Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hamwee: Before the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, responds, I obviously did not make myself clear. I was not seeking to apply different definitions to different references to referendums in the various clauses; I believed that I had found the right place to include an amendment covering the whole of the Bill. My point was not the distinction between different types of referendums within the Bill but referendums within the Bill and under other pieces of legislation. It seems to be quite clear that the Government do not intend the various provisions on referendums in the Bill to be read over into any other legislation, but since we do not have a definition of "referendum" as such in a way that limits it, it seemed to me worth pursuing the admittedly rather pedantic but possibly important point. Furthermore, I wanted to make the reason for my amendment clear to the Government, as I obviously had not done so before.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I indicated earlier that it was not my intention to press the amendment. I therefore beg leave to withdraw it.

1 Feb 2000 : Column 186

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 249 to 251A not moved.]

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 252:

    Page 15, line 20, at end insert ("or referendums").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 253:

    Page 15, line 24, at end insert ("(including the publicity to be given with respect to the consequences of the referendum)").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 254:

    Page 15, line 27, leave out paragraph (d).

The noble Baroness said: Paragraph (d) states,

    "permitting a referendum to take place in a manner which does not involve a poll".

I have never come across such a provision. One could, I suppose, do this by telephone or one could have a MORI poll, but I assume that a referendum is meant to be done by formal polling and formal marking up of a referendum question. It may be that regulations will describe what a "non poll" is. I should be grateful for an explanation. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: I shall try to clarify the intention behind this provision. The noble Baroness will be aware that yesterday we gave the Representation of the People Bill its Second Reading. Among other things, such as rolling electoral registration, that Bill provides for local authorities to pilot innovations in electoral practice and for those successful innovations to be used more generally in elections.

There are some obvious possibilities, which may or may not commend themselves to the Committee, such as conducting an entire election by postal vote, or over the Internet, or by the telephone, which do not involve a poll in the sense that we normally refer to it. Under the Representation of the People Bill, those will be available for piloting. They will obviously require further legislation if they are to be put into general use. Clearly, such possible innovations could apply to referendums as they could to elections. If the amendment were accepted, it would delete from the scope of the Bill the power to make regulations as to how those alternative ways of casting votes could be used and whether any of those innovations could be used in this context. That would be an unnecessary loss of flexibility. The regulations themselves would have to be tightly written. Nevertheless, I do not think that this Bill should prevent that flexibility applying to referendums.

Baroness Byford: I rise to support my noble friend's amendment. Perhaps the Minister will clarify this point for me. Whatever form one is using, one is actually taking a poll. There is some form of judgment at the end of the day. That surely is a poll. The difficulty is that the words as set out in the Bill assume a poll in the conventional sense and not in ways that

1 Feb 2000 : Column 187

may be used in the future. However, at the end of the day, people are giving an opinion, which surely must be a poll.

Baroness Hamwee: I support that view. I have the same difficulty with the provision and was glad to see that an amendment had been tabled by the noble Baroness.

However, I am slightly more disturbed having heard the Minister's response. I do not want to appear to be a dinosaur, unwilling to contemplate the possibility of new voting methods. However, if there are to be new voting methods, they deserve careful parliamentary scrutiny. They should not be the subject of regulations which may not receive parliamentary scrutiny. If that is so, it does not seem necessary to have these words on the face of the Bill. The changes could be made in legislation introducing new methods of voting.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: It is still my belief that the wording is wrong. If any of the innovations described in the Bill are used, those are still a poll. Proxy voting is part of a poll; it is a formal examination of how people want to vote. The provision states that this,

    "does not involve a poll".

Therefore, it raises the question: when is a poll not a poll, and when is it a fiddle?

Lord Dixon-Smith: I had not expected to intervene in this debate, but I have considerable sympathy with everything that is being said on this side of the Committee. At the very least, in the interests of clarity it would be helpful if the Minister would agree--even if he is not prepared to withdraw the words from the face of the Bill--to take the matter away and examine it to see whether he can return with a more felicitous way of stating what the paragraph attempts to put out. As matters stand, we could debate the issue of when a poll is not a poll, or whether a poll is a poll, until midnight and get no further, and have no greater clarity at the end of the discussion.

Lord Whitty: We could indeed, and those who are fascinated by electoral law may be tempted to do so. However, my understanding of the position under electoral law is that a poll, as tightly defined, means attendance at a polling station. Under provisions in different parts of the Representation of the People Act for a proxy vote or a postal vote, they are to be added to the poll conducted at the polling station. Therefore, we are dealing with a rather tight implication of "poll" as originally defined.

I reassure noble Lords that, were we to come forward with regulations which applied the clause in relation to referendums and provide innovative means of voting--and the only point under debate is whether, with the passage of the representation of the people legislation, we should include the referendum as one form of election which could be subject to pilot studies in that regard--those regulations would (a) have been subject to the views of the electoral commission and (b)

1 Feb 2000 : Column 188

would be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses. I hope that that provides some assurance to noble Lords to keep the present form of words on the face of the Bill.

Baroness Hanham: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 30, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 31 [Power to make incidental, consequential provision etc.]:

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 255:

    Page 15, line 36, at end insert--

("( ) Before making an order under this section the Secretary of State must consult representatives of local government and of any other persons affected by the proposals.").

The noble Lord said: Clauses 30 and 31 together, among other provisions, give the Secretary of State power to combine the normal local elections with a local referendum, to take place on the same day at the same time.

I can applaud and commend the economy in such a move. It may be that, not even being optimistic, we can understand how local electors could separate the two ballot papers and manage that. However, if that kind of combination is to be brought about, we should be sure that at the very least there is thorough consultation with those who might be directly affected by such a proposal, which might well affect an individual local authority. It should be stated on the face of the Bill that the authority should be consulted. The amendment that I have tabled requires the Secretary of State to,

    "consult representatives of local government and ... any other persons affected by the proposals".

The Minister may assure me that that will occur anyway, and if he does so I shall be happy to hear it. In the meantime, I believe that it is worth putting this requirement on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: I believe that the situation to which the noble Lord refers is already covered. However, the noble Lord must recognise that Clause 31 merely makes incidental, consequential, transitional and supplementary provisions and therefore no new policy is represented in this Bill. The Government already have a concordat with the Local Government Association--to which the clause and no doubt the amendment refer--which is the representative body for local government in England and Wales, to consult on all issues, in particular on developments that directly affect the structure of local government. Therefore, anything of substance that emerges will be covered by that concordat. However, in practice, matters of substance are likely to occur not under this provision but under other clauses which are covered by explicit consultation arrangements. Therefore, on the

1 Feb 2000 : Column 189

basis of either the voluntary concordat or other provisions of this Bill the noble Lord's objectives are met.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page