|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Minister referred to amendment 353 which, in similar language to that used in the Political Parties,
Elections and Referendums Act 2000, provides that an accounting officer would
"certify as respects the votes cast in each parliamentary constituency within his area...the number of ballot papers counted by him in that parliamentary constituency; and...the number of votes cast in favour and against to the question asked in the referendum."
The Minister seemed to suggest that everyone agreed that that would be virtually impossible to do because it would be too expensive and difficult, and delay all the votes. However, he has already made it clear-although I stand to be corrected on this-that the counting of the referendum will happen after the counting of all other elections. He nods his assent. Consequently, it would not delay the other elections to count by parliamentary constituency. The Minister has therefore already inadvertently misled us once on this issue.
Chris Bryant: In a moment, although I have promised to give way to the Minister. I am not sure which way age and beauty apply in this case, but I will give way to the Minister first, after I have finished my argument.
In England, we will have results by various electoral areas. For the sake of clarity in understanding the legitimacy of the vote, especially as this is not just an advisory but an implementing referendum-as laid out in the Bill-it would be better if we had equality across the United Kingdom, with the results announced in the same way in every constituency.
Mr Harper: If the hon. Gentleman is going to quote the Electoral Commission, he should quote it in full. It wanted to consider in more detail the implications of his amendment for the management of the count process and, in particular, the time required to conduct the count. It did say that it saw no insurmountable practical barriers to making the information available "in due course", but it did not have information about the impact on the count process and the declaration of the result. Missing out the words "in due course" gave a misleading impression of the Electoral Commission's views.
I do not know what the total number of results will be, but let us say there will be 40 for Wales, and those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and so on. If, in a large number of those constituencies, there is a very narrow result, it will have a material effect on how people view
the eventual result, particularly in relation to the differential turnout that might be achieved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland-by virtue of the fact that there are other elections at the same time-compared with the turnout in England.
Nick Boles: The hon. Gentleman's suggestion seems extraordinary. I had understood that the Labour party's position was to support the move towards an AV system, yet it seems that it wants to create all sorts of divisions and to undermine the legitimacy of any result. Surely, the whole point of the referendum is that it is a referendum for the electoral system for the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The only result that matters is the result for one constituency-the constituency of the entire United Kingdom. Trying to undermine the result by suggesting that, "Oh, in Gloucestershire, they did not vote for it" or, "Oh, in one part of Scotland, they did not vote for it", seems to be a very strange thing to want to do.
Chris Bryant: In which case, the hon. Gentleman should be voting against the Government's proposals, because their proposal is to conduct the referendum by constituency in Wales, by a different set of constituencies in Scotland and by different areas in England. Of course, those will all be added up. I am trying not to undermine, but to strengthen the result of the vote. Also, I should say to him that he has got the Labour party's manifesto slightly wrong. Our commitment was to have a referendum on the alternative vote. We want the United Kingdom to be able to make a decision on that.
Chris Bryant: I have said that I will vote for the alternative vote, and I will vote for it. I personally support it and believe that it is the best way of electing candidates. It is how I was elected as a candidate for the Labour party in Rhondda, so it would be illogical for me to vote differently. However-
Chris Bryant: Could the hon. Gentleman just keep calm for a moment? I recognise that many other people in my party take a different view on that. However, all I am trying to secure is a clear process that is effected equally across the whole of the United Kingdom. I think, therefore, that it would make more sense for the results to be provided by parliamentary constituency, because, as he himself said, we are talking about parliamentary elections.
Nick Boles: I apologise for taxing the hon. Gentleman on this point, but I think he is muddling up a separate issue with the practical arrangements for counting the votes. The Government are proposing-eminently sensibly, it seems to me-that we use whichever constituencies are counting votes for other elections. So in the case of the Assemblies in the devolved institutions-
Nick Boles: Parliaments, sorry-forgive me. In the other nations of the United Kingdom, it makes sense to use their constituencies. In England, however, where all we have are local authority elections, it makes sense to use them. That is a practical measure. It is not to suggest that it is legitimate to start second-guessing the result on the basis of whether, in this or that constituency, the alternative vote passed. What the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is suggesting is an entirely unnecessary, further division-
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I was generous in allowing such a long intervention, but the hon. Gentleman has gone on far too long. If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) chooses not to answer, I will understand.
I am not trying to undermine the result of the referendum. I would like every single person in Britain to vote in it. I would prefer a system that would lead to even turnout within the bounds of normal elections, rather than a system in which there were important general elections in some places-Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland-but only local elections in 83%, I think, of England. It would provide for a nicer outcome if we could provide results by parliamentary constituency boundaries.
Thomas Docherty: It might help the Committee to know that, certainly for Scotland, returning officers will allow recounting only at constituency level. They will not support a Scottish-wide recount because, they argue, it would be far too complicated. I think that that undermines the point made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles).
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend makes a good point. My anxiety is that the route down which we are travelling will mean that ordinary constituents-voters around the land-will end up being treated differently according to which part of the country they live in. If the whole Bill goes through, they will effectively have less of an understanding of who represents them, because at different tiers there will be no clear structure going from the local authority, whether unitary or not, to the Assembly Member in Wales or the Scottish Parliament, or the UK Parliament. That is why the basic building block of the referendum, as it concerns the whole of the United Kingdom, should be the parliamentary constituency. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) obviously disagrees.
As for the Government's other amendments, I am still not satisfied by the Minister's answers about whether the job has been done properly or not. He says that he would not want to do the job of the chief counting officer, but in fact the Bill makes- [ Interruption. ] The Deputy Leader of the House says that it would be improper, but the Bill makes vast numbers of provisions relating to the counting officer, as does other legislation. As the Minister has introduced this new concept of not paying for a job that has not been done properly, I do not understand why it is not possible to delineate what not doing the job properly means.
For instance, if it had been decided that all the ballot papers for the referendum should be a different colour from the ballot papers for other elections on the day, would not doing the job properly mean that the ballot papers had not been provided in the right colour? Would not doing the job properly mean that some polling stations had too many barriers to disabled access? Would it mean that some of the polling stations did not have the official stamp? There is a whole series of issues in relation to the combination of polls that are laid out in the legislation in Scotland and Wales. I presume that the Minister wants to replicate those in the many amendments that he will come forward with, yet he says that he cannot make it clear this afternoon what not paying for a job that has not been done properly would mean.
Nick Boles: Is this not a classic example of over-micro-management of professionals? We have a chief counting officer who knows her job. Would the hon. Gentleman not be willing to let her decide whether the law was being adhered to, rather than telling her how to do it?
Chris Bryant: In which case, again, the hon. Gentleman ought to be striking out large parts of the Bill, because the Bill determines in large measure precisely what the job of the chief counting officer is. Indeed, other legislation similarly does so, because we have to have clarity about certain things. For instance, should it be possible in Wales and Scotland for there to be just one polling card for the referendum and the Assembly or parliamentary elections, or should it be a requirement that there be two? If we left the issue to people's discretion and everybody decided to go for one, many people might say, "No, sorry, that undermines the referendum," because we would not be making it clear that, in addition to the Assembly elections, which would get a lot of media attention in Wales, there was a referendum on the same day. That is why the hon. Gentleman's Government will introduce amendments on the matter. His quarrel is therefore not with me; it is with the Minister, which I am sure will upset him enormously.
I am keen to provide as much clarity as possible at this stage, quite simply because I believe that the Government are proceeding in the wrong order. First and foremost, we should have the legislation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to make it clear whether there will be three sets of elections in Northern Ireland-again, we still do not know, despite the fact that it is not many months ago- [ Interruption. ] I am sorry, but I am being corrected by the Northern Ireland Minister. Would he like to- [ Interruption. ] No, he remains in his place. In relation to Wales and Scotland, the legislation has not been changed, but that is what should happen first, and then we should move forward with the amendments that have been adumbrated today.
I will be keen to press our amendment 353 to a Division. Even if hon. Members may support the Government, I very much hope that they will also support the amendment standing in my name and that of my right hon. Friends.
There are one or two points of fact that are worth putting straight. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) was spot-on about the counting arrangements. As for the result of
the referendum, the important thing is the overall number for the United Kingdom. On the counting arrangements, we listened to the electoral administrators and the Electoral Commission during the summer, and they made it clear that it made absolute sense to count on the same basis, given the other elections taking place. I do not see that that makes any difference whatever to the overall result of the election.
On the point about Northern Ireland, a written statement was laid before the House last week by the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), to make it clear that the local elections in Northern Ireland will indeed take place on 5 May next year. It is correct that the parliamentary instruments have not yet been laid, but it has been made clear that, subject to the will of Parliament, the elections will take place on that day.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful; I had not noticed the written ministerial statement last week. Will the Minister clarify whether it is necessary to have legislation in order to be able to combine the polls in Northern Ireland?
Returning to the point about the instruments that will be laid, the amendments are clearly based on existing law. It would be bizarre to table amendments to this Bill in respect of legislation that has not yet been laid before Parliament. The amendments to this Bill are based on the law as it stands. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the territorial offices will lay orders, and if they change the legislation, we will make the appropriate changes and lay them before the Committee or the House.
Chris Bryant: Of course I fully understand that: amendments cannot be tabled if they depend on legislation that does not yet exist. It would be better to put the legislation in place first and then table the amendments to it. I seek the Minister's assurance on one issue. It would be inappropriate if the amendments that follow after the territorial statutory instruments were not tabled in this House-in other words, if we were not to see them on Report. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make that assurance to the Committee.
Mr Harper: Like the hon. Gentleman, I am very keen that on matters to do with elections this House should get to pronounce before the Bill goes to the other place. I believe that that is important; we will seek to achieve that.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I am looking at amendment 353, but it is not clear precisely which "parliamentary constituency" is referred to. Does it mean a Westminster parliamentary constituency or a Scottish parliamentary constituency? As Members would or should know, there is quite a difference in numbers-72 as opposed to 59-between the two. There is some ambiguity in the amendment; it is not at all clear.
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Fortunately, I am not responsible for the drafting of amendment 353; it is a matter for the Leader of the Opposition and his right hon. and hon. Friends, so they should answer questions about the amendment. For my part, I urge them to withdraw it. If they press it to a vote, I urge the Committee to vote against it. On this occasion-it does not happen on many occasions-I am at one with the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).
Chris Bryant: For the sake of clarity, we are not saying that the count needs to be done by those constituencies; we are merely saying that the vote needs to be provided by parliamentary constituencies so that we can have full clarity across the whole of the land on the same basis. The wording is taken directly from the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Mr Harper: Fortunately, neither I nor my hon. Friends were responsible for that legislation. It was introduced by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues when they were in government. I am thus not going to defend the wording. I think that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar is probably spot on in what he said.
Mr MacNeil: The intervention from the Opposition Front Bench has only added to my confusion. Does the amendment refer to both the Scottish and the Westminster parliamentary constituencies or neither-or is it "Please yourself and toss a coin"?
Mr Harper: Again, I think that the hon. Gentleman is quite right. The Government propose to have the counting done and the results declared in tandem with the other elections taking place that day. We believe that that is administratively sensible and in no way affects the legitimacy of the results, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford has pointed out.
My final point in response to the hon. Member for Rhondda is that he was effectively inviting me to do the chief counting officer's job for her. Of course there are rules laid down for the conduct of elections, but it is for her to judge whether the regional counting officers and others appointed to work for her are carrying out their responsibilities appropriately. It is not for me to micro-manage her judgment-her judgment is a matter for her. On that basis, I urge hon. Members to support the Government's amendments and urge the hon. Member for Rhondda not to press amendment 353 to a Division.
Alun Michael: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to this group of amendments. I am particularly pleased that it includes a number of amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who will speak to them in this debate.
The amendments relate to the referendum process, but in the long term they ought to apply much more widely to electoral arrangements in general. After all, the ability and right to vote is the central element of citizenship. The extension of that right and of the franchise-the inclusion of people in the electorate-has been central to the UK's development into a mature democracy over many years. However, if the individual voter is unable to exercise their right to vote because physical obstacles are placed in his or her way, or if he or she cannot make sense of the ballot paper, the right to vote is meaningless. That is what the amendments address. If an individual cannot understand the choices before them, they are denied their democratic right. At the centre of these proposals is the importance of the democratic rights of those affected.
I pay tribute to the work of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which has done a terrific job over the years to help Government Departments to understand what it means to look after the interests of the blind or partially sighted, or those who have even slight difficulties with seeing, perhaps with the onset of old age. The organisation has done that work consistently over many years. Today's debate goes further than that, because it has been stimulated not only by the RNIB's comments and concerns, but those of Scope and Mencap. A range of citizens with a range of disabilities and obstacles in their way could be helped if the Committee accepts the amendments, and I urge all Members to support them.
To illustrate where things can be improved, RNIB did a number of presentations-a number of Members on both sides of the Committee attended them, including the Deputy Leader of the House. It highlighted the implications, for instance, of the obstructions to understanding television. Members were invited into Aunt Megan's living room, which was set out in the Strangers Dining Room, to see what following a television programme is like for people who do not have full vision. Actually, the dining room was changed into a more attractive place in many ways-the fact that Megan is the name of one of my granddaughters is absolutely irrelevant. Nevertheless, that imaginative demonstration got across to us how the inability to see things can affect people. Indeed, I am tempted to suggest that in order to lend weight to the argument for these amendments, the RNIB's next exercise should be to lay out in the Strangers Dining Room a polling booth, complete with frosted glass and the other things it has sometimes provided in order to enable us to understand the problems. If it were to do so, all Members could see the issues that arise when the ballot paper is not absolutely clear, and I am sure that that would lead to Members of all parties being not just supportive of the amendments, but enthusiastic for them.
Ballot papers are often more complex than necessary, usually because the i's are being dotted and the t's are being crossed and all sorts of possible challenges are being eliminated. Of course, that has a consequence for those who need to be able to see very precisely what they are doing. As I have said, these amendments refer to the referendum process, although I think they should apply more generally. However, the design of the referendum ballot forms will be different from that of the familiar election forms, which is why these amendments are so important on this occasion.
Chris Bryant: My right hon. Friend is making some very good points, and I hope I will be able to explain why I agree with him both on this topic and with some other amendments that address similar topics.
There is an issue to do with ensuring that the information carried on polling cards is presented in a way that makes sense to, and is user-friendly for, all disabled voters. I am concerned that that will be more difficult when we have a combination of polls, because it will be necessary either to provide two polling cards, which may lead to considerable confusion for some people with disabilities, or for the writing on the polling card to be made so small that it is far more difficult for people to use. Does my right hon. Friend share that concern?
Alun Michael: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. That is precisely the sort of issue that I believe should be covered by instructions, as we must also ensure that the simplicity of the form does not provide an unintentional additional obstacle. He is therefore right to raise that concern, and his point underlines the importance of my amendments. These amendments would allow direction to be given to deal with that concern by, for instance, ensuring that there is a simple form that enables people to understand what they are being advised to do in the polling booth.
I have tried to think of any reason Ministers and their advisers might have for not accepting the amendments. I hope I do not need to anticipate that, as I hope the Minister will respond by saying that the amendments are so clear and straightforward, and the case for them has been so well argued by myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, that he is totally convinced and accepts them all. Having listened to his response to the debate on the previous group of amendments however, it seems that he might say the amendments should not be necessary because our expectations-in his case from Government, in our case from Parliament-are clear in the phrasing of the Bill. For instance, paragraph 3(1) of schedule 1 states:
"The Chief Counting Officer, Regional Counting Officers and counting officers must do whatever things are necessary for conducting the referendum in the manner provided by this Part."
I do not think that is good enough, however. I have had enough experience of ministerial office to have seen how such very clear intentions written into a piece of legislation can be strangled by those who implement the law in the subsequent rules and interpretations unless we are very clear about our expectations, and I believe that our disabled and partially sighted citizens deserve us to be absolutely clear and unequivocal in respect of these amendments.
"The Electoral Commission must take whatever steps they think appropriate to promote public awareness about the referendum and how to vote in it."
Well, yes, but that is not always the way things are delivered and the Electoral Commission is not very good at using its powers to ensure consistency in electoral arrangements. So these amendments are necessary, as we must ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place.
There are grounds for concern, because the Polls Apart 2010 general election survey found a number of worrying results. A total of 67% of polling stations had accessibility issues, such as poor access for people with mobility problems-I get the impression that things have not improved everywhere in recent years in that regard-and 47% of postal voters found accessibility problems with the ballot papers. Somebody voting by post from home may have people who can assist them, but they may not, so the clarity of the ballot paper is crucial for them.
Perhaps the most worrying finding in relation to my amendments is that nearly half of all polling stations failed to display a large-print ballot paper. That is worrying not only in itself, but because that figure represented a drop of 31% since the 2005 general election survey. I am surprised that a deterioration occurred on something that I am sure Members across the Chamber would agree ought to be in place as a matter of course and something that we can depend on as being understood by election staff and returning officers as the expectation of Members of Parliament right across this Chamber.
These things should be basic, but I hope that the Minister will not suggest that we just leave it to the electoral officer and the returning officer, or to the Electoral Commission, which has, in general, tended to fail as a regulator and has been poor in a number of aspects. It has grievously disappointed those of us who feel that it should have acted much more vigorously in promoting the full registration of the electorate, because in practice it left about 3.5 million people omitted from the register. That is a matter for this Government to pursue, but I can say with confidence that Labour Ministers and Members have, for a number of years, expressed those concerns vigorously.
The Electoral Commission has not covered itself in glory in using its powers to regulate. It has been good at asking for greater powers, but it has powers that could have taken us much further and much faster over recent years in ensuring that a number of improvements were made in areas where, as I have said, worrying deteriorations have occurred, had it used the capacity to name and shame and to encourage the bringing together of people.
One point made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I was a member at the time, was that there should be regional arrangements in order to ensure that the Electoral Commission drilled down much more effectively to that local level and that it produced something that is not really a regional arrangement. In Wales, the situation has been better. Having a Welsh commissioner and a chief executive covering Wales and working with all the local authorities in Wales as a team produced far better results in the last government and Assembly elections than was the case
across the regions of England. That demonstrates to me that things could have been done better had the Electoral Commission been more determined and followed more clearly the expectations of this House and of Ministers.
For all those reasons, it is important that these amendments should be made. Amendment 328 seeks to delete "may" and replace it with "must". Surely our fellow citizens should have the right to expect that we insist that things are done in this way and that we do not just leave them to whim. Taken with that, amendment 329 would require chief counting officers to give directions to regional counting officers about their functions, specifically in regard to disabled voters.
"The Electoral Commission must take steps to ensure that disabled voters are able to access information and support to facilitate understanding and participation in voting and elections."
Being a little old-fashioned, I would have preferred them to be able to "gain access" to that information and support; nevertheless, I am sure we know what is intended. The amendment would make that a requirement, and that is what is important. It does not go into detail or try to micro-manage, but it would make that an essential requirement. The amendment goes on to propose:
"The Electoral Commission must issue guidance in relation to ensuring voters with disabilities have equality of access to the places and process of voting."
"be published in a minimum 12 point font size"
"include a prominent message in minimum 16 point font highlighting the availability of accessible formats."
Anyone who has dealt with someone whose sight is failing-I recall this happening to my mother in her later years-will be aware of how frustrating and difficult it can be for them if they are unable fully to understand the papers that they are trying to read. That is a generality in life, but it is a particular burden for people who are losing their sight. Many elderly people feel passionately, and this is an especially important matter for citizens who want to exercise their democratic right to cast their vote, whether in a referendum or an election.
I was tempted to table a further amendment to ensure that such information be printed in a sans script, but I hope that we can trust the Electoral Commission-and the chief counting officers and regional counting officers-to seek the advice of the RNIB so as to ensure that everything is done to make the ballot papers and the information for voters as accessible as possible. It is therefore with some pride that I have moved amendment 328. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree wants to outline some other points on this group of amendments.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op):
I should like to speak to amendments 333 to 340, which aim to correct a serious deficit in our democracy. People will have seen in the media some of the scenes from the recent general election, in which voters queued for hours to vote. That happened in my constituency, where
there was a paucity of ballot papers, and some electors are known to have been denied access to their polling station. What is less well known, however, is that a staggering 67% of disabled people surveyed by the Polls Apart campaign reported experiencing barriers to their participation in the ballot. Sadly, this is an acute reflection of the voting experience of thousands of disabled voters at every election for every tier of government since emancipation. It also highlights a worrying lack of accountability, as there is at present no way for people to appeal when they are wrongly denied their vote, other than by mounting an expensive, onerous and bureaucratic legal challenge.
Many disabled people find it difficult physically to access a polling station, and that can be for a variety of reasons, including steps leading to the entrance, narrow doorways and corridors or a lack of a low-level polling booth. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) said, nearly half of all polling stations failed to display a large-print ballot paper, making it virtually impossible for visually impaired people to mark their papers independently and with privacy. Election officials regularly offer postal voting as a panacea for disabled people to participate in the ballot, but disabled people often want to vote in person, like everybody else, or at least to have the choice. The fact that people are disabled is no reason to deny them that opportunity.
It is also important to remember that for a significant minority, postal voting is completely inaccessible. Voters with visual and co-ordination impairments, people with learning difficulties and those with low literacy or English as a second language all find it difficult or impossible to vote independently and in secret using a postal vote. In May, 47% of disabled people surveyed reported difficulty in completing their postal vote. For voters with co-ordination impairments such as cerebral palsy and arthritis, voting by post can present significant barriers. Even if someone can mark their ballot paper without assistance, the need to tear down perforated lines, fold the ballot papers and put them into a series of envelopes can make voting by post difficult and frustrating. I wonder whether any hon. Members here today could imagine going through the postal ballot process if they were blind.
The Electoral Commission said in its briefing for this Committee stage that it intends to work its hardest to ensure that the AV referendum is as accessible as possible. Although I welcome that news, I and organisations such as Scope, the RNIB and Mencap will quite rightly point to the evidence that I just presented to the Committee and say that more must be done. The Representation of the People Act 2000 and the Electoral Administration Act 2006 make some provision to improve accessibility in general, local and European elections. The Electoral Commission has also produced some good guidance, yet the evidence presented by the Polls Apart campaign shows that this last general election excluded thousands of disabled voters. What right have we to exclude them from this referendum or from any ballot box now or in the future?
There are some simple steps that need to be taken. Existing statutory obligations and guidance must be met and an accountability mechanism for returning officers must be introduced if they fail to meet them. Returning officers need to work with disabled people
and their organisations when designating and setting up polling stations. Local authorities should annually review the accessibility of polling stations and publish that information for the electorate to comment on. Following the example of the Northern Ireland review, returning officers should write to voters informing them of the inaccessibility of their polling station and give disabled people the right to choose which polling station to attend based on their access needs.
It is essential that this Bill makes provision to minimise the risk that changes to our voting system will impact negatively on disabled people's right to participate in the electoral process. Without proper scrutiny to ensure that there are no barriers to participation, the proposed changes could make it more difficult for disabled people to exercise their fundamental right to vote.
I want this referendum to be the most inclusive ballot we have ever held in the UK. It should be the ballot that sets the benchmark and this referendum should ensure that every person who wants to is able to exercise their right to vote.
Mr Harper: I welcome the principles behind the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). It is very important that everyone has an equal opportunity to cast their vote in the referendum, and I am glad that the amendments raise that important issue.
I want to reassure the Committee that there are significant provisions made throughout the Bill-indeed, later this afternoon we will consider some Government amendments that will give the Electoral Commission further powers to ensure that the forms used are accessible-to ensure that voting is fair for all, including disabled people. Ensuring that ballot papers and polling stations are accessible to all is already a duty that counting officers and returning officers have. For the purposes of the referendum the chief counting officer will also be able to give directions to counting officers on how they discharge those functions.
If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall first set out what the Electoral Commission has said, some of which the hon. Lady has quoted, about how it intends to proceed. The chief counting officer can give directions to counting officers. Both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady have made the point that in previous elections the Electoral Commission has not done an adequate job. Interestingly, Scope's Polls Apart report, which I had the opportunity of speaking to at the launch event earlier this year, said that the guidance that the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators produced on facilitating voting by disabled people was good but was not well implemented. The Electoral Commission does not have the power in elections to mandate the way in which returning officers behave but the chief counting officer will be able to issue directions to regional counting
officers and counting officers. It is therefore worth considering the approach that the Electoral Commission plans to take.
The Commission believes it is important that the voting process is accessible to all electors. It says that it takes seriously its duty as a public body under equality legislation-including under the Disability Discrimination Acts and the Equality Act 2010, relevant parts of which will come into force next year-to ensure, among other things, that the information it provides is accessible and available in alternative formats. It has made it clear that the information it plans to send to every household will include information about voting systems, what will happen in the event of a yes or no outcome and how to take part in the referendum, including how to register and how to vote. That booklet will be available in a range of formats, including Braille, audio and large print.
The chief counting officer has said that she will issue guidance and directions to regional counting officers and counting officers regarding their duties in respect of accessibility and disabled voters under relevant equality and electoral legislation. She has also said that the Commission will continue to work with the excellent organisations that the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Lady mentioned, such as Mencap, the RNIB, Scope and other representative and advocacy organisations, to ensure that the referendum is managed and delivered in an appropriate way so that all electors have the chance to participate. That is a great reassurance because, unlike in elections, the chief counting officer for the referendum will be able to direct regional counting officers and counting officers on how to carry all that out.
My officials have discussed aspects of the Bill with Scope and they are very happy to do so with other organisations. In my previous life as the shadow Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I worked very closely with many organisations representing disabled people so I know what an excellent job they do. I also know from my experience as a constituency MP how much disabled people want to participate in elections not just by postal vote but, as the hon. Lady correctly said, by taking part in person. People with physical disabilities and people with learning disabilities are keen to express their views and we want to make sure that they can do so.
Having welcomed the amendments in principle, I am not convinced that they are the best way of achieving the aims behind them. The commission already has powers to do what the amendments propose in many cases and I do not think that turning those powers into obligations-this comes back to the point on which the right hon. Gentleman was pressing me about converting "may" into "must"-would add much to the Commission's options. Indeed, it might be damaging to take away its discretion to decide when it is necessary to issue directions or guidance. I do not think that would be helpful. By setting out what the commission has said on this, I have shown that it takes these issues very seriously. There are already important legal obligations on the commission, as a public body, under disability discrimination legislation and the Equality Act and I am not sure that the extra obligations that the amendments would place on the commission would add clarity. If anything, they would be in danger of making the legal position more complex.
Let me address another issue that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady have both touched on about this poll in particular and elections in general. There may be changes that we can make to electoral law in general-the Government keep that under review-but I do not think that legislating specifically for one poll, even if there were things on which I agreed with the right hon. Gentleman, would be a sensible way of going about it.
On electoral registration, the right hon. Gentleman was right to point out that there is an issue to do with the number of people who are eligible to vote and are not on the electoral register. As he knows, during our September sittings I made a statement in the House about bringing forward individual registration, to deal not just with people who are on the register but should not be, but with the completeness of the electoral register. The Government think that completeness is as important as accuracy, and I have written to every local authority to urge their participation in data-matching pilots to try to identify voters who are not registered to vote and to look at how local authorities can best target their resources to get them on the electoral register.
The right hon. Gentleman made a tiny partisan point, when he said that he and his hon. Friends had been calling for change for many years. That may be the case and I have no doubt that the previous Government meant well, but in terms of outcomes they did not make a huge amount of progress in getting people on the electoral register. I hope he will support this Government in our efforts to do better.
To improve disabled people's access to the democratic process, it is important that the Government continue to work with the organisations that the right hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and others have mentioned. We shall keep the matter under review, but I do not think the amendments are the best way to improve access for the disabled to this poll, so I urge both Members to withdraw their amendments.
Chris Bryant: I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on their amendments. There was a time when Parliament did not consider the rights of people with disabilities at all; those people and their rights were often ignored by society. We have moved a dramatic distance over the past 15 years in the rights of people with disability.
I am somewhat disappointed by the Minister's words. When I was a Minister, an amendment might look perfectly sensible but some civil servant would come up with a reason why we could not possibly agree to it. The Whips would then say that we had to hold firm and that we could not possibly give way. The Minister may be right about some of the amendments, and it would be wrong to put in the Bill precise rules about whether the font size should be 12 point, 16 point or whatever. However, it would seem from what the Minister said that there would be no harm, in terms of their general principles, if the first two amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend were added to the Bill. They would apply only to this referendum, not to everything else.
The Minister made a point about the difference between the relationship in a normal election between the Electoral Commission and the returning officer, when the commission
cannot direct, and the situation outlined in the Bill, when the chief counting officer can direct. That is all the more reason for us to provide in the Bill precise instructions that are in terms not of "may" but of "must". I challenge the Minister to tell us what would be the harm in that amendment. I can see no harm that could possibly accrue, whereas the possible advantage could be significant to people with disabilities.
It is worth bearing in mind the statistics, which we have already heard, on the number of people who face significant accessibility barriers when voting at polling stations-67% of people with disabilities. We should recognise that there has been a tiny improvement on 2001 and 2005, but the previous Government were not enormously successful either, which is why we need to be more resolute in pursuing such issues.
The interesting figures in "Polls Apart" on voting by post are significant. Many people have presumed that now that people with disabilities can vote by post, the problem is solved. In actual fact, the great variation in how to cast a postal vote across the country-there are different ways of folding envelopes and of putting one envelope inside another-means that it is difficult to have a national campaign explaining how to use one's postal vote. Many elderly people, quite apart from other people who might have disabilities, find it phenomenally difficult to vote by post.
At the general election, both in my constituency and when campaigning in other constituencies, I found that a lot of people had registered for a postal vote but found it difficult to understand precisely how they were meant to take it forward. Many of them would have preferred to have voted in a polling station, but if they are to be able to do so on an equal basis with anyone else in the land, explicit provision enabling them to do so needs to be made.
At the last election, there were fewer large ballot papers available than in 2005, which is a disgrace; I take no pleasure in saying that something that happened under the Labour Government was not an enormous success, but that is a fact. The difficulty with the argument that the Minister advances is that he is basically saying, "It's all going in the right direction. We don't need to put measures in the Bill, because it will all be provided for," but the truth is that while many officials who have worked on the issue in previous years have made gains in some areas, in others they have moved backwards in relation to their obligations.
For instance, there are fewer polling stations in the Rhondda than there were in 2001. In the case of the polling station provided in Stanleytown, a small village in Tylorstown that is on a fairly steep hill, there was no public building in which to put it, and as the doors of all the houses are too narrow, no house could be used, so a portakabin was used. Unfortunately, halfway through the afternoon, the portakabin started sliding down the hill, which did not exactly make it more accessible than any other polling station.
I have considered the amendments carefully, partly because of the role that I held before we entered government. I looked at the amendments myself, and at
my advice from officials, and I genuinely do not think that the amendments add anything to the legal obligations that already fall on the Electoral Commission as a public body under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010. Also, interestingly, the chief counting officer can make directions about whether the guidance, which Scope acknowledged was good, is put into effect. In response to the "Polls Apart" report, I have asked officials to look at all the recommendations and how we might act on them. The period after the referendum will be a good opportunity to look at the difference that the chief counting officer has been able to make with her direction, and to see whether we have proposals to take forward for elections more generally.
Chris Bryant: I am sorry, but that is more soft soap. I fully understand the Minister's good intentions-he has advocated the causes that we are discussing many times-but I think that he has been seized by civil-servantitis. I fully understand the motivation behind the amendments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, relating to the size of font and so on. I understand why the Minister might not want those provisions in the Bill, with regard to the referendum, but his argument falls at the first hurdle. He says that the chief counting officer will be able not just to provide guidance, but to direct. Surely it would make more sense for us to say not that the chief counting officer may make certain directions, but that she must do so, including
"directions about the discharge of their functions specifically in relation to voters with disabilities".
I cannot understand for the life of me why the amendments could not be accepted. I can see no harm that would be done if they were. The Minister has not advanced any example of harm that would be done to the legislative process. If we are in any doubt as to whether we should move forward with the amendments, I would have thought that we should err on the side of caution and support those with disabilities. Once again, I urge the Minister to change his mind, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, on their amendments.
Alun Michael: I am grateful to the Minister, who has been extremely courteous this afternoon. His speech was clearly well intentioned, but it was very old fashioned and traditional. It is the traditional approach from his Department-if we can refer to a fairly new Department as traditional-that the Minister should accept the principle and resist the amendment with every fibre of his body.
I regret that the Minister has taken that approach this afternoon. I am pleased, of course, to hear his endorsement of the principles underlying the amendments, so we can be agreed across the Chamber about the intentions and what we want to happen in the election. I take some comfort from that, but officials always tell the Minister to resist. The job of a Minister is to listen to that advice-yes, of course he should listen to the advice of the officials-but also to listen to the debate.
The Minister said that the amendment would not add to the duties or the clarity for the electoral officials or the Electoral Commission, but I do not accept that. It would make it clear that the House expects such consideration for those who would otherwise potentially be denied the right to vote. As ever, the problem is not the intentions of the Electoral Commission. I have met its members on many occasions and their intentions are good, but the delivery has not been as good. The House has a responsibility to make clear our expectations in respect of access for disabled people. I referred specifically to people with sight difficulties and the importance of helping them.
I cannot see how the amendments tabled by me and by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) could make the arrangements more complex or more difficult. The amendments are clear, but if there is any difficulty in that regard, and if the Minister wishes to improve the drafting in any way, he can easily do that on Report. I invite him to join us in the Lobby this afternoon, and if there are any such deficiencies, to put them right on Report. I shall be delighted to help and support him in doing that, should it be necessary, but let us make progress today.
I would very much like to pursue amendment 328, but as I do not want to take up too much of the time of the Committee, I shall press amendment 329 to a Division. Although I am disappointed by the Minister's response, I welcome the fact that he has at least endorsed the principles that we advanced in this short debate.
'( ) The number of ballot papers or votes purportedly certified under this paragraph or section 128 of the 2000 Act is not liable to be questioned by reason of a defect in the title, or a lack of title, of any person purporting to exercise functions in relation to the referendum, if the person was then in actual possession of, or acting in, the office giving the right to exercise the functions.'.- (Mr Harper.)
'7A (1) The Electoral Commission shall not issue any explanatory document to persons entitled to vote in the referendum during the relevant period unless the wording, content and design of such document has been agreed by both organisations designated for the purposes of section 108 of the 2000 Act (designation of organisations to whom assistance is available), where such designations have occurred.
(2) In sub-paragraph (1) the "relevant period" is the relevant period for the referendum as defined in section 125 of the 2000 Act (restriction on publication etc. of promotional period by central government etc.).'.
Chris Bryant: The amendment deals with the simple issue of the role of the Electoral Commission in relation to the referendum next year. While the Bill provides that the commission should take whatever steps it thinks appropriate to promote public awareness of the referendum and how to vote in it, we believe that that should be subject to the agreement of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. I realise that hon. Members may think that that is some strange committee with no proper function and is just a bunch of MPs who want to interfere in the process, but in fact it is laid down in the 2000 Act. It has three ex-officio members-the Deputy Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. In addition, a Minister is appointed to the committee by the Prime Minister, in this case the Minister for Housing and Local Government, as well as five other Members-the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) and the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter). One might call that an eclectic mix, but it represents a broad swathe of opinion on the issue of the referendum as well as many other electoral matters.
Chris Bryant: No, I have not got the faintest idea. I just know that two or even three of them are definite noes. I do not know about the others. My point is that this body is used to considering electoral matters without seeking partisan advantage and to trying to promote a level playing field for all in electoral administration.
The committee has two specific roles, only one of which is material here. The first is in relation to the appointment of commissioners, which is why earlier last week we saw the appointment of new commissioners. In addition, it has a role in analysing the five-year financial plans produced by the Electoral Commission. It is the only point at which Parliament has a say in the financial plans of the commission and one of the issues that will have to be borne in mind is how much should be spent on the information that the commission provides to voters about the referendum. The Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission is therefore an important
body to keep informed. The committee also provides an opportunity for a Minister to be directly involved, albeit only as one of the six Members on the committee.
The Electoral Commission has said that it knows that a considerable amount of information will have to be provided. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) knows that I do not share his views on the alternative vote. None the less, we share the view that the information provided should be fair, and it is important that we lay the details down in statute as far as possible to ensure that that happens. The way in which information is presented can inadvertently-and sometimes advertently-be biased. The commission said in its report on a referendum on the UK parliamentary voting system earlier this year:
"Without background information about the different voting systems, many participants in our research found the proposed question problematic."
"This was because they had almost no understanding of the 'Alternative Vote' (AV) system"-
"and very mixed understanding of 'First Past the Post' (FPTP)."
The last election in which I took part was last Thursday in Treherbert in the Rhondda where we had a council by-election. It was beautifully precise, because we had just two candidates-a Labour candidate and a Plaid Cymru one. It might appear that that would be easy for people to understand-a straight choice between A and B and one cross in the relevant box. However, there were several spoiled ballot papers because normally people get two votes in local elections in that two-member ward. Some people had voted for both candidates, presumably because they thought the by-election was like the normal elections. I am sure that hon. Members are dying to know who won the by-election. Labour seized the seat from Plaid Cymru with a swing of 10%, so Councillor Luke Bouchard is now the youngest councillor in Wales.
The important point is that voters do not fully understand the current system. They certainly do not understand the alternative vote system very well. However, in order for the Electoral Commission to provide information so that people can have a full understanding, we need a system that includes not only the commission but the weathered eye of some elected politicians, through the Speaker's committee, which is unbiased and has no particular axe to grind.
I note that the hon. Gentleman and several others have tabled an amendment that would solve the same problem slightly differently. I suggest that the two are not mutually exclusive, although it might be a case of belt and braces. I am keen to hear what he has to say, if he succeeds in catching your eye, Mr Gale. I hope that the Government will want to involve the Speaker's committee in this process and accept the amendment.
Mr Jenkin: Amendment 247 is in my name and of several colleagues, including the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell). I do not think that that represents any slight on the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); it is just that I asked the hon. Member for Middlesbrough to table it with me.
The hon. Member for Rhondda has made the reason behind his amendment clear, and the principal purpose of our amendment is the same. The Electoral Commission has invited us to give it the enormous responsibility of sending out information, during a referendum, about the contentious matter on which voters will be asked to give an opinion. As the hon. Gentleman said, these are difficult issues to understand. Even the current voting system, to be called first past the post in the ballot question, is difficult for some voters to understand. That underlines the no campaign's view that it should have been called the current system. As a more neutral description, that might have been better and more intelligible. These are subjective judgments, but the commission decided not to accept that suggestion. It also declined to accept our suggestion that the new system should be called the optional preferential voting system with instant run-off, which explains in more detail what it actually is. We are therefore left with some difficulty in explaining the systems.
Amendment 247 would provide that unless both the yes and the no campaigns are satisfied that the information being sent out is completely neutral, they should have the right of veto over it. That would be completely fair and equal, and would provide a safety valve, because there would be no possibility of information going out about which one campaign could cry foul.
Having said that, however, I am prepared to support amendment 136-the official Opposition amendment on this matter-because it is in the same spirit as ours. It is most unlikely that any information would be sent out unless there was unanimous approval on the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. If one or other of the campaigns was making strong representations about the unfairness of the information in question, that approval would be extremely unlikely to be forthcoming. Broadly, therefore, I am satisfied with the Opposition amendment, so I direct my remarks to the Treasury Bench. What possible objection could there be to the Opposition amendment? It is a safeguard.
I would like briefly to point out one additional point. Earlier in these proceedings, the credentials of the chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, were raised, and it was pointed out that she was, in the past, campaigns officer for Charter 88, which, as we know, has a strident view on the voting system for the House of Commons. I retorted that I had no doubt about her intention to be absolutely fair and unprejudiced, and that we should have complete confidence in the conduct of her office. I am not pleased with how the Electoral Commission handled the date issue, but that was not a matter of her being anything less than impartial; it was the result of a lack of competence and appreciation of the issues involved within that organisation.
We live in a democracy in which things not only have to be fair, but have to be seen to be fair and have to be conducted impartially. Those who have responsibility for sending out to voters information on the contentious issue of this referendum should be held to account, and if there is not proper oversight, we will invite unnecessary controversy and mistrust-however misplaced-of the process. I therefore invite my hon. Friend the Minister, who will be responding to this probably rather short debate,
to consider accepting the amendment, or at least to indicate that the Government will introduce a safeguard of their own at a later stage.
"take whatever steps they think appropriate to provide, for persons entitled to vote in the referendum, information about each of the two voting systems referred to in the referendum question".
"promote public awareness about the referendum and how to vote in it."
"how to vote in it"
should not be taken too seriously, because any court will know what it means. However, if we are explicitly to give this responsibility to the Electoral Commission, which I have no doubt it has asked for-given the advice it gave to the Government-we should provide some mechanism for accountability. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give that serious consideration, so that we can, I hope, save dividing the Committee and move on to the next group of amendments as quickly as possible.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I have reservations about amendment 136. I fully understand the spirit in which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) argued for it, but I have concerns about requiring the agreement of the Speaker's committee on the Electoral Commission. Would the committee have to agree on absolutely every bit of material, therefore having some sort of editorial control, with only their imprimatur and nihil obstat determining what goes? I am not sure that it would not put the committee in a potentially invidious position-indeed, hon. Members have already asked questions about what side of the argument the committee members are on. The safeguard that the amendment is trying to achieve might turn out to be more complicated and hazardous.
I prefer amendment 136 to amendment 247, however, because the latter would basically create not a difficult position for MPs sitting on the Speaker's Committee, but an absolute veto by one campaign on the work of the Electoral Commission and indeed on the seemly and properly informed conduct of the entire referendum. To give each campaign an outright veto would be to give it too tempting an opportunity. Some of us come from territories where we are used to vetoes lying around the place, and they do not usually stay there as unused ornaments; they end up being used deliberately, effectively and destructively.
"The Electoral Commission shall not issue any explanatory documents to persons entitled to vote in the referendum"
We are being told that no explanatory documents will be issued unless they have been approved by both campaigns. It could easily be in the interest of
one campaign-for instance, a campaign saying, "We probably should not even be having the referendum anyway because it is not necessary"-simply to object. In such an event, no explanatory information could be issued, and then the conduct of the referendum would be seriously and fundamentally compromised.
Mr Jenkin: The yes and no campaigns will receive considerable public funds and will have a free mailshot. Each will explain the voting systems in its own way. That is a perfectly fair way of conducting a referendum. After all, at general elections, we do not ask an authority to explain the issues of the day to the British people; we let the British people make up their minds on the basis of what the political parties send out. That is the conventional way of running a referendum.
Mark Durkan: I will give the example of referendums conducted in the south of Ireland. The Referendum Commission has clearly gained some experience in how to manage the dissemination of information and how to deal with the various claims that emerge from different campaigns-and it has had to do that authoritatively and effectively. There are lessons to be learned from the Irish experience about how this referendum can be conducted. I would have a difficulty with putting absolute control over the Electoral Commission's role in the hands of either campaign.
Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the point of allowing the Electoral Commission to issue information about the systems under consideration in the referendum is to ensure that those who wish to vote in that referendum have access to impartial information about the options available to them, not to partial information from either the yes or the no campaign?
Mark Durkan: The hon. Lady is right. That has certainly been the experience in the south of Ireland, where the Referendum Commission has played precisely that role and had to reprimand some individuals for claims-whether exaggerated arguments or not fully factual explanations-made on behalf of yes and no campaigns. It is appropriate that somebody be charged with providing neutral information, rather than the fairly colourful and possibly extreme suggestions that will come from both the yes and no campaigns. Those who are very committed might tend to be over the top in some of the material they produce. Certainly that has been the case in some referendums in the south, which is why the Referendum Commission there was developed and given this sort of role, and it is why the Electoral Commission will have to play the same role here. However, we have to be careful not to put the Electoral Commission in a difficult position in respect of the approval that it must secure in relation to anything that is issued, although campaigns obviously are-and should be-free to make their case.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con):
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Does he agree that an ancillary danger of the amendment is endless delay? If one
campaign raised objection after objection to wording, would that not muddy the waters and endanger the very date of the referendum?
Mark Durkan: Yes, that is precisely what could happen, and if the controversy and disagreement on the wording all tended to come from one side rather than the other, that could create an insinuation of bias on the part of the Electoral Commission's conduct and intent as well.
I give hon. Members a warning. Perhaps this is not a warning, but bad advice; or rather, perhaps it will turn out to be advice that I am ill-advisedly giving to some Members who would campaign against AV. The experience in some of the referendums in the south is that no campaigns have basically adopted campaigns of misinformation. They have created a lot of confusion and controversy around relatively straightforward issues, and then resorted to the tactic of campaigning on the slogan "If you don't know, vote no".
We have already seen an attempt to create confusion, with some of the obfuscation and the diversionary amendments from hon. Members previously. I am particularly worried that amendment 247 could be a recipe for serious mischief and utter grief as far as the conduct of the referendum is concerned. I wait to hear what more the Government will say about their amendment 264, which seems relatively straightforward. However, if the choice is between the two non-Government amendments in the group, I would prefer amendment 136, although I have my reservations.
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): If we have a body such as the Electoral Commission which needs to be impartial, it is most important that we should not charge it with deeds that put it in a position where others may think that it is not being impartial. I therefore hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the points made from the Opposition Front Bench and to those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), because there is a danger here.
The process may start with the best of intentions. The Electoral Commission might feel that its draftsmen and women are sufficiently capable of setting out, in short and clear prose, exactly how the two different systems operate. However, it is easy to tiptoe from straightforward explanations of complex systems to value judgments. As we have already heard from my hon. Friend in speaking to his amendment, the language describing the two systems is already charged with prejudice and opinion. Calling the current system "first past the post" may make it attractive to those who like horse racing, but it may also make it anathema to those who do not, because it perhaps invites a comparison with the grand national, about which people have passionate views, both for and against.
"First past the post" is not a particularly elegant way of describing a system in which the person who gets the most votes wins, which is probably how I would describe the current system. People can win an election by having more votes than any other candidate in that election.
That is a relatively simple approach, but it is not contained in the name of the system. I find the alternative vote much more difficult to describe. As colleagues will know, I am probably not a great fan of it. It is inherently complicated, because of the reallocation of votes and the fact that people who vote for losing candidates effectively vote twice, while people who vote for winning candidates vote only once. Again, however, that takes us into opinion. I am setting out my opinion, but how does one describe the system in language that does not in some way prejudice that description or imply that the extra choice for some electors is a good thing, and that people should therefore warm towards it?
It will be very difficult for the Electoral Commission to come up with language describing both systems that is thought to be fair, and this is particularly true for the alternative vote. There will be rows over the question, which will drag the Electoral Commission into the proper conduct of the election. That raises the danger of a well-intentioned body being dragged into a political argument that it should be well above, leading to the possibility of one or both sides in the referendum campaign feeling that they have not been fairly treated, because a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph or even a whole document was in some way misleading, or was telling only half the story or using prejudicial language.
Mr Jenkin: Let me apprise my right hon. Friend of an example of just such a problem. I have seen the Electoral Commission asked whether it is true that a candidate has to get 50% of the vote to win under the alternative vote system. The Electoral Commission immediately replied that this was a subjective judgment and that it would not get dragged into the evaluation of the two systems, but how then could it describe the system? It is either correct that a candidate needs more than 50% of the votes to win or it is not, so what is the Electoral Commission going to say? Will it decline to inform the voters about the very nature of the system in order to avoid controversy? If so, it might as well not put out any information at all.
Mr Redwood: I agree, and the conclusion is just that: the Electoral Commission should not put out information because that might drag it into the debate. The whole purpose of testing a proposition in a referendum or testing candidates in an election is to allow a free exchange of ideas and views. The two campaigns will, of course, be heavily involved, but there will also be lots of other people, institutions, media representatives and newspapers claiming to be doing impartial analysis on the claims of the two sides. Some of them might even do something that gets close to being an impartial analysis of the claims of the two sides, but they will all discover, as we saw in the last general election, that having something that everybody regards as impartial is an impossibility.
The issue behind this debate may be for the political classes only. I do not think that it is the subject of much discussion in the pubs, clubs or schools of Wokingham, for example, but it is of passionate interest to the political classes. A large number of people now earn their living out of politics one way or another, and they
will be watching every word and every sign, in every part of the referendum campaign, to see how it is going and whether it is fair.
I do not think that the Minister is about to give ground on the non-Government amendments in this group. I would therefore urge him to say to the Electoral Commission, ex cathedra, from his pulpit, "We love you dearly. We wish you to be impartial. Hesitate, hesitate and hesitate again before you start to make statements about this highly charged territory." While there may be 40 million people out there who are not much moved by this subject, there are another 1 million or 2 million who are very moved by it-whose livelihoods depend on it or who are preoccupied by it-who will be watching every word. It will be extremely difficult to come up with that perfect, impartial prose that even describes the system, let alone avoids the obvious pitfall of wandering into opinion. There is nothing more annoying in the heat of an election campaign than for someone to claim impartiality, but then to say something critical of one's own position, which is what happened in the last general election.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I would like to bring to my right hon. Friend's attention a particular difficulty in Wales that may be relevant. On the day that the referendum is taking place, a Welsh Assembly election is also taking place, the vote for which will use yet another system. I wonder whether he has a view on whether we are confusing people even further, and in particular the Electoral Commission, by suggesting that it needs to explain that the subject of the referendum is a different system from that being used when people cast their votes on the same day.
Mr Redwood: My hon. Friend makes an important point. A powerful point for the no case in the referendum-the case against a change in our electoral system-is just that: that so many electoral systems are already in use, particularly in Wales and Scotland, that it could become quite complicated for people trying to remember which system they are voting under. If people are voting under a system other than the current, general system for the national election, they may wish to vote more tactically. One feature of AV is that a natural Liberal Democrat voter who wanted to make their party greener might think it a good idea to vote Green for their first preference and to give the Liberal Democrats only their second preference. That would be a perfectly rational strategy for that voter to make their party greener, but they would need to know that they were voting under that system to make doing so sensible.
However, I have wandered a little from my main point, which is that in order to preserve that impartiality, it is better to say nothing. The whole point of an election is to tease out the issues, so that electors can make their own decisions. In the last general election, the different parties made claims, and we then had to watch or listen to the BBC come out with so-called experts who said that they could find the truth, either by saying that it was between the two parties, or by concluding that neither party was telling the truth and then coming up with the BBC truth. This is a free society, and that was probably quite helpful in the election-if that is what turned the BBC on and what it wanted to pay people good salaries to do-but I do not
think that many voters think, "Ah! At last I've got the impartial truth! The BBC correspondent has told me that Labour weren't right on this issue and that the Tories weren't right on that issue, so I now know the truth." I think that the elector goes off and forms their own judgment.
George Eustice: I want to pick up on the point about impartiality. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to guarantee the impartiality of the Electoral Commission and the information it puts out is to ensure that it has the agreement of both campaigns, which would prevent it from straying into this area? It was said earlier that the no campaign in a previous referendum was putting out misinformation, but in this referendum the NO2AV campaign has called for the Electoral Commission to issue an explanatory booklet because we want that information out there. Does my right hon. Friend understand that that information will be stronger if it is agreed by both campaigns?
Mr Redwood: I am grateful for that intervention, from which I learned that the no campaign would like one of these booklets. However, I rather prefer the lock on the door that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex is proposing, as I remain to be persuaded that such a booklet can be phrased in a way that everybody would find fair. The fairest thing to do is to put this lock on the door; then we will know that we have had a fair referendum because everybody will have consented to it.
If the Minister will accept amendment 247, that will be wonderful and my hon. Friends will rest content. If, as I suspect, he will not, will he at least say that he will warn the Electoral Commission not to try to write a definitive document, as it would just be torn to pieces?
Mr Harper: There are three amendments in the group, which seek to clarify the role of the Electoral Commission in providing information about the voting systems on which the public will be asked to vote. I ask hon. Members to support Government amendment 264, which clarifies the Electoral Commission's role, making it clear that it can make appropriate information available in line with its stated intention to provide strictly factual or neutral information to voters on how the different systems work in practice.
Hon. Members will know that when the Electoral Commission was doing its research on the question, which we debated last week, one important conclusion highlighted the limited knowledge of voters about different voting systems. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) raised the same point in his remarks. The report acknowledged that the referendum campaigns and media coverage will increase public understanding. The current public awareness role of the Electoral Commission, seen in paragraph 7 of schedule 1, is to provide information about the mechanics of the referendum-how it takes place and how to vote in it. My hon. Friend had a bit of fun with the language earlier, but I am sure we can agree that what is important is the practicalities rather than whether to vote yes or no. We are not going to table an amendment to mandate the answer, I am afraid to say. The Government are, of course, neutral on the result.
The current paragraph 7 of schedule 1 does not necessarily envisage giving factual information about the two voting systems and it is unclear whether the general awareness role in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 really enabled what was intended, which was to allow the commission to publish information about a voting system that is the subject of a future referendum. We wanted to make the position clear-hence Government amendment 264, so that the Electoral Commission can indeed make that information available.
"take whatever steps they think appropriate to provide"
in respect of information and so forth include the sort of activity described by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) as applying in the Irish Republic, including putting out rebuttals against claims made by different sides of the argument? If that were the case, we could certainly see the Electoral Commission being dragged into very dangerous political territory indeed.
Mr Harper: If the right hon. Gentleman would allow me to make further progress in my response to what I thought were the wise words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), he would understand the terms of the advice that I would put to the Electoral Commission, which I suspect it would work out for itself, too. I suspect that it would not be tempted down that path. If the right hon. Gentleman does not think that I have answered his question, he is welcome to intervene again.
Amendment 136, moved by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), deals with the Speaker's Committee, but I am not at all convinced that that is the right body to be involved here. The Electoral Commission has already presented its plans for public awareness and costs to the Speaker's Committee, supplying it with information, but given that the Speaker's Committee is made up of politicians, I am not entirely certain that it is the most appropriate body. When it was said earlier that its views about this particular campaign were not clear, it reinforced the point that it might not be the right body to be involved. Given that two members of the Committee are Ministers, it is difficult to see whether they would be acting in their position as Ministers-the Deputy Prime Minister is an ex officio member, although the Government are neutral about the result of the referendum-or as protagonists. The two Ministers involved have their own views, so I fear that this might drag the Speaker's Committee into the debate. Hon. Members have already warned of the dangers of bringing the Electoral Commission directly into the debate, so this provides an example of a similar danger.
Mr Jenkin: My hon. Friend is making a very strong argument for the Electoral Commission not to put out any information at all. If the Speaker's Committee is fit to appoint the Electoral Commission, surely it is a fit body to hold it to account. Otherwise, to whom is the Electoral Commission accountable?
If we are to allow the Electoral Commission to publish some information-I shall come on to the details later-we must allow it to be flexible, so putting in these extra hurdles is not sensible. The commission already produces lots of guidance-admittedly not perhaps in such charged circumstances-without any sort of approval, and it works fairly well.
Amendment 247 starts from the laudable assumption that we want to ensure that information provided to voters in the referendum-and most certainly if it is provided by the Electoral Commission-is neutral and fair. I fear, however, that it might have an unforeseen consequence by preventing the Electoral Commission from publishing information or giving the yes and no sides a veto in the 28 days before votes are cast. It might encourage the Electoral Commission to publish information earlier than that, which I do not think would be particularly helpful for voters-effectively stopping the publication of information during what voters would perceive as the campaign period. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made a good point when he said that giving either player on the pitch an effective veto might be a recipe for grief and mischief.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex has anticipated my next argument and tried to clear it out of the way. When asked about the neutrality of the Electoral Commission last week, he said that he had "the highest respect" for Jenny Watson and that
"because of her previous position, she will want to be seen to be as impartial as possible".-[ Official Report, 12 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 204.]
I strongly suspect that when the commission considers what factual information it is going to publish in practice, it will come to the same conclusion as the Government. Before Second Reading, the Government published a short factsheet, which we placed in the Library. It was on the first-past-the-post system-for want of a better description-and the alternative vote. Although the two Ministers involved have a difference of opinion on the outcome of the referendum, we were very clear that the Government document needed to be neutral. The amount of information that can be produced on the two voting systems-the current one and the proposed new system-without being drawn into their merits, is very limited. That is why we ended up producing a factual and neutral document, not a very comprehensive one, which we have placed in the Library. I suspect that the Electoral Commission will reach the same conclusion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham thus made a good point, and, as I say, I believe that the commission will reach the same conclusion.
That is not to say that there is no value in producing the information. Research done earlier into the question that should be asked revealed that a number of members of the public did not understand terms such as "House of Commons" and "Parliament"-even basic information like that. We might consider providing such information unnecessary, but it might be of great use to enable voters to make a decision. A great deal of information that is neutral and factual can help to get voters up to a
level that we would take for granted, without trespassing on the merits of the arguments behind the two voting systems.
Mr Harper: I will give a brief answer, as Mr Gale will tell me off if I stray too far from the amendments and we will debate this issue again when we get to clause 7. Someone can be elected. One has to have 50% of the votes remaining in the count at that stage. Under our system, which is optional preferential, voters do not have to express a preference. If a significant number do not express a preference for candidates, someone could get elected without having 50% of the votes cast in the first place, but they do have to have 50% of those remaining in the count. That is a very simple, straightforward, factual answer, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will probe me on it further when we debate clause 7 and the mechanics of the system that we plan to introduce.
Having had this debate, I urge hon. Members to support Government amendment 264 to enable the Electoral Commission to publish that factual information. Such information might not be on the merits of the system, but rather on educating voters about some of the common terms that would be used by the two sides. As I said, its research on the question, which I commend to Members, states that there are some basic concepts concerning Parliament and Members of the House with which some voters are unfamiliar. Some underpinning education would be very helpful, and would not in any way get the commission into a debate on the merits of the two systems. Actually, if the commission deals with that, the yes and no campaigns can deal with the merits of the two systems and their effects, and try to persuade the public to cast their vote for their side.
I urge hon. Members to support the Government amendment, the hon. Member for Rhondda to withdraw his amendment, and hon. Members who spoke to amendment 247 not to press it to a Division. On that last proposal, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, it does not seem sensible to give the players on the pitch a veto over when the referee can produce neutral information.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Foyle, given what I said on the difficulty of producing factual information without being drawn on the merits, I think it unlikely that the commission will get involved in rebutting information from particular campaigns. That would get it into exactly the problem that he highlighted, and it would be wary of doing so. I shall conclude my remarks there, hoping that the hon. Member for Rhondda withdraws his amendment.
This has been an interesting discussion. In a sense, at the back of this debate lies the fact that the vast majority of voters do not spend all their time worrying about voting systems. For that matter, they do not spend much of their time worrying about party politics or politics in any shape or form. In July, I
knocked on a door to ask someone to vote Labour in an election. He said, "I am never, ever going to vote Labour again in my life because you just increased VAT." When I said, "But we haven't," he replied, "You're the Government aren't you?" I said, "No, we're not," and he said, "Well, you were earlier this year." I suppose that is a version of the argument that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats use all the time.
There is a serious point. Sometimes, when it comes to explaining voting systems, it is not so much that voters are not bright enough to understand, but simply that their eyes glaze over, because they think, "Why on earth are you bothering to talk to me about this?"-[Hon. Members: "Hear hear!"] Listen: I am one of those who wants to reform the system. As we lead up to the referendum, it will be difficult to provide the kind of information that most voters would admit they ought to have in their heads before they vote.
That could quite simply be because voters are not always interested, but the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) was absolutely right in saying that it is very difficult to arrive at a truly impartial presentation of the facts. From a theological point of view, that is true of nearly everything. We always underestimate how much our subjective opinions influence how we interpret and present the facts, and even what we choose to call a fact as opposed to something else. Certainly, that is true of the BBC. If the referendum were on the European Union or the Lisbon treaty, there would be even more excitement, and equal levels of misunderstanding and distrust of the system. The other aspect is that many voters simply do not believe anything that any politician says, so why on earth would they believe what is presented in the referendum?
There are specific matters on which there is enormous potential for quarrel in the material that the Electoral Commission will present. Let us say that the commission wanted to describe in its literature the advantages of a first-past-the-post system-the right hon. Member for Wokingham said that it could be presented as the person who gets the most votes wins. I would guess that every single one of those advantages would be disputed by someone on the other side of the argument. How on earth can the commission possibly arrive at a set of advantages or disadvantages of either system in the information? Similarly, some would argue that the alternative vote could lead to more hung Parliaments. That is highly contentious, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) would argue that that is a proven fact. I urge caution regarding the quantity of information that the commission will provide.
Interestingly enough-it may not be interesting to hon. Members, but it is to me-I had lunch today with some Chilean Senators and Members of Parliament who have accompanied President Pinera on his visit. They wanted to know exactly what alternative vote system was being proposed. They are experienced politicians and have just changed their electoral system, so I thought that they would know what the alternative vote system was. In their heads, they were working on the assumption that there would be a second round of voting rather than an instant run-off, to use the phrase of the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex, because if nobody gets 50% in the first round of Chilean presidential elections, there is a second round.
"The vast majority had no knowledge of AV and did not know how to vote under the system or how candidates would win a seat...A few people who were more interested and engaged had found out about AV when they heard about the referendum. Some people, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, said they 'had heard of' the system but did not know how it worked. They assumed it to be the same as the proportional representation systems used in elections there."
Of course, that makes the point that it is difficult to use a phrase such as, "The system used in parliamentary elections now," because the system for Scottish parliamentary elections is not the same. We cannot simply refer to "the present system" because the system is different in Wales. For that matter, some have referred to the system for electing the London Mayor, but that is different again, because voters have only a second preference vote rather than a fully alternative vote.
There is also a problem in relation to the presentation of materials. Notwithstanding the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), the weathered eye-or perhaps the battered eye-of politicians can sometimes be useful. We are used to decrying politicians and saying how terrible they are. Everybody wants there to be no more politicians ever again, but we do add value in some regards.
Mr Harper: Just in case the hon. Gentleman is unaware, four former politicians were appointed to the Electoral Commission on 1 October specifically to improve the commission's understanding of the conduct of politics. They are very experienced figures and represent major and minor parties, and I would have thought them perfectly capable of steering the commission out of any choppy waters into which it were so minded to sail.
Chris Bryant: I am aware that those people were appointed because I was in the Chamber when the Whip with the billiard cue came in and announced it. However, they are not all elected. Some are experienced in running elections-certainly Lord Kennedy of Southwark is-and some have stood for office, but none the less, the weathered eye of a sitting, elected politician would be quite useful.
For instance, let us say that the commission decides to use Labour red for everything relating to a yes vote and Conservative blue for everything relating to a no vote. That would be problematic. A politician would spot it instantly, but many professionals who run elections would not, because they are attuned to different things. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle that there is a specific role for the Speaker's Committee-I can see one member of that committee in the Chamber.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) is used to editors editing her copy, or perhaps it goes straight through and clean into her books, but I do not think that members of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission will want to interfere unnecessarily. They might just bring another valuable perspective to any material that is produced. There is no reason why that should lead to interminable delay, and I think it would be good if members and ex officio members of the committee were to bring their experience to deliberations.
The Minister pointed out that two committee members are also members of the Government, and he is right: there is the Minister for Housing and Local Government who is a Conservative, and there is the Deputy Prime Minister who, at least for the moment, is a Liberal Democrat. Of course, in their personal capacities the two of them will reach different conclusions coming from different sides of the argument, but in their ministerial capacities, they will agree on neutrality. Therefore, in making his observation the Minister adds to my argument, rather than takes away from it.
Finally, I have a bone to pick with the right hon. Member for Wokingham. He referred to the Minister speaking from his ex cathedra pulpit, and I just point out that one is either speaking ex cathedra or from a pulpit. The cathedra is the throne on which the bishop or Pope sits; it is certainly not a pulpit.
'( ) The Electoral Commission may take whatever steps they think appropriate to provide, for persons entitled to vote in the referendum, information about each of the two voting systems referred to in the referendum question.'.
(1B) In respect of a service to which this sub-paragraph applies, the officer is entitled under sub-paragraph (1) to no more than the amount (which may be nil) that seems reasonable in all the circumstances-
(1A) The Minister shall, within one month of the day on which this Act is passed, by Order provide for a system of prior registration of those entitled to vote in the referendum under subsection (1)(d) above, and for mechanisms by which their votes can be cast.'.
'(1A) The Minister must, within one month of the day on which this Act is passed, by Order made by statutory instrument provide for a system of prior registration of those entitled to vote in the referendum under subsection (1)(d) above, and for mechanisms by which their votes can be cast.'.
Mr Brady: It is a pleasure to rise to speak briefly to amendments 59, 60 and 61, which stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends. We frequently make the mistake in this House of legislating in haste and repenting at leisure, but that is an even greater danger when we are engaged in legislation that can change the whole constitution of our country and that is what these amendments seek to address. I fear that in the Bill as it stands, we risk putting the cart before the horse, and I want to reorder those in the appropriate way.
In a nutshell, the import of my amendments would be that, first, only British citizens should be able to vote in the referendum and, secondly, that British citizens should be able to vote wherever they may be in the world. That would necessitate a number of changes, because my hon. Friend the Minister is proposing simply to take the franchise that we currently use for general elections and bolt it on to the referendum legislation.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|