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Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, is the Minister intending to come to the questions asked about giving us a rough idea of the scale of operations, the amount of money envisaged and the amount of staff involved in this educational effort?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for posing the question again and reminding me of the point. If I do not cover it in my concluding comments now, I shall advise the noble Lord in writing of the approximate thinking of the Government and share that with other Members of your Lordships' House.
It seems to me to be taking matters a little bit far to require the commission to prepare different leaflets for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That suggestion has the flavour of a Soviet-style news blackout. That a citizen living in one part of the United Kingdom might learn about the diversity of systems of government which exist as a result of devolution seems to me, generally speaking, to be rather a good idea.
The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, seemed to have difficulty accepting the point that regulators might carry out some functional educational role. I made quite a long list--Oftel, Ofsted, Ofgas, Ofwat (I was tempted to say Ofrail but thought it inappropriate), the Financial Services Commission, the Health and Safety Commission--of bodies which have to involve themselves as regulatory bodies in some form of education or another. Nobody says that that is irrelevant; that it is not appropriate or proper.
It seems to me that regulatory bodies will, from time to time, need to undertake educational work. Of course, this commission has a broader remit. But properly regulated educational activity by the commission would be of benefit and we might gather reassurance from the fact that a well-organised and regulated body like this which is involved in regulatory work is carrying out such educational functions.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, the Minister gave the example of Oftel. Would he say what educational function it has other than to telecommunications operators who are directly affected? What wider educational function does Oftel perform?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, no doubt Oftel determines what information it publishes and why and no doubt most of it is directed at those in the business. However, it has a wider role and I am sure undertakes to produce newsletters and information about its activities which are of greater and wider benefit. I am sure that the same will apply to Ofwat and the Health
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way and I appreciate that he has been interrupted several times. He spoke of the education in which the regulatory bodies engage, but surely they are educating people in what they are doing and can deliver. That is separate from the task which is being given to this body.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the point I am trying to make is that part of being a regulatory body is the function of advising, informing and educating. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, appeared to be saying that it was not the business of regulators to become involved in advising, informing and educating. I do not accept that, which is why I provided him with the list.
The breadth of the debate does your Lordships' House great credit. It has been useful and interesting and perhaps has told us more about where noble Lords opposite are coming from; they see a narrower role for the commission, while we see a broader but nevertheless properly circumscribed one.
I invite your Lordships to reject the amendment. However, I want first to answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, about the costs and functions of activities. Clause 12(6) provides that the amount spent on the educational function by the commission shall not exceed the sum specified by order made by the Secretary of State with the consent of the Treasury. The funding of that function will therefore be ring-fenced from the commission's general budget. I believe that I gave that answer previously. The sum will not be appreciably more than is spent currently by the Home Office on voter registration and postal voting arrangements at general elections. Perhaps such a bench-mark will help the noble Lord.
The noble Lord also asked about the term "pending". As I explained previously, "pending" means an electoral system that has been approved by Parliament. For example, the system of elections for the Greater London Authority was pending once the GLA Bill received Royal Assent. I refer the noble Lord to Clause 12(2). I am sure that that is consistent with a previous reply.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the answer to my noble friend Lord Lamont that departments spend money only with the authorisation of the Treasury will not come as news to him as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Many of us
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, in many ways this has been not an interesting debate but a worrying debate because it has exposed problems with the clause. I wonder where it came from. Who suggested putting it in the Bill? It was not the Neill committee. I suggest that when the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, returns to his office tonight or tomorrow he should find out. If I were him, I would read the riot act about it.
The noble Lord was arguing for a clause which provided that the commission shall promote public awareness of its work. That was the argument when it came to Oftel, the FSA and everything else. Clause 12 gives the commission a much wider role. While I was prepared to accept at the beginning, very generously, that the commission should have a role in the electoral systems for countries, the other place, local government and the European Parliament, I did not receive a satisfactory answer about the institutions of the European Union. I do not believe--perhaps I am wrong--that the European Central Bank is an institution. Would the electoral commission become involved in that body, which perhaps would become an institution if everybody joined it? The commission will have more than enough to do.
While I listened to the debate I read the Long Title to the Bill, which refers to the establishment of an electoral, not an education, commission. The word "education" does not appear anywhere in the Long Title. I am prepared to make a half-concession that the electoral systems for the other place, local government and the European Parliament should form some part of the commission's responsibility, but this goes very much wider than that. I suggest to the noble Lord that he and his government colleagues should consider this matter very seriously. Does the Minister believe that, if the clause promotes such doubt that we have spent 1¼ hours debating the matter this evening, it is wise for the electoral commission to embark on any of this stuff in case it casts doubt on its position as the regulator of the way that political parties should behave?
If I was appointed an electoral commissioner--clearly, that would not happen because I do not fall within the various rules--and decided, as a result, to study these proceedings, the moment that I read the present debate I would not bother with Clause 12 but would leave it sticking to the wall. If one starts down some of these roads one enters into political controversy which detracts from the main purpose.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am not convinced that the Government have responded directly to the precise points that I made in support of my amendment. The arguments advanced have been tangential to those points. I am not even sure that the draftsman of the clause has fully understood the issue, as is reflected in the marginal annotation. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that there are alternatives to the commission. I am happy to advise the Minister on the routes that could be taken, including through the relevant professional bodies, although the alternative that he himself floated struck me as most attractive! However, because I do not believe that the point has been addressed by the Government, I stick with the arguments that I advanced. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, at the beginning expressed the opinion that some noble Lords spoke with vehemence. I do not speak with vehemence; I speak as I do because I believe that I am right. I beg to move.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.