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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I am slightly puzzled at the venom with which Clause 12 is being opposed. I find it difficult to accept. Two of the major electoral commissions--those of Australia and New Zealand, both of which I have visited--see it as a major part of their role to provide education for the public and to create public awareness. Their role is similar to that of the electoral commission as proposed in the Bill. Therefore, if it is suitable for them, I cannot see why it would be unsuitable for the electoral commission here.
There seems to be a fear that the electoral commission will examine matters such as electoral reform and that it will advocate different electoral systems. I thought that we had covered that point in Committee when we discussed the whole question of "pending". I believe my noble friend said that "pending" referred to arrangements which are on the statute book but which have not yet come into force. That cannot, therefore, mean looking at a future electoral system for the House of Commons. I believe that is the fear behind objections to this clause.
I have a slight problem. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, is rightly adamant about the need for political education. The noble Lord devotes his life to that. The Crick report has established the principle of citizenship in schools. But a whole group of people have not received such teaching, either because it did not take place at university or because the teaching of citizenship was not allowed in school for a long period of time. Those people are electors and they should be given the opportunity to find out more about the way in which the country and the administration operate.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has perhaps accepted that there is a role for the commission in that regard--although he may withdraw his amendment in favour of that tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. Again, I find it strange specifically to rule out the question of Europe. It rather implies that this country has no connection with Europe. Whether we like it or not, and whether we are pro-Europe or anti-Europe, it is a fact of life. We have connections with Europe and they will continue. Any voter education programme should explain the role of this Parliament vis-a-vis the institutions of the European Union as well as explaining the mechanics of voting.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, asks what is meant by "institutions". To me, it means not what the Commission says, but how it works--how it functions, what its relationship is with the European Parliament, and how that functions. That is what we are talking about when we talk about the "institutions" of Europe. I do not accept that information cannot be provided factually. With the greatest respect, to say so is absolute nonsense. So many commissions, including the Neill commission, have been impartial in their consideration. I cannot see why it is not possible for
Political education is essential for a healthy democracy. I believe that the previous government accepted that when, for instance, they set up the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in 1992. That was designed to provide advice to institutions and electors overseas. Many of us took part in Westminster Foundation delegations, particularly to the new democracies in eastern Europe doing exactly that, in an impartial and, we hope, professional way. I believe that the electoral commission will be independent, just as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is independent, and that it should be able to perform that role. I can see no reason why it should not. It is right that any money allocated, whether it is spent by the commission itself or allocated to other bodies, should be used only for education purposes and not for propaganda.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am glad, once again, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. I believe we had similar exchanges in Committee on this very clause. I am also extremely glad that the noble Baroness mentioned the Westminster Foundation--a body that she acknowledges was set up by the previous government and one that I was privileged to serve on for a very short time before I was translated to this House in a ministerial capacity. Unfortunately, therefore, I was not able to experience the good work undertaken by the foundation for very long. However, I certainly took to heart the message that the foundation was established to propagate, as indeed did the noble Baroness.
During my time as Leader of the House, I tried in a small way to contribute towards the efforts made by this place, especially in conjunction with another place, to ensure a greater knowledge among the young of how Parliamentand our political system works--or, more accurately, I sometimes think, does not work. When this clause was debated in Committee, I was very struck by the approach taken by a number of speakers, although, I hasten to add, I do not believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, was one of them. On realising that the Government's argument was perhaps rather weaker than they would like, they immediately fastened on to a few of the objections that some of us had raised and accused us of wanting to keep the electorate in ignorance. Indeed, I believe that my noble friend Lord Norton referred to this during the course of his earlier remarks. I do not resent that; it is a perfectly usual political ploy. Those of us who have been around for a bit recognise it for what it is: if you cannot answer the arguments set up against you, you invent one and attribute it to your opponents and then try to ridicule them on that basis.
As my noble friend said, this is not about a division in your Lordships' House as regards who is in favour of political education and who is not. All of us recognise that this is an area of great importance, especially at a time when people are increasingly
The truth of the matter was, as usual, immediately spotted by my noble friend Lord Norton. This commission will consist of very great men and women. As we have observed during the passage of the Bill through this House, they will be selected for their enormous wisdom and not, perhaps, for their recent experience at the coalface of politics. We have decided that that would not be a suitable immediate experience for them. But, nevertheless, they will be selected as very great and good men and women of unimpeachable character, neutrality, judgment and wisdom. Of course, they must also be unpartisan and neutral. We are asking them to undertake an extremely difficult job--that is, before we get to the provisions in Clause 12.
Clearly the commission's job will be extremely complex and difficult--at least, the Government find it so. Indeed, they would not have felt the need to rewrite such a very large proportion of the Bill if that task were simple and easy to define. If it is difficult to define and to lay out in this enormous and weighty piece of paper, I suspect that the task we are asking the commission to undertake will be extremely difficult in itself.
In Clause 12 we are doing the classic piece of mixing apples and oranges. We have a set of apples into which, suddenly, we have injected an orange; in other words, we are asking the commission to do something completely different from anything else contained in the Bill. As my noble friend explained, we had an argument about the Long Title to the Bill. I do not intend to go into that in detail. However, no matter what the Minister said, it really stretches the imagination a little to suggest that the Long Title in any way covers Clause 12. I can only suppose that the phase, "for connected purposes" is alleged to cover Clause 12. I am not sure that that is exactly the same sort of phraseology as the gracious Speech at the opening of Parliament when everything including the kitchen sink can be put in under the phrase,
If I correctly understood the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, she suggested that all the commission had to do was to describe precisely the facts. That is an extremely seductive phrase. The noble Baroness always seems entirely reasonable, as indeed she is known to be. But we are talking here about some of the most contentious issues in modern day British politics, voting systems and constitutional arrangements which this Government have brought to the very forefront of political debate, and, of course, our own favourite
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, the noble Baroness gets her own back for when I explained that I thought that when I stood for another place my constituents in south Dorset did not need much explanation of our present electoral system because they knew perfectly well that if I obtained more votes than anyone else I would become their MP.
One of the extraordinary features of the love of complexity of this Government, not only in matters of taxation but also in matters constitutional, is that because they are addicted to vastly complex systems we have to put in place all kinds of measures to try to explain how they work. My contention is that this is not the place to do it because by asking the commission to undertake that task it is perfectly plain that we are venturing into ground where it would fear to tread. As my noble friend Lord Mackay made perfectly clear, if the noble Lord, Lord Neill, is anything to go by, certainly that kind of member of the great and good would run a mile before undertaking anything so potentially contentious.
I suspect that the European Union is a good example of that. After all, as my noble friend Lord Mackay pointed out, the European Union spends an enormous amount of what is ultimately our money promoting the European Union. It promotes it, in its own view, entirely neutrally. It says that all it is doing is explaining the facts. As someone who is highly sceptical of its version of the facts, all I can say is that I deeply resent my money being spent by myrmidons of the European Union in Queen Anne Street putting out what they regard as an unspun fact in such a matter that I feel that my money is being filched from me and that I am being asked to pay for an extraordinarily biased spin.
The facts with regard to the European Union are highly contentious. Just to give one example, we are constantly told that there is no question that the new Euro corps will be a European army. But we also know that we were told back in 1975--I studied the election literature the other day, which only goes to prove this--that if we voted yes, we would only join a free trade area. Yet somehow that fact has been transmogrified into something vastly more complex and more integrated than that.
I could go on but I shall not. It seems to me that we are asking the commission in one breath in all the other clauses of the Bill to be Olympian, neutral, unpartisan and to act as the great platonic guardians with which we increasingly festoon our constitutional arrangements in this country. However, in the same
If the Government's intention is to ensure that the commission is launched with the seeds if not of its own destruction then at least of the destruction of its reputation, I can think of no better way than Clause 12. Although, as always, I greatly admire the ingenuity of my noble friend Lord Mackay, in trying to improve the clause with Amendments Nos. 27 to 30, I fear that its purpose is so flawed that the only logical conclusion is to delete it, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Norton. Given the choice, I should support Amendment No. 30A.
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