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Lord Beaumont of Whitley: Did not the leader of the noble Lord's party want to become an MP at the age of 15?

Viscount Astor: He may have done, but he was over 21 when he became an MP. We all want to play a part

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in politics. The Liberal Democrats have always wanted to encourage the young. Perhaps they think that they can grab people when they are young and innocent. It is not too cynical to say that some of the major parties have thought, "Well, when they grow up at 21 they will join a proper party". However, I do not wish to continue too far on that theme!

There are serious issues to be considered about the age at which we want people to take part in events at political levels. That is not necessarily a matter for the commission but for Parliament. Therefore we on these Benches cannot support the noble Baroness.

Lord Bach: First, I congratulate the noble Baroness on having so skilfully got this matter on to the agenda today. We have had a fascinating debate. I also congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, more for his bravery than his wisdom, I think, in taking on the various parties in this House.

I shall not be particularly brave. Indeed, I do not intend to speak as to the merits or otherwise of the arguments that the noble Baroness put forward so skilfully, aided and abetted by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and others. I shall address myself to the question whether the words of the amendment should be added to Clause 5. The Neill committee recommended that the electoral commission should have the duty to advise the Government on the modernisation and revision of electoral law. It will be one of its most important functions, I venture to suggest. Clause 5 gives effect to that recommendation and places the commission under a duty to keep various matters under review and from time to time to report to the Secretary of State.

Amendment No. 29 would add to that list the age at which people stand for election. It is clearly right that this is a matter to which the commission's remit should extend. However, we believe that Clause 5 as drafted already covers that. Subsection (1)(a) provides that the commission shall keep under review, and from time to time report to the Secretary of State on:


    "such matters relating to elections to which this section applies as the Commission may determine from time to time".

That would--and I hope that the noble Baroness will listen carefully to the words I am about to use--certainly include the age at which people stand for election. However, it would be for the commission to decide whether the issue required its attention.

I also draw attention to subsection (1)(g), which invites the commission to keep under review and to report on if it wishes the law relating to the matters mentioned in each of the paragraphs (a) to (f). That is clearly relevant in this context.

We do not believe that it is desirable to make separate provision for each and every possible matter relating to elections that the commission should be able to address. It would be a very long list indeed.

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Therefore, while expressing no views on the merits of the case that the noble Baroness argued, I invite her to withdraw her amendment on the basis that it is not necessary.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I thank the Minister for his reply. I feel somewhat reassured by the fact that the commission should include in its remit the question of age. However, I would have felt more reassured if the provision had been placed on the face of the Bill. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, I believe that this is an important matter. The noble Lord believed that a Bill was merited rather than the commission choosing to consider the issue at some long time in the future.

The Conservatives' position on the issue does not surprise me. Their belief that standing for election is detrimental to the education of people in further education is not an argument. Many of the people not in further education after 18 are probably the greater users of local government services. I do not believe that age necessarily equals wisdom or the ability to be a good local or national representative.

However, I am grateful for the Minister's reassurances and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Carter: This may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn. I suggest that the Committee stage should begin again at 8.30 p.m.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.33 to 8.30 p.m.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 30:


    Page 4, line 11, at end insert ("or for the purpose of assisting members of the Northern Ireland Assembly connected with such parties to perform their Assembly duties").

The noble Lord said: Clause 5 provides for the electoral commission to keep under review and report on various electoral and political matters, including the regulation of the income and expenditure of political parties. Subsection (3) excludes for the scope of such reviews certain devolved matters, including the funding of political parties under Section 97 of the Scotland Act which is the Scottish equivalent of Short or Cranborne money.

The funding of political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly is also a devolved matter and we therefore need to add such funding arrangements to the list of excepted matters in Clause 5(3). Amendment No. 30 aims to do just that. It would clearly be inappropriate for a public body operating in a reserved area to encroach into matters devolved to either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh or Northern Ireland assemblies. However, while the commission will not be able to review Northern Ireland Short money on its own initiative, it will be open to the commission to advise on such matters as the request of the Northern Ireland Assembly in accordance with the provision of Clause 9.

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Amendment No. 322 to Schedule 20 covers similar territory. Paragraph 12 of that schedule amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in order to clearly establish that the whole subject matter of this Bill, with the exception of Part IX, is an excepted matter. The amendment serves to ensure that the arrangements for the funding of political parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly are not thereby treated as an excepted matter. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I believe I understand what the Minister has just said. Am I right in believing that the Short money at the other end and the Cranborne money, as it is called, here are outwith the compass of the electoral commission? We are excluding Northern Ireland and Scotland. Are we excluding Wales as well? Do we not have the equivalent of Short money in Wales? Perhaps more importantly, does the provision cover the Short money paid to the other place and to the opposition parties in your Lordships' House? That money is important for the funding of opposition parties. As the name suggests, it was started by the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, when he was Ted Short. I suspect that at the time he was Leader of the House of Commons. My noble friend Lord Cranborne introduced the provision in order to help the then Labour Opposition. I hope that they were deeply grateful. It is very important to the smooth running of the opposition parties not only in your Lordships' House but in the other place. I hope that the Minister is able to answer my question.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: It is important to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, on that point because initially there was great confusion when the Northern Ireland Assembly was established. There was some idea that it would be a beneficiary of what we colloquially call Short money. Like some others present, I was involved in the negotiations at the time of the Wilson government in bringing that about.

It appeared even this morning that a Northern Ireland Executive would be established. I understand now that the order has been withdrawn as has the Bill on policing. I believe that there has been some very serious hitch. It may be that while we had expectations this morning that everything would be back on the rails by the 22nd of this month, that now looks very doubtful. Irrespective of that, I support and welcome the noble Lord's Amendments Nos. 30 and 322 although some of the clauses to which they are linked might require further examination. I know that my noble friend Lord Rogan has given careful study to those detailed matters.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, asks a perfectly simple question. I am afraid that this is one of those occasions when I cannot provide him with a perfectly simple response. I am happy to undertake to write to him. In passing, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, for his support for these amendments. I hope that the Short money which

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is facilitated by the amendments does wonders for the political process in Northern Ireland which clearly needs as much encouragement as possible.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 not moved.]

Clause 5, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 6 [Commission to be consulted on changes to electoral law]:

[Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 [Involvement of Commission in changes in electoral procedures]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 35:


    Page 5, line 38, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Lord said: Clause 8 deals with the involvement of the commission in changes to the electoral procedures. We touched on this at Question Time today. It harks back to the Representation of the People Act which we passed earlier in the year. It deals with experiments conducted by various local authorities last week in local government elections in order to try to find ways to encourage more people to vote. When we were debating the Representation of the People Bill the Minister made it perfectly clear--and we agreed with him--that when the electoral commission was set up it should have a role to play in these experiments. This amendment fulfils the promise that the noble Lord made during discussion of the Representation of the People Bill.

However, I am querying why subsection (1)(a) of the clause uses the word "may". It states,


    "The Commission may participate with any relevant local authority".

I believe that it should be an obligation both on the commission and on the local authority to involve each other. I am not necessarily saying that the commission should trigger an experiment although there may be circumstances in which it would be right for it to do so or perhaps say to an authority interested in experimenting, "We believe that it would be really useful if you did such and such an experiment rather than another experiment." It is clear from the experiments conducted last week that that old Scottish verdict of not proven is about the kindest thing one can say. I suspect that in some cases we can probably say, "Proven and really of no great effect at all." Let us consider, for example, the question of early voting. The expense which the authorities must have undertaken in order to open polling stations, if my recollection is right, in London almost a whole week before the poll seems to me to be out of all proportion to the results.

I have some figures which have been supplied, I believe, courtesy of the BBC website. They are not definite--there is a health warning on them--but I believe that they are a fair indication of what happened. In Blackburn, for example, early voting produced votes from 1.45 per cent of the electorate.

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In Chester, the figure was 1.8 per cent; in Coventry, 1.5 per cent; in Kingston-upon-Hull, approximately 1 per cent; Knowsley, interestingly enough, managed to attain 4.46 per cent; and Norwich, 3.17 per cent. The others were pretty low. Watford attained 3.5 or 4 per cent. However, the turnout in Watford, where a lot of experiments were conducted, was disastrously low.

I believe that I can remember saying to the Government that they should allow only one experiment in one place because they would never be able to work out which experiment had caused the hoped-for increase. I do not know what conclusion one can reach in respect of Watford. I am to some extent arguing against one of my arguments on a previous occasion--one must show fairness and balance in these matters--but I believe that Watford was one place which had a freepost. Yet I believe that the poll there was quite significantly down.

In London boroughs the result from early voting was the same. The Corporation of London achieved the best results: it managed 4.2 per cent. However, that is not a lot; it accounts for only 232 people. I suppose that it is the one place where one might have found people who were not present on polling day and who found it convenient to vote early. One wonders how many of those votes went to Mr Livingstone, given his view of the City.

The voting figures for all the London boroughs at which I am looking were very low. Newham achieved 2.2 per cent, and I believe that that is the highest figure. The rest achieved around 1 per cent: for example, 0.73 per cent at Westminster--a very low figure indeed. With figures as insignificant as those, I believe that one must conclude that the experiment with early voting has probably proved that it has no effect at all on the total turnout. I believe that the conclusion about early voting must be that it is an experiment that can now be put back into its pigeon-hole.

I do not know about some of the other experiments that took place, but I have some figures on postal voting. As we said at Question Time today, there is no doubt that postal voting has led to an increase. The increased entitlement to postal voting certainly increased the number of applications in Amber Valley, Eastleigh, Gloucester and Milton Keynes. However, one must question how many were returned. I believe that we shall know eventually, but I do not know from this piece of paper. The areas with an all-postal vote certainly registered an increase in turn-out. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

As I mentioned to the noble Lord at Question Time, with regard to all-postal voting I believe that one would also have to look very carefully at the level of honesty, or, rather, dishonesty, that takes place. I believe that easy postal voting is very good, but I also believe that it is open to much abuse. It would be a very moral and upright person who, having received a postal vote while his wife and son had gone on holiday (this is rather sexist) leaving the poor man at home to work, did not decide to register his wife's and son's

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vote at the same time as his own. That would not be at all right, but it might not be so bad if they were all intending to vote for the same party. However, one never knows in these matters.

The temptation for people to use a vote that has come into their house, even though it is not theirs, is quite high. I suspect that we shall have to consider that issue. I do not know how one investigates such a situation because, it has to be said, nobody will own up to acting in that way. As the noble Lord admitted when we discussed the Representation of the People Bill, it is pretty well impossible to ascertain how much fraud goes on unless people vote in place of someone who turns out to be dead or to have left the country. I live in the constituency of Glasgow Govan where, certainly, a fair degree of dubious tactics take place.

The point that I make is that those experiments are important. The Government rightly attached importance to them because even the improvement from postal ballots did not achieve one result (he said looking quickly!) above the 40 per cent level of turn-out. Therefore, the experiment was not startlingly successful, but anything that we do to try to improve turn-out must meet with our approval.

That is where I believe that the electoral commission is so important. It must work alongside authorities when they carry out those experiments. I do not believe that it is any good to say only that the electoral commission may participate. I believe that it must participate right from the beginning so that, as the experiment is set up, it is examined by the commission to ensure that it has been properly run and that it will be properly validated. There is no point in conducting an experiment unless one has worked out how it is to be validated. To be honest, I do not believe that local authorities are in the best position to do that. They do not have the breadth of expertise that the electoral commission will have.

Currently, I do not believe that we can look at another body. However, once the electoral commission is set up, I believe that it should be wholly and fully involved. No experiment should take place without the electoral commission looking at it and, so to speak, ticking it off and, afterwards, together with the authorities, examining the results and analysing them. I have no objection to a local authority writing its own report and sending it to the Home Secretary. However, I believe that the electoral commission should write either a joint, or its own, report and also send it to the Home Secretary. I wonder how long it will take before those reports are, first, available to the Home Secretary and then, consistent with freedom of information--the subject of another Bill with which we shall deal shortly--reported to the public.

I believe that that is important. I also believe that the electoral commission--when it has been set up--will have to consider whether it can look back at the London mayoral elections, in which the number of spoilt ballot papers appears to have been very high. I understand, for example, that Bexley and Bromley had something like 10,000 spoilt ballot papers; that is 6.9 per cent of the votes cast. I believe that this

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afternoon the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, indicated, if I read between the lines correctly, that the number of spoilt papers in the seat for which he was standing was higher than the number of votes between himself and the winning candidate. Or, rather--I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach--the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, was the winning candidate. I felt that he lacked the confidence of the winning candidate when he explained that, but I understand that he is simply modest. However, the point has been made that his majority was smaller than the number of spoilt ballot papers. It is much more honourable that he raised the question in that way rather than the other way round.

It is a very important point. It cannot be right that we have an electoral system in which that situation can arise, and we must attend to it. Whether it is the fault of the system or the instructions, those are matters in which the electoral commission must become involved. That is why I am doing what is often looked upon as a little game by any opposition; that is, change "may" to "shall" and "shall" to "may". In this case, I do it very deliberately and I mean it. I believe that the commission must participate and, therefore, the milder "may" should be replaced by the firmer "shall". I beg to move.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I support what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said about experimentation. In particular, I have in mind postal votes as an alternative to one going to a polling station, wherever that polling station may be.

I have always supported the proposition of postal votes for those who find it impossible to get to a polling station for a variety of legitimate reasons. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has drawn attention to the possibility of some misdemeanours in the recent London elections. I have reason to believe that in certain areas, votes were stolen on a fairly large scale. It is quite easy to do that in, for example, a block of flats with one common post-box. In some cases, the votes that went astray, were misused or stolen may have run into double figures in a single, relatively small block of dwellings.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, it is early days yet as regards the commission but it would do no harm just to suggest to it that experiments sometimes have very serious drawbacks. It would be prudent not to embark wholesale on certain experiments until all the necessary safeguards are in place.


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