Clause 5 - Revision of procedures in light of report

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 4th November 2003.

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

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

We started today's considerations with Mr. Benton in the Chair. At the beginning of the sitting, we said that there were some wonderful examples of Sir Humphrey-speak in the Bill. I had a good look at clause 5, and I find it almost impenetrable. A thicket on a moonless night is as nothing compared with it. I therefore turned to the explanatory notes. Over the years of being on Committees, I have many a time had my knuckles rapped for relying on notes to clauses, and have been told that the Bill is all that matters. I sincerely hope that on this occasion the Government will attach the notes to copies of the Act. Otherwise, I do not see how anyone could begin to understand what the clause is about.

If I understand the notes correctly, if a local election on an all-postal ballot in one of the regions is held on the same day as European elections, the report on the European all-postal election shall be considered as though it were a report on the local government election as well. That is the best that I can do on what this gobbledegook means, so perhaps my first question to the Minister is whether I understand the clause correctly. Is it trying to say that the one report can be used for two purposes? If so, my next point becomes highly relevant.

Let us say that another Committee—and another Minister, Government, commission and group of commissioners—is giving thought to whether all-postal ballots for local elections are a good or bad thing and is trying to work out the impact of all-postal ballots on local elections. A degree of work has been done, and quite an amount of argument has been adduced from research to say that, from all the experiments carried out thus far, as far as local elections are concerned, the all-party ballot appears to be about the only way that makes a significant difference—that, essentially, is the message coming out from all the research.

If the report produced as a result of next year's European elections is used in conjunction with the research and the conclusion drawn from all-postal ballots for local elections, there may be those who are so riveted and gripped by the importance of Europe that they rush to the post box, vote and, while doing so, stick in a local government ballot paper, without making any sort of statement in their minds about how important the local election is. There could be others—my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East comes to mind—who, having decided it was a European election day, choose on a matter of principle not to vote using their postal ballot and, in so doing, do not vote at the local election, although they might have done, had it not been a European day.

What concerns me is that we are trying to adduce conclusions and transfer them away from the dominant—that is, the European—election, saying, ''It's a European day but we'll forget the fact that quite a lot of people will have been either motivated or switched off by the fact that it's a European election.'' I am concerned that all we will do is use that information, or even just take the figures from the local ballot papers returned on the same day, transfer them and read them into the research on all-postal votes in local government elections when there has been no other election at all.

I am worried about that, because it could well skew the statistics and introduce matters into the Government research that are not local government issues. People may well be led to say, because the European figures are added, that statistics prove that it is a waste of time having local government postal ballots. Alternatively, adding the European results might so skew things the other way that the European effect is used to justify a local government issue. I worry about that, and I wonder to what extent the Minister has given any thought to whether there

should be an overlap, if he has given thought to that, to how matters can be controlled and to how we can ensure that the two sorts of elections do not get confused.

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

The clause is concerned with the rolling out of innovations that have been successfully piloted. It is similar to section 11 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which enables the Secretary of State to make an order providing for an innovation that has been piloted to apply generally and permanently to local elections in England and Wales. The point of having pilots is to learn lessons. If lessons are learned, it is perfectly reasonable and logical to apply them to elections on a long-term, permanent basis. That is effectively the purpose of the clause.

I accept that the drafting reflects the extent of the interrelationship with the 2000 Act, and that that does not make the clause easily readable at first glance, but I assure the hon. Member for Spelthorne that it makes sense. The clause simply means that the lessons that we learn from this round of piloting in local elections can be used legitimately in any future roll-out of permanent and long-term changes that we seek to make nationwide. We have made provisions on this matter in other legislation—when we have local pilots, as we have had already for local elections, the lessons that have been learned can be rolled out on a permanent basis elsewhere. That is the rationale behind the way in which the Government have approached piloting so far. Applying a new set of criteria to a local area to see how they work administratively and to see their effect on turnout and other things, and then applying elsewhere the lessons that have been learned is sensible.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

If I heard the Minister correctly, he said that we were talking about the piloting of local elections. If he meant the piloting of local government elections, I disagree and ask him to reflect on the matter. We are talking about the piloting of a European election and the response that I am trying to tease out of him relates to the risk of transferring the experience of piloting a European election to local government elections that just happen, by coincidence, to be on the same day. I am worried that we might be drawing conclusions for the local government elections, which are caught by the Bill, when the issues do not really relate to local government.

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

I will deal with the point that the hon. Gentleman made, which is slightly separate from the purpose of the clause. He asked whether, when we are combining European elections and local elections, we should use the Electoral Commission report to inform our judgment about the long-term activities of local government electoral processes on a wider scale. If he is saying that we cannot learn anything from the local government experience of the pilots from 2004, I must disagree. Local government elections certainly will take place in combination with European parliamentary elections but the fact remains that important local government elections will be taking place. It would remiss of us to fail to use the opportunity presented by the pilots to learn lessons and to inform our judgment about the wider

applicability of all-postal balloting and electronic voting in future local elections.

We already know that the Electoral Commission has drawn some conclusions and recommended that, in future, local government elections should typically take place by all-postal means. Clearly, we are considering that recommendation. I would not want the lessons that we could pick up next June to be excluded from our consideration when making decisions.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne 4:15 pm, 4th November 2003

It may be that I did not make myself as clear as I should have, if the Minister thought that I was arguing that no comparison should be made of European and local government results. I did not say that. I invited the Minister to indicate that we should approach the matter with care, because the switch-over may not be as simple as some people think.

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

I can concede that point to the hon. Gentleman. Of course, we should approach such matters with care. I have no doubt that, in its report, the Electoral Commission will be the first to point out that these are combined elections and that the circumstances are, therefore, slightly different from those for previous local pilots. However, that is not to say that we should not learn lessons from them. That is the purpose of the clause.

I assure the Committee that any order that is made under the clause will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament through the affirmative procedure. Any lessons learned and any rolling out on a permanent or national basis of methods tried in the piloting will be subject to that parliamentary scrutiny. That is a welcome fact. Therefore, although difficult to read, clause 5 is discrete and necessary and, as such, should stand part of the bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.