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Lord McNally: This has been an interesting debate which has produced some recognisable faultlines. I was interested in the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Neill. Clearly, some glamour still attaches to the role of Member of Parliament because he was flattered by the fact that his former Member of Parliament praised the judgment of his constituents and then accepted his invitation to intervene in our debate.

Perhaps I may say that I agree with parts of the Neill report and, as I made clear at Second Reading, I disagree with other parts. It is important, when discussing the Bill, to remember that the Neill report is not carved in tablets of stone and that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, most certainly is not Moses. I thought that his intervention was ill judged, in particular since he has now departed. We are now left with a dilemma. Will we work through the remainder of the Bill on the assumption that the noble Lord's silence denotes approval, or will he pay us visits from time to time to pronounce on other aspects?

As I said, I think that the Neill report is a good and solid bit of work done by good and solid citizens, but Parliament should not be overawed by it; it should take it for what it is--a good contribution to our debate.

It is certainly a better contribution than we have heard from some of the Benches. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, seemed to rush away from any proposal about information like Dracula from garlic--although I would concede that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that he was in favour of information. That, of course, is what we have been talking about today. We have not been discussing propaganda, but rather information and education.

One of the faultlines that has revealed itself in this debate is the complacency demonstrated on this side of the Committee about how our political institutions are working at the moment. It is worth remembering that our debate--which has embraced many different facets and involved a large number of pieces of legislation--was not started by the noble Lord, Lord Neill. It arose out of a growing concern among

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politicians of all parties at the low esteem into which politics, politicians and our political institutions were falling. What is being proposed may or may not provide the answer to those problems, but to assume that what we have is the best of all possible worlds would be to demonstrate complacency of the most dangerous kind. We need to encourage more people to become involved in the political process and I believe that that requires education to be delivered in its broadest sense.

In some ways it is almost pathetic to observe that soon we shall be celebrating 30 years' membership of the European Union. Despite that, it is generally accepted that there is widespread ignorance as regards its workings and operations. I believe that that is the case because people generally feel that the subject is so politically charged that it is best simply to avoid giving out proper information.

I also think that one of the reasons why governments all too frequently reach for referenda is a failure of confidence by Parliament and parliamentarians themselves. I am still sufficiently old-fashioned to believe that the great issues of the day should be settled in Parliament by the elected representatives of the people rather than by ducking such issues and shuffling them off to be decided by referenda. But perhaps that pass was lost a long time ago. Given that, let us at least put in place a framework in which people can hold informed discussions and then make informed decisions.

I am sorry to see that, in the course of the broader debate about the need for constitutional reform, we still witness what I shall call the "short-term slide-rule approach". Every idea put forward is carefully measured to calculate the short-term political interest of one party or another. If this Bill moves forward, I hope that this House in particular will examine some of the proposals in the broader context of how we can make our democracy more effective and how we can engage more fully and better inform our people in the process.

I agree that Clause 12 should be retained. Perhaps it would have been better, as an alternative, to establish two commissions--although I suspect that the same complaints would have been made about commission B as those that have been made today about the commission as a whole. Indeed, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, when she stated that the experience that the commission will gain from one side of its operations will prove very useful when carrying out its duties under Clause 12.

I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, believes that it is possible to give unbiased information. Teachers do it all the time. I believe that it would be wrong to decide that the commission could not gain the expertise so to do. Broadly, we support the retention of Clause 12, not for any short-term party advantage, but because we believe that it will underpin the broader interests of our democracy and the fuller interests of what the Bill as a whole is trying to do.

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6 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth: Before the noble Lord sits down, although I do not dissent from what he said about teaching, I do not think that he has made a case as to why the electoral commission should be the body to undertake that task. The noble Lord has conceded that teachers quite often can impart information impartially. They can do that because they are trained as teachers of politics. It is when people who are not trained try to do so that the problems arise. I cannot see how the electoral commission will comprise people with that degree of expertise; they will not be trained to impart that kind of information.

Lord McNally: I said that teachers can do it. I do not believe that teachers exclusively can do it. The commission will gather a body of expertise and may well bring in expert information. If, for example, we gave the task to the Central Office of Information, some on the Conservative Benches would say, "There is a department of government carrying out government propaganda". The noble Lord says, "Not the commission", but I suspect that some of the complaints against the idea of information and education would be levelled against whichever body was chosen to carry out the task.

Lord Renton: The two points that I wish to make override each of these amendments. The first point is this. The commission is to consist of not less than five and not more than nine members. Do the Government contemplate that decisions must always be unanimous? They may very well not be. If decisions are not unanimous, and if the commission is not equally divided, will the majority view always prevail? If that happens, those members who do not agree with the majority will find themselves obliged to support matters of public education with which they do not agree. That seems to be an unfortunate--indeed, an impossible--constitutional position.

My second point--I can put it quite briefly--is this. We are told in subsection (6)--this overrides all the previous parts of Clause 12 and the amendments we have discussed--that the total expenditure,


    "shall not exceed such sum as is for the time being specified for the purposes of this subsection"--

that means even Clause 12--


    "by an order made by the Secretary of State with the consent of the Treasury".

The commission could be involved in vast expenditure in carrying out this huge range of public education. If the Treasury decides that it must not have the money, it will not be able to fulfil its functions. But if the commission is told, in effect, that it can have as much money as it wants, we shall have to consider, as will Members of another place, whether that is a justifiable use of public expenditure.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Usually the speaking notes on these matters suggest that one should thank the Committee for an interesting and wide-ranging debate. There is always a column on the prepared grid

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sheet which contains the word "risk". This one contains the words "possibly contentious". We have had the full range in this afternoon's debate.

I have found the debate fascinating. It has made me think back to my days at secondary school, when I was in the sixth form and we were introduced to something on the timetable called "civics". I remember the very first question in our very first lesson on civics. A lad at the back put his hand in the air and asked the teacher, "What does it mean?" I thought that said it all.

It also says a lot about our debate today. It strikes me that there is an element of fear in some of the contributions that have been made--fear that someone may begin to understand and comprehend the depths of the various political systems, the way in which we elect governments, the reasons we elect governments, the relationship between different parts of government, governments abroad, how we relate to the European Community and so on.

Clause 12 is a valuable clause. It begins to set out how we may take some important, tentative steps towards improving the quality of voter education. The commission will have a vitally important role to play in promoting a greater sense of citizenship and in encouraging greater levels of participation in the democratic process. In view of some of the turn-outs for local elections and European elections over the past few years, the argument is well made for an electoral commission which has, as a small part of its function, the role of promoting greater knowledge and understanding of our political institutions and the way in which governance works.

The electoral commission's work in this area will subsume the campaigns presently run annually by the Home Office in connection with the registration of electors and the campaigns conducted at the time of a parliamentary election to remind people of the timetable and procedure for applying for an absent vote. Additionally, the commission will take on responsibility for any ad hoc campaign needed to explain new voting systems--for example, the one mounted in respect of the elections to the Greater London Authority. The setting up of the electoral commission offers an opportunity to transfer responsibility for such campaigns to an independent body which is free from any suspicion of political partisanship.

Earlier in the mists of the debate surrounding this piece of legislation, pleas were made that it might be right and appropriate to have political figures as members of the electoral commission. We have stood resolutely steadfast against that. We believe that it has to be a rigorous, robust and independent electoral commission. I hope that that fact will begin to have some bearing on the suspicions that some Members of the Committee have expressed today. I believe that there is an important educational role for a robust and independent electoral commission.

It will not be for the commission to promote alternative electoral systems or alternative systems for local, regional or national government, to which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, referred. It is clearly right

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that the commission should not distribute even purportedly factual literature about systems of voting or government which have not been adopted in this country. This starts to get to the root of some of the awkward questions that have been asked.

But that is already the effect of this clause as it stands. Subsection (1) refers to current and pending systems of voting and government. Subsection (2) makes it clear that "pending" simply means arrangements which are on the statute book or included in subordinate legislation but have yet to come into force. It means no more than that.


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