Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 133:

(b) anything which purports to be the signature of an elector who proposes, seconds or assents to, the nomination of such a candidate but which he knows--
(i) was not written by the elector by whom it purports to have been written, or
(ii) if written by that elector, was not written by him for the purpose of signifying that he was proposing, seconding, or (as the case may be) assenting to, that candidate's nomination.
(2) In this section "relevant election" means--
(a) any parliamentary election, or
(b) any local government election in England or Wales."").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 134:

    Page 40, line 24, at end insert--

(" . After section 66 insert--
"Prohibition on publication of exit polls.
66A.--(1) No person shall, in the case of an election to which this section applies, publish before the poll is closed--
(a) any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or
(b) any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.
(2) This section applies to--
(a) any parliamentary election; and
(b) any local government election in England or Wales.
(3) If a person acts in contravention of subsection (1) above he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months.
(4) In this section--
"forecast" includes estimate;
"publish" means make available to the public at large, or any section of the public, in whatever form and by whatever means;
and any reference to the result of an election is a reference to the result of the election either as a whole or so far as any particular candidate or candidates at the election is or are concerned." ").

The noble Lord said: I can be brief. The amendment gives effect to a commitment made by my ministerial colleagues in another place to bring forward a government amendment to prohibit exit polls where voting takes place over more than one day.

15 Feb 2000 : Column 1131

There is concern, and rightly so, that where voting takes place over a number of days, the results of exit polls may influence those electors who have not yet cast their vote, whether that be how they vote or whether they choose to vote at all. We cannot allow that.

The amendment will stop that by preventing the results of any exit polls being made public before the final close of poll. Normal opinion polls and parties telling activities will remain unaffected. I trust that that will satisfy Members of the Committee. I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, raised the issue at Second Reading and that other noble Lords expressed concern. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I welcome the Government's attempt to try to deal with a problem we identified at Second Reading. I want to make two points. My first relates to the text of the amendment. Subsection (2) of the new clause states:

    "This section applies to ... any parliamentary election".

Notwithstanding my complaints about Clause 11, do I take it that that includes elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly? After all, a roll-out of a three-day poll could easily happen to them. Furthermore, the Minister explained why Scotland was included in earlier parts of the Bill, but why is it not included in new subsection (2)(b), which refers to:

    "any local government election in England or Wales"?

My second point is a little more serious. Have the Minister and his department considered whether the amendment accords with the European Convention on Human Rights? Article 10, paragraph 1, of Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998 reads:

    "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers".

I do not expect an answer tonight, but I flag up the issue. It would be better if the Minister considered with his legal advisers whether the provision would accord with the convention.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord. I am not sure that he will be happy with my answer, but we think--I stress, "we think"--that the provision complies with the ECHR. However, I am determined to check that with officials and I shall ask them for a further view.

The subsection to which the noble Lord referred does not apply to Scottish and Welsh elections because they have separate election orders which will need corresponding amendment. The answer to his second question is that the Scottish Parliament has not asked for this provision. That is a matter on which it may want to reflect further, but that is the situation. I shall be more than happy to correspond with the noble Lord in order to tie up any other queries.

15 Feb 2000 : Column 1132

7 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I accept the point about the European Convention on Human Rights. I notice that the Minister avoided telling me whether the Government have considered the matter as regards this amendment. I shall not press him any further. I will assume that they have. If the Government have not done so, they certainly will now.

As regards the Scottish point, I fully accept that the Scottish Parliament has perhaps not asked the Government to include Scotland. Dare I suggest that perhaps they do not know that a prohibition on the publication of exit polls has been put into the Bill? Therefore, my question is this: have they been asked if they wish this Parliament to legislate on the matter?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I will pursue the point somewhat further. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has made a very witty and useful intervention.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 135:

    Page 40, line 38, at end insert--

("( ) Omit rule 20.").

The noble Lord said: The Committee will know Rule 20 by heart. It is the official mark which is placed on ballot papers. I raised this matter as regards the Scottish referendum election. I suggested that it was an obsolete rule. I raise it again very briefly to say to the Minister that I still believe it is an obsolete rule. I do not believe that it stops any infringement taking place. In fact, the last time we debated this matter nobody suggested that it did. It was almost a question of, "We've always done it this way and let us carry on with that". I do not believe that it stops infringement.

Any infringement that one could imagine that the mark would prevent would have to be of the nature of people stealing a wedge of ballot papers and, without the official mark, adding them to a box. Dare I suggest that something would be badly wrong with the tallies at the end of the election if such an event happened, because there would not have been enough "score offs" on the electoral register?

In addition, we all know that at various elections a certain number of papers are, for inexplicable reasons, spoiled. I suspect that in the rush the clerks at the table simply forget to put the mark on the ballot paper. Frankly, most electors do not bother to look, because, apart from people like ourselves, I doubt whether many electors realise the significance of the official mark. Ballot papers get through without the official mark. Indeed, although it is a painful business, the Winchester argument was over the question of official marks. There did not seem to be any doubt that about 25 electors had properly marked their ballot papers, but because the official mark was missing they were not counted.

I believe it is time that we scrapped this procedure. Interestingly enough, I have in my defence the Winter 1999 newsletter of the Association of Electoral Administrators. In addition to wishing everyone a

15 Feb 2000 : Column 1133

happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year, the newsletter says this. I shall read out the whole passage because the first part encourages the Minister.

    "At last we see proposals for electoral change. Many of the recommendations in the new Representation of the People Bill reflect the AEA's document Vote for Change which was published some time ago and demonstrates just what a leading role the association has played in producing the new agenda. Somewhat disappointingly, though, some of the practical issues such as the abolition of the stamping instrument, have not been mentioned. But maybe a couple of unstamped ballot papers resulting in an election petition during the pilot scheme might get the Home Secretary to think again".

Without waiting for a couple of unstamped ballot papers and an election petition, I ask the Home Secretary's representative in the House of Lords to think again. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, on his continued mastery of selective quotation. I can see that he has had a very gripping Christmas read. The amendment raises some important issues about the official mark. I am very mindful of the Winchester case. I know that it caused a great deal of distress in certain circles.

The official mark has its virtues. It dates back to the Ballot Act 1872, so it has a long history of some kind. I believe that we should be thankful for that mark because it has probably prevented many fraudulent instances in local and general elections.

However, the noble Lord is quite right. I believe that the Home Affairs Committee in another place, in its inquiry into electoral law and administration, discovered that at every recent general election between two and three thousand ballot papers have been rejected because they lack the official mark. That is not a fantastic number of people who have lost their votes in consequence of the official mark not being in place. Nevertheless, it cannot be right. We ought to have something which prevents a person's vote being cancelled because of an inadvertent error by a member of the polling staff.

We believe that there should be more effort to consider the issue. I am not sure that the noble Lord will be entirely satisfied when I say that he should take comfort from the fact that the Home Office is seized of the need to see whether a suitable replacement can be found for the official mark. The noble Lord is a very imaginative fellow. I am sure that he will produce a suitable replacement even if we do not. On that basis, I invite him not just to withdraw his amendment, but to come forward with some good ideas also.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page