With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 18, in
clause 1, page 1, line 10, at end insert
'and all the local authorities in the area covered by the pilot, and unless both Houses of Parliament have had an opportunity to consider the views of those bodies and to debate the matter.'.
We have had an extraordinary start to the morning, with the first Government defeat that I have been involved in since the 2001 election. We look forward to many more, not only in this Committee but on future occasions.
As I said on Second Reading last Tuesday, Conservative Members feel strongly that all local authorities should be willing participants in experiments of this kind. There are already huge burdens on local authorities, and many of them have been imposed since May 1997 by the Labour Government. In elections, the returning officer—usually, in my experience, the chief executive of the relevant local authority—has many responsibilities already. However, the burdens on chief executives do not come from elections alone.
Perhaps many other local authorities are making the same complaint that is among those I receive from all the senior officers in the two local authorities in my constituency—I have certainly heard the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) making similar points in other debates. The complaint is that, since 1997, the Government have loaded greater statutory obligations and burdens on to local authorities, but crucially without providing the funding necessary to enable them to carry out those obligations. The pattern is a common one. A Minister—this or another Minister—will stand up in the House and trumpet a great announcement that the Government are doing something. However, they are putting the burden on local authorities to do that something without providing the funding.
Our constituents often protest about the increases in council tax. It is easy for Ministers to try to blame local authorities for that, as they regularly do, and make threatening noises about capping. Indeed, I heard Ministers do that in the Chamber only yesterday. However, the Government are the real culprit; they are putting the burdens on local authorities without providing the necessary funding—and the local authorities have no choice but to obey the statute law imposed on them by the Government.
Councillors generally, but especially the senior councillors in my constituency, regularly raise this matter—and not only councillors of my party but councillors of all parties. They are concerned at the huge burdens being placed on them.
I shall give way in a moment.
I do not blame Ministers at the Department for Constitutional Affairs alone, but they have to answer for what the Government have done in the past and propose doing again. Amendment No. 18 would take further the precautions that we seek to introduce—that the matter should be debated on the Floor of both Houses before the pilot proposals are pushed through; and, before that, that the local authorities affected should have had the opportunity to debate the matter, and that the local authorities and the Electoral Commission should report to Parliament.
Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I remember what he said repeatedly on Second Reading. I commented then that he had managed to mention his constituency more often in one speech than any other hon. Member I have ever heard. Either in his intervention or in future contributions, I know that he will say that the local authority in his constituency of Chorley is violently in favour of the Government's proposals. However, all local authorities should be consulted, and some may not share the views that he has passed on from Chorley. It is therefore crucial to build in our suggested safeguards.
One of the hon. Gentleman's earlier points should be corrected. He said that the present Government were putting more of a burden on local authorities, but he ought to remember that that was also happening before 1997. He should recognise that we have seen a huge increase in rate support grant and he should give some credit to the Government for that.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has discovered that his local authority has benefited from a huge increase in what used to be called rate support grant. In my constituency, Government funding went up by less than the cost of the national insurance increase. I have recorded my concerns about that on a number of occasions. Funding for local authorities in the south-east, and perhaps some in the south-west, was cut so that the Government could help their friends in the north—doubtless including those in the constituency of the hon. Member for Chorley. I have no doubt at all that, in the Labour heartlands, the amount of Government support went up hugely. However, it did not go up in the south-east, despite the fact that the cost of living and of providing local authority services is much higher in the south-east. The balance was deliberately skewed.
Surely the key point is one of compulsion. On Second Reading, we listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Chorley telling us of his town's vast experience of pilot schemes.
However, there was no compulsion. We are now talking about compulsion, and that element justifies seeking the agreement of local authorities before they are forced to participate.
My hon. Friend is right. He reinforces my point about the element of compulsion. My hon. Friend and others, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), said on Second Reading that one of the ironies of what the Government propose is that some of the authorities that have been pleased to volunteer for the pilot schemes—perhaps including Chorley—may find that, if the Bill stays more or less in its present form, and however much they have enjoyed pilots in the past and want to participate in them, they will not be allowed to do so unless they fall within one of the regions that is subsequently chosen.
The point of our amendments is that it is crucial that every affected local authority should have the chance to be consulted and to report its views, so that Parliament can debate the matter. That argument is much the same as those that we had in the Programming Sub-Committee before the Government suffered their catastrophic defeat. We have not had the chance to look at the information from the Electoral Commission, and if Parliament does not have the chance to consider the responses of local authorities, it cannot make proper decisions.
I would also like to express my pleasure at serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.
Would the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a contradiction in what he says? He claims that he is against compulsion, yet amendment No. 16 provides that if two thirds of local authorities in an area agree, there will be compulsion on the other local authorities. That would mean, for example, that the authorities in cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow and other large authorities in Scotland could be outvoted by the tiny authority represented by the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan). Is that the compulsion that the amendment advocates?
May I first correct the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz)? The constituency and local authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale can hardly be described as tiny. I know the area well and, as well as being one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom, it is large. I anticipated that if we had required all local authorities to approve the proposal, the Minister would have pointed out that it would take only one totally maverick authority to block the whole process. That is why I specified not all local authorities but two thirds. If more than a third of local authorities oppose something, that can hardly be described as a maverick decision.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's censure. My description of the constituency of the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale as small
was incorrect. I have climbed the Merrick in that constituency and seen the constituency from a height, so I can confirm that it is large. However, the hon. Gentleman has not answered my concern. It would still be possible for two thirds of local authorities—perhaps those representing small populations—to outvote those with much larger populations. Is that not unfair on the more populous authorities?
I am grateful, Mr. Benton. I apologise to you and the Committee for the fact that I am suffering from a cold, so I might not be speaking at my normal volume. I shall try to ensure that the Committee can hear me.
At this early stage—it is relevant to amendments Nos. 16 and 18—I should express some of the reservations that we have had ever since we debated what became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which led to the creation of the Electoral Commission. One of the difficulties about a bureaucracy such as the Electoral Commission—I have no criticism of its individual members—is that it constantly recommends new things and changes. It is in the nature of such bodies to create work—it is a political Parkinson's law. They always generate huge reports. We do not believe, as I have said to the Minister on previous occasions, in their so-called modernisation. We do not believe that it is right to have constant change to, and messing about with, our constitutional settlement, which has been hallowed by time and which has survived so long because it works. As I said on Second Reading, I have always been a believer in the saying, ''If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.'' Indeed, I would go further and say, ''If it is not essential to change, it is essential not to change.''
On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said that there will not be a lot wrong with the system when it is has been made easier for those who wish to vote by post to do so. We will come back to that at a later stage, so I will not detain the Committee with the details now. One could say that most of the difficulties that voters have experienced in the past have been dealt with. My attitude, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, can be summed up by the phrase, ''If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it.''
My worry about the Electoral Commission is that it is always recommending change and further change. That is in its nature. One reason why we want to introduce precautions at every stage of the Bill, as we do with amendments Nos. 16 and 18, is so that if local authorities were to say, ''We don't like this, we don't want to have these changes,'' Parliament could take their views into account. Perhaps common sense would then prevail and some of the nonsensical
changes that we will later debate would be stopped because it would be clear to Parliament that local authorities did not want them.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Does he agree that the continual changes that have been brought into the electoral process make it all the more important to ask local authorities, which are all too often charged with implementing the revised procedures that we introduce at regular stages—this strikes me as being a particularly important stage—for a reality check? We should ask them whether the proposals are implementable, and to outline the problems. We could then learn from their responses. Surely that is a key part of the process.
Absolutely. That is why amendment No. 18 proposes that
''all the local authorities in the area covered by the pilot'' should be consulted. That is also why amendment No. 16 proposes to add the words
''if a two-thirds majority of the local authorities in the area covered by the pilot agree''.
All local authorities should report back to the House, and two thirds of authorities should have to agree to the changes. That would at least prevent a maverick local authority from blocking the changes, and would allow the Government to go ahead if a clear majority of authorities were in favour. The Government should not be able to go ahead unless both Houses of Parliament have had the opportunity to consider the views of local authorities and the commission, and to debate the matter.
The hon. Gentleman said, ''If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'' I suggest that something is definitely broken, because fewer than 25 per cent. of people vote in European elections. I am interested in the ''two-thirds majority'' mentioned in the amendment. On what basis did he come up with that figure? Why not three quarters or nine tenths of local authorities, or why not one or two of them? He has not properly addressed the issue of population, which was rightly raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith. A relevant threshold of local authorities, and people in those authorities, should be set.
If, on Report, the hon. Gentleman were to table an amendment suggesting that that figure should be three quarters, I would hardly be likely to oppose it. I have explained that I chose two thirds because I wanted the amendment to require a clear majority of local authorities to agree. I anticipated that if I were to propose that all local authorities had to agree, the Minister might have said, ''Well, what if there was a maverick local authority? One authority could block the process, and that would be unfair.'' That is why I chose two thirds, but I would not have a problem if the hon. Gentleman were to suggest three quarters.
My point is that, in an established constitutional settlement, we tinker with such things at our peril. In answer to his other point about the low turnouts in European elections—[Interruption.] I agree with the
sedentary, but very helpful comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East that turnout is so low because of the British people's huge dissatisfaction with the whole European process and the democratic deficit, and because they do not regard the European Parliament as being significant.
Every general election from the second world war to 1997 had a turnout of more than 70 per cent. The dramatic fall in the turnout for the 2001 general election was largely due to a general dissatisfaction with the Labour Government, and to people's belief that it would not matter a great deal whether they voted. There was not a huge engagement with politics. I am looking forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris)—I understand entirely why he cannot be with us today—who made a very powerful speech on Second Reading last Tuesday about the malign effect of the media in increasing cynicism about politics. That was also a significant factor in the lower turnout for the general election.
If we left the position alone but increased the opportunity for people to vote by post if they had good reason for doing so, we would not need a lot of this modernising nonsense. I hope that that deals with the point made by the hon. Member for North Tayside.
We feel strongly about amendments Nos. 16 and 18. As was said in a debate on another Bill on which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and I led for our respective parties, it is good to start a Committee with one of the most important points of substance. We are not starting with trivialities, because the first group of amendments on the first clause go to the heart of our concerns. I will listen with interest to the Minister, but I hope that despite the catastrophic defeat that the Government have already suffered this morning, he will be reasonable and listen to our genuine attempts to improve the Bill and to build in more safeguards.
May I, as everyone else has done, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benson? They are right to do so; it is great to see one of our colleagues from the north-west chairing this sitting.
We have heard a lot from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath about why it should be a two-thirds majority, but that he is willing to change that to three quarters so that he can get through his views. We ought to be talking about the benefits of the pilot scheme. The local authority has a major role to play in the pilot scheme. As I pointed out in debate in the Chamber, the benefits that we have seen from pilot schemes in Chorley have been significant in increasing and franchising democracy.
If the benefits are so easily demonstrable and so obvious, is there any reason why two thirds of the local authorities in an area might not accept it being a pilot area?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments. It is important that he expresses his view, and expresses the way in which he is whipped into line
by expressing support for a figure of two thirds without substantiating why it is important. I understand that he has to do that and that he is under pressure to speak in the debate. If he listens a little longer, he may be persuaded to come to a realisation of how we can franchise people. That is important; it is about franchising people and not excluding people. What is important is proving the case about pilot schemes and why they are so important.
Will my hon. Friend expand on the second example of a pilot in Chorley? His first speech was riveting but mainly concerned the first example, so perhaps he could expand on the second.
The chief executive of Chorley borough council and returning officer for Chorley, Jeff Davies, and the senior election officer, Martin O'Loughlin, are among the experts and they talk to other authorities about the benefits of postal voting and what it can do to enfranchise people. What is important is getting people to ensure that they use their democratic right to vote.
It would probably be of great benefit to the Committee to pay a visit to Chorley to see for ourselves. Could my hon. Friend enlighten the Committee as to whether there have been any requests from the chief executive of Chorley for the veto mechanism that the Conservative amendment seeks to put in place?
I would welcome a visit by the Committee to the jewel in the crown and the bastion of democracy of the north-west. I know that you, Mr. Benton, have visited Chorley and know it quite well. You are aware of the democratic flag waving that we can do there, because of the huge turnout that we have seen thanks to pilot schemes. I would welcome such a visit.
The local authority does not support the figure of a two-thirds majority. In fact, Chorley borough council is made up of a couple of independents, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Labour members, and they all stated categorically in the June election that they wished Chorley to be franchised with the pilot scheme. It is important that all those political parties are working together to pilot that scheme.
I have been asked to mention what happened in the second election of the pilot scheme in Chorley. It is important that we recognise the reason why local authority votes have been sinking so fast. We were getting less than 30 per cent., and in some cases less than 20 per cent. That is dangerous and it is not democracy. We needed to reverse that trend, and, to be fair, Chorley council was very brave. When the country was asked whether there were any volunteers for a pilot scheme, Chorley was there, flag-waving and putting its hand up. The question went to the full council, all the political parties were in agreement and everybody said, ''We believe that we ought to franchise the people of Chorley through a pilot scheme.''
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that independent bodies such as the Electoral Reform Society, which sent us paperwork at the very last minute, are drawing to the Committee's attention the fact that even though experiments have so far shown that all-postal ballots may have increased turnout in some places, they have not done so in all? All-postal ballots are not a guarantee of much higher turnouts. The society points out that in a by-election in Lewisham that ended on 23 October, there was an increase of just 2 per cent., to 24 per cent., despite the fact that the ward was hotly contested and changed hands. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that Chorley's experience is not universal?
That postal ballot took place in my constituency last Thursday. Although there was not a great change from the previous election in the number of people voting, there was an increase of more than 10 per cent. as a result of the postal ballot, compared with by-elections.
I welcome that information and it is important that we hear it. People put about scare stories that there are no benefits, but we hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) that there are.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath's old constituency—Blackpool, South—had trials last time and there was a significant increase in votes. I know that he keeps in touch with old constituency; in fact, I read in the paper today that he was concerned that the Conservatives may move away from Blackpool. He has a keen interest in the north-west, so he ought to recognise that it is important that we franchise people. The best way to trial that is through a pilot scheme, and the north-west is the right place for one.
I enjoy hearing again about Chorley and the success of the pilot scheme, which we obviously welcome. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we need the consent and co-operation of local authorities to make such schemes a success. [Interruption.] Unless the majority of local authorities in an electoral area co-operate, however, the success of the pilots will surely be put in danger.
I will try to speak a little louder if people cannot hear me. I am sorry that my voice cannot be heard—I know that I am a quietly spoken, shy and retiring person.
Local authorities want to increase the number of people voting, which has dropped to dangerous levels, but the only way to do that and to prove the case is to have pilot schemes. The sooner we get on with that, the better. I rest my case.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chorley, who clearly feels that his constituency exemplifies all that is good in electoral practice. He may well be right, but we need to extend the search a little further to see what is happening. My view accords with the intervention of the hon. Member for North Tayside. Unless we have the full co-operation and enthusiastic participation of local authorities, pilots simply are not going to work. The big difference in terms of the pilot areas that have engaged in the schemes so far, such as Chorley and my district council area of South Somerset, is that they wanted to take part. They were keen to see whether there would be an effect on their local elections, and to discover what the consequences would be electorally and in terms of the operation's mechanics. That important point shows why it is valuable to have the amendments mentioned by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.
However, I have some minor criticisms of the hon. Gentleman's amendments, and I hope that he will forgive me because it is important that we explore them. My criticism of amendment No. 16 was referred to in part by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith in an intervention. There is a lack of specificity and definition in relation to ''local authorities''. What do we mean by that phrase? Do we mean all local authorities? The amendment does not specify ''relevant local authorities'', as defined in the Bill, so we must construe it as meaning all local authorities in the region, including parish councils in England, community councils in Wales and—I am sorry, but I have forgotten what the lowest tier of local authority in Scotland is called. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith might help me.
We have a unitary system in Scotland. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a further anomaly for parts of the country that do not have a unitary system? Areas in which there are counties and districts would effectively have two veto votes, which would be even more undemocratic.
That was my next point. Large parts of England have shire counties and district authorities that cover the same electorate. For that reason, there are problems with the proposal of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.
There is also the question of the population differential between a large borough authority and a small rural district council. Are those authorities to have an equal say in what happens? Having a straw poll of local authorities—however that poll is constructed—might not be the best way of approaching the problem.
Amendment No. 18 is concerned with having a proper consultation process with all of the local authorities. Had I written the amendment, I would
have included the phrase ''relevant local authorities'', to define those responsible for conducting elections in such areas.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as I so often am, for the thorough way in which he is considering the matter. Does he agree that one difficulty that we both faced was incredible shortness of time? Second Reading was only last Tuesday, and we had so little time to draft our amendments that neither of us could claim that they are perfect. We both made as good a stab as we could. The pressure of time put on us and the various issues raised in connection with the programme motion led to the huge and enormously significant Government defeat on that motion.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that, as matters now transpire, we will have a little more time for the Committee, and I look forward to that eventuality. I accept that, like me, he produced amendments to a short time scale. I hope that he will accept that I am not criticising his draftsmanship in any way. I am simply saying that the detail of his amendment is not quite right, but that its sentiment should nevertheless be debated and endorsed.
If the pilots are to be a success, we need to consult properly with those who will be charged with the responsibility of carrying them out: returning officers and local authorities. We must know the practicalities, and give those involved the opportunity to express any concerns that they might have. For instance, some issues were raised on Second Reading about the Scottish highlands and islands. Practical difficulties undoubtedly may arise in some of the remoter parts of Scotland, in terms of providing for the arrangements. The same may well apply in Wales and in the remoter parts of rural England—not least in my own constituency. I have every confidence that ballot papers will be returned marked ''eaten by snails'', as sometimes happens with post that is left in some of the wetter post boxes in my constituency.
There are practical difficulties that ought to be taken into account. If the process allows for consultation and parliamentary scrutiny of the outcome, we can move forward with the confidence that the issues are being addressed. If we impose a solution by diktat on large tracts of the country—that is what will happen if there are three regional pilot trials—without taking into account the views of local authorities and returning officers, that will be a recipe for disaster at some point. We should avoid that if at all possible, which is why I have doubts about amendment No. 16. However, I can see the merit in amendment No. 18.
I want to make two brief points. First, I hope that hon. Members will sincerely ask themselves what the argument is against consulting local authorities. Something dramatic is to happen that will involve a great deal of expenditure; surely it is only fair and reasonable that local authorities be consulted.
A great deal of strange propaganda is going around about the new form of voting. We have heard several references to Lewisham, which I know a bit about. There was a wonderful all-postal scheme and a fantastic campaign, during which many people expressed strong opinions. Voting took place very recently—on 23 October—but how many hon. Members know what the final voting figure was? Was it 80 per cent. or 70 per cent.? The fact is that despite all the effort and expenditure, the ballot turnout was 24 per cent.
The benefit of the Chorley experience was that we greatly exceeded the 60 per cent. mark. Anyone would recognise that as a significant improvement, given that in some cases, turnout was below 30 per cent.
Just because that happens in Chorley, it does not mean that it will happen everywhere. If it is such a great idea, what is wrong with asking local authorities? I make that point to Labour Members in particular, who are meant to believe in democracy. They are meant to believe that the people have the right to decide, so what is wrong with asking them?
As my hon. Friend knows, I strongly agree. Does he recognise that we have to take seriously what the Electoral Reform Society says? It has volunteered the information about Lewisham, which I did not know about until I opened my post this morning. However, I was not entirely surprised by it, because I know the area very well. My wife stood for the council during the 1980s, and there were low turnouts then; but they were higher than now, and under the traditional voting system. The collapse in the voting system will not be reversed just by postal experiments.
My hon. Friend is right. I know Lewisham very well and I was astonished at the very low poll, despite all the efforts made. Despite the all-postal ballot, much expenditure, a lot of people rushing around and lots of exciting campaigns, turnout was 24 per cent.—that is the issue. We are doing such daft things because people are obsessed with the 25 per cent. turnout for the European election. The sad fact is that if the European Parliament were closed tomorrow, the majority of people would not realise, apart from the taxi drivers of Strasbourg.
Our rather pathetic attempt to boost voting artificially by imposing rules on councils, whether they want them or not, is just ridiculous. Why would councils not want to participate? I mentioned Southend, which I live in and represent. It has an appalling, dreadful problem with overcrowding and bad housing. A huge number of houses are in multiple occupation, and it is very difficult to know from day to day who actually lives in them. Lots of people move in and out of the many so-called hotels, including the Palace hotel, which is neither a palace nor a hotel. Quite honestly, trying to deliver ballot papers in such areas is difficult.
I do not know what view others have, but my impression is that local councils have quite enough to do. These exciting new schemes, which involve a great deal of expenditure and time, are the last thing in the world that they want to get involved in. If they are such a great idea, what is wrong with asking about them?
I hope that, before the vote on the amendment, hon. Members will consider what the Bill actually does. It allows the Secretary of State to order innovative voting methods to be piloted in one or more European parliamentary electoral regions in the 2004 European parliamentary elections and in local elections combined with European elections. Basically, he has the power to order that such pilots take place anywhere he wants. The Bill does not specify the regions where pilots will be held, but states that London and Gibraltar will be excluded, as will Northern Ireland. That is obvious, because voting arrangements in Northern Ireland tend to be special, as I learned during my visits there.
Finally, the Bill does not specify the types of innovative voting to be carried out in each region. The regions and the voting methods will be for the Secretary of State to decide. Local councils could have any form of voting applied to them, whether they liked it or not. It could be one of the ridiculous systems that we have discussed, which the Electoral Reform Society has pointed out could cost more than £20 per vote. Frankly, the last thing in the world that I want is to introduce exciting measures without the support of local councils.
Simply voting on the amendment along party lines—Labour voting one way and Conservatives voting the other—makes one wonder what the point is of having Committees. Surely, the Labour party should stand for the principle of people having the right to decide for themselves.
Is my hon. Friend concerned about the way in which Committees are set up? When Labour Back Benchers feel strongly enough about such matters to express views on Second Reading that are contrary to established Government policy, they are mysteriously absent from the Committee. I am thinking in particular of the independent views that were expressed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson). He made a tremendously powerful speech that certainly qualified him, by right, for a place on the Committee, but he is not here because his views are not in line with Government policy.
Yes, I know the Glasgow, Pollock constituency well. It is a very complex constituency. I note that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart was meant to be here but is not.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Governments tend to put the appropriate people on Committees. They may simply pick stooges who will do what they are told. Looking around, I see at least three Labour Members whom I regard as independent-minded people. I hope that they will show some independence on this vote. We are simply
asking that local councils be asked whether they want the pilot. I cannot see anything wrong with that. In this Committee, we have at least three Labour Members who are respectable, decent and honourable. I hope that they will support the amendment. It would be scandalous and shocking to introduce a new system of voting that is complex and costly, that may prove to be an utter nonsense and to achieve nothing, as we have seen, without at least consulting local councils. If we force them to take that on without their agreement, we will make nonsense of democracy.
I am well aware that all parties do bad things to force through legislation. I often tried to persuade even the Conservatives, who were in power in the bad old days when things were not as good as they are now. We pushed through foolish European Union legislation, which we have lived to regret. I hope that we have learned our lesson, but I am not here to talk about that.
Given that the whole project could be a ghastly flop, we should consult local councils before imposing it on them, particularly if they have special problems with it, such as the distribution of voting papers. If we force it on to an area and there is a 24 per cent. turnout, we will have spent a huge amount of money, forced local councils to spend a lot of time and effort on it and achieved absolutely nothing.
I note that the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland is important because its experiences provide support for the argument for local consultation.
I sat in the Committee that scrutinised the Northern Ireland (Elections) Bill, representing Her Majesty's Opposition in those halcyon days when I was on the Front Bench. During the passage of the legislation, the scale of the abuse of the electoral system in constituencies in the west of Northern Ireland became clear. Surprise, surprise, there was a substantial Sinn Fein vote in those areas, and it was found that up to five times as many postal and proxy ballots had been registered there compared with the norm.
Allegations were made that postmen were followed when the ballots were delivered, and that people received a little visit inviting them to accept some help with the casting of their ballot. Such intimidation ensured that people voted in the way that was perceived to be right and to be in the interests of their community. The amount of registered postal votes and proxy votes in those constituencies provided inescapable evidence that something was up.
It is very important to ensure that local consultation takes place before the legislation is enacted. The hon. Member for Chorley has left the sitting, but I can take the north-west as an example. It is highly regrettable that the British National party has had occasional successes in local council elections there. That party has flirted with political violence, and whether causing it itself or having violence imposed upon it by opponents, the evidence is there for people to see.
The Great Britain part of the United Kingdom is not immune from events such as have been seen in Northern Ireland. We must be careful about introducing new ballot schemes to encourage more people to vote that devalue the secrecy of the ballot. If
people are to take part in elections, they should make the effort to go to the polling station to vote. The cost of extending the franchise and encouraging more people to vote is, potentially, the validity of the electoral process.
The evidence is there in Northern Ireland, and local consultation is essential. If we see the rise of parties that are unscrupulous about how they secure votes, the Government need feedback about what is happening on the ground and about what measures would be appropriate in certain circumstances.
I hope that the Minister will address those points. The fact that Great Britain is fortunate enough not to encounter those problems today does not mean that it will not encounter them in the future. The system that we introduce should at least foresee a time when the more unscrupulous parties—as opposed to the decent and honest parties that are represented in Committee today—take part in the electoral process on a significant scale.
May I apologise to the Committee and to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath, who speaks for the Opposition, for the fact that I have not been present throughout the whole sitting? There are occasions in Committee when the usual channels must talk to each other. I hope that I do not repeat anything that has been said, and I am sure that I will be stopped if I do.
I want to clarify a couple of points, and I will address my comments to amendment No. 18, not amendment No. 16. I suspect that the Minister will oppose amendment No. 18, and I will be interested to hear his reasons for doing that. We could perhaps have worked better and differently had we had the time to discuss the amendments properly, because the Minister might be persuaded to agree to consultation with local authorities but might fight shy of having to have a debate in both Houses. I am only speculating that there may be a distinction between the two points. Will the Minister address that? If a separate amendment were introduced on Report to provide for consultation with local authorities but not a debate in both Houses, would that appeal to the Government?
If the Government, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats or anybody else seriously want to devolve power to local government and the regions, the electoral process is fundamental. I have no difficulty with wanting to increase turnouts at European elections, but I am just as keen to encourage better turnouts in parish elections in England. We should involve all local authorities at every level. The argument was advanced that we should consult at least the local authorities that run the elections. I do not agree, as we should not draw that distinction. The debate is not only about the administrative convenience or cost of running an election differently, but about the democratic process. English county councils that are not running such elections and English town or parish councils, which will never run
such elections, all have the same right to be consulted. We must consider the turnouts at their elections, as well as those at the European elections.
I am wholly supportive of the principle, as I believe that consultation never did anyone any harm. I have deliberately concentrated on England because I understand the English situation. I am sure the principle applies to Scotland and Wales, but I do not understand their local government as I perhaps should. However, all local authorities in England, of whatever size or significance and whether or not they are involved in running elections, are just as involved in wanting democracy to be strengthened.
To me, amendment No. 18 does not say anything other than that local authorities would have the opportunity to consider the views and debate the matter. Amendment No. 18 says nothing about a veto, although amendment No. 16 may be different. However, I deliberately said at the outset that I was addressing my comments to amendment No. 18. The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to stray into amendment No. 16, and if he has the patience to listen to me elaborating on that for a little while, I will oblige him. However, I believe that amendment No. 18 contains an important issue on which there is no party political divide, as both sides of the Committee support the principle of consultation.
I flagged up the possibility that involving both Houses of Parliament might be a step too far for the Government, although I have not consulted my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and I am not speaking on behalf of the official Opposition in saying that we could perhaps row back on that, if it would ensure that at least some extra consultation is included.
When we come to vote on the amendments, as I am sure that we will, I hope that the Government Members who are proud to have open minds and have listened to this convincing debate will see the wisdom of our comments and will prevail on the usual channels to avoid another defeat by getting the Minister to agree with us.
It has been an interesting and eventful morning. It has been a privilege to have the opportunity to serve on this Committee, although I have probably spoken for only two minutes. I urge the Committee to resist amendments Nos. 16 and 18, for reasons that I will try to explain in relatively short order.
Amendment No. 16 would provide that two thirds of local authorities must not only be consulted but must give their consent for the piloting to occur in their area. That is quite different from the issues already discussed by Opposition Members about the
importance of consultation. Of course it is important to have consultation. Hon. Members from both sides have been entirely fair to raise the issue of the need for proper dialogue with local government, not least because local authorities are important players in the operation of innovative voting mechanisms. However, to give local authorities a veto over whether pilots should occur is unnecessary and the wrong approach to take.
Ample consultation is already under way. The independent Electoral Commission is undertaking a consultation exercise. It is speaking to local government and discussing their needs and capabilities. Their views are being taken into account. In fact the Electoral Commission is already sensitive to these issues: in our request to the commission to undertake a consultation we specifically asked it to look at
''the experience of local authorities in holding pilots . . . the experience of the Regional Returning Officers and . . . the ability of other agencies to deliver''.
There is ample scope within that consultation process for local authorities' views to emerge and to be brought to the attention of the Electoral Commission.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Constitutional Affairs are undertaking a separate consultation exercise with local authorities to look into the detailed operations—the mechanics—of the piloting orders as they emerge and before they are drafted. That is a thorough exercise to consider the nuts and bolts of how innovative voting mechanisms might affect local government.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome pointed out a number of drafting deficiencies, but I will not rely on those to rebut amendment No. 16. I do not believe that a veto for local authorities is appropriate. We should scale up the pilots from a local level to a regional and national level, so we need to change the framework in which we examine piloting. Small pockets within a wider area should not be able to opt out of a pilot arrangement. That is why we need to ensure that we can proceed in a comprehensive way. It is also not right to give local government a veto on the conduct of European parliamentary elections, which are not entirely within the local authority remit.
Surely the Minister must recognise that local authorities should have a say, even in the conduct of European elections, because the chief executive or any appointed deputy will be the returning officer. Whether it is a European election, a local election or a general election, the chief executive is responsible for all the administrative work. I see the Minister nodding at that. Whatever election it may be, local authorities will have to do the work, spend the money and make the arrangements, so they must be involved in decisions about changing the process.
There is a difference between being involved or having a say and having a veto over whether a pilot should proceed. No one would want to exclude the possibility of dialogue or consultation with local government. That is precisely why we have made ample provision for debate and exchanges of views
with local authorities about this process. At the end of the day we need to ensure that we can proceed with this wider scale piloting. That is why we have made these proposals.
Amendment No. 18 proposes a full parliamentary debate on the views of every single local authority. The Opposition is being excessive in making such a proposal. Hon. Members will already know from experience that we must have another opportunity to debate the main order provided for in the Bill. The affirmative procedure for the main order, as set out in clause 1, will allow Parliament another opportunity in due course to scrutinise the principles of the pilots proposed. There will therefore be ample opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, so amendment No. 18 is largely unnecessary. I have answered most of the points raised by the Committee, and I urge it to resist the amendment.
I congratulate the Minister on his insouciance. He dismissed the Committee's proceedings this morning as just a little more exciting than normal. However, it is not every day that the Government suffer such a catastrophic defeat as they did on the programme motion. The Minister managed to dismiss it as a little local difficulty, but the fact that as eminent a person as the Government Deputy Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), was seen rushing to the Committee Corridor after the Government's defeat shows that the Minister was not as relaxed as he pretends to be.
Part of the Minister's response reinforces our concerns, not only in respect of amendments Nos. 16 and 18, but in respect of issues relating to the Government's defeat on the programme motion. The Minister admits that the Electoral Commission is holding consultations now. In a little while, we will come to the point in the Bill when the Government will say that it does not matter whether consultation happens before the Bill becomes an Act or afterwards—that is an extraordinary provision.
The Government are rushing through this legislation with indecent haste because they must get it through before the Electoral Commission has had its consultation. Surely, it would be much better if we waited for the consultation. It is precisely because the Government are rushing the legislation through before the commission has had its own consultation that we want protection in the Bill. We want local authorities to be consulted. We are not talking about a veto by one single local authority, but about a proportion of local authorities, if they are not satisfied, being able to prevent the legislation proceeding to a pilot. If, in place of amendment No. 16, the Government tabled their own amendment on Report—one that refers to a simple majority if they do not like a two-thirds majority—I could live with that. As the hon. Member for North Tayside suggested, perhaps we could have a three-quarters majority. It should be a majority of the local authorities in the area affected, because they will have to do the work.
On a point of order, Mr. Benton, I think that the record will show that earlier this morning, in a fit of enthusiasm, I suggested that the usual channels had not consulted me about the four sittings. My rush of blood to the head was because of the excitement of the moment; I intended to say that the usual channels had not listened to my objections. I would like to withdraw what I said earlier and apologise, because the usual channels on the Government's side are not allowed to join in these debates, otherwise I am sure they would have complained at the time.
It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till Thursday 30 October at half-past Nine o'clock.