperature. It might be stretching credibility to say that I feel intimidated but I certainly feel on occasion a bit reluctant to come forward to speak. Time and again I hear not only the accusations from the Front Bench on the other side but also the sneers and ridicule from other parts of the Chamber when somebody rises to make a point. This is the third time that I have spoken this evening. The other two times I spoke for two or three minutes. That is hardly filibustering, dragging things out or not co-operating. It is making sure that the Bill is scrutinised and that we can come forward and point to things that we believe are wrong. There are differences of opinion-a whole host of them. There is no concerted effort from this side of the House as far as I can see. I am certainly not part of it.
I will not repeat my noble friend Lord Grocott's quotation from the Electoral Commission. However, it quite took my breath away that the Electoral Commission-a so-called independent organisation-in effect tells Members of this House not to put forward or vote for any change because that would prevent the Government from having the referendum on
My Lords, I, too, support my noble friend Lord Grocott's amendment. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will accept it because, as has been pointed out, this is very much an issue for constituencies. I was privileged to represent my constituency for many years-for 14 elections. I lived and worked as the local representative for over 40 years.
As an aside, let me say that not one person has ever said to me, "You are illegitimate because you haven't got 50 per cent of the vote". In all the time that I represented the constituency that I was proud to represent, I served all the people. That constituency of Wolverhampton South East will figure in the voting on
My point is that the campaign will be based on constituency boundaries. That is how this referendum should be fought, because the people in every constituency should have the right to say aye or no in it. As I say, I genuinely hope that a multitude of people-not a low vote but a substantial, solid vote-will say no in this referendum, which should be based on our constituency boundaries.
My Lords, I briefly intervene to raise something that has not yet been raised. It is to do with the relationship between Members of Parliament in particular parts of the world. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to a practical issue and it is a practical issue that is of interest to me. I have been sitting here pondering how this would work. We are told that the yes campaign will essentially be a people-based campaign. There is a feeling in the yes campaign that the intervention of politicians might be unhelpful. However, the reality is that politicians, particularly MPs, will want to be involved. It will not be possible to keep them out, particularly where they may have a strong view. Yet the fact that the legislation is framed in this way might lead to campaigns being organised on a district-wide basis. I know that, in the Labour Party, district parties are never as well organised as the constituency parties. I presume that this might well be the case for other political parties.
I suggest that a campaign that is essentially district based might diffuse the role that the MP might wish to play in its organisation. MPs may well find, if the campaign is district organised, that they have to go into neighbouring constituencies. When MPs go into neighbouring constituencies, it often leads to problems-indeed, to problems inside parties, where people from the same political party represent neighbouring seats. In a curious way, by organising the campaign on a district-wide basis, we might interfere to some extent with the role that Members of Parliament wish to play in the campaign because they simply want to avoid argument. The point that I am making is rather subtle in that it deals with relationships between MPs, but the Government should not altogether ignore what I am saying. Ministers in the Government will know from experience that what I am referring to is a reality.
My Lords, this is a serious and sensible amendment. It would take some persuading on the part of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to convince people that my noble friend Lord Grocott's proposal is not the more sensible approach.
I will explain what the Bill currently proposes for the referendum in Clause 7(2). It proposes to divide the whole country into a series of voting areas: a district in England where there is a district council; a county in England where there are no county councils; a London borough; the City of London, including the Inner and Middle Temples; the Isles of Scilly; a constituency for the National Assembly for Wales; a constituency for the Scottish Parliament; and the whole of Northern Ireland. In relation to those eight separate sorts of voting area, paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 proposes that a counting officer be appointed. In each of those voting areas, the counting officer is in charge of the vote in that area. After the votes have been cast, the counting officer hands to the regional counting officer the certificate of the votes cast. At the same time, with the regional counting officer's permission, the counting officer makes public how everybody has voted in the voting area. That is except in Northern Ireland, where there is no regional counting officer. The counting officer in Northern Ireland hands over his votes to the chief counting officer, who also then gets all the votes from the regional counting officers. Then the chief counting officer makes an announcement about how the votes have been cast nationally.
That means that the public will become aware of how people have voted in the eight different sorts of voting area specified in the Bill. For example, people will know how a London borough has voted and how Northern Ireland as a whole has voted, but not how individual constituencies have voted in Northern Ireland, whether they are individual constituencies for the Northern Irish Assembly, local authority constituencies or parliamentary constituencies. Nor will it be possible to work it out, because the voting area is the whole of Northern Ireland. In London, you will not be able to tell how individual constituencies have voted.
What is the purpose of this extraordinarily complicated system? Is it, I ask myself, trying to parallel where elections are taking place on the same day as the proposed referendum, namely
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has pointed out that a theme has run through the responses of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to all this. It is that the Government have tried, in putting forward practical proposals, to stick to the normal electoral arrangements. I have never seen these electoral arrangements in any other sort of election. They are overcomplicated and arbitrary in terms of the areas in which declarations will be made, whereas a network of arrangements already exists for parliamentary constituencies. Whenever an election is called, it seems possible to set up a system for declarations and results. On the face of it, the parliamentary constituencies network looks to be far and away the most straightforward and practical. It does not involve these extraordinarily complicated arrangements. Why is the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, not a simple way of giving effect to the sort of proposition that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has been making?
In terms of simplicity for the counting areas, does the noble and learned Lord not accept that in Scotland the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, would make things rather more complicated? His amendment suggests that the voting areas should be based on Westminster parliamentary constituencies. If the referendum is held on
I take the point in relation to Scotland. That is probably the only place where one can see some logic in the proposals. However, one cannot see any logic in relation to the rest of the UK. Therefore, maybe the answer-and if the noble Lord were to make proposals on this I might support him-is for us to stick with the Scottish constituencies, but leave everything else to be done on the basis of Westminster constituencies. There needs to be some explanation for why this extraordinary procedure has been adopted.
In addition to the points about practicality, there are two others. First, we have to do this without the benefit of the Electoral Commission's views, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, the commission has said that that would simply delay the referendum. Sadly, the commission has not given this House the benefit of its views on whether this proposal is more practical than the one in the Bill. Secondly, there is a real force in the argument which states that if we are talking about parliamentary constituencies and how they vote in the future, there is a logic and a force in saying, "Let's see how individual parliamentary constituencies voted", because, for the life of me, I cannot see the logic in saying, "We'll disclose how a London borough or the whole of Northern Ireland voted, but we won't tell you how individual constituencies voted".
My Lords, if anything that has happened over the past four hours suggests that I am not enjoying this process, it is entirely untrue. I will write to Chris Bryant in the morning. I would not want him to think that I was attacking him personally. I am certainly not someone who has objected to the interventions of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. A number of Labour MPs have stopped me with a look of sheer amazement and said, "You heard Tommy McAvoy speak?".
On the point about the Electoral Commission, I hope that noble Lords do not put sinister interpretations on this matter. If our intention is to hold the referendum on
Being a skilled advocate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, can draw out these various bodies and make a case for a real mishmash of voting areas. In fact, the provisions that we have included in the Bill in relation to voting areas for the referendum ensure, as much as possible, that the same boundaries will be used for the referendum on the voting system as are used for other polls with which the referendum is combined. There is nothing more or less to it than that. The intent of the clause-as is the case in so much of the Bill-is to make the core decision that the electorate are being invited to make as simple as possible.
On the specific question of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I can tell him that the City of London is designated separately because, as he will know, it is a separate local government area within London. The other areas are the London boroughs.
If the principle is that the counting areas for the referendum are to be as close as possible to those for the other elections taking place on the same day, why will there be one counting area for the whole of Northern Ireland, given that it will be holding Assembly elections on the same day?
I will write to the noble Lord on that. It seems that one element of confusion is that we are not asking United Kingdom constituencies to make a decision-we are asking for a national vote. It will be a yes or no poll, designed on a national basis.
My Lords, I understand the argument about administrative convenience and, of course, that argument is not negligible. However, does the Minister not think it is important that people should know how the votes have been cast, parliamentary constituency by parliamentary constituency, on what the future electoral system for those constituencies should be? Surely that is a matter of some importance to not only Members of Parliament but members of political parties, the generality of citizens and those who seek to evaluate and learn the lessons from this campaign. This is an important consideration which should not be set aside simply on grounds of administrative convenience on the day.
I stand by the case for administrative convenience, but the fact that there will be a national vote, not individual constituency decisions, is the important issue. In fact, I had forgotten, until the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, helpfully reminded me, that the referendum in 1975 was not declared on a constituency basis, partly because the whole point of a referendum on an issue such as this is to get a national decision. These provisions are designed to make the voting process easier and more straightforward.
Of course it is. Therefore, people are entitled to know at a local level. While the noble Lord is on this point, I should say that only the count is affected here. If there is a delay in the count, so what? The Electoral Commission cannot delay when the voting take place, but what happens after the close of polls and the way that the votes are counted is what my noble and learned friend is on about. If it takes another half a day to count the votes and divide them, so what? That cannot delay the poll. It cannot affect the target date of
I am not sure that I accept the argument that there is an overwhelming interest in knowing the results of a national decision constituency by constituency.
As the noble Lord said, they have a vested interest. I want to make a national decision in the national interest.
I suspect that, again, the decision is based on administrative convenience, which is not a dishonourable reason. What we are trying to do, as I have said so many times before, is to make the procedure as straightforward as possible. I believe there was an amendment in the other place. Perhaps, when this Bill goes back to the other place, Mr Chris Bryant will put down an amendment for a constituency base.
Is the noble Lord really saying that it does not matter whether Members of Parliament hear the voices of their constituents, and whether Members of Parliament know what judgment their constituents have come to on this matter of what the parliamentary voting system should be?
The noble Lord is a master at pious interventions. Members will campaign, make their voices heard and assess their constituencies. I give way to my noble friend.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The year 1975 was a long time ago. The year 1997 was a long time ago. Surely a general election is also a national poll affecting the whole country, and that is declared by constituency. What is wrong with moving away from the old superior top-down style of saying, "Well, the country will vote and you won't know locally"? Surely that is progress.
The country will know locally. However, we are making a national decision. We are adopting systems and procedures which make things as simple and straightforward for electors as possible.
Perhaps I may ask a question which is very relevant. For a moment, the Minister obviously felt that Chris Bryant of the other place would have the chance to table an amendment to deal with this matter, but he cannot do that under the procedural arrangements because we are going to ping-pong. If that is the case, could the Minister accept the amendment and enable Members in the other place to do precisely what he suggested that they might wish to do?
That is a merry thought, but no. We will resist this amendment and we urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.
My Lords, any neutral observer would say that this is a simple and straightforward proposition that the results of a referendum about parliamentary constituencies should be counted and declared on the basis of parliamentary constituencies. It is not rocket science and it is not complicated. It is common sense, and I think the Minister knows as much. What has been established in this debate-I had not realised how clearly it would be established-is what a complete dog's breakfast the list of counting districts is in the Bill. I will not go through the list again, but it is pretty random. It is a case of: wherever you can find a returning officer, let us have an election counted and declared. It is of no significance, no interest and no consistency that I can see.
I remind the Minister that we do not hold referenda or make decisions in this House on the basis of convenience for the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission's report is essentially saying "It is not a convenient way of doing it", which was the nub of the argument that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, presented to us-that it was much more convenient to hold elections on the basis of these various randomly selected electoral areas as determined in the Bill. I believe that my noble friend Lord Howarth made the point that it is treating a national referendum on changing the constitution as being a secondary event on the day-"Oh, we're counting borough elections, so we might as well count the referendum within the same electoral areas". If I may say so, all the arguments on any kind of coherent principle have been on one side, and the arguments for convenience have been on the other. Indeed, he admitted it was for convenience and I do not think I am misrepresenting him.
I would have thought that the convenience of the electorate and certainly respect for the electorate would be in constituencies, which is what the Bill is about. We should let them know the result of their own votes, and we are not telling them that. I find this particularly astonishing from a Liberal Democrat, and from other Liberal Democrats here, who have been telling us for as long as I have been in politics that people have been queueing up to change the electoral system in this country-that they are desperate to get rid of it. I would have thought that they would have looked forward with pride to a returning officer in their constituency or their former constituency declaring the massive support within their area for the alternative vote system of elections. They may not, of course, and it seems to me that doubts are growing as I look at the faces opposite. However, if the Minister is really saying that we should not do it on this basis, I am afraid that it has been characteristic, and it inevitably builds up frustration, that we make perfectly sensible, straightforward, logical proposals here which are in the interests of the electorate, and they are dismissed in a few sentences. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the House.