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We will be looking in that context at some of the projects that we considered in the SDSR, such as A400M support and training. As I said in answer to a previous question, there is no point in us reinventing the wheel at taxpayers' expense. Where we have common platforms, we should be looking at common support and training. We will also want to look at the future strategic tanker aircraft programme to see whether, within the private finance initiative set out and agreed
by the previous Government, we can get better value for money for British taxpayers by having the French use some of that facility.
Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): When one carrier is in extended readiness and when the second is in for refit, is it true that we would have use of a French carrier only if the French were not using it themselves, and only if they agreed to let us use it for our purposes? Would we not be better combining with France to attack Brussels?
Dr Fox: The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) just said that we are all communautaire, but I suppose there has to be an exception to every rule. If both nations are operating a single carrier, there will be times when both carriers are available as part of our NATO obligations, and times when none is available unless we come to an arrangement that enables us to have a sensible refit policy that ensures that one is always available. That would not mean that either nation can force the other to do something it did not want to do, but it would increase the chance of having some capability as opposed to none.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's statement on better co-operation with France, which makes military and economic sense. Will he look at the fine print on opening our markets in procurement, because my knowledge of the French is that opening up markets is not their greatest strong point?
Dr Fox: When my hon. Friend gets a chance to look at the treaty, he will see that we were very keen to ensure that there is a genuine opening up of the defence market. A partnership is a partnership, and it must work in both directions.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): With Russian aircraft and submarines increasingly probing Britain's airspace and sea approaches, is it envisaged that French air or naval assets will ever be involved in responding to and deflecting such activity?
Dr Fox: When it comes to the different elements of layered protection for our deterrent, we will use not only any UK assets available, but any of our allies' assets that are available. We should remember that our nuclear deterrent is part of NATO's nuclear posture, and therefore, NATO has a responsibility. It will help us as we would help it.
John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier this afternoon in Health questions, the Secretary of State either misled the House or made a serious mistake-I prefer to believe that it was the latter-when he told the House that I was wrong to say that the Government are breaking their promises on NHS funding. He said that even if the switch in extra funding to social care is excluded, the NHS budget will nevertheless increase in real terms over the next four years. However, the Nuffield Trust and the House of Commons Library both confirm that the budget will be cut. Can the House, through you, Mr Speaker, ensure that the Secretary of State corrects his statement this afternoon, at the earliest opportunity?
Mr Speaker: The short answer to the right hon. Gentleman is, no, not in the immediate term, because I sensed from what he said-and I listened very carefully-that that is a matter of political debate, and there will be argument about who is right or which facts trump others. I therefore cannot offer him the early prospect, or indeed any certain prospect, of a statement.
The right hon. Gentleman and I came into the House together in 1997, so I know him relatively well-he is a very experienced and wily campaigner. He has just put his own verdict on the Government's position very forcefully on the record in prime time, and I have a feeling that he will share that verdict with others.
Mr Speaker: Order. There is no further point of order to be made. The right hon. Gentleman has done very well out of me. He should be grateful and exultant. He should be saying thank you to me rather than looking for a second go.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to ensure that cheque facilities continue to be available to customers of financial institutions; and for connected purposes.
Something brings together the Federation of Small Businesses, Age Concern, Help the Aged, the union Unite, Which?, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the Institute of Fundraising and, of course, more than 120 Members of Parliament who have signed an early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). What do they all have in common? They all have major reservations about the scrapping of cheques.
That preferred method of payment is used by hundreds of thousands of people every single day. In fact, the total number of cheques written out each day is close to 4 million, or more than 1.3 billion a year. Despite this very clear message that cheques are still valued by the customers of the major banks and other payment service providers, last December the Payments Council agreed on their behalf to scrap cheques in 2018. That decision will, I believe, have major ramifications.
Some may ask, "What is the rush? 2018 is a long way away. Why do we have to take action now to head off the threat of cheque abolition in the future?" After all, we are led to believe that the final decision will not be made until 2016. However, if the Payments Council can set its own criteria and targets for scrapping cheques, it also has the power to try to make the abolition of cheques a foregone conclusion. Some will argue that this is simply a business decision to reduce costs, the benefits of which can then be passed on to customers. Well, this is hardly a shining example of the free market at its best, as what is in effect a cartel has collectively agreed to remove from the market a service, knowing that no individual bank can do anything to stop it.
This Bill is borne not out of nostalgia, but out of an acceptance of the present. The Bill does not attack the independence of businesses, but would protect the rights of their customers. The Bill would not condemn customers to an outdated method of carrying out financial transactions, but would give all those carrying out such transactions greater choice in how they do so in the future.
The truth is that setting an end date for cheques will inevitably accelerate the process by which businesses stop accepting cheques and individual banks stop issuing them, making the demise of the cheque a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Payments Council does not have much confidence in its ability to wring this particular chicken's neck. It has forecast that, whatever it does and whatever we do-including if we are not successful in stopping this action-then even on the cheque's deathbed in 2018, there will still be 2 million cheque transactions being made every day. Some chicken, some neck.
I have referred to my concerns about what I believe to be the major ramifications of cheque abolition, but I am here to voice the concerns of some of the groups that I have mentioned. The Federation of Small Businesses
has strongly argued that the abolition of cheques will have a detrimental effect on smaller firms-not my words, but those of the FSB, which also says that many small businesses rely on cheques, which to them represent the most convenient system. They provide an excellent audit trail, are easy to reconcile and require minimal administration. Far from achieving our stated aim of decreasing the burden on small and medium-sized enterprises, switching away from cheques could increase it for some businesses.
Many clubs, charities and societies receive an overwhelming proportion of their donations in the form of cheques. While larger organisations have the facilities to process other means of payment, it is the small, local organisations, reliant on volunteers, that will suffer. Blind and partially sighted people are particularly reliant on cheques, as was made clear to the Treasury Select Committee. Members of the Royal National Institute of Blind People feel that cheques give them a greater sense of control. They can sign them and check the figures with a magnifying glass, whereas with chip and pin, it is almost impossible for them to read and check the amounts that they are paying.
However, by far the largest group of people who are most reliant on cheques are the elderly. That is partly out of habit and partly out of necessity. The elderly are also the group who will find it hardest to adopt alternatives. The Payments Council's projections assume that there will never be a time when cash will be substituted for cheques, but the evidence from abroad does not support that. The fewer cheque transactions there are in a country, the more people will use cash and the greater the number of cash transactions there will be. Overall, my concern is that people will move back to cash and start keeping large volumes of money in the house, making them vulnerable to theft. That is not scaremongering; it is simply what will happen. The ability of elderly people to continue to manage their finances independently by using cheques is crucial, and particularly for older people who are housebound, whether it is about paying the paper bill or including a little something in a card to the grandkids. It is about financial independence.
Behind the Payments Council's proposal is no doubt a belief that-I guess there is no delicate way of saying this-many of the existing elderly cheque users will not be around in 2018. However, the latest edition of Age UK's political bulletin reveals that 64% of people aged 65 or over have never used the internet-and, let us face it, never will. Despite the inconvenience to the Payments
Council, I wish all those who took part in Age UK's research a long and happy cheque-using life.
So far I have focused on whether it is wise to remove the option of cheque use, but there is a further issue. Who should make the decision? We in this place may agree or disagree with the decision to scrap the cheque, but surely we can find common ground on the view that the decision is too important to be left to the Payments Council, which is essentially a trades association. Eight of its 28 members do not even offer current accounts and cheque books. Many are foreign-owned banks that do not offer current accounts and cheque books, while many are businesses based on alternative methods of payment, such as PayPal or Cash Zone. How on earth can the decision represent an independent and impartial view? Yet those businesses would still have a say in whether the UK should retain its centralised cheque clearing system. Can this be right? I think not.
The subject of my Bill is not a purely financial consideration; I believe that it is a matter of public interest. The consideration of the demise of the cheque should be made by a body that has the independence, the objectivity and the competence to balance the needs of consumers with the savings to the banks; but further, I would argue that any final decision should be made by a body accountable to Parliament. I urge hon. Members to support my Bill, which will bring cheque payments under the consumer protection remit of the Financial Services Authority or its subsequent body.
I am a new arrival in this House, so I am a late arrival to this worthy cause. I pay tribute to my colleagues, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for providing a lead on this campaign before I arrived here, as well as right hon. and hon. Members of other parties who have supported this campaign in the past. I have joined a campaign that has increasing momentum, and I ask for the support of the whole House to allow us to take it to its next stage.
That Mr David Ward, John Thurso, Lorely Burt, Stephen Williams, Dr John Pugh, Jim Dobbin, Tom Blenkinsop, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr Julian Lewis, Mr Greg Knight, Robert Halfon and Andrew Stephenson present the Bill.
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, The implications for Wales of the Government's proposals for constitutional reform, HC 495 ; Third Report from the Political and constitutional Reform Committee, Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, HC 437, and oral evidence taken before the Committee on Thursday 15 July on the Coalition Government's programme of political and constitutional reform, HC 358-i.]
'is to be the sole responsibility of the United Kingdom Government'.
Mr Harper: These amendments update the combination provisions in the Bill to reflect the following draft orders, which were laid before Parliament by the Scotland and Northern Ireland Offices on 25 October: the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2010; the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2010; and the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2010.
The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that the combination rules in the Bill work effectively with the rules governing elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local elections in Northern Ireland, in the event that the draft orders are approved by Parliament, as the Government hope. No amendments have been necessary in relation to the combination provisions for Wales. Although the rules governing elections to the National Assembly for Wales will be updated by the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2010, if approved by Parliament, none of the amendments to be made by this order affects any rules relevant to combination with the referendum. This order was also laid in draft before Parliament on 25 October.
The majority of the Government amendments make technical changes to the Bill to pick up minor consequential amendments that have emerged in relation to the numbering, cross-referencing and terminology following the laying of the draft territorial orders on 25 October.
Amendments 18 and 19 are consequential on the laying of the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2010, which fixes the date for the 2011 local elections in Northern Ireland. There is no intended change in the effect of the provision; rather, the amendment brings the wording of subsection (4) more into line with that of subsections (2) and (3), which is possible now that the date of the elections has been set.
Amendments 22 to 30 and 32 to 41 are not consequential on the draft territorial orders, but are technical changes to ensure that it is clear which set of postal voting provisions applies when polls are combined in Wales and in Scotland. The provisions in schedule 4 to the Bill will not apply, because, following our amendments in Committee, the same job is now done by the combination schedules. Amendment 43 corrects an omission in schedule 4 to the Bill about the marking of postal voters lists and proxy postal voters lists in Northern Ireland.
While the majority of the amendments are minor and technical, the key exceptions are amendment 172 and amendments 177 to 178, which, for the first time in the combination provisions, set out the details of the joint issue and receipt of postal ballot papers in Northern Ireland. The chief electoral officer, with the agreement of the chief counting officer, will be able to decide to take postal ballot proceedings together in the three polls taking place in Northern Ireland. These amendments make the necessary provision for that process to work. If the chief electoral officer decides to deal separately with postal ballot paper proceedings in the three polls, the existing legislation, as amended by the two Northern Ireland Orders, will apply, largely unaffected by the Bill.
The amendments give effect to our agreed policy that when the chief electoral officers decides, with the agreement of the chief counting officer, that the issuing and receipt of postal voting ballot packs is to be combined for the referendum and the relevant elections in Northern Ireland, he can ask the relevant registration officer to produce a combined postal voters list and combined proxy postal voters list. The amendments also make clear who is entitled to be present at proceedings on the joint issue and receipt of postal ballot papers. They provide for all the ballot papers to be sent out and returned in the same envelopes, and they set out the procedure for forwarding and retaining documents related to the joint postal voting process-for example, declarations of identity, the proxy postal voters list and the postal voters list.
The postal voting amendments for Northern Ireland also include the creation of two new forms of declaration of identity that can be used for Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections, when proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers are not combined. Equivalent forms already exist for England, Scotland and Wales.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): When people receive the envelope containing their postal vote, will they therefore need just one person to attest to their signature for all three votes, or will three separate witness signatures be required-one for each ballot paper?
There are two stages to the process. If the chief electoral officer and the chief counting officer agree to combine the issue of the postal votes, which is a new procedure in Northern Ireland, everything will be sent out in the same envelope, and the same person will then be able to attest on the ballot paper. The whole
point is to make the combination of the two elections and the referendum in Northern Ireland work as smoothly as possible. That is the most significant change in these combination provisions, and I hope that it will help the proceedings in Northern Ireland.
Amendments 156 and 157 include revised forms for the postal voting statement for the Scottish Parliament election, when the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers is not combined, and for the statement on the postal ballot papers that have been issued and received in Scotland for the referendum on the voting system. This takes into account the changes that were made to the forms for Scottish parliamentary elections by the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2010.
The rules relating to the conduct of the elections next year are governed by the elections orders I have set out, and they will be debated in Parliament, following the usual procedures, in the near future. If Parliament agrees the orders, the relevant changes to the combination provisions enabling the referendum to be combined with them are in these amendments, which I shall ask the House to agree.
Mr Harper: If that election were not held on the same day, we would not be combining the referendum with the Scottish Parliament election. The combination provisions will be required if the elections take place on the scheduled day and if the referendum is also held on that day. The elections can then be combined so that they are more efficiently run and provide a considerable cost saving to the taxpayer.
Mark Lazarowicz: The Bill provides for the polls for the referendum and the Scottish Parliament general election of 2011 to be taken together. If, under the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish Parliament election were to be held in March next year, would the referendum in Scotland be held in March as well?
Mr Harper: The provisions enable the referendum to be combined with the election, if they are taking place on the same day. Given that they are scheduled to take place on the same day, the provision is clearly sensible. If an eventuality arose under the Scotland Act causing the Scottish parliamentary elections not to be held on that day, the two would not be combined. The Bill does not change those provisions in any way. Indeed, the conduct of the elections is to be determined by the elections orders, which this House and the other place will debate in due course. These provisions are about how to combine the referendum with the conduct of those elections. I hope that that is clear.
There is one non-Government amendment in the group -amendment 222-and it might help if I say a few words about it. It is proposed by the nationalist parties and was tabled by the hon. Members for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) and for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). It would require the UK Government to pay for the cost of combining the referendum and the Scottish parliamentary election on 5 May. We do not consider that necessary because the
UK Government are already responsible for funding both polls. Funding for the referendum and the Scottish parliamentary elections already comes out of the Consolidated Fund and is borne by the UK taxpayer. Combining the polls also makes sense, because potential savings of £30 million may be shared between the referendum and the other poll. I will listen very carefully to the arguments of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, but having looked at the amendment with great care I am so far unconvinced of its necessity. I urge the House to accept the Government amendments.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I notice that the instructions set out in amendment 156 ask voters to complete the ballot paper and form "in black ink". Is the same instruction in the original Bill, and by building this provision directly into the Bill would we invalidate the ballot papers or forms of voters who chose to use another colour of ink?
"Please write clearly in black ink."
We had this debate earlier and I have said that if a clear intention has been set out by the voter, the returning officer-or, in the case of the referendum, the counting officer-will allow the vote. The view is usually taken that voters should be included rather than excluded. Clearly, the instruction is intended to make it as easy as possible to read the votes.
Kevin Brennan: I appreciate that. The Minister might be able to elucidate later whether the requirement for black ink was part of the original instruction. My fear is that when something is written directly on the face of a Bill, it is sometimes open to a more literal interpretation than the Minister has indicated would be the normal practice. If not now, perhaps he could clarify the point later.
Mr Harper: All the forms for elections are usually set out in secondary legislation, but we have set them out in primary legislation. The legal effect, however, would not be different. Another provision we adopted earlier to make the forms more understandable and accessible to disabled people was to allow the Electoral Commission to vary not the ballot paper, but the forms, to make them easier to use. If the Electoral Commission felt at a later stage that any of the forms were difficult for people to use, it would be able to amend them. As I said, however, that does not apply to the ballot paper.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee. Has he any comments on the concerns that were expressed about the possible coincidence of the alternative vote referendum and the Welsh Assembly and parliamentary elections, given that some people might choose to have a postal vote for only one of those? Officials feared that that would generate horrendous administrative problems that would undermine the democratic process on the day.
I do not remember whether the hon. Gentleman was present when we debated the postal vote provisions in Committee, but the Government decided that the most sensible arrangement would be for standing postal vote provisions for a United Kingdom parliamentary election to kick in automatically for the referendum, but for that not to apply to people with postal vote provisions for a different election.
When voters receive their polling card, it will helpfully set out for them the elections and the referendum to which their voting entitlement applies-that will deal with the circumstances in which there are different franchises-and will also make clear how their postal vote has been set up. They may not have one set up for the referendum, for instance, but they may have one set up for a local election. That will enable them to take action at that stage and, if they prefer to vote by post, ensure that they can do so in the elections and the referendum.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Form 4, which appears on page 245 of the Bill, results from an amendment that the Minister tabled to the original Bill. There is now a new form, which appears in amendment 156. Why did the Minister not simply table amendment 156 in the first place, given that the forms are very different?
Mr Harper: As I said earlier, the changes that we have tabled today to the combination provisions reflect the changes in the conduct of the election orders that were laid before the House. We wanted to ensure that it was as easy as possible to combine the polls, and that the instructions given to voters for the referendum and the elections were aligned with each other. The original amendments and combination provisions were based on the law as it was before the territorial orders had been laid. I think that that is quite straightforward.
Chris Bryant: Obviously I understand the process-as I am sure the Minister has foreseen, it is one of the matters on which I shall express my disagreement with him-but the requirement for people to write in black ink, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), is not included in the form that appears in the amended version of the Bill, but is included in the form that appears in the amendment. Why was that change made?
Kevin Brennan: I do not want to push the point too far, but it is a serious point. Normally, people are issued with a pencil at polling stations. Given that, as the Minister has confirmed, the "black ink" instruction did not appear in the original version, I am intrigued that it has suddenly found its way into this version. Will people be required, or instructed, to use black ink at polling stations? I fear that that could lead to unnecessary confusion: that is the only point I am making.
Chris Bryant: Let me deal first with the process. The Minister referred to statutory instruments. All the amendments we are discussing, bar the one tabled by members of the Scottish National party, were tabled by the Government, and they cover some 28 pages of the amendment paper. They were not tabled because the House demanded amendments, or because the Government said in Committee that they would consider probing amendments and return with further amendments on Report. They have been introduced because the Government have gone through a process of putting various carts and horses in the wrong order. I fully recognise that I am not as versed in country ways as the Minister, who represents the Forest of Dean, but I recognise when parliamentary procedure is being put in the wrong order, and it would have made far more sense to have proceeded with pre-legislative scrutiny and proper consultation with the devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and then to have proposed legislation in draft form. We should bear it in mind that not a single devolved Administration wants a combination of polls next May, but if the Government's view is nevertheless that they wish to push forward with that, against the wishes of the three devolved Administrations, they can then introduce statutory instruments to make provision under the Scotland Act 1998, the two Wales Acts of 2000 and 2006 and the Northern Ireland provisions. They would do that first, and the proposals would then be considered in this House and the House of Lords and, if agreed to, the Government would introduce the final version of their Bill. Instead, because the Government are running at an inappropriately fast pace for this kind of legislation, there has been no consultation whatever with any of the devolved Administrations-with either the Assemblies or the Parliament or the Executives or Governments in each of those nations.
There has been no process of consultation on the Bill, but there has also been no process of consultation on the orders. The Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2010 is some 205 pages long; it is not a minor tome. It includes measures on election expenses, disputed claims, corruption, entreating, the control of donations to candidates, the appointment of election agents, the requirement of secrecy, the breach of official duty, tampering with nomination papers, and personation and other voting offences. I am sure the Government will say that this entire matter is a reserved responsibility and that it is for the Westminster Government to decide, but it would have showed greater respect for the devolved Administrations if they had consulted them before the orders were laid.
Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): On the consultation issue, I know from experience that regular meetings used to take place, and presumably still do, between the First Minister in Wales and the Secretary of State for Wales, and I guess that the situation in Scotland is the same. The meetings take place frequently-sometimes once a week, or even more-so there is no reason why there cannot be dialogue and consultation at a relatively early stage. Can my hon. Friend explain why even the most basic communication has not taken place?
Chris Bryant: I cannot give any explanation for that. All I know in relation to the Secretary of State for Wales is that, with regard to another matter, I asked on the Floor of the House in June for a meeting with her on a cross-party basis and she said she was quite happy to have one as soon as possible. The first date that was provided was this afternoon. The Secretary of State did not turn up and her officials had booked the wrong room. It is therefore quite possible that if any consultation on the matter under discussion had been planned, it would not have actually taken place.
Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that nowhere will he find a requirement that a discussion should be held if the boundaries in Scotland have to change-yet again? There should also have been a discussion with MSPs about the Scottish boundaries, and about local authority areas. That would have made more sense in terms of our working together and coming up with a solution that is not a patchwork quilt.
Chris Bryant: Or, indeed, just a muddle. One of the things that Welsh Members have been trying to say during the discussion of this Bill is that on the combination of polls, lessons need to be learned from the situation in Scotland, where the boundaries for MSPs are no longer coterminous with those of Members of Parliament. In addition, in Scotland but not in England or in Wales, wards are being split between constituencies because of the local government arrangements that have been made as a result of large single transferable vote wards.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): My hon. Friend, like many others on the Opposition Benches, will have sat through proceedings on large Bills with a huge number of clauses and schedules. When a lot of late amendments are tabled, that is, in general, a tribute to the civil service, who are working through the night and burning the midnight oil to draft them. However, we have come to recognise that it is also a symptom-not unique to this Bill-of legislation that is not ready. My concern, which I hope is also the concern of those in the other place, is that this may not be the last we will see of batches and pages upon pages of amendments. I hope that those in the other place will act on that concern, because this is rushed legislation.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend, and near neighbour, is absolutely right about that. Interestingly, the Scottish Executive have made direct representations to the Secretary of State for Scotland about the statutory instruments, as has the convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee in the Scottish Parliament. So it was a bit disappointing to see the reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland , which said:
"I would however like to personally reassure you that Scotland Office officials are working closely with the Cabinet Office; the Electoral Commission; the Interim Electoral Management Board for Scotland; and electoral administrators to ensure that both the referendum and the Scottish Parliament election will run smoothly on 5 May next year."
I do not think that that represents the respect agenda originally referred to by the Prime Minister, and it does not really represent new politics either. I fully understand that the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) and for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)
complained bitterly about the way in which we introduced legislation, but introducing it in a way that does not allow amendments to be properly considered in a timely fashion or in the proper order is a ludicrous way of doing business.
Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend knows it is unwise not to give way to me, because it might end up in a point of order. I have described this Bill as a Wallace and Gromit Bill because of the way in which, rather like Gromit in "The Wrong Trousers", the Government are laying down the track as they go along. Indeed it is worse than that, because this group of amendments is consequential on a set of statutory instruments that this House has not yet even considered. If that is not getting things back to front, I do not know what is.
Chris Bryant: I do recall my hon. Friend raising the matter of "The Wrong Trousers" and Wallace and Gromit, but I think his metaphor does not work in this case. Gromit was laying down pieces of track ahead of him, whereas the Government are laying down pieces of track behind them-pieces of track that they have not been over; this is putting the horse before the cart before the horse before the cart. There is a real problem in the process that the Government have adopted, and I very much hope that their lordships will want to examine it carefully.
What is also wrong is that because the Government have tabled 28 pages of amendments that we have to debate on Report, they have had to set aside a chunk of time for us to do so. That has been done not because the House wanted it, or to bring about greater consensus on the Bill, but to meet the Government's own business needs, and as a result of their own haste. The fact that we have not had a single moment's debate about the decoupling of seats in the Welsh Assembly and their coterminosity with Westminster seats is a disgrace. If, as we had requested, a knife had not been put in yesterday night's proceedings, it would have been possible for us to have debated that matter now, rather than the measures that we have to debate at this point.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Does the hon. Gentleman agree when a clause is specific to a constituent part of the United Kingdom, there should be allotted time to debate that clause?
Chris Bryant: I am afraid that I sort of disagree with the hon. Gentleman. It is important that there should be time to debate such a clause. We tabled an amendment yesterday that a clause should be deleted from the Bill, just so that we could have that debate. On Report there is no other way of having that debate-but I am not sure that it is always right to put in knives, because that leads to some complexities in the management of time. That is why we argued that we should not have knives.
While the hon. Gentleman is replying to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), will he explain something to the House? It is true that we did not get to the debate on the decoupling provisions, but he will know that the provisions
to decouple the Welsh Assembly constituencies from the Westminster ones are supported by the First Minister of Wales. The First Minister has written to the Secretary of State to state that in terms, so it is surprising that the Labour party in Westminster is taking a different position from the Labour party in Wales.
Chris Bryant: It is surprising that a Government that consists of Conservatives and Liberals is taking a view on the number of seats in Parliament that is different from what was in both parties' manifestos at the general election. The point is that we should have had time to debate these matters, and we have not had a single moment to debate them. I would merely say that I hope that their lordships will take the opportunity to debate the matters that it has not been possible for us to reach.
Let me swiftly deal with some of the amendments. The Minister is absolutely right that the vast majority of the amendments are relatively technical. However, that does not mean that we should be able to agree them today, because we have not agreed any of the statutory instruments on which they depend-he said "if" the statutory instruments are approved by Parliament. There is an enormous presumption in tabling amendments to meet a piece of legislation that has not yet been agreed. That treats this House with a degree of disrespect that is inappropriate.
Amendment 222, tabled by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), is about the costs of running the polls being met by the UK Government. The Minister is right to say that the costs are all met by the Consolidated Fund, but I presume that the hon. Gentleman's amendment has been tabled to make the point that he thinks that the responsibility for running the Scottish parliamentary elections should be the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament- [ Interruption. ] He is not nodding; he is looking inscrutable at the moment. That is unusual for him, because he is normally extremely scrutable. Perhaps we will have to wait for his contribution to the debate.
The vast majority of these amendments make changes such as substituting "2010" for "2007", because of the different statutory instrument that would be referred to. Although I suppose it would in theory be possible for us to vote on all of them, because we think that it would be inappropriate to decide on them until the statutory instruments have been decided on, we will none the less want to press at least one to a vote simply to make the point that the process has not been sensible.
Government amendment 78, however, refers to the abandonment of a poll in Scotland. When the Minister sums up, will he explain precisely why he has moved in that direction? The amendment relates to line 3 of page 226, in schedule 7. The Minister also referred to Government amendment 177, which is, as he says, a quite substantial amendment. It runs to several pages and concerns Northern Ireland. It runs from page 1047 of the amendment paper onwards. Proposed new paragraph 40(2) states:
"The following provisions have effect as if the persons listed in them included persons who would be entitled to be present at the proceedings on the issue or receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum or a relevant election if those proceedings were taken on their own."
"Otherwise, the provisions listed in sub-paragraph (3) have effect as if the words before 'the colour' were omitted."
"The spoilt postal ballot paper may not be replaced unless all the postal ballot papers issued to the person are returned."
I do not understand why, if a voter has been given three ballot papers and has spoilt only one of them and therefore wants a replacement only for that one, they have to return the other two as well. Will the Government explain that? I ask about this because some people believe we should make postal balloting more difficult.
In Northern Ireland there has been a tradition of separate rules and regulations for postal voting, because of concerns about corruption. In case the Government are considering substantially restricting the use of postal voting in England and Wales, I must tell the Minister that the current provisions have made it far easier for a large number of my voters to vote in any election. Previously, people had to get a member of the medical profession to sign them off as ill to get a postal ballot. In many cases, my voters were charged £6 a head for the right to vote in an election by post, which I think is completely wrong. Of course we want to ensure that there is no opportunity for corruption in the use of postal ballots, but my experience is that many elderly and other people, particularly those who cannot predict the precise timing of their work commitments, value the current provisions on postal voting.
Finally, I am deeply grateful to the Minister for sending me an e-mail today about the definition of newspapers and periodicals, but unfortunately the parliamentary system would not let me open the attachment, so I do not have the faintest idea what it says. I would be grateful if he could find some means of letting me know what he was trying to communicate.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I hear about amendments that are probing, wrecking and reasoned, but amendment 222, in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), is simply protesting. It is protesting about what could have been achieved with a lot less resistance had the Government been reasonable and not tried to usurp Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland's day of democracy-a day that was set in stone, in legislation anyway, 12 years ago.
The Deputy Prime Minister has stuck his neck out on this-indeed, I wonder whether he is prepared for the consequences as it will be his neck on the block if things go wrong-and the Government have proceeded at breakneck speed, disregarding people's feelings and beliefs as well as the important issues that will arise in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales next May. That is not a slight against the two Ministers present-the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons-who have been handling a very sticky wicket quite well indeed.
No time has been taken to consult the devolved Governments on the Bill. However, that was also a mistake of the Labour party in government when it
delivered devolution to Scotland and Wales almost in direct correlation to the strengths of the nationalist parties in those countries. [Hon. Members: "Rubbish!"] That is not rubbish: it is absolutely right. We in Scotland got our Parliament because the Scottish National party is stronger than Plaid Cymru, which is why Wales got an Assembly. I often wonder why Scotland does not have even the powers of the Isle of Man-population 100,000.
In the past several weeks we have had five days to discuss the Bill in Committee. When the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was not speaking, we even had some time to get the odd word in before the guillotine. The debate was cut off at important points and some very interesting and reasonable amendments were put on to the waste heap of parliamentary time. One of the most interesting amendments came from the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who tried to ensure that all the Bill's measures, not only those on the voting system but those on the changes to boundaries and the number of Members, would have depended on gaining a positive result in the referendum.
Members who ran through the Lobby in haste, dismissing the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), will repent at leisure when they live in a world where boundaries are redrawn every five years, rather than every 10, as the amendment proposed. Perhaps more thought should have been given to that, and might yet be given in another place.
To me, the most important point is the date and the gate-crashing of another election. It is not that the people cannot cope; it is the media that will not cope. We saw how they managed to mangle the general election into a presidential election, with one winner, we were told, and then that turned out to be wrong.
Important issues that matter to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to play second fiddle in a one-dimensional media. People should be allowed to have a day and a debate focused on the messages that will affect their daily lives for four years, not a media hullabaloo about a voting system used once every five years. We fear that we have seen what the Government truly mean by the respect agenda.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman just slipped in, I hope, a reference to a voting system that will be used only every five years. I hope he will not support a five-year fixed-term Parliament, and that I might be able to entice him towards a four-year fixed-term Parliament, which would be a means of guaranteeing that the UK general election did not fall on the same day as a Scottish or a Welsh general election.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The salient point is not whether the election takes place every four years, five years, three years or whatever, but that the referendum coming up next May is usurping the day of democracy and affecting issues over four years. The Minister said that the UK will be solely responsible for the costs, which implies that the amendment has, in effect, been accepted. I welcome that.
When the referendum comes around, I cannot see parties such as the Scottish National party campaigning very strongly for or against. We will have more important things to do. I would encourage the Liberal Democrats to campaign on the referendum, because we will then go and hoover up their seats. A massive mistake is being made by holding that poll on the same day as the elections in Scotland. That is why I am making the protest, and I hope it is being heard. I do not know what will happen in another place, but it should change the provision.
Gate-crashing Scotland's day of democracy shows a lack of respect on the part of the Government. They say that they would have respected the devolved Administrations, but when pressed they tell us that the opinions of the governing parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not matter-a case of words and actions diverging greatly.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): Surely the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. We have heard much from the Opposition Benches about respect for the devolution settlement. This is an issue reserved to the Westminster Parliament, so the question of extensive consultation does not arise. This is a Westminster issue for the Westminster Parliament under our settlement.
Mr MacNeil: That is why respect is important. The day has been set in legislation for the Scottish Parliament for more than a decade. All of a sudden, somebody wanders in, gate-crashes the party and takes the media caravan on to the lawn. Hon. Members cannot imagine that people in Scotland will not be upset or annoyed that that is happening.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a disgrace that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government were not consulted? To compound that disgrace, the Government claim that they would pay no attention even if the Scottish Parliament passed a motion in this regard.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for speaking to the amendment. On the respect agenda, can he explain to me, because I do not understand, why the UK Government are against holding a referendum on further powers for Wales on the same day as the Welsh Assembly elections, yet are in favour of the referendum on AV? Obviously the referendum on further powers is far more relevant in terms of the Welsh Assembly elections.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, because that is an example of a lack of joined-up thinking, and, if the Government were to undertake this process again, they would not start from here, as it
were. They find themselves where they are and have to employ the best arguments, regardless of how sticky the wicket might be.
This Bill, like the spending cuts, has moved fast, and had some respect been shown, we might have supported it to a far greater extent than we have been able to. I shall not push my amendment to a vote, because I am sure that the Government have heard my point. Indeed, I think that the Minister has confirmed that the relevant costs will be the sole responsibility of the UK Government, and that makes me very pleased. However, it is my sincere hope that, until Scotland gains its independence, the Government will give us the respect that we truly deserve-the respect that was shown today to France and on other days to Norway.
Mr Dodds: On the respect agenda, and further to the intervention by the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe), there is a question not just about interfering with the date of the elections in the devolved regions, but about the changes to the boundaries in Northern Ireland. They will have a direct impact on the boundaries of Assembly constituencies, on which we were not consulted at all. This legislation has a direct impact on the Northern Ireland Assembly and its membership. It is not just a question of the date; the legislation has a direct impact on Northern Ireland, and for that reason there should have been consultation.
Well, not to Wales, but to a UK parliamentarian. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the interesting intervention by the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe), which was-I am not being patronising in any way-very well meaning, shows the difference in understanding on the part of those who are in the devolved nations and have a Parliament or an Assembly about how respect cuts both ways? Although we did not always get it right in government, we certainly
tried as Ministers to ensure that there was full dialogue and consultation even if we disagreed with the issue. If this Government should learn one thing from this debacle, it is that from now on they need to consult the devolved institutions properly.
Mr MacNeil: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He makes a very good point and leads me to reflect that perhaps I was a bit harsh on the hon. Lady. Perhaps there is simply a lack of understanding, rather than a lack of respect. If we think back, we find that yesterday was really-I think that I can safely use this term-"all-points Celtic". It was Cornwall. It was Wales. It was Northern Ireland?
Mr MacNeil: My "all-points Celtic" is checking out. It was also Scotland. It was a Celtic issue, and it hit across the nations and a region of the UK-he says, looking around him! However, there are very serious and important points here, and I hope that the Government will listen. At this late stage, it is not too late.
Kevin Brennan: It might not have been entirely inappropriate for the hon. Lady to intervene, because, as I recall from my visit to Corby as a young man, most of it was populated by Scots and Welsh people, who were there to set up the steelworks at the time.
On the date and the combination of polls, however, is it not also an own goal on behalf of the Government and, particularly, the Deputy Prime Minister? He is demotivating those electoral reformers among us who would have been prepared to go out alongside colleagues from other political parties to campaign for the alternative vote. We will now campaign with our parties to help our Welsh Assembly colleagues get elected, and not devote the energy that we otherwise would have done to the Deputy Prime Minister's cause?
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman is bang on. The Deputy Prime Minister, not content with having some opposition to his aspirations for a change in the voting system, has moved on to look for even more opponents to changes in the voting system, and he has succeeded in that end, because he has absolutely demotivated those people who will have greater priorities when the day comes in May. Their priority will not be the voting system for elections to the UK Parliament, and that is where the mistake lies.
Again, I ask the Minister to speak to his friends in the other place, because that might make quite a difference. Of course, there are those who might feel that there are elements within the governing coalition who are happy to see a demotivated support force for a change in the voting system. I will leave that question hanging.
Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab):
I am very surprised by the technical amendments that the Government have introduced. I have previously brought to the House's attention the fact that, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), I am currently still a Member of the Scottish Parliament. In the light of this debate, that is a very useful experience to bring to it. For eight of my 10 years in the Scottish Parliament, I was a Minister, and I introduced a considerable
amount of legislation. In my experience, if you had to table such a range of amendments, it meant one of two things: first, that something had gone very badly wrong with your legislation organisationally and it needed immediate rectification, perhaps at crisis level; or secondly, that you were wrong in the fundamentals and having to try to address that fact and clean up the mess.
It is deeply disappointing that the only way I see this Government engaging with Members of the Scottish Parliament on matters that fundamentally concern them is here in this Chamber. The only way that this Government and this House are going to understand the experience of the Scottish Parliament is by having MSPs in the Chamber. That is deeply disappointing and speaks to the respect agenda.
I am obliged to indicate to the House the widespread concern that exists throughout Scotland, across the political spectrum, about what this Government have done. I sincerely hope that we do not get the tired old argument that somehow we are suggesting that the Scottish people are not up to making two decisions at a time or understanding what is in front of them. That entirely misses the point and entirely misunderstands opinion in Scotland.
The core of this proposal, as seen across the political spectrum in Scotland, is that you are downplaying the significance of the Scottish Parliament elections. You are detracting from it, undermining it, and failing to appreciate how important it is. I would have to say that the Tories have a better record on this, but I will leave others to draw their own conclusions. It is fair to say that across Scotland we believe that you do not recognise the authority and status of the Scottish Parliament. That is what is at risk in these proposals and what is so worrying about them.
Worst of all is the fact that there was no consultation or engagement with Members of the Scottish Parliament or members of the body politic in Scotland. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it has the hallmark of arrogance about it. You significantly altered the arrangements for the Scottish Parliament elections, significantly altered the context in which a debate will be held in which we discuss matters of great significance to the Scottish people, and did so without a word of reference to the institution itself. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has pointed out many times, there are many means and mechanisms
established to have proper discussions between Governments, and the fact that you neglected to use any of them speaks ill of-
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady in mid-flow, but she is not correct. She is addressing me in the Chair, not the Minister, so when she uses the word "you" she is accusing me as the Chair. I ask her to bear that in mind and address me directly. As far as I am aware, I have not done any of these things at all, as a Minister or anything else.
Margaret Curran: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that correction. I had to be corrected several times in the Scottish Parliament for the same mistake, so I am clearly a very slow learner. I apologise.
Perhaps I could be so bold as to refer to the two Ministers on the Front Bench. One, I think, will remember what the last Tory Government did to Scotland; the other I am not too sure about. That Government imposed the poll tax on Scotland a year ahead of the rest of the UK. I can tell you that Scottish opinion was deeply offended, and we tried to tell the UK Government, "Don't do this to Scotland, because we think you're maltreating us." The rest of the UK seemed not to listen and dismissed that, and to this day Scottish people are offended by how the UK Government behaved. I am telling you, you are in danger of making the same mistake- [Interruption.] I tell the Minister that the Government are in danger of making the same mistake again.
The Bill's provisions will cut across, and distract attention from, the very important Scottish Parliament election to be held next year. It is clear that they were produced in haste, with no consultation. There has been no persuasion in the Government's arguments, just assertion. They fly in the face of Scottish experience, learn nothing from the Gould report and take nothing from what has happened in previous Scottish Parliament elections. They bear all the hallmarks of a political fix. Rather than an attempt to deliver genuine democratic progress, they are a mess, and they should be opposed.
Mark Durkan: Amendment 18 provides for the combination of three polls-the referendum, the Northern Ireland Assembly election and the Northern Ireland local elections. It will replace clause 4(4), and it provides that the polls are to be taken together on 5 May. The subsection that it replaces states:
"Where the date of the poll for"
"is the same as the date of the poll for the referendum, the polls are to be taken together".
Clause 4(4) also allows sections 31 or 32 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to apply. Under section 31, even though the due date for the election would be the first Thursday in May 2011, in other words 5 May, it could take place two months either side of that. Section 32 provides for a situation in which there was something of a collapse of the Assembly, with the First or Deputy First Minister resigning and not being replaced. I do not want to speculate on that as a possibility, but it is not an absolute political impossibility. In that instance, it would fall to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to name another date, which would not have to be within two months either way.
It seems to me that amendment 18 flies in the face of that, because it will legislate for the three polls to be on the one day regardless. I wonder whether the Government are creating unnecessary tension with existing legislation, because the amendment removes the possibility left open in the Bill. I would appreciate the Minister addressing that point.
"The Chief Electoral Officer may not decide that the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum and the relevant elections are to be taken together unless the Chief Counting Officer agrees."
The office of the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland is a useful and important one. It normally falls to that officer to arrange Assembly elections, local elections, and-under the guidance and control of statute-any combination arrangements for such polls. Amendment 162 opens up the possibility of the chief electoral officer having the issue and receipt of the ballot papers for all three polls together. However, if for some reason the UK chief counting officer does not agree with that, it does not happen. We seek assurances on the effect of that on the two polls that are in the purview of the chief electoral officer, and that it will not mean that the chief electoral officer is somehow prohibited from going ahead with bespoke combination arrangements for the two Northern Ireland elections.
Mr Dodds: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is arguing that Government amendment 18 in some way supersedes the ability of the Northern Ireland Assembly to move the election within a period of two months if they so wished? My understanding is that the amendment does not do that, but simply says that, if the referendum and the election were to be held on that date, they would be taken together. The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing something different.
I raise this because if one compares clause 4(4) with the text of amendment 18, it does seem to make a change. The text in the Bill allows for the possibility that is provided for in sections 31 and 32 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The amendment presumes and requires that the referendum and election happen together. There could be tension there, so I have asked the Minister to clarify or explain that. I am just puzzled by the wording. When one sees such variance in the
words, one has to ask whether it is inadvertent or whether there is an intention behind it.
Amendment 162 raises the possibility of the UK chief counting officer disagreeing with the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland in respect of the arrangements for combining the issue and receipt of postal ballots. Hon. Members might say that that is unlikely to happen. If that is the case, why is the amendment legislating for such a possibility and what are the implications for the conduct of the other elections and the issue of the postal ballot? Again, I seek clarification from the Minister. In a UK-wide referendum on the voting system, representations could be made to the chief counting officer through the Electoral Commission and so on. There could be legal challenges and threats of legal challenges from a well-resourced campaign that wants to disrupt or create confusion during the election. The chief counting officer might be minded to say that the referendum postal ballot papers have to be handled separately, or some other pressure could cause disagreement. It could be that the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland does not get agreement from the chief counting officer. In such cases, what is the price of that possibility and how will it impact on the arrangements not just for the referendum postal ballot papers but for the issue and receipt of the postal ballot papers for the local elections and the Assembly?
"The spoilt postal ballot paper may not be replaced unless all the postal ballot papers issued to the person are returned."
If we are providing for that in law, is it clearly stated in form 2-the form that is to apply in relation to a declaration of identity? The form provides advice on what to do in the case of a spoiled ballot, but it does not clearly state that one cannot return and have a spoiled ballot replaced unless all three forms are returned. There is confusion, so we need to see whether the effect of this amendment is properly covered, addressed and clearly expressed in the information that will be given to voters. It might be that voters reading the form as it is in the Bill will believe that they can have the referendum ballot paper replaced separately. If the Government are to go ahead with this amendment, they will have to make further amendments to the forms that are already in the Bill, or to the amended forms that they have provided for in this group of amendments.
Geraint Davies: As a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which has taken a considerable amount of evidence on this subject, I feel that I can talk about the potential confusion that surrounds the combination of polls that we face. The House may be interested in the testimony of Philip Johnson, the chair of the Welsh branch of the Association of Electoral Administrators. He said:
"The capacity for confusion is immense."
He said that 2015, when there will be the combination of polls, could be horrendous. He is not talking about voter confusion over policy issues, which will, I think, be a significant problem for our democracy.
In Wales, where we have a Labour Government, various proposals will be made to carry on, revive and enliven the policies in Wales. Alongside that, Labour will put forward a different set of proposals on focus and investment to take to the UK Parliament. Therefore,
there will be quite different proposals from the same party for different elections on the same day. What is more, there may be varying views on alternative voting. Furthermore, we will have different constituencies for the Assembly and for the UK parliamentary election. For example, I might be standing as the candidate for Swansea West and, at the same time, voters could be asked to vote Labour for the Assembly Member for Swansea Central. Obviously, that could be confusing to voters. We could have one party making different proposals in the same area.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why we should not have the referendum on the same date as other elections. I say that not because the electorate are not intelligent enough to understand that there are different questions being asked of them, but because the system itself is intrinsically and intentionally confusing.
Geraint Davies: I certainly agree with the hon. Lady. What I have just said is a prelude to what I was going to say about the inherent administrative confusion over the combination of the polls. I only added the issue about confusion in voters' minds over the policy, where they live and who represents them because the same party will be saying different things to them.
To start with, therefore, people will go into polling stations feeling a bit confused because of that complexity, but there is a further problem. Normally, there will be different turnouts for different elections-traditionally, the UK election turnout is higher than the Assembly election turnout, and it can be expected to be higher than that for the AV referendum. People will go into polling stations without necessarily wanting to vote in all three polls, and without a settled position on them.
Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con): The hon. Gentleman will know that Wales has held European Parliament elections on the same day as Assembly elections. He should surely not overdo his point, because on those occasions, people were able to make a choice. It could be argued that the turnout for one election had a positive impact on the turnout for the other.
Geraint Davies: Having more than one poll on the same day is not without precedent. My point is that putting yet more questions in more elections on the same day adds complexity, which can lead to confusion and administrative problems.
Mr MacNeil: May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the real problem that we fear is what happened in the UK general election? The media tried to turn that into a presidential election. They skew what happens on the day by concentrating on one event and missing what is the main event to people who live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. That is my concern, and I think it is shared on both sides of the House.
Geraint Davies: The hon. Gentleman is right and what he says is fair. Inevitably, the media will focus on the UK election and, to a certain extent, the AV referendum. In Wales or Scotland, there are points of difference between different parties on health and education and so on, but they will be overwhelmed by the background noise of the media, which will focus on health and education in England.
As the Conservative position on health develops, they might take out the strategic centre of the NHS in favour of a more atomised view. That is in complete contrast with the more traditional NHS model in Wales. However, the media will talk about the prospective changes to England's NHS rather than what happens on the ground in Welsh hospitals. People's understanding of how their hospital works could be quite different from what is actually happening, and they might vote on a false pretext. The power of the media talking about the UK will overwhelm knowledge of what is actually being delivered in local schools and hospitals, particularly among those who do not use such services.
"our concerns are not, first and foremost, about the principles at stake in each of these consultations with the nation. They are about the wisdom and fairness of cramming so much debate and decision into so short a space of time".
There is a traditional comprehensive schooling system in Wales, but the situation in England has become different from that over the years, both under this Administration and the previous one. The choices faced by Welsh and English voters are therefore different, but again, they will be slightly confused.
Ms Bagshawe: Surely that is to underestimate the sophistication of the Welsh electorate. We have seen that voters in the United States are capable of engaging in multiple elections from multiple positions at state and presidential level, and that at one and the same time, they participate in ballot initiatives and referendums. US voters take a multiplicity of decisions with no discernible effect on their democracy.
Geraint Davies: I appreciate that the electorate is sophisticated and that it is possible to have more than one poll at a time. I am simply saying that given the respect agenda for devolution, there should be space for rational discussion of the choices facing Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland without that being overwhelmed by the media noise from the UK, which will impose a template that is different from what happens in the devolved countries. That is confusing.
The testimony to the Welsh Affairs Committee on potential confusion regarding the mechanics of the polls is very persuasive. I said that voters could be confused by issues-some voters are not quite as in tune as the hon. Lady-but many will not.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Of course, in the US, elections are so complex that they have the concept of punching the ticket. A voter can simply say, "I'm a Democrat," and vote for all Democrats in one go.
However, my hon. Friend's question on complexity and confusion could also apply to England, because there will be different types of elections using different
voting systems on the same day. Regardless of the principles of voting systems and the big decisions made on them, does he agree that the key democratic principle is that Parliament takes its time and comes up with something that is coherent overall, rather than rushing through a dog's breakfast of a series of Bills that is inherently incoherent and divisive?
Geraint Davies: My hon. Friend is completely right on the Government's policy, but there will also be a problem with the situation on the ground. For example, the chair of the Association of Electoral Administrators said that
"there is...capacity for the polling station staff to be confused as to which ballot paper should go to which elector."
Why is that? The chair told the Committee that in Newport, there were 1,000 European voters, who were not eligible for all of the ballots. In some ballots, some people had postal votes, but in others they did not. Someone would come to the polling station and say, "I want my vote," but they had already been sent a postal vote.
In Wales, for proportionality, we vote for a list for the Assembly, but we also vote for a local Assembly Member. In addition, we might vote for a UK MP and in the AV referendum. The aggregate turnout will therefore be much higher. People may say, "That's great. That's good for democracy," but if all those people turn up at a facility that is expecting fewer of them, and if the arrangements are as complex as I described, there will be more queuing. People will have to find different boxes of different colours and all the rest of it, so there is quite a lot of scope for major confusion that could undermine the democratic process that we all love.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): May I return the hon. Gentleman to what he said about the confusion on issues? There is a respect issue in relation to holding the AV referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections. However, on holding a UK Parliament election and an Assembly election on the same day, I am sure that he, like me, has received many letters on things such as the Academies Act 2010. Because of the power of the media, many in Wales were genuinely concerned about the implications of that legislation, but of course, it has no bearing whatever on Wales. That power cannot be understated in terms of holding the AV referendum and the election on the same day.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman believes that, because he is completely right. People are very influenced by the media-that is how they get information-but there is a lot of confusion. When Labour was in power in the UK Parliament, certain innovations in Wales were not carried out in England and vice versa. There was a slightly different policy on prescriptions, for instance. People would wonder, "What am I voting for? It says here that I'm voting for this, but the competition says that Labour is doing something different," but they would be comparing literature for
different elections. If people are unclear what is being said by different parties, they will be unable to make a rational decision or to say, "I will vote for this party because I prefer its proposals to those of other parties." That undermines democracy itself.
Mr Williams: The capacity of the Welsh media to respond has been severely hampered, whether we look at the position of Sianel Pedwar Cymru or the loss of pluralism- [ Interruption. ] It is S4C, the Welsh language media-
Geraint Davies: If we had the traditional Sky debate, with the three leaders-or two leaders, now-and ignoring the nationalists, during Assembly elections, they would be even more annoyed, and they would have reason to be so. Indeed, they might even intervene.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not a question of underestimating the capacity of the electorate to make well-informed decisions on myriad voting papers and through different voting methods on any particular date? It is actually a question of overestimating the capacity of party workers to elucidate two or three different arguments at one time on the doorstep. This will lead to a dumbing down of the message from us to the electorate-
Huw Irranca-Davies: It could happen, unless Ministers have some secret plan and a network of workers who can explain two or three different messages on the doorstep. I do not have such an army of people.
Geraint Davies: The difficulty that we all have, as elected Members, is inspiring people who understand the issues to come out and vote one way or another. If there is general confusion, it will not engender confidence in the whole system.
Mr David: Like my hon. Friend, I do not underestimate the ability of the electorate to understand the complexities before them, but does he agree that it may be difficult to explain to people why they are voting on AV-which is not proportional representation but a version of first past the post-at the same time as they are voting in the Assembly elections with two votes, one for first past the post and the other in a proportional system in which votes will be allocated using a top-up list and the d'Hondt system?
It will be very complicated to explain to people in Wales why, when they already have a proportional representation system that is fair, they should opt for the alternative vote, which is not fair. The people in favour of AV will argue-although I do not agree-"Well, AV is better than first past the post. It
may not be as good as what you already have in Wales, but we still want you to vote for it. By the way, we also want to talk about parking in hospitals". People might also want to talk about the fact that Sky Television does not allow the nationalists to speak-although as I am being sponsored by Sky, I will not mention that. That was a joke.
Valid points have been made by hon. Members on both sides, but we should bear in mind-if we want a participative democracy-the attention span of voters, who will give only so much of their time to the message from politicians, whether it is dumbed down or quite complicated. They might do the American thing, where they slam down 140 ballots-or however many they are doing on one day-and vote the same way on a slate. We do not want that because, for example, Labour's plans, and the big holes in its spending, should be scrutinised hard in the coming election.
Geraint Davies: I am certainly grateful that we will have a lot of scrutiny in Scotland. I agree that there is scope for confusion even though, as many hon. Members said, we cannot underestimate the sophistication of the electorate. However, one in five people in Britain are functionally illiterate and find it difficult to fill in forms. If they face four or more ballot papers, and a multiplicity of different questions in different areas and zones, it will be confusing. If we want to increase rather than decrease participation-and for people to vote how they intended to vote, and not vote the wrong way-we should make it easy for them by having a coherent system, with the choices being sequential rather than coincident.
On the basis of the testimony given to the Select Committee about the immense capacity for confusion and the horrendous administrative challenges, it is likely that several court cases will arise, especially where a small margin of votes decides the outcome. I once lost a seat by 75 votes, having received 20,000. If there are lots of ballot papers that appear to have been put into the wrong box and apparent incoherence in the way in which people voted, with spoilt ballot papers and postal votes, people will say, "Hold on, we need to take this to court." Other people will say, "We went to this ballot place, but they have changed the boundaries." So many changes are being made at the same time that we are asking for problems.
These proposals are a backward step for democracy. I appreciate the arguments for equal numbers in constituencies, but what people really want is effective democracy that works. They need to understand what they have voted for and they need to get what they voted for-if most people agreed. They want lines of accountability, so that they can talk to their Assembly Member about health and their Member of Parliament about benefits, for example. They do not want to be told, "Oh, we have changed the boundaries and they are no longer coterminous, so you can't do that." People do not want workers to knock on their door and say, "We want you to vote in this Assembly election and, by the way, there's also a UK election, and these are the issues-and don't forget the AV vote."
We have had the comprehensive spending review, and in Wales some cuts will be imposed directly on non-devolved matters, such as the DVLA in Swansea, but some cuts will go through the Welsh Assembly as part of its grant, and it will have to make tough choices. People may be confused about who is doing what and what responsibility different people have for those choices. That undermines the democratic tapestry that we have set out through devolution to bring democracy closer to people, so that local decisions are made more closely to local people. If everything is scrambled up into a confusion overlaid by the mass media that want to get simple points across about the UK situation, thus crowding out more localised concerns, our democracy will be the worse for it. If the administration of the vote is in a state of collapse, things will be even worse.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend foresee a situation in which two Labour supporters were campaigning for an Assembly candidate and a voter asked, "What do you think about AV?", and they had totally different viewpoints. They might get into an argument, which would help no one- [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) obviously thinks that that is highly unlikely to happen.
Geraint Davies: I wish that we had enough party workers for that to happen. However, theoretically, the people campaigning in elections in an area may not agree on AV. In my city, we have several MPs, and it is possible that one of them-say, me-might not agree with AV, but another Labour MP might agree with it. If it was reported that Labour was in favour of AV, I would say that I was not in favour of it. All those problems will be superimposed on the Assembly and parliamentary votes, alongside shifted boundaries and some people losing their postal votes, leading to mass confusion and excessive cost.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Moving from policy, the mechanics of the proposal and the possible conjunction of elections, we have all been in the homes of elderly people who perhaps have difficulties filling in forms. We have rightly tightened the rules on the ability of politicians such as me to influence those decisions in any way, although we can try to help with guidance. On that basis, does my hon. Friend share my worry that, one way or the other, we could see a lot more spoilt ballot papers in those elections? If so, has he heard anything in any of these discussions about an increase in resources for electoral registration officers?
Geraint Davies: I certainly agree that it is very likely that the number of spoilt ballot papers will increase. We all know that some spoilt ballot papers-a very small proportion-are intentionally spoilt. People write a load of rubbish, which is clearly intentional. However, with the extra complexity, my judgment is that people will think that they have voted one way, but then change their minds and cross something out. Obviously the returning officer will say, "Well, that's not a valid vote," but if there are large numbers of such votes in those polls, which might have large or small turnouts-these are difficult things to judge-that will be unfortunate.
I have a concern, in that people have talked about the electorate as if they were a homogenous group, but in certain areas there will be less educational opportunity,
inter-generational poverty and a lack of capability to fill in lots of forms, along with under-registration. When those factors are overlaid, it shows a built-in institutionalised discrimination against people who may be poorer or may have had fewer educational opportunities, and who may therefore be more likely either not to participate or to end up spoiling their ballot papers, and democracy would be the poorer for it.
I am sure that the Minister will respond to the point about the financial facilities made available to cope with the extra administration. Clearly there will be an enormous burden on local authorities. I know that the Boundary Commission for Wales has been given £1.9 million for redrawing the boundaries, as opposed to administering the election. Let us remember that only 3 million people live in Wales, yet an extra £1.9 million has been given for starters. When we aggregate that, adding the legal costs and so on, the sum involved will be enormous. Some of these proposals were sold to the media in the name of addressing all these costly MPs buying duck houses, or whatever they are supposed to have done, but the reality is that the cost of change will completely dwarf the savings on MPs. It is completely ridiculous. We are spending millions and millions of pounds setting up administrative complexity. Effective democracy will fall on its face, leading to legal challenges and a fall in confidence in the system, all of which is being railroaded through by a party that does not seem to care.
John Mann: My hon. Friend mentions the cost and expense of MPs. With an independent body setting MPs' salaries, has he considered the certainty that if the Bill proceeds into law, it will inevitably increase the salary of MPs? The argument will be put-and doubtless accepted-that there is more work per MP, and that there should therefore be a certain rate for the job. Therefore, this Bill will not cut pay; it will in fact increase the pay of MPs.
Geraint Davies: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker. What we are talking about is the combination of polls and the confusion that this could cause. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) suggested in his intervention that combining the polls should require extra money. I completely agree with that, and was simply making the point that the Boundary Commission for Wales has already been given £1.9 million just for redrawing the boundaries, let alone for carrying out the work on the political machinery, which will be enormous. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has simply made the point that those enormous costs will dwarf any prospective saving and that, in fact, there will probably be no saving at all.
In conclusion, a combination of polls will be expensive and confusing, and will undermine democracy and lead to legal challenge. The Bill does not factor in the problems of having postal votes for some votes and not for others, the different systems superimposed on the same day, and the fact that the media might dwell on one election rather than another, thereby undermining the ability of local parties to send discrete messages to discrete audiences. It is a sad day for democracy.
Kevin Brennan: I will attempt to be reasonably concise. It is worth returning to the amendments, which are about the combination of polls, and reminding ourselves-and the literally dozens of people who I am sure are still watching on the BBC Parliament channel, after our deliberations so far-why we are discussing combining the referendum in the Bill with the Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament and local government elections.
The only reason we are doing that is down to one man, who has been completely invisible during our deliberations, namely the Deputy Prime Minister. The only reason we are discussing this issue is that the Deputy Prime Minister is convinced that his best chance of winning the referendum on the introduction of the alternative vote will be if it takes place on the same day as the elections to the devolved Assemblies and the local government elections. As the amendments in the group show, this is not a matter of finance, although that argument is sometimes put forward. It is nothing to do with that; rather, it is entirely to do with a belief that the alternative vote is more likely to be supported in a referendum if it is held on the same day as those other elections.
In that sense, this is one of the most surreal debates in which I have ever participated in the House of Commons, because the Deputy Prime Minister will not come here himself to make that point. Instead he sends along the Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who comes along to make the case, even though he does not himself believe that the alternative vote should be passed into law. In fact, this is the second time in one day that he has had to come forward to promote Liberal Democrat policy in the House. After the duffing up that he got in the Tea Room after the first time, I hope that he is a bit safer now.
Kevin Brennan: Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker. The point that I was making was that the very reason for the amendments that are before us, about the combination of polls, is to do with the beliefs of one person, who has put up the Minister, as it were, to come along and defend those amendments.
A lot has been made of the potential confusion that could arise. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe), whom I commend for taking a lot of interest in these proceedings. I take her point about American elections; in fact, my wife is an American
citizen and still votes in American elections. We get the very lengthy ballot papers that people receive through the post in California, and which do indeed combine polls on many different issues on one day. I am less disturbed by my constituents' ability to distinguish between different issues on the same day than I am by the contempt that the Government have shown. I am disturbed by the contempt shown for the devolved Administrations by he who must not be named-I am not going to mention his name again, for fear of upsetting you, Mr Deputy Speaker-when, although he represents a party that claims to be a party of devolution, he completely ignores the wishes of the devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Mark Lazarowicz: Like my hon. Friend, I think my constituents will be able to cope with the technical difficulties of dealing with two or three ballot papers on the same day. The problem is not confusion on the part of electors, but that the focus of political debate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will inevitably be on what will be general elections in those countries. That is what will distort the reality, not the two votes on the same day. Newspapers and the media will focus on the general elections, not on the alternative vote referendums, so that matter will not receive the sort of scrutiny that it should.
Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend is entirely right, and that point has been clearly made during the debate. We know that that is the reality. Debates on national elections in Scotland and Wales, and elections in Northern Ireland, will be swamped in the general UK media by discussion about the referendum on the alternative vote.
The hon. Member for Corby was right constitutionally and technically to say that such matters, with the exception of a couple, are reserved. First, the UK Government have generally agreed through their various protocols with the devolved Administrations to consult on matters directly affecting them, and protocols exist in the civil service to enable those consultations to take place, but they are being abandoned because of the desire of he who shall not be named to meet the deadline to enable the measure to be rushed through.
Kevin Brennan: I will give way in a moment, but first I want to make my second point, about why I think the hon. Lady is wrong. One of the first actions by her leader, when he became Prime Minister-many of us thought it was commendable at the time-was to visit the devolved Administrations and to make it clear that the interaction between the UK Government and those devolved Administrations would be based on respect. In this instance, the Government have fallen far short of the Prime Minister's aim and his promise at that time.
Ms Bagshawe: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous comments earlier. It is regrettable that the catchphrase-the respect agenda-about which we hear so much from Opposition Members, does not seem to work two ways. The matter is a devolved one for the United Kingdom Government, and Opposition Members have failed to realise how strongly voters in England feel about the democratic deficit to which they are subjected, which the Bill aims to remedy.
Kevin Brennan: We have found out what respect means to the hon. Lady. For me it means having mutual respect, and when the previous Administration offered devolved government to people in England, they turned it down. It is a matter of respect that if people in England do not want devolved government, that is a matter for them. My point is that the Prime Minister took the trouble to visit the capitals of Wales and Scotland, as well as Belfast, to talk to the devolved Administrations. He promised a relationship of respect, despite the fact that the Conservative party was originally vehemently opposed to devolution, and said that things had changed and the relationship was new. However, because of the needs of he who shall not be named, the Government had to abandon that respect agenda and provide for the combination of polls.
Mark Durkan: I thank my hon. Friend for emphasising the principles of the respect agenda concerning the devolved Administrations, but it should also apply to this Chamber. Is it not odd to have a Deputy Prime Minister who relies on deputies to appear in the Chamber more than he does?
Kevin Brennan: I fear that I will test your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I make a further reference to he who shall not be named, but clearly my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. My point, Mr Deputy Prime Minister-I mean Mr Deputy Speaker; that was a Freudian slip, and he shall be named after all. My point, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that many Labour Members are favourably inclined towards electoral reform, but others are not. Many of us would have looked forward to the opportunity-it was in our manifesto-of putting the question to the British people and allowing them to decide in a clean, clear referendum for which that was the sole focus of the discussion. That could easily have happened, and that is exactly what should have happened.
As that did not happen, many of us who are favourably inclined towards electoral reform are severely demotivated in terms of putting our weight behind what seems to be a venture with no respect for those of us who might support that agenda. That may suit many hon. Members on both sides of the House who do not agree with electoral reform, but I think it is a terrible shame, because we will all devote our energy to the important national elections in the devolved Administrations, and the referendum will be ignored during those elections. I shall vote in favour of the alternative vote in the referendum, but I fear that it will be lost. Boy, won't that be awkward for he who must not be named!
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): I want to speak about the complexity, confusion and unfairness that have so often been referred to in this debate, and that comes from the perspective of having suffered the ignominy of a proposition for regional government for the north-east of England, which I vehemently supported, being lost in a referendum, almost six years ago to the day. Part of the reason for that, although not the only one by any stretch of the imagination, was the fact that the question of regional government for the north-east of England was combined on the same ballot paper with a question about what form of unitary local government was wanted.
Although 70% of electors in the north-east of England were not subject to any change in local authority, the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sent out a
six-page supplement to every voter in the region, four pages of which were about local government reorganisation. Many of my constituents rang me asking whether the proposal would mean the end of Gateshead council. It had no impact on Gateshead council, other councils in Tyne and Wear, or councils in Teesside, but the six-page document had four pages about local government reform, and of course the whole concept of regional government for England was lost at that stage.
When addressing the issue of complexity, confusion and fairness, we must look at the coalition Government's stance. They have repeatedly told us that their actions in passing legislation and making ministerial judgments must pass the acid test of fairness. So is the proposed measure fair or is it not? In fact, the junior coalition partners have almost made it their mantra that they will support their senior coalition partners as long as measures are seen to be fair. The Bill clearly fails that test in many ways, yet the "fairness party", as the Liberal Democrats see themselves, is still voting in the Lobby to support it-with a handful of notable exceptions on some clauses and amendments. Citizens' capacity to vote in a referendum is vital, and part of the unfairness to which I refer is the fact that the arbitrary nature of the Government's proposal disregards the geography and natural togetherness of local communities. I envisage that virtually every constituency in the country will be subject to change-with the exception, of course, of the two constituencies exempted because of their peripheral geography, and because they encompass so many islands.
It is difficult to fathom a scenario in which, in order to meet the twin criteria of ending up with exactly 600 constituencies that must all comprise exactly 76,000 electors, plus or minus 5%, there will be knock-on effects across county boundaries and even regional boundaries-
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I am also a little concerned that the hon. Gentleman is going wide of the subject of the combination of polls. Perhaps he could stick to the confusion that he spoke about earlier. This sounds a bit like a speech for a Third Reading debate.
Ian Mearns: Mr Deputy Speaker, the unfairness to which I want to address my remarks mainly relates to town and city dwellers. I am not for one moment implying that the people whom I speak of do not exist in the countryside; they do, of course, but not in anywhere near the same kind of numbers as in our towns and cities. The calculations that the Government have made in drawing up their criteria totally disregard the 3.5 million people who are not registered to vote or to take part in the referendum-
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Yet again, I think that the hon. Gentleman has not really paid due attention to the amendments before him. He is entering into a much wider debate. I ask him to look again at the subject of the combination of polls, please.
Ian Mearns: Not only will those people be unable to vote in the elections; they will also be unable to vote in the referendum on our voting system. There are many reasons why people will be unable to enfranchise themselves, and it is important to have regard for such people. Some might be in debt and trying to escape from their creditors. Others might be trying to avoid violent loan sharks. They will not be enfranchised to take part in a referendum because they are trying to escape from the people who are pursuing them. Some might be victims of domestic violence hiding from violent former partners-
Mr Harper: I did not detect any focus on the amendments in the last few speeches, so I shall not address the points that were made in them. I shall focus instead on those Members who troubled themselves to speak to the amendments and raised sensible points, as did the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). He and others mentioned that the orders relate to the elections and not to the referendum. The conduct of the elections is not devolved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) said. The hon. Gentleman will know that, under the Calman proposals, we propose to move the administration of those elections to the Scottish Parliament.
The orders that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are not amendable, and I hope that the House will support them. If it does not, I have already said that we will revert to the original provisions in the Bill, which have been debated and voted on by the House. Either way, the House of Commons will have had the opportunity to consider both scenarios-without the new orders and with them-and to pronounce on them. I am therefore confident that the House and the other place will have taken those decisions, whatever they might be.
Chris Bryant: When the hon. Gentleman says that the Government would revert to the previous provisions, I presume he means that he would table amendments in the House of Lords, because he would not be able to table them here. In that case, he would not have met his own criterion that matters relating to the elections would be decided on here.
Mr Harper: No, not at all. If Parliament did not adopt the orders, we would indeed have to table the amendments in the House of Lords, but in so doing, we would simply be bringing the Bill back to the stage that it is at with the amendments that have already been debated and voted on by this House. Either way, it would be this House that had effectively decided on the machinery for our electoral arrangements. I hope that I have set that out clearly, even though I know that the hon. Gentleman does not agree with it.
I listened carefully to the speech by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who is no longer in his place, or, indeed, any other place-[Hon. Members: "He must be somewhere!"] Well, he is not in the Chamber. He must be somewhere, but he is not here. He talked about the respect agenda, and he and others
talked about holding elections and referendums on the same day. We have had this debate before, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will not try your patience.
The hon. Gentleman made some sensible points on the coincidence of elections, notably of a UK general election and devolved elections. He knows that that matter has been highlighted-although not actually put in place-by the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, and we have already said that we are thinking about possible solutions. When the Government have settled on a position, we will consult parties in each of the devolved nations-not the devolved Administrations, because they only represent one or more parties-to come up with a solution. That relates to the coincidence of elections; the Government do not think that the combination of a referendum and elections will have the same qualitative impact.
Mr Harper: I will not dwell on that point at length, because you would rule me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Briefly, however, I will say that it would be possible, if there were an early UK general election or if the devolved Administrations' cycles changed, to have four-year terms for both Administrations. That could result in coincidence on every occasion, rather than just once every 20 years. I will not pursue that, however, as it relates to a different piece of legislation, which the House will have the chance to debate in due course.
Chris Bryant: I know that the Minister will not want to dwell on this point either, but he was talking about process, and about the amendments that he might or might not have to table. If the Government change the law on prisoners' voting, they will have to do so in primary legislation. Will the Minister make it clear that he would not do that by tabling amendments to this Bill in the House of Lords?
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman is getting ahead of himself a little. I made it clear in the statement that the Government had not yet made any decisions on how to implement that judgment. We have made it quite clear on a number of other issues relating to this Bill that it is about the referendum. Indeed, we have resisted amendments in which people have tried to make changes that would have a wider policy impact and that should be made elsewhere. For example, we had a debate on the appropriate age at which people should be able to vote. There was a general view on the Government Benches, even among those who support that provision for elections in general, that this Bill was not the right place in which to make those arrangements. I think that I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks.
The hon. Gentleman asked why the form for the postal voting statement to be used for Scottish Parliament elections in which the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers was not combined had been changed. The Scotland Office has updated the form in the 2010 order, and we have followed that in the Bill for the purposes of the Scottish Parliament elections next May.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) asked why, in Northern Ireland, all postal ballot papers had to be returned if one was
spoiled. In cases of a combined poll, there will be a pack containing all the ballot papers, and another pack would have to be issued in such circumstances. Someone could end up with multiple ballot papers for the same election, if the first set were not returned. That is also the long-standing practice in England, Wales and Scotland. I shall come to the hon. Member for Foyle's other points in a second, and he can come back to me if he does not think that that answer is appropriate.
The hon. Member for Rhondda also asked why proposed new paragraph 42 in amendment 177 referred to the words before "the colour" being omitted. The words are being omitted when the poll at one election is taken with the poll at another election. The reason that we have omitted them is because, if the elections happen on 5 May, we know that there will be combinations and that the words will be redundant. He also asked why amendment 78 changed the wording in line 3 of page 266. It is a consequential minor change-consequential to the drafting change made to the order governing the Scottish Parliament elections-and it is not intended to have any practical effect.
I was asked about amendment 78 and the changes to provisions on abandonment of poll in the Scottish parliamentary elections. Again, this follows changes to the 2010 order, which separates out for the first time provisions dealing with the death of a candidate in a regional election from those dealing with the death of a candidate in a constituency election. This means we have to amend the provision, making it clear how the abandonment of either poll would affect the referendum. The policy remains that the referendum poll would continue.
Mr Harper: They are about different things; they are not linked. [Interruption.] No, the later amendment is about how the AV rules would work, whereas this one is about the working of the elections taking place next year. They are separate issues.
I was also asked about the use of black ink on the postal voting statement. Because it is for the postal voting statement, it is not relevant to the forms used in the polling station. My understanding and my advice is that the use of black ink is to make the document easier to verify when it is checked and scanned when the postal vote identifiers are being checked. I will make further inquiries, however, and write to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) if this proves not to be the case.
Mr Harper: I will look further into that. The real issue is the ease with which returning officers can validate the identifiers. I understand that, where that is not able to be done automatically, it means in practice that it has to be done manually. As I say, however, I will check, write to the hon. Gentleman, copy it to the hon. Member for Rhondda and place a copy in the House of Commons Library.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) said that there were a significant number of amendments. That is true, although as I think the hon. Member for Rhondda acknowledged in his remarks, a lot of them are very technical. They consist of replacing 2007 with 2010, for example, and use straightforward language to reflect what has been changed. The issues of substance, particularly those affecting Northern Ireland-where significant changes have been made to postal voting-have been discussed.
The hon. Member for Foyle raised a number of issues. He asked whether the chief electoral officer could still combine working on local and Assembly elections. Yes, he can. I was asked why the chief counting officer and the Northern Ireland chief electoral officer need to agree on the issue of the receipt of postal ballot papers. The chief counting officer co-ordinates the referendum nationally, so he has the general power of direction. The chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland obviously knows that situation on the ground, so it makes sense for them both to agree on whether to issue combined postal votes. The same position applies in the rest of the United Kingdom. We were urged at an earlier stage of our debate to make this mandatory, but combining the postal ballot papers would sometimes not be practical. Legislating for something that proves not to be practical is not very sensible.
The hon. Member for Foyle also made a point about amendment 18. My advice is that it is not intended to-and, we understand, it does not-change the position on the ability of the Northern Ireland Assembly to change the date. He raises a good point, however, and if he is concerned about it, it is worth my reflecting on it further. I will do so and write to him when I have thought more about it. I repeat that it is not the intention to change the position and we do not believe that it does. The point is nevertheless worth dealing with, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman, if that is acceptable.
Mr Harper: Yes, of course. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to confirm that. I will write to the hon. Member for Foyle, copy my reply to the hon. Member for Rhondda and place it in the Library for the benefit of all hon. Members. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. A number of private conversations are going on, and I am finding it difficult to listen to the Minister. If Members want to have a chat, will they please go outside the Chamber?
I have just one further point. The hon. Member for Foyle also raised an issue about whether the language on the forms was clear enough about spoiled ballot papers. The form mentions the need to return all the spoiled papers, but that might leave some ambiguity, so I will reflect further on it. There are two things worth saying. We have an opportunity to deal with the issue,
but the hon. Gentleman will know that at an earlier stage of our proceedings, the House agreed to an amendment that gave the Electoral Commission permission to make the forms-but not the ballot papers-more accessible for disabled people and easier for voters to understand. To be clear, if, after the Bill receives its Royal Assent, as I hope it does, any further issues are raised as to whether the forms are as clear as they could be, the Electoral Commission will have the power to make those changes to facilitate accessibility or make the forms easier to use.
Mark Durkan: I thank the Minister for those particular assurances, but on my reading, form 3A under schedule 8 does not explain that if one ballot is spoiled, they all have to be returned. That is not at all clear in the wording. Any effective amendment would need to lead to a change of wording on the form, perhaps through the channel that the Minister has described.
Mr Harper: I agree. I said that I thought the hon. Gentleman made a fair point. I will go away, think about whether it is a real concern-it is a good point-and decide on the best way to deal with it. I hope that that is helpful. I believe that I have addressed the points made by hon. Members and I hope that the House will agree to the Government amendments.
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