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Lord McNally: My Lords, first, I claim one piece of consistency throughout the deliberations on this Bill. I have argued constantly that the Neill committee is not the last word on these matters and that it would be called in aid when one side agreed with it but that, when that was not the case, the committee would be quietly forgotten. As I said before, I believe that some of the work carried out by the Neill committee was excellent. It provided some good grounding for this Bill and for other legislation. However, I also think that it missed some very open goals. I had hoped to get that speech out during my noble friend's absence but I see he has crept back.
I also think that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is absolutely right. Behind some of the silky speeches we have heard this evening are the darker fears that haunt certain Members on the Conservative Benches. One of the hobgoblins they fear is that this clause is a cunning device to allow future campaigns on Europe and proportional representation. That is why every so
What has run through statements on both sides is an acceptance of what I would describe as a deficiency in civic education in this country, which in any democracy, becomes a threat to that democracy. It is an interesting thought that probably among the best civically-educated generation were the troops in the Second World War. It has often been said that the Labour landslide of 1945 had more to do with the Army Education Corps than almost any other single body. It made troops aware of their rights and responsibilities.
I also think that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, came through with arguments which are often used to resist an idea--"Well, it's a good idea but not in this Bill; not in this way, not here, not now". Then, if that does not work, try, "Not by these people: we like these people and we do not want to burden them with too much work". As I say, they are silky excuses for inaction but they are dodging the real issue. I shall save the Minister making the point if I say that so far as I am concerned these are Conservative "ignorance-is-bliss" amendments. On constitutional reform, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, made the point that this--
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I hear what he says and should be grateful if he could identify at what point I fell foul of any of the objections he claims. I am all in favour of action this day; I am in favour of educating all the electors referred to by the noble Baroness; and, if the noble Lord wishes, I could even recommend the books that I think all should read--but modesty forbids. I believe that the arguments can be put in a balanced way, even though one might express a conclusion at the end. My point is that I am not sure that this body has the relevant qualifications. I want its work to be done by people even better qualified, in a way that this commission is not.
Lord McNally: My Lords, I heard the noble Lord's speech and began to think I had not heard one like that since the AEWU tore up its rulebook. The noble Lord seemed to be arguing that only professors of politics were suitable for imparting this wisdom to the public at large, whereas, as we know, a commission like this would acquire an expertise which would fully enable it to do this job.
I do not have the fears that have been expressed from these Benches. It is a role which is undoubtedly additional to the main purposes but is in no way contradictory to them. Let us be under no illusion. Perhaps I may say, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that just as, if the commission does the work with the EU, it should not be done, that is way beyond its powers; if the EU does it, it is a sinister operation from Storey's Gate. Let us make no bones about it. If the Government brought forward a
I see no reason why Clause 12 should not be adopted and the responsibilities that it gives the commission be carried out with neutrality and independence. Perhaps I may give some advice to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. He is obviously like one of those guys who wander into a fight in a bar and tries to reason with the two sides. If I were him, I would get out of the way. Let us test whether or not we want Clause 12. We certainly want it.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this has been a good and hugely entertaining debate, which I have enjoyed immensely. The issues are those on which we have had a "knock about" before. It seems to me that we have before us a choice between the Exocet and nuclear options. I suppose I am rather tempted to agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Perhaps if Conservative Lords opposite really believe in the strength of their argument on the nuclear option, they should test the opinion of the House at some point--perhaps not this evening--and be honest about it. It seems to me that perhaps that is the right way forward.
This is an important function for the commission to have and to hold. Let us think about the turnout in Westminster by-elections, some of which are to be held on Thursday; the turnout in local government elections; and the turnout in European parliamentary elections. If we are trying to strengthen the roots of democracy, it must be in all our interests to ensure that we deal with ignorance and lack of knowledge and understanding of political systems.
We remain convinced that this is a proper function for an independent electoral commission. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, made reference to the Australian and New Zealand commissions, which undertake this work properly. It does not seem to compromise their function. I do not accept that this is a dangerous task to give to an electoral commission. I remember when we debated the Representation of the People Act earlier in the year that noble Lords opposite made the argument and put the case for the commission having a far wider remit than the narrow role which some of them seem to have been tempted into suggesting today. They suggested that it should carry out research and development work. That seems to sit side by side with much of this important work. I do not hear a convincing argument from the Benches opposite against us ensuring that the commission can carry out such work.
The hobgoblins and sinister plots have been conjured up by noble Lords opposite to argue against an independent electoral commission conducting educational programmes. Perhaps I may ask the question: if the commission does not do such work, precisely what sort of body would be appropriate to carry it out? What would be its composition? How would we set it out? How would it relate to the work of the electoral commission? I have not heard any such
I am entirely with noble Lords opposite when they seek to constrain what the body might do to describing the mechanics and functions of and ways in which bodies such as the European Parliament or systems of election might work without loading that education in some way to add a preferential line of argument to one system or another. That seems to me to be entirely right and proper. These matters must be focused on education and nothing else.
The idea that the commission itself might be a vehicle to promote public participation in elections simply by talking up the grand European project or promoting the euro is the stuff of fantasy. If it talks about the European Union, it will not talk about the euro or anything else which advances one side as opposed to the other.
Amendment No. 28 would require that any promotional campaign undertaken by the commission in one part of the United Kingdom should not concern itself with electoral arrangements in place confined exclusively to another part of the United Kingdom. I know that the noble Lord thinks this is all about softening up the electorate for a referendum on the voting system--that was certainly the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. This point was raised in Committee and I replied then that I thought it was a point on which the commission would wish to tread extremely carefully.
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