Clause 13

Political Parties and Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 18 November 2008.

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Local returning officers for elections to the European Parliament

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

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I welcome you to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. I support clause 13. It will make for a more streamlined administration if the European elections are run by local authority returning  officers. If those elections were run under parliamentary boundaries, the returning officers would be operating outwith the area or the council in which they are senior officer. The proposals make sense and it will make for a streamlined administration if the elections are run based on local authority boundaries. However, I want to raise a concern in relation to Scotland and Wales. I understand that this year, the clause will impact in Scotland and Wales only. As a result of the order that has already been passed to change the council elections in England to the same day as the European election, council returning officers will run the European elections in England. In Scotland and Wales, however, the present rules state that the returning officers for parliamentary constituencies run the elections.

The Electoral Commission has expressed concern that, as the Bill may not receive Royal Assent until March, the change will happen within only two or three months of polling day. The commission has always expressed the view that changes in legislation that affect elections should be put in place at least six months before the election date. Returning officers in Scotland and Wales have also expressed concern that if the change was to come into effect in March there might not be enough time, because preparations for the European elections will already have started.

I want to ask the Minister what his intentions are for bringing the clause into effect. Will he take the advice of the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators in Scotland and Wales, and not bring the clause into effect for Scotland and Wales until after this year’s European elections?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute has just expressed most of the concerns that I would have expressed, having also discussed the matter with the Electoral Commission. When the Electoral Commission comes forward with concerns, we must take it seriously—it is not doing so for any reason other than to try to make the system work better. Although I understand what clause 13 says and what it brings about, I cannot quite understand why the Government are bothering to make this change to a system that appeared to work perfectly well before. Is this because the Government have been told by the European Commission that this is the right thing to do in respect of European elections? [Interruption.] The Minister indicates that that is not the case. I accept that and will put that to one side. I am delighted, because in the United Kingdom we are perfectly capable of running our own elections the way we always have done, without any interference from those who sometimes think that they know better. However, it still puzzles me why this is necessary.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I can give the hon. Lady an example of an occurrence in my own constituency during the last local and Scottish elections. The postal votes are sent out by the returning officer, but because the Scottish parliamentary constituency and our local council constituency areas did not match up, it meant that returning officers were returning postal votes to a different local authority area from that in which they operated, which caused some confusion. This new clause will streamline that process.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that explanation. I remember vividly the debate that we had in the Chamber about coterminosity. Members of the Committee who have never paid any attention to the workings of the Scottish Parliament or Scottish electoral issues will wonder what on earth I am talking about. Opposition Members warned that creating boundaries that are not coterminous would cause confusion at election times. At that point, we were talking about the non-coterminosity—it is getting worse. [Interruption.] The lack of terminosity, if the hon. Gentleman accepts that term, between Westminster constituencies and Scottish parliamentary constituencies is bound to lead to some confusion.

According to the hon. Gentleman—he is absolutely right—the lack of terminosity between the European boundaries and the local authority boundaries, which is, to some extent, inevitable, is causing a problem. I accept that and I accept that the problem should be put right. However, the Electoral Commission has concerns, as the hon. Gentleman has also expressed, about the possibility of this part of the Bill coming into effect a very short time before the forthcoming European elections. I share that concern and I therefore wish to express it on behalf of Opposition Members. I am sure that the Minister will have an answer to that, so I shall allow him to give us that answer.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 11:30, 18 November 2008

I welcome you back to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. I was not going to make any remarks on this particular clause until I heard the curious remarks made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute about the commencement of this clause. We need to hear from the Minister that there is no intention whatever of commencing this clause prior to the European elections in 2009, as we would be in a very curious situation whereby it would have different applications in Scotland, Wales and England. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are no local authority elections in Scotland in June, so there is no order on the Table that would combine local authority and European elections in Scotland or Wales. In Scotland, under existing guidelines, matters would still be determined in accordance with Westminster constituencies. I am not too worried about that because it is always good to have a snapshot of how well we are doing in our constituencies when it comes to European elections, but I am concerned about coterminosity in such matters.

It is worth while pointing out that Scotland is one region, according to European elections, and that it is not broken down into Scottish Parliament or Westminster constituencies. It would therefore be of benefit for matters to be determined on a local authority basis so that they would be clearly understood. I hope that the Minister agrees with the Electoral Commission that no new measures should be put in place six months before an election, and that we can have a guarantee that there is no intention of the clause commencing before the European elections next year.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

May I first clarify matters? When the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire referred to Scotland as a region, is that how he sees the position?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am delighted to have given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity for clarification.

I wish to make some general remarks before I deal with the specific concerns that have been raised. The purpose of the clause is to substitute a new definition of “local returning officer” under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, so that the local returning officers for European parliamentary elections held in England, Wales and Scotland are returning officers for local authority elections in those parts of the United Kingdom rather than the returning officers for the United Kingdom parliamentary elections.

That change, together with a subsequent change in secondary legislation made under the 2002 Act, will enable future European parliamentary elections to be administered on a permanent basis by local authority returning officers along the lines of local authority areas, which will assist in the effective administration of European parliamentary elections. I can confirm to the hon. Member for Epping Forest, who I am sure will be fascinated by such matters, that such a change was not suggested by the European Commission, but by election administrators. They welcome the change because it will ease the complexities in running European elections and will provide certainty in their planning. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute gave a good illustration of that.

In response to concerns raised by various people, including members of the Electoral Commission, we cannot be certain at this stage exactly when the Bill will receive Royal Assent. We certainly cannot be certain that it will receive it in time for the provision on boundaries to be implemented for the European elections on 4 June 2009. We have therefore been exploring other options. After consultation, we decided to exercise powers under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and to make an order that will move the date of local government elections in England in May 2009 to the date of the European elections in June 2009. That order has now been made, after debates in both Houses.

Under that order, we have made the necessary modifications to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, and the regulations made under that Act, to enable the European elections in England 2009 to be administered on local government boundaries. There are no scheduled local government elections in May 2009 in Scotland and Wales, nor are there any powers to refine the definition of “local returning officer” under secondary legislation so that European elections in Scotland and Wales are run at a local level by local authority returning officers. We are exploring with colleagues in Scotland and Wales whether it may be possible to deal with the issue within the existing legislative framework, but I assure the Committee that we shall not commence the clause in 2009 for the European elections. However, the change will provide certainty on the issue for the future European parliamentary elections, and I hope that the Committee will support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Before we come to the Government new clauses, I remind the Committee that we are scheduled to conclude our deliberations on the Bill at 4 o’clock on Thursday, which leaves approximately nine hours of further debate, if we work to the normal hours of a Public Bill Committee. I am entirely impartial, but I feel from time to time that it is helpful to remind the Committee of the programme motion and of the timetable. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am grateful to hon. Members for that indication of support.