Clause 4 - Electoral commission report

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 4th November 2003.

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Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 6, in

clause 4, page 2, line 36, at end insert—

'(c) the impact of the pilot scheme on the campaigns of the candidates and on the political parties.'.—[Mr. Hawkins.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North 2:30 pm, 4th November 2003

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment No. 34, in

clause 4, page 3, line 19, leave out 'a statement' and insert 'statements'.

Amendment No. 9, in

clause 4, page 3, line 22, at end insert—

'(7A) The report must include a statement by the Commission of the views of the candidates and the political parties on the conduct of the election and on the impact of the pilot scheme on the turnout and result.'.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted—I hope that other hon. Members enjoyed their lunch—amendments Nos. 6, 34 and 9 largely concern securing more information in the Electoral Commission's evaluation report about the impact on the campaigning of candidates and parties of the all-postal pilots and the electronic voting pilot suggestions. There is an important issue relating to remote voting and its effect on the campaigning activities of parties and candidates because as people vote over a period of time, some will have voted before campaigning ends. Therefore, political parties will naturally realise that the normal mechanisms of campaigning are likely to change. The Electoral Commission has tended to report on the campaigning impact anyway. It featured in some of their reports on the previous local pilot arrangements that took place. The amendments are designed to find out whether we could firm up the certainty that we shall have such reports from the Electoral Commission.

Amendment No. 6 is one thing; amendment No. 9 goes a little too far. It would require a statement from the Electoral Commission not just on the view of the parties and candidates, but on the impact of piloting on turnouts and results as well. There is no need for specific legislation for the Electoral Commission to reflect the views of parties and candidates because it already does so where it adds value. The commission is able to judge perfectly adequately what material

should go into a report, what it might want to add as annexes to its website and so forth.

There is always the likelihood that the views of political parties will be partisan, particularly if they have to talk about the results of an election. It would be wrong to expect the Electoral Commission to report on views concerning how pilots affect actual results. Obviously, that is highly political territory. We could have a long report with lots of different opinions from all the candidates and parties if we include provisions that mean that a report will be written about the different views of the parties on the outcome of the election. I would be concerned if that were to happen.

It would be slightly worrying if the impact on campaigning became the main driving factor in deciding whether we were going to make voting easier or more convenient in the first place. The principle of piloting remote voting and electronic voting is important. We should not let campaigning tactics drive whether that will take place. That being said, amendment No. 6 has a more reasonable tone to it. I do not think that we should accept it at the moment because the drafting of clause 4(6) does not exclude the ability of the Electoral Commission to consider the impact on campaigning.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am glad that, for once, one of my amendments has appealed—at least in part—to the Minister. Even though I entirely accept that the language does not exclude what I have suggested, would he accept that if our wording were added, the Bill would be clearer? It would be made specifically clear that the matter was being contemplated. Will the Minister undertake to consider with his officials the idea that amendment No. 6 might add clarity, perhaps with a view to tabling a Government amendment on Report?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman almost took the words entirely out of my mouth, in so far as there is a legitimate need to consider whether his points would add something to the Bill. In the spirit of rejuvenating the hope of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) that the Committee can prove useful, I will talk to officials about this to see whether something might be introduced on Report. I shall not make any promises, as there is probably sufficient provision in subsection (4) to allow the investigation of the effects of campaigning, but it is worth considering the matter further, and I undertake to do that.

I am still not sure whether I see the logic behind the alleged grammatical improvement that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) tries to make with amendment No. 34. ''A statement'' is sufficient and to make the word plural does not add anything. The amendment is possibly a little pedantic and unnecessary, so I ask him not to press it.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Given the Minister's response, it would be churlish of me not to accede to his request. He is constructively considering a revised version of amendment No. 6, and I would be delighted if we ended up with another Hawkins amendment on Report.

The Minister is aware that the Opposition appreciate his serious consideration of matters when we try to improve legislation. I hope that we have rekindled the flame of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Although the Minister may be very impressed by that, he must explain matters to all members of the Committee. This is a Committee; it is not just the Front-Bench spokesman and the Minister.

The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath states that the Commission must consider the impact of the pilot scheme on the political parties. What the blazes does that mean? Does it mean the impact on their morale, their funding or the number of people taking part in elections? Surely, it is not the job of the commission to consider the future of the political parties. I am not being silly when I say that there is a terrible danger with the political parties thinking that they are here for ever and that there is no alternative to them. What difference does it make? This is not an intervention as I was hoping to make a speech because I thought that my hon. Friend had finished his remarks. What difference would the provision make to democracy?

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Order. That is definitely an intervention. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath definitely gave way.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I understand the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, and no doubt the Minister will take into account what he has said when trying to produce improved wording that might extend the scope of amendment No. 6.

I am grateful to the Minister for saying that there is at least the germ of an idea in the amendment that may be worth considering. Perhaps with the views of my hon. Friend also being taken into account, we might have a Government amendment on Report.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

My hon. Friend should say what he means when he uses the words ''on the political parties'' in the amendment. What is the point of them? Are we saying that the object of the amendment is to ensure that the welfare of the political parties continues to improve? The Government might want to consider the effect on the campaigns of the candidates, but we should be discussing the people. The whole point of an election is that the people express a view. If we are saying that the basis of democracy is a strong Conservative party, Labour party and Liberal Democrat party, we are not doing our job properly.

I hope that my hon. Friend will explain what he means by the amendment. Does he wish to ensure that we continue to strengthen the political parties, that they continue to exist or that their funding continues to improve? He has obviously thought the amendment through very carefully and the Government think that it is a good idea but what is the point of inserting the words ''on the political parties''?

Amendment negatived.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I beg to move amendment No. 25, in

clause 4, page 2, line 37, leave out 'such relevant' and insert 'all'.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 54, in

clause 4, page 2, line 37, leave out 'such' and insert 'all'.

Amendment No. 26, in

clause 4, page 2, line 38, leave out 'as they consider appropriate'.

Amendment No. 7, in

clause 4, page 3, line 1, leave out 'relevant'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Amendment No. 25 would have the same effect as Liberal Democrats' amendment No. 54, our amendment No. 26, which the Liberal Democrats support, and our amendment No. 7.

We believe that the Electoral Commission must consult all local authorities in the region and not just those that the commission believes are appropriate. To leave the words proposed by the Government puts the cart before the horse and gives the commission too much discretion. It is a brief point, but we are delighted to have the Liberal Democrats' support. We also believe that all local authorities should give the assistance required under clause 4(3).

Those, briefly, are the reasons for our amendments and I need not detain the Committee. I am pleased that there seems to be some unanimity between the main Opposition parties.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

There is some agreement and also some disagreement on the amendments. Our argument is that all relevant local authorities should be involved in the report and consulted, but the Conservatives' amendment would remove the word ''relevant''. That would mean that parish councils, town councils and everyone else would be consulted. We would confine our amendments to the ''relevant'' authorities: those in charge of organising electoral arrangements. The amendments have our support, but it is not wholehearted support.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I do not know whether you studied the four amendments, Mr. Cook, in all their glory and tried to work out the possible combinations of what the clause could mean if, for example, amendment No. 54 was accepted but amendment No. 25 was rejected, or amendment No. 54 was accepted and amendment No. 26 was rejected. This extraordinary little gaggle of amendments raise some interesting points that are, in some cases, mutually exclusive.

Two points relate to all the amendments. The first was touched on when we discussed ''all relevant local authorities''. We have debated the use of words and I am not sure that we know what ''relevant'' means in these circumstances. Either there should be a definition of the word, or we are writing legislation that will make a fortune for lawyers as they pick over what ''relevant'' means. The matter is not as straightforward as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) suggested and I am not sure that ''relevant'' means those authorities involved in the physical running of the elections.

There could be something highly relevant about the input of a parish council, although I cannot think of anything at the moment. However, I have served on a parish council and know capacity of parish councils to make anything relevant if they turn their mind to it. Occasionally, among all the verbiage that came out of the parish council of which I was a member, there was the odd pearl of wisdom. A parish council could contribute.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

In my experience, the usual form of consultation is for the local authority—whether district, unitary or county council—to undertake consultation with parish councils and town councils and to obtain that body of opinion before making their representations. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be more efficient than the Government contacting every council in the country?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne 2:45 pm, 4th November 2003

No I do not. If the Electoral Commission—we should remember that the commission, not the Government, will prepare the report—wants to know the views of a particular body, it should ask it rather than go through intermediaries who can censor, paraphrase or summarise the views of a range of individual parish councils. I cannot accept the hon. Lady's point for a moment. In my experience, if one wants to know what a group of people think, one asks them rather than asking someone else to ask. If a parish council's contribution is relevant, it should be allowed to make one.

From my experience of local government in the rural west country, I do not believe for one minute that a district or county council or unitary authority is bound to know the views of all the parishes—when I was a member of a district council, there were 47 parishes spread across a wide area. In the main, the people best placed to represent the views of a village are the people in that village, not someone in the town up the road who hazards a guess at what the village might say. The view of the parish council is as important as that of any other body, if not more so. I have always taken the view that, if we were to come out of the churchyard in 200 or 300 years' time, the only bit of local government that we would recognise would be the parish council, which has an amazing ability to survive. The word ''relevant'' is wrong. We either consult local authorities or we do not.

Another point that worries me, which is clearly addressed by amendment No. 26, is that the Bill says:

''The Electoral Commission must consult such relevant local authorities''—

or however we amend that little group of words—

''in the region as they consider appropriate''.

There we have the potential definition of ''relevant''. If we do not accept these amendments, ''relevant'' will mean whatever the Government choose it to mean. It is the Government who will consider what is appropriate, with no appeal to common sense, justice or democracy. If they decide that something is appropriate, it will happen; if they think that something is not appropriate, it will not.

My experience of the current Government is that they are very good at trying, from time to time, to avoid things that they do not want to face up to. They could consider it appropriate to ask only those authorities that are run by their cronies. They are very good at that. They might ask a Labour authority. If their definition of appropriate were to ask their cronies and no one else, they would not ask an independent parish council or a Conservative district or county council or, heaven forbid, a Liberal-controlled council—if there are any left by then. That cannot be right.

There must be a much more objective definition of ''relevant''. If the Minister insists on keeping ''relevant'', he must make absolutely certain that that does not relate only to his cronies. He must find a better definition of ''appropriate''. It might be that the Government want to ask only those people who think that postal votes are a good idea. If anyone has had the temerity to say beforehand that they will run the postal election but that they think that it is a bad idea, it is conceivable under the clause that the Government will say that they are not appropriate because they will not tell them what they want to hear. That is another of the Government's tricks.

There is a direct challenge to democracy tucked in the clause unless amendments are made. I have never been over-keen on allowing the Government of the day to pick and choose on a whim. If the Minister does not like this little collection of amendments, which do not appear to be that relevant—to use the word that we have been considering—there are plenty of other permutations or ways of leaving out words. However, I believe that the Bill would be improved by expressing the sentiment that all who have a hand in the election should be involved, rather than simply saying that only those running it can have an opinion. This is a pilot after all, so the parish council, district council, county council and unitary authority may themselves be running all-postal elections in due course. They have a direct interest and they should all be entitled to make their representations to the Electoral Commission, which should be obliged to contact all of them.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

As we have heard from Opposition Members, the main point of this group of amendments is that the Electoral Commission should consult all local authorities on the impact of pilots and should ensure that they all provide it with the necessary assistance.

At the outset, I should correct the view of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that the use of ''relevant'' in clause 4 is meant to exclude or to narrow down the authorities that the Electoral Commission would normally consult, because the provision would not allow that. If he examines clause 9(5) on page 5, he will see a full definition of a relevant local authority in England, Wales and Scotland, which provides ample explanation of the use of the term in clause 4.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

It is possible that there will be parish elections anyway. Those bodies must be consulted because they will be affected by how turnout is constrained by the voting system.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Indeed. That definition is touched on in clause 9(5). My hon. Friend is right. There may well be situations in which parish elections take place at the same time as European elections. All those matters are adequately covered.

I turn to whether it is appropriate to consult all local authorities. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole helpfully pointed out that it would be bureaucratic and expensive if, in writing its report, the Electoral Commission were forced to consult hundreds of local authorities in an intensive, and no doubt expensive, way. I am not sure whether having such uniform consultation adds value. Every council does not need to be surveyed in order to get a good sample and level of feedback from the front line. Selectivity in undertaking a report does not always mean that there will be bias.

Some Opposition Members have implied that if we do not consult all councils the study will be less than comprehensive. As it has done in the past, the Electoral Commission will look for not only successes but problems and lessons learned. It has a track record and its activities will not be shrouded in secrecy. It will be open about whom it consults and the discussions in which it forms its views. Opposition Members are going over the top in insisting that there should be blanket consultation with every single authority.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

If Scotland is used as a pilot area, does the Minister intend for all such relevant local authorities to be consulted? If that is not the case, how many relevant local authorities will be consulted?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The point was raised earlier. Clause 4(2) states that

''The Electoral Commission must consult such relevant local authorities in the region as they consider appropriate''.

We should have a certain amount of trust in the independent Electoral Commission, which has a good track record, to draw its own conclusions from its sample of local authorities. It should talk to local authorities and decide the degree of qualitative feedback that it needs from each of the local authorities that it feels it is appropriate to consult and talk to about the pilots. That is the nub of the issue. It is best to leave the matter to its discretion, which seems to be a sensible approach. I am glad that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole saw some sense in our approach.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

May I clarify the fact that I wanted blanket consultation for the relevant authorities? I believe that the Minister has slightly misinterpreted my words. Picking and choosing, even random sampling, still allows a margin of error, thereby not giving the right answer. Consulting local authorities with electoral responsibilities would not be too huge a task.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

What a disappointment. I saw so much sense in what the hon. Lady said but I misinterpreted her comments.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

If the Minister had considered the fact that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) added their names

to amendment No. 26, he would have understood what she said.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Consistency was not my expectation. I listened to the hon. Lady but misinterpreted her comments, for which I apologise. However, I remain of the view that consulting absolutely every relevant local authority would be overkill, unnecessary and too resource-intensive. Insisting on that would not leave enough flexibility and discretion to the Electoral Commission. I hope that hon. Members will agree that the Government's approach is sensible and not press their amendment.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

It was well worth raising the matter, because we had an opportunity to discuss, for example, the fact that even parish councils might have relevant opinions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne rightly said, different variants could be chosen. The Bill genuinely could be improved.

Despite what the Minister said, I hope that he will talk to his officials about whether we might at least get some formulation on Report saying that all local authorities that will be responsible for the election—for example, by administering it or by having its chief executive act as returning officer—ought to be consulted. I cannot see any logic in saying that the Electoral Commission can choose not to consult a local authority if one of its officers, normally the chief executive, will be the returning officer. Even if the Minister were to leave out parish councils, local authorities would be responsible for election administration.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am sorry that I did not hear the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks. The Minister's talk about overkill is in the context of about 40 returning officers in each pilot region. That is the number of local authorities that will be involved, because that is the average number of local authorities per region. It does not seem an insurmountable task to consult 40 people.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and am glad to have his support. Both Opposition parties ask the Minister to continue to talk about the matter with his officials. He may say that we have gone too far in some of the amendments by including every kind of local authority, but there may be a middle way—one might dare say a third way—which the Minister, who is a keen supporter of the third way, might discuss with his officials. As we have given him an opportunity to think about that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I beg to move amendment No. 27, in

clause 4, page 3, line 3, at end insert

'provided that the Secretary of State has provided, to all local authorities in all regions affected, funding amounting to the total costs incurred by each local authority in implementing this legislation and all other Acts and orders relating to pilots.'.

I thought before the Minister said some very helpful things this morning that we would have a pitched battle over amendment No. 27. Of all the amendments that I drafted, it is probably the one about which Conservatives feel most strongly. As I said earlier, I

am constantly assailed by the chief executives of the two local authorities in my constituency, which includes the whole of Surrey Heath borough council and part of Guildford borough council. Local authority chief executives in the south-east in particular but in certain other parts of the country as well constantly complain, whether their MP is Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour, that the Government have loaded more and more statutory obligations on them that they cannot escape, but have not provided the funds to enable such obligations to be met.

The situation was extreme in Surrey Heath borough council last year. Central Government gave it an increase on the previous year that did not even cover the increased national insurance that it would have to pay for its staff. The local authority had a net loss, which I have mentioned in several debates in the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and many other Surrey and south-east MPs have probably heard similar complaints. My concern in tabling amendment No. 27 was that it should be clearly established that the Government were going to provide, from taxpayers' money, all the funds for any additional expenditure that local authorities incurred when carrying out the pilots.

In a debate before lunch, I was delighted to hear the Minister signal his intention that the vast bulk of the costs would be met from taxpayers' money. Given that the Minister has given that helpful indication, I can deal more briefly with the amendment. I hope that the Minister will say in a moment that he entirely agrees with amendment No. 27 and, because of what he said before lunch, the Government will accept it. Even if he will not say that, we already have what he helpfully said on the record. I hope that we will be able to reinforce some of that, but I do not need to spend as long on the matter as I originally anticipated.

There is clearly some common ground between the Minister and I in relation to the fact that the Government should meet out of central taxation the vast amount of the cost that is to be incurred by local authorities for the pilots. Although that can be referred to under the ruling in Pepper v. Hart if it were disputed in court, I would be grateful if the Minister went into a little detail and stated which particular aspects he is committing the Government to fund fully.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:00 pm, 4th November 2003

I support the principle in as far as there are too many burdens placed on local authorities at the moment and the funding does not follow those burdens. As we know, that situation has the knock-on effect of cuts in other services or increases in council tax. With capping on the horizon, it is most important to provide funding for this measure. Obviously there has to be fairness, because every region will have the expense of holding European elections, and we do not want more funds to be diverted into one region than into another in order to fund total costs. There will always be some costs involved. The general principle of financing from the centre those burdens imposed from the centre should be met.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I left this morning just before 11 o'clock to go to an Opposition Whips' meeting, and I cannot help noticing that in my absence faster progress has been made. The Government are often nicer than when I am here. It crosses my mind that if I were to leave, we might get even more concessions. Unfortunately, I have a job to do, and I think that I had better do it.

It seems that in my absence the Government said that they would accept most of the costs. I would like to know what they mean by most, because I did not hear the words that the Minister used. It would be useful to have that spelled out in more detail. If the Government are willing to accept the principle that they should pay, they should not only put that on the record, but find a formula of words if they do not like the amendment.

I know that Governments do not like accepting Opposition amendments. I have been around long enough to know that that hurts. Perhaps before Report they could find a formula of words that they could claim were their own, rather than those forced on them by the Opposition. I am sure that the Committee does not want the Opposition to win more than one vote during its proceedings, so I suspect that the amendment will not be successful.

The Government should be willing to include their stated intentions in the Bill. I mean no unkindness to the Minister, who is a charming man, and I accept all that he says as an individual, but I am afraid that I cannot say the same for the Government as a whole. The Minister has given an undertaking in all good faith, and I hope that he will repeat it in a moment. Despite his good intentions and sincerity, I am afraid he belongs to a Government whom I do not trust, and neither do the British people. It would therefore be far better to have it written in the Bill. In the hope that we might short-circuit a further debate, I shall refer to clause 11(1)(a) on expenditure, which is relevant to the amendment. It states that there shall be paid out of money provided by Parliament

''any expenses of the Secretary of State in making arrangements for the purposes of this Act''.

Does that cover the undertakings that were given? I do not know whether that provision is relied on for running traditional elections, but I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us.

If the undertaking given originally in my absence was that the Government will meet the entire cost, that is fine. We can clarify that and get it on the record. If it was that they will meet ''most of'' or ''a substantial part'' of the cost—Hansard will show that—it would be helpful if the Minister were to spell out what that means, and agree to come back on Report with a formula of words that includes in the Bill what he is about to say.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I want to make two brief points. First, it is important that the Government include their remarks in the Bill. We cannot rely on goodwill gestures. If there were a change of Government—quite possible now that we have changes in the Conservative party—they would be committed to what is enacted. If

we say that local councils will get the costs paid for, it should be in the Bill.

Secondly, how much will this provision cost? I hope that the Minister takes this issue very seriously. We have an obligation to appreciate that the extra provisions cost a lot of money. Governments have a habit of spending far too much money. As the whole thing is pointless and will not achieve anything, what amount will be involved?

The Government say that postal ballots will not cost too much—probably £1 per voter. The Electoral Reform Society's splendid paper states that electronic voting could cost a huge amount of money. If the Government agree to providing the money, they should tell us what the cost will be. The Bill provides no guidance; it simply says that the Government have an obligation to pay. Before we get rid of the Bill from the Committee, we should have some idea of how much it will cost when enacted.

Some people think that it is a good Bill. Others, including myself, think that the whole thing is a bit silly. No matter what one thinks of the Bill, we have an obligation to the people of Britain to ask how much it will cost. I hope that the Minister will reply with his estimate, because, if it is a substantial amount, the people are entitled to know.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am delighted to fulfil many of the requirements that hon. Members have asked of me by explaining the funding commitments.

First, I will explain how the funding arrangements will operate. Local authorities will be funded for the administration of the European elections—the conventional element and the voting pilot. They will also receive Government funding for voting pilots in local elections by virtue of the fact that they are combined with the European elections. We wish the voting methods to be the same in all elections in the region. In non-pilot regions, local government will fund elections through the normal arrangements.

We cannot make absolutely accurate assessments of the cost of piloting until we know the regions and nations that are to be selected, because they vary in size. We have a broad idea about the cost and we believe that it is entirely affordable. Population sizes differ, and we have a range of ideas depending on the combination of regions and nations chosen.

The amendment is unnecessary.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Before the Minister finishes, will he provide some guidance on the amount that he has in mind? He says that the amount may vary. Is he thinking of £10 million, £20 million or more than that?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

We have to estimate a range of costs from the smaller regions to some of the bigger nations, such as Scotland, and to some of the bigger regions, such as the north-west. It could be up to about £15 million.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

In total. We cannot be certain what the exact costs involved will be because population sizes

vary so much, but we have set aside sufficient resources—more than that mean figure, in case it turns out not to be accurate. There is a wide band of variation either side, so we have set aside a good deal to ensure that local authorities can cope and are sufficiently funded in the manner that I set out.

I have given that commitment because we do not want piloting on the cheap. I do not think that the amendment is necessary. The funding arrangements in place will meet the requirements in the amendment. Of course we will expect returning officers to seek value for money and, with the providers of the services involved, make every effort to be efficient and economical so that value for money is provided. Local authorities will not have to pay hidden costs. They will have a clear understanding of what funding is available, and will submit their bills to the Government. The cost of assistance to the Electoral Commission in its evaluation processes will not be onerous, or above what authorities normally expend in the course of their business. Much of that will be a matter of good practice for local authorities in their relationship with the Electoral Commission. The costs and savings will be transparent, and the Electoral Commission will include an assessment of those in its report so that all hon. Members will be able to see how they turned out in the evaluation of the schemes.

In short, I hope that my comments have reassured hon. Members that we are not seeking to place burdens on local authorities. There is a commitment to provide funding from central funds. I hope that the amendment can therefore be withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The Minister has been quite helpful, as I hoped that he would be. It was particularly helpful to get on the record, in response to interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East and from me, that the Government perceive that if there are three regions—I presume that we are working on the basis that there could be three—the total cost will be £15 million.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I will certainly give way in a minute, but I should say to the Minister that I have a feeling that if I tell my electors in Surrey Heath that the Government propose to spend £15 million of their money on experiments to see whether people can vote by post in greater numbers, possibly in areas other than the south-east, and that some of that will be spent on people voting by text and phone, they might not think that that is a good use of their taxes.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I do not think that expenditure in the course of improving democracy and accountability is money ill spent. However, £15 million is a ballpark figure; the total could be more but it is equally possible that it will be less. I am giving that figure as a guide and I should not want it quoted back at me, because circumstances can change.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Now that the Minister has put a figure on the record in response to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, he obviously runs the risk that it will be quoted back at him. I recognise that our suggestion that we do not necessarily have to have

three regions, and could perhaps have only two or one, might mean that the figure will be lower. However, the crucial point now on the record is that the Government have a fund from taxpayers' money that they propose to provide to local authorities, so we will not see our electors' council tax rising because of burdens put on authorities without the Government providing some compensatory funding. That is helpful, and I do not want to spoil the achievement of getting that on the record by pressing the amendment to a vote.

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said. We shall continue to explore the matter not only on Report, but in the other place and outside Parliament. The Minister has been helpful in giving us figures and a clear indication that he does not want local authorities to lose out as a result of the extra burdens being placed on them by the Government's plans. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in

clause 4, page 3, line 5, after 'for', insert 'independently'.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 30, in

clause 4, page 3, line 10, after 'an', insert 'independent'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 3:15 pm, 4th November 2003

I shall be brief because the amendments would have a similar effect. There is a perception—this has been raised with me by constituents, not only of my party, but of other parties and of no political allegiance—that the Electoral Commission, which the Government set up under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, is too close to the Government. I have explained our reservations that the commission will always propose things and nothing will be allowed to stand still. No one argues for the status quo because everyone always wants change and so-called modernisation.

The amendments are about the need for a body such as the Electoral Reform Society—we have already referred to its trenchant views on the Bill—or another organisation that is perceived by all political parties as independent of the Government to have a role. That body should not be their creation in the way that even they must concede the Electoral Commission is. I do not decry the work of the individual electoral commissioners, but we must recognise that the organisation did not exist until this Labour Government came to power. It has an agenda of constantly introducing new ideas and modernisation—without that, there would be no point to it—and many voters perceive that it is not independent. We believe that an independent body, either the Electoral Reform Society or another body that is wholly independent of the Government—the Electoral Commission has a so-called modernising agenda—should assess the matter. That is what amendments Nos. 8 and 30 seek to do. They are about democracy and I hope that the Minister will understand that this is, again, a genuine attempt to improve the Bill.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The hon. Gentleman made a serious accusation that the Electoral Commission is in the Government's pocket, although he tried to hide the accusation by defending the integrity of individual members of the commission. Can he give an example of the commission being in the pay of the Government?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The record will show that I did not say that the Electoral Commission was in the Government's pocket or their pay. The hon. Gentleman attributes to me words that I carefully did not use. I said that electors know that the Electoral Commission was created by the Government. That is a fact and there was no such body before the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. A number of my constituents have raised with me their belief that, because the commission's terms of reference are for it constantly to look for ways of changing things, no one is arguing for the status quo.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I am grateful for the chance to help the hon. Gentleman out of the hole he dug for himself. Does he believe that if a Government create a commission—for example, the boundary commission-—it is, by definition, not independent? That seems to be the point of his argument.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

No, not by definition, but I believe that the Government's terms of reference in the 2000 Act gave the Electoral Commission the aim of constantly advocating change and development. As I said—I cannot put the point more simply—no one is arguing for the status quo.

Our constitution has been hallowed by tradition. It has not changed for many generations because it works. The Government want to change it, not only to the entirely wicked European constitution by handing power from our sovereign nation to the European Union—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East agrees with me on that—but in many other ways. No one is arguing for the status quo. We want the amendments because we believe that the Electoral Commission, which should be genuinely independent and not set up to promote so-called modernisation, can look at an issue and perhaps say, ''If it ain't broke, don't try to change it.'' That is the general the view held on these Benches.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am slightly disappointed by the comments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. When I read the amendments, I thought that their aim—seeking to ensure that the evaluation of pilots and so forth is independent—was laudable. My speaking notes have refreshed my memory on the point that the Electoral Commission is entirely independent and is, of course, completely capable of producing trustworthy, independent and valid reports into electoral procedures.

It is a matter of great regret that the official Opposition seem to be suggesting that there may be a bias in the Electoral Commission, which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath suggested is a natural facet of its creation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) said, the hon. Gentleman regards the boundary committee, which

is a subset of the Electoral Commission, as being entirely independent, but not, for some reason, the Electoral Commission proper. His logic is that because the Electoral Commission is tasked with constant change and improvement, the official Opposition cannot sign up to its activities because it is following a Labour agenda.

I hate to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of his view. However, if the leadership of the Conservative party heads where we hope that it is heading, the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), will end up being the leader. He has discussed change and how much he has changed himself. I worry about the Front-Bench position of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath if he eschews change, modernisation and improvement, but I am sure that he will find a way to cope.

The Electoral Commission is independent of the Government and political parties. I therefore have complete confidence in its ability to conduct an independent assessment, although it may use other organisations, for example, to conduct surveys. It is normal practice for local authorities and returning officers to act in a politically neutral way. Again, I believe that we can trust local government to do a fine job in that regard, which is something that it has done for many years. Returning officers of local authorities acting in parallel with the Electoral Commission can preserve their independence, which is a sufficient safeguard for the research that is likely to be undertaken in evaluating how the pilots proceed.

Although the amendments suggest that local authorities would be prevented from assessing voters' views independently, local authorities are capable of fulfilling that function. Local authorities may well use outside researchers, and we should leave that to their discretion rather than being over-prescriptive. I can see no good reason to question the independence of the Electoral Commission. It will judge where it needs help in making its assessments. We do not need to tell it how to do that. The House has confidence in the Electoral Commission, which is accountable to it. The amendments discredit the thoughtful, if slightly misguided, nature of the Opposition's critique of the Bill. I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I share the Minister's disappointment at the contribution made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. His proposition reminded me of the doggerel about fleas having smaller fleas to bite them, and those fleas having smaller fleas to bite them, and so on ad infinitum. No degree of independence is sufficient not to require further independent audit. There must be a bedrock on which to found such considerations. Liberal Democrat Members are content that the Electoral Commission provides an independent bedrock, and we see no particular purpose in the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

On a point of order, Mr. Cook, the amendment is the only one that refers to this little bit of the Bill. If I were to use my ingenuity, I could

probably hang a semi-related—perhaps it would be unrelated—point of view on it. Will you guide me on whether you will allow a stand part debate, however brief, so that I can tease out the other points, rather than my trying to hang them on this amendment?

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

There will be a brief stand part debate provided we do not go over ground that has already been covered.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I wanted to raise the issue, although, predictably, it has not found favour with the Minister or the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who we welcome back to the Committee. I wanted to get this matter, which is of concern to several hon. Friends, on the record. Having done that, I do not wish to prolong the debate but beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I beg to move amendment No. 29, in

clause 4, page 3, line 9, at end insert

'and full details of the responses of local authorities both under paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (4) and generally.'.

Perhaps this amendment will be less controversial with the Government and the Liberal Democrats—not that I mind being controversial. Again, it is a genuine attempt to improve the Bill.

Local authorities' assessments of how well or badly the pilots have gone are vital. Inevitably, individual returning officers, who, as the Minister is aware, are often chief executives of local authorities, are closer to the problems than anyone else and, certainly, than the Electoral Commission. I hope that the Minister will understand why we would like included in the Bill an opportunity for local authorities to make assessments. It is a short point but one that I hope will commend itself to him.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

This is an important issue. The amendment would provide for full details of the responses of local authorities on matters in subsection (4), which refers to the views of voters. Would my hon. Friend tell me whether ''voters'' means those who actually vote or those who could have voted? It strikes me that people who vote may be only a quarter of the population. It would be strange to make an assessment of the views of a quarter of the people. What about the three quarters who do not vote at all in European elections? Should not we take their views into account?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who has made an important point. I confess that I read something in the Government's legislation that the word should apply to all voters, including the three quarters who do not bother to vote in the European elections. Perhaps the word ''electors'' might have been better. I have no doubt that the Minister will respond with his definition.

I agree with my hon. Friend, but I hope that he also agrees that it would be valuable, wherever a pilot may take place, to have the local authorities' views about how well or badly it has gone and about the problems at the sharp end. This is a short point but an important one. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I support the hon. Member for Surrey Heath in this instance. It is essential that we hear from the local authorities that are involved in the pilot. To reiterate a point that I made briefly in an intervention, if every local authority in a region were consulted, we would not be dealing with huge numbers. The most, if the south-east region were chosen, would be 66. The least, if Yorkshire and Humber were chosen, would be 21. The number of local authorities in most regions falls roughly midway between those two. We are talking about a finite number of responses from the very people who are charged with running the elections. It seems entirely appropriate that the Electoral Commission should take into account the views of all the returning officers who have charge of elections and that it should publish them as part of the report to Parliament on which we base further considerations. By the way, ''Electoral Commission'' is a singular noun and should take a singular verb. That is not down for debate today, but I hope that it will be corrected at a later stage. I support the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne 3:30 pm, 4th November 2003

One of the problems that Governments have when giving a list of things that must happen is that such a list tends to encourage the body or person who has to comply with an Act to say, ''Well, the Government have given a great deal of thought to what we have got to do, so that is what we must do, and we don't need to think for ourselves and add to that.'' I would have thought that, if left alone to do their own thing, independent people who are not in anybody's pocket—I do not want to reopen that issue—could be relied on to say for themselves, ''This is what we ought to do,'' and then do it. However, the Government have not taken that course. They have said, ''This is what you've got to do and here is a little of what you may do.'' That can easily become a substitute for thought. Once the Government include in the Bill things that must happen, it becomes inevitable and proper to say, ''Well, hang on a minute, there are some other things that ought to be included for the avoidance of doubt.''

I would have thought that, under ordinary circumstances, with no requirements placed on the Electoral Commission, it could be relied on to use its common sense and say, ''We might as well have an appendix with all the comments received.'' Indeed, I would go beyond including the comments received from local authorities and say that it would be sensible to include all the comments from candidates, parties and voters. That is what normally happens when there is a consultation. Certainly, once the Government go down the route of saying, ''This is what must happen,'' I am entirely on the side of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath, who has tabled an amendment that indicates that the matter is so important that, for the avoidance of doubt, it should be included.

The Government might feel that we are raising points that are not really important or relevant but they started the process and set out to say, ''This is what must happen.'' If the Government resist the

inclusion of responses from local authorities after this debate, it will be a green light to the Electoral Commission to say, ''The Government do not think that this matters. We do not need to bother.'' The problem has been compounded. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say, but, having started down this route, the onus is on him to give a good reason for not including a provision relating to local authority views. Simply saying that that is unnecessary will not do any longer.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

This debate again proves my thesis that, when we endeavour to please the Opposition and meet their desires to a certain extent, we still get that thrown back in our face. The clause includes a certain amount of detail about the requirements for the Electoral Commission's report and the discretionary elements that we suggest that it touches on. We felt that that was a helpful way in which to structure things and to provide an architecture for how the Electoral Commission could proceed with its report. However, that move has now been criticised from both angles. Some amendments have proposed including much more detail not just about facilitating voting for disabled people but about the impact in relation to campaigning. Now we are hearing the opposite argument from the hon. Member for Spelthorne, who suggests that we have been a little too restrictive. We have tried to strike a fair balance and I am sorry that Opposition Members feel it necessary to criticise us.

My hon. Friends may wonder why it is worth resisting the amendment. There is an important principle involved. It is about ensuring that there is a certain amount of flexibility, latitude and trust when it comes to the work of the independent Electoral Commission and the way in which it writes its reports. We should not be so prescriptive as to insist on how it is to write every facet of its report, which is what the amendment would contribute to.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

It is curious that, in defending his position, the Minister should say that we must trust the Electoral Commission. We ought to trust it to get on with things. That is my very point. If we trust it, why on earth do we need to say, ''This is what you must do.'' To produce a list is surely to say, ''We do not trust you to do this unless we give you instructions.''

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

That is precisely what the amendment is intended to do. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting in this very amendment that we require the Electoral Commission to replicate in its report every detail of every submission that it receives from what will probably be every single local authority. Apart from the ecological effects of wasted paper and the costs involved in producing such a report, which might be seen as minor points, there is a barrage of reasons why we should give the Electoral Commission flexibility and discretion. It has produced perfectly reasonable reports in the past.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The Minister is ignoring the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne, which is that clause 4(6) says:

''The report must also include'',

followed by a list. Given that we are already providing a list, surely the Minister is not saying that the responses and reactions of the local authorities at the sharp end should not form part of the report. That is all that we are saying. If the Bill said that the Government give the Electoral Commission total discretion, fine, but that is not what they are doing. They are providing a list, and it does not include the local authorities.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I do not want to repeat myself. I said at the outset that we thought that it would be helpful to include in the Bill some sort of structure as a guide. The list in subsection (6) to which the hon. Gentleman refers is not exhaustive, but a guide to what the Electoral Commission might consider.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Can the Minister solve the problem by saying that he will change the phrase ''the views of voters'' to ''the views of the people'' on Report? If we are going to lay down what the commission should do, there is no point in restricting it. Surely the views of the people should be taken into account, not just the views of those who come out to vote, which, as he knows, will be a tiny minority?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

In a sense, the hon. Gentleman raises a slightly different issue, which moves the debate on—perhaps helpfully. He rightly says that the definition of ''voter'' is different from the definition of ''elector'' or ''member of the public''. Those definitions are set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983. Although the Bill suggests that the Electoral Commission considers the views of voters, it is not an exhaustive list. There is nothing to prevent the commission from considering wider public opinion. I have given the undertaking that some latitude will be available for the commission to consider people who have not necessarily been out to cast their ballot. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the commission has that capability.

To return to the amendment, I do not believe that we need to see all the reports of the local authorities that are consulted. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome pointed out that there are only 40 local authorities on average in every region, but if there are three regions, there could be 120 submissions from local authorities.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is being too prescriptive about what the Electoral Commission should do. As I said earlier, although hon. Members may think that this is a small point, there is a principle in striking the right balance between giving guidance to the commission and not being over-prescriptive; some hon. Members seem to suggest that we should be over-prescriptive. I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

On this occasion, I am going to disappoint the Minister. We feel very strongly about the matter, and think that the local authorities and their returning officers are at the sharp end. I am delighted to have the support of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The Government have chosen

to set out a list of what the Electoral Commission must consider, but it does not include those most closely associated, at the sharp end, who will see any problems as they arise. We feel strongly that they should be included in the Bill, so I shall press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 11.

Division number 6 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 4 - Electoral commission report

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 11 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I beg to move amendment No. 37, in

clause 4, page 3, line 27, leave out from 'report' to end and insert 'in a timely manner'.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 38, in

clause 4, page 3, line 27, at end insert—

'(8A) The Secretary of State must publish a response to the report within three months and must place a copy of the report in the Library of each House of Parliament. The report must be debated in each House not more than one month after it is published.'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

We tabled the amendment because the Bill gives too wide a discretion. We think that it is too relaxed an approach to state,

''publish the report in such manner as they think fit.''

I appreciate the points that the Minister made during the previous debate, but we feel that the Bill would be improved if it stated that the report must be published in a timely manner. Amendment No. 38 would require the Government to respond within three months and allow for a debate in both Houses within one month of the report.

The Government are showing indecent haste in pushing the Bill through, as we frequently remind them, with this Committee starting only a week after Second Reading. No doubt they will try to rush the matter through the other place if they can, although they have the outrageous carry-over procedure as a safety net if they cannot get it through both Houses before the new Session starts. If they can rush the Bill through within a week or two, it is not unrealistic to say that they should respond within three months of the report being made, and there should be a debate within one month of the report.

The changes in the Bill are fairly major, particularly if the Government get their wish and have e-voting pilots. For the first time, we may have people voting in a European election as if they were voting in one of those demeaning television programmes such as ''Big Brother'' or ''Pop Idol''. The Government seem to treat voters these days with something approaching

contempt, of which we strongly disapprove. Nevertheless, if the Government are going to do that, the report about such experiments should come before the House, so that we can have a debate about it.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

Would the hon. Gentleman like to borrow my calendar? The European elections are on 10 or 11 June next year and the report is published on 10 or 11 September, but the House is sitting from 7 to 16 September and then rises until 11 October. There is no way that the amendment can be put into practice. It seems incredibly prescriptive and ham-fisted.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The hon. Gentleman may have slightly misunderstood the way in which the amendment would work in relation to the Government's response to the report. The debate would take place within one month of the report, not the Government's response. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman and I can argue about what the dates in the House will be, but he understands what I am getting at regarding the speed with which the Government are pushing the Bill through the House, and the fact that we have given more time for a report and a debate than the Government are giving for the Bill. That is our point. If the Minister says that there will be a debate within four months, or two months, I shall not object to that, but at the moment we have a completely flexible timetable.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

Can the hon. Gentleman explain what time frame is implied by ''in a timely manner'', given that subsection (8) already says that the report would have to be produced no later than three months after the election anyway? If he believes that the period should be shorter, why does he not say so?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I have challenged the wording in the Bill, which states

''publish . . . as they think fit.''

There may be other ways of expressing that, by saying ''in two months'', for example, but the wording in the Bill is far too wide.

The Government are pushing the Bill through with indecent haste, and the House ought to have a chance to debate the report in a more generous time frame.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne 3:45 pm, 4th November 2003

The point on which my hon. Friend finished concerns me most. The Bill states that the Electoral Commission must

''publish the report in such manner as they think fit.''

The Minister described one of my earlier comments as inelegant, and that is what that is. ''As they think fit'' invites the commission to say, ''We will get round to it when we feel like it. It really doesn't matter.'' It is an open invitation that allows the commission to say that if it has got something better to do, it does not need to worry. I am surprised that any Government—

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I want to stop the hon. Gentleman before he goes any further. From the Bill, it is absolutely clear that publication must happen within three months of polling day. The phrase ''as they think

fit'' is a reference to the method of publication only, and not the time scale.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

So the hon. Gentleman says, but in my simplistic view, to state that the commission must

''publish the report in such manner as they think fit''

can mean all sorts of things. Just because the hon. Gentleman wants it to mean the method of publication does not mean that it does. It is extraordinary that it should be necessary to say so.

If the Government say that the commission can do what it likes, why not leave it like that? Why say anything if it means that it can do whatever it wants to do. I hope that the Minister will respond properly not only to the point made by my hon. Friend, but to my point about why the wording is necessary at all. Even if the Bill does not say so, the commission is capable of publishing its report in whatever manner it thinks fit, so why say something that is self-evident? There must be a reason for it, and I would like an explanation from the Minister.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The amendments would ensure that the Electoral Commission's report is published in a timely manner, as is stated in the suggested additional text. The Opposition want a Government response to the report and a parliamentary debate. They are classic amendments tabled at the point in a Bill when we go through those usual processes, but they are still worth discussing.

My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) and for Glasgow, Cathcart have eloquently tackled amendment No. 37 by highlighting the provisions under clause 4(8), which make it self-evident that the Electoral Commission must publish its report no later than three months after the date of the declaration of the result. That deals amply with amendment No. 37 because the time scale is clear.

On amendment No. 38, we are setting a deadline for the Commission so that the Government can respond as soon as it is practically possible. We will respond in a timely way to the commission. That is not written in the Bill, but I give that undertaking today. The findings will help all of us, and, in particular, my Department to develop plans for innovative voting in the long term. There is no reason why we would want to kick the report into the long grass. It is important that we have the opportunity to use the experiences of the 2004 pilot to take forward plans to improve choice and accessibility for voters.

We are not trying to avoid debating the proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart ably pointed out, setting the proposals in stone on the face of the Bill would be a peculiar way to determine business on the Floor of the House of Commons. He calculates that we would have to recall Parliament in the middle of the Conservative party conference in order to have a full debate on the Electoral Commission report. We should talk to the Leader of the House about that matter, because it is for him and the usual channels to determine parliamentary business. It is not appropriate to put that sort of thing in the Bill.

The Government are, of course, willing to consider all reasonable requests for debate, but that is a matter for the usual channels. We have dealt with most of the substantive provisions. There is not much point in tackling the issue raised by the hon. Member for Spelthorne about what it means to publish the report in such a manner as the Electoral Commission thinks fit—which reminds me of the debate about angels on the head of a pin—because the answer is self-evident. I hope that the amendment can be withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

It was certainly worth while having the debate, because we have got the Minister to put some commitments about what the Government plan to do on the record. In the light of those helpful commitments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Three points, which were not covered by the amendments, concern me. I should like to hear what the Minister has to say about them, because they could give rise to amendments on Report if he cannot clarify matters.

First, subsection (4) states:

''The assistance may include making arrangements for ascertaining the views of voters about the administration of the elections''.

The issues that must be considered include the counting of votes at an election. The Electoral Commission must consult voters to get a view on the administration of the election, and there is a definition of the things that must be included in any review of administration. It seems odd to say that the voters should have a view on the counting of the votes because the overwhelming majority of voters will not be present at the count. I wonder whether the use of the word ''voters'' is too narrow. We could be back to considering whether there should be a reference to the candidates, their agents and the political parties. Neither the candidates nor the agents are obliged to be voters in that region.

I support the idea that an assessment should be made of local opinion and that the process should be user friendly. However, I wonder whether the Minister has given any thought to whether the use of the word ''voters'' in subsection (4)(a) is entirely the right way to go about it. I do not want to exclude voters, but in respect of ascertaining views, the definition could be wider.

My second point also arises out of subsection (4)(a), and it also bobs up in subsection (10). I do not disagree with the wording:

''The assistance may include making arrangements for ascertaining the views of voters about the administration of the elections''.

Of course, one wants to examine that matter. However, subsection (10) mentions

''a report on the administration of the election''.

It is perfectly possible to have beautiful administration and an absolute foul-up. It might not be the administration that gives rise to something going wrong. The justification for all-postal votes is not just administrative. When there is a decision to use all-postal votes, the report will look into whether the outcome is good. That, in essence, is what the report is examining. Just to say that it will consider the administration is to miss some fundamental points, the most significant of which is the conduct of the campaign. The politicking of the event is much more than just administration. When a report is submitted, it must, of course, refer to the administration and whether the administrative costs were so high that the administrative benefits were not worth the candle—or any other argument that could be used about whether, for administrative purposes, we should do that again.

Other matters are more important and turnout is one, but I shall return to that. An all-postal vote will have an impact on campaigning and the task of candidates, agents and political parties, particularly when using an electoral system of closed lists, which is not familiar to most voters. The turnout at the last election was so diabolical that the overwhelming majority of voters have never used the system because they did not bother to vote. The system will be novel to them, and we want more voters to cast their vote.

Everyone in the Committee, including you, Mr. Cook, are used to years of campaigning before the frenzy of the last two or three days before polling day. We have all had that experience. With an all-postal vote, what will we do, apart from twiddling our thumbs, between the ballot papers being sent out and posted back and polling day? Some people can see a great advantage in that, but the impact on the whole process of campaigning and the politics is so significant that any report should go well beyond administration and cover such issues. Have the Government given any thought to that? Does the Minister see any merit in saying on Report that, with the benefit of hindsight, he should have said that campaigning, politics or whatever words the civil servants want to recommend is significant?

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

As my hon. Friend does not want the commission to waste its time on matters that we cannot control, and as he obviously knows far more than I do about such matters, can he tell us whether the British Parliament could return to having one MEP for one constituency instead of the block system under which people must vote for a party? Is Parliament prepared to decide such matters?

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Order. The question may be of interest to the hon. Member, but it is totally irrelevant to the clause under discussion.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

On a point of order, Mr. Cook. Surely it is important that the commission reports only on matters that Parliament can control and not on those that Parliament cannot control. It is important to find out what we can and cannot do.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

I have ruled the hon. Gentleman out of order and he must stay out of order.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am eternally grateful to you, Mr. Cook, because, if you had ruled that my hon. Friend's intervention was in order, I would have had to confess that I have not the slightest idea of the answer. I am sure that the Minister will be happy to write to my hon. Friend.

Clause 4(7) also concerns me. It states:

''The assessment must include a statement by the Electoral Commission as to whether in their opinion—

(a) the turnout of voters was higher than it would otherwise have been''.

It calls for a factual statement on whether the turnout rose, but it should go beyond that. It may be self-evident that the turnout is higher than last time, but a subjective judgment must be made on whether it was going up anyway, or whether it went up only because it was a postal vote. It is worth asking for the question to be answered as a matter of fact and for the reasons to be given. It would be helpful if the Electoral Commission were encouraged to go beyond saying simply ''Yes, it has'' to ''Yes, it has because'' and then to say whether, in the circumstances and given the additional costs and administrative burden, that was justifiable. We must be careful about saying that everything that produces an increased turnout is, by definition, good. There are other ways of increasing turnout—compulsory voting is one, but I do not want to go into that now—and we do not want to fall into the trap of saying that postal voting per se is brilliant. We need to think about the cost and the benefit.

As for subsection (7)(a), as well as asking the commission to make a factual statement, the Government ought to invite it to go beyond that and give some reasoning and comparative thought on whether this is really worth the candle. I am not arguing that it is not but, having got that far, we should go the rest of the way and probe the reasoning behind it.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 4:00 pm, 4th November 2003

The hon. Gentleman has slightly misread the difference between subsections (3) and (4), which are about local authorities' assistance to the Electoral Commission and the subsequent investigation of voter views and so forth, and subsection (6), which relates to a separate assessment of the impact of the conduct of pilots on counting and other matters listed in paragraphs (a) to (e), which are not necessarily interrelated with voter views. To ask voters for their opinion on the efficacy of a counting procedure would not make sense, which is why subsection (6) and subsections (3) and (4) are set out separately. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is logic in the way the clause is set out.

The hon. Gentleman raised a couple of other points. In particular, he looked at clause 4(7)(a), under which the Electoral Commission is to give a statement on its assessment of whether, under the pilot, the turnout of voters was higher than it would otherwise have been. That is fairly self-explanatory. Most people understand that we are expecting not just a yes or a no from the Electoral Commission. The fact that subsection (7) talks about an assessment conveys that we expect a qualitative statement.

I turn to the hon. Gentleman's questions about subsection (10), which relate to the extent to which there is a duty under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to report on the administration of elections. It is important not to neglect basic facets of the way in which an election is conducted. An overall report by the Electoral Commission on the European parliamentary elections will be required. The commission has a duty not just to look at the pilot regions but to ensure that it does not neglect any other part of the country involved in European elections. That is what is meant by subsection (10). We do not want to focus on pilots at the expense of other parts of the country not involved in piloting. I hope that that is clear.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

It is clear thus far. The fact that the clause suggests that all the regions should be examined is fine. I am pleased about that. However, the Minister has not addressed the inclusion of the word ''administration''. I would be much more comfortable if the Minister said that the purpose of subsection (10) was to ensure that the Electoral Commission considered all aspects of the election in all the regions, rather than just the administration aspect, which is only one part of it.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

So far, the operation of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 has produced reports by the Electoral Commission that have been comprehensive. Although subsection (10) paraphrases the duty to report, the duty is sufficiently well defined in section 5 of the 2000 Act, and it is clear that it covers a wide variety of matters. At this time, it is not appropriate to debate the provisions under section 5 of that Act.

I hope that the purpose of the clause is self-evident. It is necessary that the Electoral Commission have a duty to report on the running of the pilot schemes. We have struck the right balance in framing what it should and should not focus on, and have given it latitude and flexibility on the reports. I hope that the clause stands part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.