Electoral Commission (Limit on Public Awareness Expenditure) Order 2002

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): I am disappointed that the Opposition have chosen to oppose this order on the limit on public awareness expenditure. I have listened carefully to their points. I think that they are failing to check their facts, in terms of what the Electoral Commission and the Speaker's Committee have proposed, but they have also failed to take sufficiently seriously the problem of disengagement from politics and the democratic process, and the very sensible measures that have been proposed by the commission and endorsed by the Speaker's Committee in that regard.

The Electoral Commission is an independent body, which was set up by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Among its responsibilities, it has a key role in reviewing electoral law, providing guidance to electoral administrators, promoting the understanding of electoral and political matters and so on. The commission is totally independent of Government and is funded from money voted by Parliament. The commission is responsible for

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determining how it is going to discharge its responsibilities under the 2000 Act. The Speaker's Committee, also set up by the 2000 Act, is responsible for scrutinising the commission's plans.

As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has pointed out, the Speaker's Committee does answer to Parliament. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was in the House this afternoon, answering questions on behalf of the Speaker's Committee. The Committee is independent of the Government, and includes Opposition Members—the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), among others. I urge hon. Members who are concerned about the particular content of the Electoral Commission's corporate plan, and the decisions made by the Speaker's Committee, to address those concerns to the Committee. There is an opportunity to do that in the parliamentary process, and I suggest that they do exactly that.

To enable the Speaker's Committee to hold the Electoral Commission to account, the Act requires the commission each year to submit a plan setting out its aims and objectives for the next five years, together with an estimate of its resource requirement. The Committee considers the estimate and the plan, and has the power to modify either, if it is not satisfied that they are realistic or if it feels that they do not represent an efficient, effective and economic use of resources. When it is content, the Committee lays the plan and the estimates before the House.

The commission's last plan, covering the years 2002–03 to 2006–07, was submitted to the Speaker's Committee at the beginning of the year and considered at a meeting on 13 February. The plan has been published and it sets out the commission's aims, including the following:

    ''To encourage greater participation in, and increased understanding of, the democratic process . . . It also picks up the specific duty placed on the Commission by s.13 of the 2000 Act to promote awareness of current and pending electoral systems and related matters; the systems of national and local Government; and the institutions of the European Union.''

The commission has produced a comprehensive public awareness strategy to discharge that duty. That public awareness strategy is in the corporate plan document, which is readily available to hon. Members, and is set out in appendix B.

The plan sets out the commission's strategic goals, including the development of an understanding of what motivates people in deciding whether to register to vote, encouraging and facilitating registration and voting, improving public knowledge and understanding of the different ways to vote, and promoting awareness of the electoral and democratic systems in the United Kingdom and the institutions of the European Union. To deliver those goals the commission has set out its plans to run bi-annual advertising campaigns, to produce information leaflets for the public, to set up a new initiatives fund to provide seed funding to individuals and organisations that are trying to develop voter awareness initiatives, and to commission research and evaluation projects.

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Mr. Cash: Will the Minister be good enough to answer the charge made by Lord Neill on the content of the public awareness strategy set out in the corporate plan? Having regard to the nature of politics, does she agree that it will be difficult for the matters she describes in the corporate plan to be decided on the basis that the commission seeks? Does she not think that it is actually very difficult for it to be neutral, for example, on questions of tactical voting?

Yvette Cooper: An awful lot of information can be given to the public about democratic institutions, voting and registration which need not be political in the slightest. The situation becomes political only if a particular political party decides that it wants to oppose democracy, voting and voter registration. As long as the parties are signed up to voter registration, it seems perfectly possible for the Electoral Commission to do the job that has been set out for it under the 2000 Act, and that is an extremely worthwhile thing for it to do.

The role of the order comes under section 13(6) of the 2000 Act, which requires the Government to propose a limit on the commission's annual expenditure on promoting awareness and specify it in an order. The Speaker's Committee must approve the estimates, the nature of the plan and the approach taken by the Electoral Commission. The order sets the limit at £7.5 million, in line with the commission's five-year plan and proposals and the estimates that were approved by the Speaker's Committee.

The order replaces an earlier order that set the annual limit at £1.5 million and was designed to cover only the nine-month period 1 July 2001 to 31 March 2002. It recognised the statutory and practical limits on the commission's capacity to undertake promotional work in its first year of existence and recognised that, inevitably, there would be a limit on how much the Commission would be able to do; for example, the first advertising campaign was not launched until autumn 2001. Therefore, the intention was clearly set out to review the limit once the commission was operational and could set out in more detail its plans for meeting the requirements of section 13 of the 2000 Act.

The public awareness strategy set out in appendix B is extensive. Political parties must take responsibility for the nature of political debate and for engaging the public. It is also right that we should seek other routes to reinvigorate our democratic institutions and processes, and the Electoral Commission has a vital role to play in that.

Who could disagree with many of the things that the Electoral Commission talks about, such as raising public awareness of our electoral system? Who could disagree with making sure that people know to which institutions they are electing people? Who could disagree with a rolling advertising campaign to encourage voter registration and tell people how to ensure that they are registered to vote? Those are basic rights. The order is about ensuring that people have the right to vote and the right to know for whom and for what they are voting.

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The Conservative party's approach is typical. It assumes that it is okay to grant people rights in theory but do nothing to ensure that they are effective in practice. That is exactly what the Electoral Commission is all about.

Mr. Cash: What plans have the Government announced to ensure that people at school—sixth formers and others—are given basic information about our democratic system and the manner in which voting takes place?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman may be interested to note that extensive work on citizenship is done as part of personal, social and health education in schools, and I happily point him to Education Ministers, who can give him considerable detail about all the work on and discussions about citizenship education. According to appendix B, the Electoral Commission is also interested in citizenship education in schools and in following up on the work that has already been done. As it says on page 58, the Electoral Commission proposes

    ''to undertake a feasibility study into the creation of one or more Election Learning Centres''

and to review the work that has been done by the Electoral Commission in Australia.

Those interesting programmes and projects have the overall aim of ensuring that people know how to register to vote, are able to register to vote and are able to use their vote, and of promoting democracy in this country. What use is the right to vote if one is not registered to vote and does not know how to register?

Mr. Cash: Will the Minister try to explain the decrease in turnout? Why is it that 71 per cent. on average turned out a few years ago—they seemed to know how to vote—but turnout has dropped to 59 per cent? The difference must be due to people's attitudes towards politics, not whether they know how to register to vote or how to get to the polling station.

Yvette Cooper: Everyone would agree that there are many reasons why voter turnout has fallen. The difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we want to try a range of different measures to promote democracy and the right to vote, whereas the Opposition seem to be determined to oppose such measures. I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman is so determined to oppose relatively straightforward measures, which should command the support of every democrat in the United Kingdom. We want to provide people with information about how to obtain a postal vote and to encourage them to do so. We want to ensure that people are aware of their rights and to encourage them to use them. What use is promoting voter registration if a person cannot read the form? We need to publish leaflets in Braille and provide information to those who have difficulty reading the forms. Such measures should be supported by all political parties.

 
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Prepared 24 June 2002