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Lord Bassam of Brighton: Both the noble Lord and I ought to have read subsection (3) of Clause 12, which makes it clear that this is a devolved matter. We should both have stuck more closely to the script.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: It may be a devolved matter, but that still does not answer the question: who is going to do it? I presume that it will not be the Scottish Parliament. Who will do it if the electoral commission cannot? That is the point I am making.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The Scottish Executive.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: So it is the Scottish Executive! I thought that this was to be done in a

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neutral, non-political way by the electoral commission. How can it be done neutrally and non-politically by the electoral commission in the rest of the United Kingdom, but be done by the Scottish Executive in Scotland? The Scottish Executive is led by a friend of mine who has many merits, but impartial is not one of the words that I would use to describe him.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: No doubt the Scottish Executive will decide and determine how to conduct its affairs impartially in this regard.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This is just part of the--

Lord McNally: Has not the noble Lord noticed that the leader of the Scottish Executive is helped by a friend of mine? Therefore, the neutrality is absolutely guaranteed.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: If I may say so, that actually makes me even more concerned.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Perhaps I may further assist the noble Lord. If he turns to the Marshalled List, he will see that Amendment No. 50 provides some assistance in this respect. It says:


    "The Scottish Ministers may by order provide that, despite subsection (3), the Commission may perform the functions conferred by this section in relation to local government elections or to local government in Scotland".

I should point out that we have already debated that amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the Minister. That may well give me the answer that I was seeking; in other words, the Scottish Executive could actually ask the electoral commission to undertake this role. However, it seems odd that one of the results of devolution is that this Parliament sets up an electoral commission stating that it cannot deal with local government in Scotland; but, if the Scottish Executive asks the commission to do so, it can. It might be much simpler if we retained total responsibility for the matter and gave it directly to the electoral commission.

We have had an interesting debate. I do not wish to comment on all the speeches and all the points that have been made. However, there are some points that I must cover. My noble friend Lord Onslow said that perhaps the Conservatives deserved to be kicked out at the last election. I should tell the Committee that that is not the unanimous view of everyone on this side of the Chamber. Indeed, it is well worth pointing out that, unlike the other side of the Committee, my noble friend proves that we are not pager driven; neither are we forced to be "on message"--

Lord Dubs: Does the noble Lord agree with the comment made by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Certainly not. I thought that I was doing a splendid job.

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We have heard from many speakers, some of whom waxed very lyrical. I was most interested in the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Warner. As a senior policy adviser to Jack Straw, I just wonder whether he had a hand in some of the original discussions on the Bill. That would, perhaps, make him a little more enthusiastic for it than might otherwise be the case. However, I shall leave the matter there.

The most substantive comment from the Government's side came from the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. There is no disagreement between us about the electoral commission performing a role to educate and inform the electorate about systems of voting. However, I am not sure that people need all that much education and help, unless we make the system enormously complicated. Like my noble friend Lord Cranborne, I think that they understand first past the post perfectly well. My proof is the way that, initially in Scotland and then in the rest of the United Kingdom, people were able to use tactical voting in first past the post to deliver the result--in my view wrongly--that they wished to see come about. I believe that the electorate do understand first past the post. It is fairly simple. Indeed, people have had a fortnight to watch it at the Olympic Games, where the winner wins, the loser loses--but the loser is not suddenly given some extra help in order to beat the winner.

I should point out to the noble Baroness that I do not think that I would ever say that the electorate needed some education on first past the past. However, during the passage of the Scotland Bill I may have said that we would have to be sure that the electorate were informed about, and understood, the new system that would operate in Scotland. Interestingly enough, I believe that the electorate did understand perfectly well what they were about, but they did not perhaps appreciate--the political parties, understandably, acted against correct information in this respect--that they could split their vote between the first past the post constituency vote and the list system. If we look at other countries where this system has been run for longer, we can see that there is a lot more ticket splitting than we saw in Scotland. In my view, judging from my observations, one of the reasons why it did not happen in Scotland is that all the political parties in all their propaganda were looking, for perfectly understandable reasons, for a double Labour vote, a double Conservative vote, a doubt Liberal Democrat vote or a double SNP vote--

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Is that not why we need an independent voice to explain the system?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Yes. We do not disagree on that point. I do not think that the lack of understanding was that great, although that may have been so at the margins because of the way that the political parties put it. If an electoral commission had explained to the electorate that they could "split the ticket", so to speak, that might have led to a little more ticket splitting. I agree that one of the tasks of the electoral commission could be explaining to

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people--I prefer to use the word "explaining" rather than "educating"--what the electoral system is, if it has been changed. But I still do not think that that would have helped to increase the turn-out in any way for the European parliamentary elections. I believe that the electorate understood perfectly well what the system was: it was a rigged one, and they did not want too much to do with it because they like voting for individuals.

The Minister rightly said that we can take comfort in subsection (2). Our problem is that we are concerned about the use to which the commission may be persuaded to put these powers in the future; in other words, that it may act as an explainer for a system that has not yet been introduced. Therefore, our amendments were all designed, if you like, to put a belt and braces on this particular exercise. I have to say that I prefer the amendment of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth to those that I have tabled. I believe that he makes the position absolutely crystal clear. I believe that the use of the word "pending" is sloppy; indeed, it can have two meanings. It is all very well to say, "If you read further on you will understand it", but why should we always be asked to read further on before we can understand something? If it is possible, why cannot the position be made clear when it first appears? I believe that it is perfectly possible to make it clear on the first occasion. In my view, my noble friend's amendment is perfectly clear.

The noble Baroness, and others, were very keen to believe that the electoral commission would be impartial and that, therefore, we need not worry. No doubt we would have been told four or five weeks ago that the Lottery Commission was impartial and that we need not worry. But that is certainly not the view that a High Court judge took on the matter. I am afraid that it is not a good enough argument to say that an electoral commission will always be impartial. That may be true of one that is yet to be appointed and I could be convinced that the people on it would be impartial. However, it is not axiomatic that commissions appointed by government are impartial. Anyone who believes that should read the High Court judgment about the Lottery Commission. I am not content to rest on the view that electoral commissions will be impartial and that, therefore, we can leave such matters to their good sense.

The second group of amendments deals with the institutions of the European Union. I do not disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that the workings and the detail of the EU are not as well understood in this country as they should be. However, I do not honestly think that it is the purpose of the electoral commission to set the matter right. Goodness alone knows, the European Commission spends enough money in this country trying to educate people about the institutions of the European Union. Indeed, it has even produced comics for youngsters which it subsequently withdraws because it is thought that they may be counter productive. I am not really surprised!

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The EU spends quite a lot of money on trying to persuade people--perhaps I should say "trying to explain to people", and not put it in a partial way--how the European Union works. I do not believe that that ought to be a role for the electoral commission. Yes, explaining how the electoral system for the European Parliament works is a role for it. We have agreed that and the amendment of my noble friend Lady Fookes would make that absolutely clear. I, for one, was not convinced by the Minister on this point.

The third group of amendments relates to making grants. I am totally unconvinced in this respect. I do not believe that this continued extension of the role of the electoral commission is right. The Minister read out the important roles the commission will have to fulfil. Frankly, I believe that those important roles are more than sufficient without the commission becoming involved in the other aspects that have been mentioned. I am not at all convinced that it ought to adopt grant-making powers to other bodies. It would then have to police those other bodies to ensure that they imparted impartial information. That adds to the role and responsibilities of the commission.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: The noble Lord also referred to the role of the European Commission. Some material that emanates from the headquarters of the European Commission in this country is discounted. Whether that is right or wrong is by the way; it is discounted. Would it not be advantageous for the commission to explain what the European Commission and all the other institutions of the European Union do?


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