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Lord Bassam of Brighton: To pick up the final point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, the amendment is received with sympathy and perhaps even with a degree of understanding. I, too, was a local councillor. I remember expressing enormous disquiet at what seemed to me rather dubious practices by one of the opposition parties in my authority during a by-election and having those concerns quite properly addressed.
But there is a difference between that and what I believe the noble Baroness suggests as a remedy. We believe that pilots are important, but the amendment would severely and needlessly restrict the ability of local authorities to hold electoral pilots and test out voting innovations. Perhaps that is what the noble Baroness wantsbut I cannot believe that it is, as she supports innovation in this field.
The amendment would effectively require any statutory order to permit an electoral pilot scheme to be laid before Parliament and to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Let us think through what that would mean.
Elections are regulated by detailed legislative codes. Any departure from those codes would require a modification to the relevant legislation. Indeed, if no change to legislation were required, there would be no need for an order. Therefore, in that sense the amendment is partially misconceived, as it is more or less impossible to envisage a potential order to which the proposed new Subsection (14), and hence the negative resolution procedure, would apply.
The timetable for holding elections, let alone pilot elections, is a tight one, particularly in the case of by-elections. If the statutory order required for local authorities to hold pilot elections required parliamentary scrutiny, the process would become cumbersome and extremely time consuming. I argue that there is not much freedom or flexibility in that.
In relation to by-elections it would prevent the holding of pilots at all, as it would in practice be impossible to make the order within the time-scale for holding the election. In some ways by-elections are a good opportunity to conduct pilots. The details of the pilot elections established by the statutory orders are decided by the local authorities that are to hold them, so there is a level of local democratic accountability for the operation of election pilots.
It is important to bear in mind that these orders do not amend legislation on a permanent basis but only in relation to the particular election. I do not therefore consider it appropriate to apply a parliamentary procedure to them.
The aim of the Representation of the People Act 2000 was, in part, to facilitate the process of electoral modernisation. We have achieved that in large degree. Turnouts, particularly in local elections, have increased considerably. If we consider the all-postal ballot elections that were conducted in the most recent set of elections, we can see that there were very significant increases in some areas, pushing election turnouts well over the 50 per cent mark. I think we all agree that that is desirable. It may potentially enfranchise people who feel that the current system disenfranchises them.
I argue that the amendment would be self-defeating. It would undermine the use of pilots and undermine the modernisation process. What we need to do is to try to encourage a culture whereby people get involved in elections. If the pilot schemes do that and are successfulmany of them have been and I believe that there is consensus on thatwe shall begin to make progress. It is important that we do as, after all, the health of a democracy can in part be measured by the level of participation within it. The pilots have managed to engage and, in some cases, excite people in that process.
I certainly understand, and have sympathy with, the desire for probity in the way in which pilots are conducted, but I believe there are other ways of achieving that rather than trying to make every pilot subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I believe that that would be self-defeating, cumbersome and bureaucratic and would virtually rule out by-elections as a means of piloting any innovation in the electoral machinery.
Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for his reply. He will not be entirely surprised to hear that I do not agree with him. It is perfectly proper that pilot schemes should take place, but it is equally proper that Parliament should have a role in monitoring how effective they are, how secure they are and how open to abuse they are. I am not at all sure that Parliament has had any role at all in that process so far.
There are real concerns about abuse and security as regards all methods of polling apart from the traditional polling station method. However, I accept that on some occasions the polling station method is not always entirely secure. If people are not recognised in one polling station and choose to nip off to another one, and if the tellers are not vigilant, matters can go awry, but I believe that the polling station method is less open to abuse than all other methods of polling.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I do not underestimate the seriousness of the issue, but I question the means that the noble Baroness suggests to make the pilots more accountable. Certainly there should be debate on the matter, perhaps based on the Electoral Commission's reports on these issues, so that we can seek ways of making polling methods more secure. It is worth adding that each pilot is carefully evaluated by the Electoral Commissionthat is part of its remitand any permanent changes, as I think I said earlier, are subject to the affirmative parliamentary procedure. Therefore, some of the accountability mechanisms that the noble Baroness seeks already exist.
Baroness Hanham: I am not aware that that we have had any debates in this House on the pilot schemes. Therefore, the Minister's comment in that regard is not overly helpful. I hear what the Minister says. I shall probably return to the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: This brings us to a most interesting situation, if it were not so scary. The Government have decided that they will move some electionsjust this yearfrom May to June. That is only a month, but what will it do? It will bring together four sets of elections. It is all being done in the name of voter turnout, I believe, and will bring everything together on the date of the European elections.
Apart from the fact that it seems to us wrongheaded of the Government to make changes to the electoral timetable on a whimeven if such changes are enshrined in legislationthat is not the way in which we ought to proceed. There is a fixed time-scale for elections in this country, particularly for local elections. There is a generalised view of general elections, but this concerns local elections. It is about the Government changing the rationale of having a period within which elections should be held.
What makes the matter worse is thatthis is not unique to this Governmentthe Government put out a consultation paper to which they received responses, but before the Bill had commenced its passage in this House they said that the date of the 2004 elections would be changed.
Problems arise with holding several elections on the same date. In the past it might not have mattered too much, as all electionsexcept where gerrymandering occurredinvolved the same voting procedure. But if these elections take place all on the same day, if you live in London you will be able to vote for the London Assembly by the additional member system, voting for both an individual candidate and a top-up party list. You will be able to vote for the London Mayor by a
I have a high regard for the ability and intellect of London's electorate. But it is a high test of intelligence to ask that electorate to sort out all those votes on the same day. It also raises the question of how a proper campaign can be run for any of these elections without getting the whole issue confused. We worry about the number of times that voters are canvassed or lobbied in some way or another. They will be fed up to the back teeth with the whole procedure if the elections are all rammed together on the same date.
I understand that the rationale behind the proposal is that voters will not want to vote on two separate occasions. It is highly open to question whether they would prefer to vote, as they would expect, in local elections on a particular date or to have to vote in several elections on the same date. The whole process is probably improper and I do not think that it will achieve what it is apparently meant to achieve. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: I should declare an interest, not only because I shall be a member of my party's list for the London-wide vote in the London Assembly election, but, if I am not elected by virtue of the election being postponed, I shall have drawn another month's salary. None of that prompts these comments.
On balance I support holding the elections together. The convenience of the voter is what matters most. Odd as it may seem to those of us who are election freaks, it is clear that most voters do not like being asked to vote. There is often a resistance to by-elections. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about the difficulties in London with a very complicated system. There will be only one additional difficulty which will be a vote for the European Parliament.
I was interested in the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, talking about successive canvassing of voters. I certainly do not intend to go around asking separate questions on separate days. I shall knock on each doorstep once and ask one set of questions. If the noble Baroness has such resources available to her I am very impressed and perhaps we should surrender now.
My serious point is that in what is admittedly an unusual and difficult situation not only is it important that the politicians and the voters should have certainty but so should the returning officers. The necessary changes to the regulations and to the rules that will govern the combined elections should be made and known as soon as possible, especially as regards any amendments to the electoral areas to be used, any electronic counting of the European Parliament elections and the design of the ballot paper.
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