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The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Geddes): I must advise the Committee that if Amendment No. 57 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 58 or 59 due to pre-emption.

Clause 6 [Combination of polls]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 57:

"( ) Referendum polls held in pursuance of an order under section 1 may not be combined with any other polls."

The noble Baroness said: The Explanatory Notes comment on Clause 6 that it,

    "enables provision to be made by order for the combination of polls at a referendum under the Bill with other polls for any election or at referendums held under Part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000. Before making an order under this clause a Minister of the Crown must first consult the Electoral Commission".

Amendment No. 57 would prevent referendums on establishing elected regional assemblies being combined with any other poll. Amendment No. 75 is consequential to Amendment No. 57. If regional referendums were combined with council elections in two-tier local government areas, people could be asked to vote for a new council at the same time as they were being asked to vote in favour of the abolition of the council to enable an elected regional assembly to be established in the region.

Combining regional referendums with a general election could also overshadow full coverage of the arguments for and against elected regional assemblies. Two different but competing campaigns will be running at the same time, causing considerable confusion.

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If the Government believe so strongly in regional government, they must have the confidence to allow the debate to be unencumbered by other electoral distractions. The same applies in the general election where electors might find themselves voting for a Member of Parliament to represent their area in Parliament solely on the basis of the stand they take on elected regional assemblies and not on the more general policies.

Establishing elected regional assemblies ultimately represents a significant change to the structure of local government in England and to the country's constitutional arrangements. An issue of such importance arguably warrants stand-alone referendums that are not overshadowed by any other polls.

I find this a surprising clause in the Bill. I do not believe that we should accept Clause 6 and all the implications it carries without a more detailed debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reasoning behind the combination of polls. I expect that he will talk about the cost saved by combining polls or the utility of setting a vote on a referendum on the day of another poll in terms of voter turnout. If so, I would be unlikely to be satisfied by his argument.

Amendment No. 58 offers another solution. Referendums may not be combined with an election which uses a different electoral system. On our first day in Committee, we talked at length about the confusion for voters. In consideration of the next few clauses, we will mention extensively the need to provide clarity during the electoral process; to disseminate information to maximum effect to voters; the duty of the Electoral Commission to put forward the arguments for and against; the importance of the preamble on the ballot paper; and the fundamental need for transparency on the reports of the Boundary Commission and the Electoral Commission.

My noble friend Lord Hanningfield has argued our case for decoupling the questions. These amendments are based on the same fundamental principle. It is possibly hypocritical to combine elections for county or district councils with a referendum for regional assemblies. It is unwise to combine a referendum for regional assemblies with a general election, especially since a referendum order would be made for regions at different times. Information and procedure could easily become muddled. Regional assemblies are a separate entity and should be considered as a separate election. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: The issue of combining polls is difficult and faces us imminently. We have recently had the consultation on the combination of polls in May or June 2004. My view relates to the convenience of the voter. I do not necessarily jump from that to saying that it is right to combine polls. I appreciate the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about different electoral systems. It is not an easy issue, but we are strange animals and enjoy elections. The evidence seems to be that the number of members

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of the public who do so and want to turn out is ever decreasing. For that reason, I do not support the amendments.

The position is not novel. We have experienced combined polls recently; the general election being combined with the county elections. We have tabled Amendment No. 58. Subsection (3) provides for consultation with the Electoral Commission before an order is made. We suggest that the chamber of the region—the assembly as it now is—be consulted and that the advice of both organisations be published. I hope that with regard to the Electoral Commission we will have an assurance that that will be published in any event. We propose to extend the consultation because regional knowledge in such issues is always good.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: Amendment No. 57 would prevent polls for a referendum on elected regional assemblies being combined with any other polls. The amendment would not prevent a referendum under this Bill happening on the same date as another poll; for example, a general or a local government election. It would just prevent the polls being combined, so returning and accounting officers would have to make entirely separate arrangements for each poll. We would have, for example, separate notices of polls and polling stations, and returning officers for local government elections could not perform functions in respect of the referendum even if that was administratively convenient. The amendment could lead to significant increases in bureaucracy and costs, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, predicted.

The noble Baroness argued that the outcome of a referendum could be distorted by the party politics surrounding a poll for an elective office. I believe that the public are perfectly capable of forming judgments that are not clouded in such a way.

The provision for the combining of polls in Clause 6 is precedented by Section 45(6) of the Local Government Act 2000 and Section 4(2) of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Act 1998. Any order on combination of polls would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny by affirmative resolution in both Houses.

Amendment No. 58 would mean that polls for a referendum on elected assemblies could be combined where the electoral system—which we take to mean the voting franchise—is the same for both polls. Under the Bill as it stands, this would mean that referendum polls could be combined with elections that follow the local government franchise but not with those that follow the parliamentary election franchise.

The amendment would not prevent parliamentary elections and referendums being held on the same day but would prevent joint administrative arrangements being made—although I suspect that it is intended to deter that from happening. I have some sympathy with the argument that it might be much less complicated to combine polls for which the electoral system is the same.

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However, I am not clear why the principle is wrong. Section 15 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, passed during one of the previous Conservative administrations, does not simply allow for the combination of polls to be held on the same day but requires it. It requires parliamentary general elections to be combined with European Parliament general elections and ordinary local government elections with these other elections.

The Electoral Commission has a role to play in this. It obviously has expertise in elections and referendums and we are obliged under Clause 6(3) to consult the Electoral Commission on any order. As a consequence, we would conscientiously have to consider whatever it may have to say either for against such provision. Our current approach is much more balanced in allowing at least for the possibility of joint administrative arrangements being made if referendums and parliamentary elections are held on the same day.

Amendment No. 59 would mean that the Secretary of State would have to consult the regional chamber for the region concerned, as well as the Electoral Commission, before making an order under Clause 6 on the combination of polls. Clause 6 already imposes the obligation to consult the Electoral Commission before making such an order.

While it is clearly right to consult the Electoral Commission on a combination of polls, given its expertise in electoral matters and on referendums, I fail to see what particular input or expertise the regional chamber would add to the content of an order. Regional chambers have no locus in elections or referendums.

Any order would be likely to be very technical in nature—for example, it could make provision about what functions a returning officer might perform instead of a counting officer for a referendum, or what joint public notices are to be published giving information on the election and the referendum, and what arrangements are to be made at a shared polling station. Of course, the order would not determine whether the referendum and an election are to be on the same day but, rather, what arrangements are to be made for them to be held together. Amendment No. 59 would also require the advice of the Electoral Commission and regional chamber to be published before an order is made under Clause 6.

The commission's responses are its responses. It is independent of government and it should be for the Commission to disclose its responses according to its legal obligations and to decide about publication.

In a debate in another place the Opposition explained that it was indeed the Electoral Commission's intention to publish any consultation that it may have with the Government. But, of course, should it fail to disclose any information sought, we would consider requests for information relating to the thinking behind Clause 6 under our code of practice on access to government information and, when it comes into full force, the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

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We do not see the need for these provisions, nor do we think that they are appropriate. Section 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires consultation with the Electoral Commission on certain changes to electoral law by subordinate legislation. This was recently passed by the House but contains no equivalent provision.

The order will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and any concerns noble Lords may have can be raised then. The duty to consult will require us to conscientiously consider and take into account the commission's comments.

Amendment No. 75 seeks to remove material produced in relation to an order made under Clause 6 (Combination of polls) from the exemption in Clause 11(3). I know that the noble Baroness intends Amendment No. 75 to be consequential upon her earlier amendments in the group. I hope that she will agree that, if we retain the ability to combine polls, this provision should also remain.

I apologise for the length of my reply but this is a very important issue. In the light of my explanation, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

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