Amendment 7

Elections Bill - Committee (1st Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 10th March 2022.

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Lord Collins of Highbury:

Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury

7: Clause 14, page 22, line 18, at end insert—“(f) civil society groups.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would mean that the Secretary of State must consult civil society groups on the draft of the strategy and policy statement.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I want to preface my remarks about these amendments, because they relate to a fundamental ingredient of our democratic life and our democratic society. I have often spoken in my role as shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs about the importance of civil society. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, who has responsibility for human rights, frequently hears this and responds incredibly positively. There are many societies and countries where the guarantors of human rights are not Parliaments and parliamentarians but civil society, faith groups, women’s groups and trade unions. They are the important ingredients of a thriving democratic society. If we take them away, we do not have such a society; we end up with a society where elections may be held every five years but with a president like President Putin. These are the things that we have to be concerned about.

That is why these amendments are important with regard to consultation. On political parties, I am not just talking about the Labour Party, although obviously I can talk at length about it. As I said to the Bill team a couple of days ago, if you want a short, concise history, read the Collins report. I know it had consequences that we did not necessarily intend but it gives a good chronological history of the party, with regard to how it was established and the role of civil society, in particular why civil society thought it needed a party that should have political representation in our parliamentary democracy. Of course, it stemmed from that action at the beginning of the last century, when laws were imposed on civil society groups of working people that inhibited their right to organise and to demand better wages and conditions. That has been an important ingredient.

I am not being exclusive about trade unions here. This applies even at the most local of levels—I know the Electoral Commission would not necessarily be involved in these areas. On the idea that this statement should be about how we improve engagement, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is here. I have mentioned his name several times already in debates because I know that he understands the importance of civil society and education in how we improve engagement in our democratic system. Anything that acts as a barrier to that should be considered very carefully.

If we are going to talk about how we improve engagement with such a statement—I think the Minister said it himself about the indicative statement—it is vital that civil society is properly consulted. That comes back to this other issue that was raised about when you do or do not consult. Education about civil society starts at school. Even though I am a member of Humanists UK, I went to a church youth club and sang in the church choir from the ages of 10 to 12. In fact, strangely enough, my role in that church choir prompted me to set up a mini-trade union. Every time we had a wedding, the vicar of my church said to the choir, “They are friends of the church and we’re not going to charge them, so you won’t get your five shillings this week.” I objected to that. I said, “How come the vicar can decide whether I get paid or not?” That prompted me to be quite active in organising. I quickly left the choir after that—I do not think the vicar was very keen on me. I am not saying that that made me into an atheist; other issues did that.

That takes me back to the point about why civil society should be consulted. We can say that these are strictly matters of electoral law but I come back to the point that the Minister made. He said that one of the things this statement will include is how we improve engagement in the electoral process. That is why it is so vital that we include civil society.

As I say, there are whole elements of our civil society that impact on our democratic life, and I am not being exclusive about trade unions. One of the things that struck me is that even the Women’s Institute now has incredibly important debates about civil society. Even with the global crisis we face now, when we look for homes for refugees, faith groups, women’s groups and the WI will respond. That will make our country a better place.

There is one criticism I do want to make. When the Minister started consulting civil society on elements of the Bill, I was extremely disappointed that, although the Bill is really important to the trade unions—we will come to the amendments relating to them later—they were an afterthought. They were not included in the first round of civil society consultation. That was very worrying. Admittedly, there were then consecutive meetings, and they were engaged, but it is disappointing that trade unions were considered an afterthought. Trade unions are engaged politically—some through the Labour Party, but not all of them. Some trade unions that have a political fund operate in different ways: they are not affiliated, but they support the democratic process, or campaigns to influence it. Those are important ingredients.

When we come to the other parts of the Bill relating to civil society, these amendments will reflect something important. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, in the Select Committee report on civic engagement, stressed the importance of not adopting policies that inhibit the voice of civil society. That would be very damaging. What we are trying to do here is to make sure that we prioritise—put higher up the list—the need not only to engage but to consult properly. We might then end up with an improved statement—even though I do not agree with the principle of a statement. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector), Deputy Chairman of Committees 3:45 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I have the great privilege of being a member of the Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, which considered citizenship and civic engagement in 2018 and has recently reconvened to look at the matter again. Largely with that in mind, I support Amendment 7, in particular. Bad as this Bill is in many ways, we have to treat it from the standpoint that, somehow, it could be a mechanism to improve representation, participation and the understanding of the electoral process by wider society.

The reason why it is important that civil society organisations be evidently included is that they do something unique. They represent people who are not in Parliament—all sorts of diverse and minority communities: precisely the people who are not engaged, and consequently not represented. We have already begun to see the beneficial effects of the Government talking to civic society organisations in the preparation of the Bill. I would make a case similar to that which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, made for trade unions, and say that we should be unafraid of including those groups in the development of the statement for the Electoral Commission.

One group of civil society organisations that we might think about are those concerned with citizenship, such as Young Citizens or the Association for Citizenship Teaching, organisations which exist with the primary purpose of improving the knowledge of future generations and their engagement and involvement in the electoral process. That is a thoroughly commendable thing and by including it in this Bill, we would not be doing anything that would in any way inhibit the Secretary of State or damage the process. This would be a small but valuable addition to the Bill.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I always have some empathy with the noble Lord opposite, who I greatly respect, when he speaks of Labour tradition, the tradition of working people and social traditions. My mother’s grandfather and his family were brought up in Salford and teeming parts of Manchester, and the education they had that led them to improve their lives and secure some degree of prosperity came through the mechanics’ institutes and institutions created by civil society with a good social instinct. So I understand what the noble Lord says and how he feels. I also understand how the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, feels when she speaks about civil society.

These amendments propose extending statutory consultation to specific groups, however defined. As the Bill stands, the consultation process provided in Clause 14 will already ensure that the statement will be subject, where applicable, to some statutory consultation with key stakeholders, including the Electoral Commission, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee. If the amendments your Lordships agreed earlier and are about to agree are agreed by the House of Commons, those institutions and bodies would be involved before the draft statement is submitted for the approval of Parliament.

The Secretary of State and officials will hear what has been said, but of course, the Secretary of State is not limited to consulting with only those bodies in considering legislation. I am grateful for what the noble Baroness said about reaching out to civil society. Government Ministers regularly engage with relevant stakeholders across civil society—I am sure that will continue—and a wide range of views can be considered by the Secretary of State when preparing a draft statement. I remind the Committee that the Secretary of State concerned is the one who bears responsibility for local government. Obviously, there is a particular, constant and important engagement between their department and local government. I understand the meaning and sense of the amendment asking for local government to be consulted, but that is, if you like, a standing counterparty of that department.

In addition, both Houses of Parliament play an important role in allowing for the views of wider society; your Lordships’ House is admirable in that. This already ensures that groups such as those noted in these amendments, including trade unions—which never lack a powerful voice in this House, notably from the noble Lord opposite—will be adequately represented through Parliament in scrutinising any draft statement. Additionally, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, which is a statutory consultee, is a cross-party group of MPs and that will further allow for representation of the views of different parts of the electorate.

So, while understanding the spirit in which these amendments are advanced and certainly giving the assurance that the Government are not limited to consulting only those bodies listed in the Bill, I urge that the amendments be withdrawn or not moved.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

Could the Minister confirm that, when he referred to the Speaker’s commission just now, he meant the Speaker’s committee? He suggested that it had a wide remit to consult with society, whereas I am sure he will recall that it is substantially made up of Conservative Cabinet Ministers.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 4:00 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, that was not a correct characterisation. I meant to say, “the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission”, which is a cross-party representation of MPs. If I misspoke, I apologise.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I thank the noble Lord for his response to this debate. Consultation will be an important part of how we proceed on this and an issue which we will keep emphasising and reiterating. However, in the light of the comments, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 7 withdrawn.

Amendments 8 and 9 not moved.