Committee (1st Day)

Part of Fixed-term Parliaments Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 15th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 5:45 pm, 15th March 2011

My Lords, this has been a lively debate with contributions from noble Lords all around the House speaking from their extensive experience and their serious concern that we should find the best ways we can to improve participation at general elections. As my noble friend Lady Golding reminded us, it is equally important that we raise participation in other elections, notably local elections, although that is outside the scope of the Bill's Long Title.

I am most grateful for what the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler, had to say. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, speaks with even greater knowledge than the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, though it could be a close-run thing. Both of them made invaluable contributions, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, rehearsing with us the somewhat dispiriting history of consideration of this issue-the unsatisfactory pilot scheme and the citizen summit that never took place. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made the extremely important point that our traditional practice of holding elections on a Thursday means that schools all over the country closed. That is undesirable.

On the other hand, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, put his finger unerringly on two real difficulties. One is not necessarily an insuperable difficulty because he rightly reminded us that there are different religious traditions in this country and you cannot decently or appropriately legislate for polling to take place on one particular day of the weekend. He then went on to make a point that I take seriously: that it is desirable that as far as possible people should cast their votes on the basis of the same information and that, if some dramatic event were to intervene, that could have the effect of altering the tendency of polling on the second day. We would need to think carefully about that.

That serves to illustrate that there are significant arguments on both sides. I rarely disagree with my noble friend Lord Grocott on anything-he was my Chief Whip, after all-and particularly in the constitutional field but I am not sure there is not a hairline crack between our two personal positions on this particular issue. But he and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, rightly appeal to our sense of tradition and history. What my noble friend Lord Grocott had to say about the importance of the drama of election day and what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, had to say about the ceremony of election day were very important observations. We do not want in any way to diminish the occasion of polling, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggested, has perhaps been somewhat diminished by the increasing resort to postal voting. If postal voting has raised turnout overall, however, that is an important merit in it.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, responded in as positive a spirit as he could but it remains the case that the Government, while they may have reviewed previous consultation, have not applied themselves to this question with any seriousness at all in advance of including prescriptive provisions in this fixed-term Parliaments legislation that polling will take place on a Thursday. The noble and learned Lord himself reminded us that at the moment there is nothing in the law that requires polling to be held on a Thursday.

If there is a major national crisis, as in Scotland, and the Hamilton by-election has to be moved from a Thursday to a Wednesday because of a football match, there is at least the freedom to do that. But this legislation would remove that freedom. The noble and learned Lord says that the Government are not ruling out a change, but by stating in this Bill their intention to legislate, they make it that much less likely that there will be a change. I had hoped that the Minister would have been able to tell us rather more definitely what the Government intend to do. We may or may not agree with his point, but he said that this may not be the right legislation in which to incorporate provision for polling to take place on a weekend rather than on a Thursday. He suggested it has to be considered on a separate track. I heard no convincing evidence from him that he intends to pursue that track.

While the feeling of the House is that it would be inappropriate to vote on this issue today, Amendment 16 tabled by Members of the Liberal Democrats, which would require the Prime Minister and the Government to have made up their minds about what they want to do by October 2013, has enormous merit. For my part, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendment 2 not moved.