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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier this afternoon by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health on the subject of the Mental Health Act. The Statement is as follows.
"With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about an issue relating to the Mental Health Act 1983. It has become apparent that there are some irregularities around the way that doctors have been approved for the purpose of assessing patients for detention under the Act. For assessments and decisions under certain sections of the Act, including detention decisions under Sections 2 and 3, three professionals are required to be involved-two doctors and an approved mental health professional, usually a social worker.
In 2002, when strategic health authorities came into being, the then Secretary of State properly and lawfully delegated his function of approving doctors under the Act to them. However, it came to light last week that in four out of the 10 strategic health authorities-North East, Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands and East Midlands-in a period of time dating from 2002 to the present day, authorisation of doctors' approval appears to have been further delegated to NHS mental health trusts. I was made aware of the issue and kept up to date with the actions being taken. Our latest best estimate is that approximately 2,000 doctors were not properly approved, and that they have participated in the detention of between 4,000 and 5,000 current patients within institutions in both the NHS and independent sectors. Rampton high-secure hospital is in one of the affected areas. Some patients at Ashworth high-secure hospital are also included.
There is no suggestion that the hospitalisation or detention of any patient has been clinically inappropriate, nor that the doctors so approved are anything other than properly qualified to make such recommendations, nor that these doctors might have made incorrect diagnoses or decisions about the treatment that patients need. All the proper clinical processes were gone through when these patients were detained. We believe that no one is in hospital who should not be, and no patients have suffered because of this. The doctors would have no reason to think that they had not been properly approved. They acted in good faith and in the interest of their patients throughout this period.
In the light of our legal advice, we do not believe that any decisions that have been made about patients' care and detention require review because of this irregularity. Doctors should continue treating patients who are currently detained under the Mental Health Act in the usual way. We have received advice from First Treasury Counsel that there are good arguments that the detentions involving these particular approval processes were and are lawful, but Counsel also argues the need for absolute legal clarity. The legal advice is that this should be resolved through emergency retrospective legislation.
As soon as the irregularity was identified, my department worked swiftly to identify the best course of action and put the necessary preparatory work in place. It first became aware of this problem last week. Officials immediately sought initial legal and clinical advice. We then swiftly analysed possible options, including the option of reassessing all potentially affected patients, working with the health leads in the regions affected and clinical experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. When I was briefed on the situation, I asked for detailed information on the time that it would take and the clinical risks involved in reassessing all potentially affected patients. On Friday, I asked for an emergency Bill to be drafted over the weekend, as a matter of contingency. I briefed the Prime Minister personally the following day. Following further discussions and analysis over the weekend, the decision to introduce emergency legislation was taken yesterday, and we have since worked to prepare the necessary materials. At all times, my priority has been to resolve this is a way that follows clinical advice about the most sensitive way to deal with a highly vulnerable group of individuals.
We have also worked to remedy the problem as it relates to current and future detentions. As of today, all the doctors involved have now been properly approved. The accountable officers for the four strategic health authorities in question have written to Sir David Nicholson, chief executive of the NHS, to confirm that they have made the necessary changes to their governance arrangements. Furthermore, the accountable officers in the remaining six strategic health authorities have written to Sir David to confirm that they have, in the light of this issue, reviewed their own arrangements and that they are in full compliance with the Mental Health Act.
Although we believe that there are good arguments that past detentions under the Mental Health Act were and are lawful, it is important that doctors, other mental health professionals and, most importantly, patients and their families have absolute confidence in the decisions made. That is why, in relation to past detentions, we have decided that this irregularity should be corrected by retrospective legislation. Although we are aware of the problem only in the four areas going back to 2002, the proposed legislation will apply in principle to the approval of all doctors under the Mental Health Act since its introduction in 1983. It will retrospectively validate the approval of clinicians by those organisations to which responsibility was delegated, up to the point when all the relevant doctors were fully reapproved and their status put beyond doubt. The legislation will not deprive people of their normal rights to seek redress if they have been detained
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We are proposing to introduce the draft legislation to the Commons and, through best endeavours, looking for it to complete its passage through all the appropriate stages in this House and the other place as soon as is practicable. While addressing this technical issue, it is also important that we get to the bottom of how this happened and that we learn any lessons to help inform the operation of the new system architecture from April 2013. As such, I have asked Dr Geoffrey Harris, chair of NHS South and former chair of Buckinghamshire Mental Health Trust, to undertake an independent review to look at how this statutory responsibility was delegated by these four SHAs; and, more broadly, the governance and assurance processes that all SHAs use for delegating any statutory responsibilities. I will also ask him to look at this in the context of the new NHS structures that come into force from next April, to see whether any lessons need to be learnt. It is imperative that this review is swift and I have asked Dr Harris to report to me by the end of the year with recommendations to ensure that every part of the system employs the highest standards of assurance and oversight in the delegation of any functions.
I stress to the House that I have reviewed with lawyers, clinicians and NHS managers possible alternatives to introducing this retrospective legislation. I have been advised that all alternatives would be highly disruptive to many of the most vulnerable patients, and would also deprive many other patients of the care that they need while any action is undertaken. However, all the advice that I have received has been unequivocal in stressing the need for absolute clarity of the legal status of any hospitalisation or detention of patients, in the interests of those patients, their families, those caring for them and the wider public. That is why, in such exceptional circumstances, this retrospective legislation is being proposed. Both a draft Bill and the accompanying Explanatory Notes will be published this afternoon. I commend this Statement to the House".
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement and for giving me earlier briefing today. Detaining people under the Mental Health Act raises the most serious issues of fundamental rights and patient and public safety. Any reported failure will therefore always be a matter of the highest concern. I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying that I have been reassured by the Minister's comments, in particular on three crucial points: first, that no patient has been wrongly detained or received care that was not clinically appropriate; secondly, that no doctor was unqualified to make decisions; and thirdly, that urgent action is being taken to correct the situation and bring the clarity that is so clearly essential.
I would like to put a number of questions to the noble Earl. Can he say a little more about the events that brought this to light last week? Was it discovered
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The noble Earl informed the House that, despite the regulations not being followed to the letter in four of the SHAs, the advice from First Treasury Counsel is that the detentions carried out by those panels, even where the relevant doctors were not signed off by the strategic health authority, were none the less lawful. I do not know whether the noble Earl will be able to clarify that or give some more detail of First Treasury Counsel's advice. The noble Earl confirmed that the Government will be bringing forward emergency legislation to ensure, for the avoidance of any doubt, that the actions of those doctors have legal validity.
The compulsory detention of patients under the Mental Health Act for their own good or for the public good should always be a matter of great public and parliamentary interest and scrutiny. This is doubly so when legislation of an emergency and retrospective nature is contemplated in this area. Emergency legislation should always be used as sparingly as possible, and your Lordships' House is rightfully nervous of retrospective law. The Official Opposition understand and support the noble Earl's wish to remove any doubt about the legal status of the patients concerned, but that has to be set against the general undesirability of asking Parliament to legislate hurriedly. Over the next day, will the noble Earl ensure that your Lordships have access to the fullest possible information, including a summary of the legal advice he received? There will also be concerns about the precedent, particularly in the area of people's rights, and I hope that the noble Earl can reassure me on that point.
The House and the public will, at the end of the day, want to know that this emergency legislation is being used in exceptional circumstances as a last resort, not as a convenient means of correcting administrative failures. In his Statement, the noble Earl mentioned that according to the advice that he had received from his officials none of the alternatives to legislation had proven satisfactory. Will he give a little more detail about what the possible alternatives were? It would be helpful to the House to know that. If he is not able to do that comprehensively tonight, when it comes to Second Reading of the legislation, which I presume we will be debating on Wednesday-I do not know whether that has been agreed yet-it would be helpful to know what the alternatives might have been and why his officials have concluded that they are not sensible ways forward.
Finally, I turn to the investigation. The Opposition support the review under Dr Harris to get to the facts and ensure that lessons are properly learnt. The noble Earl said that he thought the review would be completed
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Will the noble Earl clarify what is going to happen post April 2013? This is currently the responsibility of strategic health authorities, which are due to be abolished at the end of March next year. Will the Secretary of State take back this responsibility from April 2013 or will it be delegated to another authority? If it is, to which authority and how will be ensured that the proper delegations will be carried out in practice? As well as establishing that and the historical facts, will the review consider whether the new arrangements are likely to be well understood post April 2013?
In conclusion, I commend the Minister for the approach that he and his colleagues have taken to this difficult issue. Clearly, the request of this House and the other place is exceptional, but I fully understand that failure to act would potentially cause unnecessary distress and uncertainty to many thousands of vulnerable patients and their families and risk to public safety. While I look forward to a rigorous examination of the emergency legislation, the noble Earl has our support in removing any uncertainty.
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for his supportive comments, and I shall do my best to answer as many of his questions as I can. He first asked me what train of events led up to this situation. Earlier in the year, a doctor challenged a refusal by the Yorkshire and Humber approvals panel to approve him under Section 12. This challenge highlighted the possibility that the Secretary of State's approval function, which had been properly delegated to SHAs, may, in some areas, have been unlawfully further delegated to NHS trusts. Yorkshire and Humber and then the northern SHA cluster took their own legal advice, which confirmed that the trust had been acting ultra vires in issuing the approvals. The northern SHA cluster identified that this applied to the arrangement in North East SHA and alerted the Midlands cluster, where it was possible that the same issue might apply in East Midlands and West Midlands. On 22 October, the northern SHA cluster alerted the Department of Health to the issue surrounding the approval of doctors and the possible knock-on effects that that would have. Events then took the course that I outlined when repeating the Statement. I can confirm to the noble Lord that we are satisfied that all 10 strategic health authorities have now gone through the proper process for approving doctors under the Act. The four that may not have been compliant have regularised the situation.
The noble Lord asked whether more than the 4,000 to 5,000 patients that I indicated when reading the Statement might be affected. It is possible that more
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The noble Lord asked whether there were any plans to communicate with patients. We have worked, and continue to work, with the Royal College of Psychiatrists to ensure that patients and staff will understand clearly what has happened, how it affects them and what the situation now is. Sir David Nicholson, the NHS chief executive, today has written to all SHA leaders setting out the situation and the immediate need for them to communicate across their mental health organisations. The Department of Health is also assisting in that process.
The noble Lord also asked how many patients were detained in high-secure hospitals. I do not have the exact numbers. However, a small number of patients in secure hospitals are detained under sections of the Act covered by approval under Section 12 but these patients are not in secure hospitals by virtue of a criminal section. On whether I could share with the House the legal advice that the department has received, I am sure that he will know that it has been the practice of successive governments not to do that for very good reasons. However, if the noble Lord is in any doubt about the advice that we have received, I am very happy to give him access to my officials in the department who can talk him through this.
Quite rightly, the noble Lord said that your Lordships' House has in the past been extremely cautious about approving retrospective legislation and I am the first to acknowledge the validity of that comment. In no way do the Government enter into retrospective legislation lightly. As he said, it is very much a last resort. We looked at the only possible alternative, which was to reassess each and every one of the 4,000 to 5,000 patients currently detained in every setting. We would need to have done that within 72 hours, which is what the law allows. In our judgment, it was logistically impossible to do that.
Furthermore, if we had attempted to do that, it would have undoubtedly caused a great deal of anxiety and distress to the patients involved, and their families, while taking away from other patients the attention of the clinical staff who look after them. The very clear advice that we received from not only our legal experts but also the clinicians was that the retrospective legislation route was undoubtedly the best route to go down. It is not now necessary to reassess patients. I believe that that perhaps is the central consideration we should have in our minds.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also asked whether this affair reflected a failure of policy implementation or the underlying legislation. Certainly, from our scrutiny, there is no defect in the legislation. What has happened is that powers have been inappropriately delegated by those four strategic health authorities. The panels whose job it is to approve the clinicians failed to refer back to the strategic health authority for ratification the recommendations that they were making, which is the only thing that we believe was not done under this process.
The noble Lord also asked what would be the arrangement after April 2013. The power under the Mental Health Act to approve clinicians in this context will revert back to the Department of Health. There will be a refreshed set of arrangements which will be co-ordinated and managed by the department. Those arrangements are being put in place over the next few months.
Earl Howe: My Lords, the review by Dr Harris will take into consideration any lessons that need to be learnt. We have asked him to take into account any other possible lessons that we should take on board, particularly in the run-up to April 2013. However, I am happy to reassure my noble friend that her request will be passed on. If there is a relevance to the Mental Capacity Act, I will ensure that Dr Harris takes it into account.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, I would hope that the Minister could tell us a little more about how these irregularities came to light only last week. The problem, of course, is that there is a well known maxim of the law that the delegate of a power-that is to say the person to whom a power is delegated-cannot delegate it to another. I think that it is expressed in Latin as delegatus non potest delegare.
It is no doubt that maxim which has caused the lawyers to have had some doubt about the lawfulness of the detention in these cases. Indeed, it is perhaps surprising-again, the noble Lord might be able to give us some understanding about this-that these irregularities have not come to light before. Now that they have, I agree with the advice given by First Treasury Counsel that there is here a need for absolute clarity and that the best way to achieve that is by legislation. The whole point of it is that it should have retrospective effect. I end by congratulating the Government on reacting so quickly.
Earl Howe: I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd. In front of me, I have a very detailed timeline of the events which have led to the current situation, starting from the early summer of this year when the doctor who was turned down for approval in Yorkshire and Humberside SHA challenged the decision. Subsequently, he dropped his appeal but the legal advice taken on his grounds for appeal highlighted the possibility that the arrangements for the panel convened by the Rotherham, Doncaster and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust to exercise this function were unlawful. From that point, questions were asked
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The noble and learned Lord rightly asked how this could ever have happened and not been picked up. We will rely on the review by Dr Harris to tell us the answer to that question, but I am grateful for his support.
Baroness Pitkeathley: In further clarification to the response that the noble Earl gave to my noble friend about communication with patients, will he tell the House more about how that communication is to take place, whether there is a timescale for it and whether the communication also will extend to patients' families who will be particularly worried by some of these developments?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I would willingly give the noble Baroness further details. Unfortunately, I do not have any beyond those that I gave to her noble friend Lord Hunt. I will gladly pick up the very valid points that she has made and let her know as soon as I can. Perhaps when we reach Second Reading of the Bill, which I believe has been timetabled for Wednesday, I shall have a more detailed answer to give her. If she is not in the Chamber, I shall make sure that she receives it by other means.
Lord Williamson of Horton: I have a particular interest in the Mental Health Act 1983, because I played some role in getting some provisions on to the statute book. I am normally very against any retrospective legislation, but in this particular case I strongly support the view taken by the Government, because it is absolutely essential to avoid a situation in which we impose disruption and distress on a large number of people who are vulnerable and in difficult circumstances in any event. For what I may call "human reasons", the alternative was rightly ruled out, and I support the Government's view.
Earl Howe: I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. Indeed, it was the well-being of patients that was central in our mind when we sat down to consider how to resolve this very unfortunate situation at the end of last week. I hope and believe that patients should not suffer any inconvenience or distress at all as a result of the remedial route that we chose.
Baroness Ford: I welcome a review by Dr Harris, but can the Minister say whether, outwith the sphere of mental health, the department has any concerns that there are other areas of health where the Secretary of State would normally delegate authority to strategic health authorities and where that delegation might be further delegated? Is there any belief in the department that any other areas could be similarly ultra vires?
Earl Howe: We know of no such instances, but again we have asked Dr Harris to investigate that issue. I am sincerely hopeful that he will not find any other irregularities, but we cannot of course rule out that possibility.
Lord Laming: We are all grateful for the way in which this matter has been handled, and particularly pleased that it will not result in any fundamental change in mental health legislation. I come to this from a point of ignorance, so I hope that the Minister will excuse what seems an innocent question. Does this mean that the future emergency legislation that will come to the House is aimed at deeming that the practitioners who dealt with these cases are now licensed to deal with them, or does it mean that the patients have been deemed to be appropriately assessed?
Earl Howe: The question that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, asks is not a naive one at all-it is a very important one. The draft legislation that has been prepared is very narrowly drawn and its effect will be to ratify retrospectively those decisions taken by the panels that assess doctors for approval and treat those decisions by the panel as if they had been lawfully made. So it does not apply directly to patients but to the approval of the clinicians involved.
Baroness Barker: Could the Minister say something about the role of regulators and professional bodies, and why none of them picked up this issue over time? Will that matter form part of Dr Harris's review?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: As is clear from the Statement repeated by my noble friend Lord Howe, a Bill is required to put right the administrative defect that has been discovered in the approval of doctors under the Mental Health Act. Tomorrow the Government will invite the House of Commons to pass such a Bill. I am grateful to the opposition Chief Whip for agreeing in the usual channels that the Bill should be fast-tracked on its receipt in this House. Therefore, I propose that the Second Reading of the Mental Health (Approval Functions) Bill should be taken in the dinner break on Wednesday this week, displacing the Question for Short Debate of the noble Lord, Lord German, which I shall naturally make an immediate effort to reschedule to his convenience. Given the nature of the Bill, the usual channels have also agreed that it should not be committed and that its remaining stages should be taken formally immediately after Second Reading. My noble friend the Leader of the House will move the necessary Standing Order suspension Motion tomorrow after questions. It is of course open to any noble Lord to object to that Motion, but I hope that that may not be the mood of the House.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport in another place. The Statement is as follows:
On 3 October I announced the cancellation of the competition to run the intercity west coast franchise because of the discovery of unacceptable flaws in the procurement process run by the Department for Transport. I made it clear at the time, and do so again today, that this was a very regrettable decision prompted by mistakes that should never have happened. I also launched two independent inquiries, one of which has reported its interim findings to me and which I am today delivering to the House.
I asked the first inquiry, led by Centrica chief executive Sam Laidlaw, to look into what happened and why with the aim of establishing the lessons to be learnt. I also asked the second review, led by Eurostar chairman Richard Brown, to focus on any lessons to be learnt for the future rail franchising programme. I promised that both would conduct their investigations thoroughly, independently and urgently.
Given the public interest in this matter, the Laidlaw inquiry was asked to deliver an interim report to me by 26 October, and a final report by the end of November. I am grateful to the inquiry for meeting this first deadline, and working tirelessly to meet the second. I stress that today's findings are precisely that-an interim report. There is more work to do. These findings are clearly a first stage. As Mr Laidlaw explains, they set out what went wrong, and from that basis he will now carry out further investigations into why this happened. From the start, my aim in dealing with this situation has been to be open and come forward with information for the House at the earliest opportunity. It is in that spirit that I make this Statement today. In the interests of complete transparency, I am publishing this interim report, with its provisional findings, and placing copies of it in the Libraries of both Houses.
To be blunt, these initial findings make uncomfortable reading, but they provide a necessary and welcome further step in sorting this out. The Government will need to see the full and finished report before they can comment in detail on any conclusions. This is crucial because of the independent nature of the Laidlaw inquiry and the need for the Government not to prejudge its eventual findings. But it is clear that the inquiry has identified a number of issues which confirm that my decision to cancel the franchise competition was necessary. These include a lack of transparency in the bidding process; the fact that published guidance was not complied with when bids were being processed; inconsistencies in the treatment of bidders; and confirmation of technical flaws in the model used to calculate the amount of risk capital that bidders were asked to provide to guard against the risk of default.
Secondly, I would like to update the House on the progress we are making to ensure continuity of service on the west coast main line once the current franchise expires on 9 December. As I have said previously, we will ensure that passengers continue to be served by the same trains, with the same front-line staff, the same services, using the same tickets and, I am pleased to say, enhanced future timetables.
The department is making good in its discussions with Virgin on how it will operate the line for a short period of up to 14 months while a competition is run for an interim agreement. We are discussing its proposals for improved services over this period and an enhanced compensation scheme for delayed passengers. In dealing with this my department has been frank and open about its mistakes and is absolutely determined to find out exactly what happened. In the mean time, we will keep delivering for passengers and continue with the unprecedented levels of investment in trains, stations and railway lines. Combined with our decision to limit train fare rises to an average of inflation plus 1%, instead of RPI plus 3%, for the next three years, this demonstrates this Government's total commitment to Britain's railways".
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, from time to time the noble Earl has a moment of difficulty at the Dispatch Box, but never one of such ignominy as to have to address himself to this Statement, which has already been delivered in the other place. It is noticeable that when Ministers are in control of their departments and the departments are carrying out their policies efficiently, you often hear them refer to "my department". I repeat part of the Statement, although the Minister has already read it out, which states,
How remote that body appears, given that the Secretary of State is commenting on it. Like all other Ministers, the Secretary of State wants to be as remote as he possibly can from the shambles represented by today's Statement and the answers we have had to Parliamentary Questions in the interim period. Nothing is more indicative of the failure of the Government than for the Minister again to emphasise today the independent nature of the reports being carried out. One of them will be carried out by a member of the departmental board. I have no criticism at all of Mr Laidlaw, who I know to be an extremely independent minded, efficient and proper individual. However, to ask him to carry out an independent review not just of the board but of Ministers as well when he is a member of the board, serving those Ministers, beggars description in terms of what this Government are prepared to defend in the wake of this shambles.
I have one or two precise questions to ask the noble Earl but I want him to be absolutely clear that the way in which Ministers have set about tackling this
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What did the department do? It ploughed on in its reckless way. Ministers did not intervene. Is it conceivable that when these difficulties arose Ministers were not informed? What grip did they have on the department when such a significant process was undertaken? I emphasise that this is the first of a series of decisions which have to be taken on these franchises. There are many more to come. Therefore, this matter ought to have been worked on in a very real sense as the model which dictated how all the others would subsequently be analysed. However, we have Ministers purporting to be so distant from the process that they knew nothing about these difficulties until months after the relevant events occurred. In fact, action was not taken by the department but when one party decided to take the issue to the High Court the department was forced to initiate a review. I take it that at that point Ministers at last took an interest in what was going on and forced the department to analyse criticisms of the process. At that late stage it was recognised that the process was flawed and had to be brought to a halt with very considerable costs.
So far, the department has owned up to the fact that the mistake may cost £40 million. However, everyone connected with the industry knows that that is only the start of the costs. The Secretary of State may stick to his figure but we know that this is just the cost of compensating the four bidders for the west coast main line franchise. It does not include the cost of rerunning the competition twice, preparing Directly Operated Railways to step in, or compensating bidders for the other stalled franchises because many months of delay are now built into the whole process.
It is clear that the department has been advised in this process by external companies which, of course, have provided their services at a cost. What steps is the Minister taking to review whether the department received value for money for well over £1 million spent on a flawed process, the results of which had to be jettisoned?
As regards the legal advice which the department has received, what is the department's liability if any of the participants in these cancelled or stalled franchises seek costs from the Government as a result of the delay? What advice did the Minister receive on EU competition law, procurement law and the impact on the fairness of future competitions before deciding to extend Virgin's contract? The noble Earl has emphasised what an excellent decision it was to extend Virgin's contract. However, there were very few alternatives. Virgin is going to run the railway for the next 14 months although it was told that it was not
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Earl Attlee: -although it was, not surprisingly, a little bit aggressive. However, I would have done much the same if our positions had been reversed. I agree that it is not enjoyable to have to report such serious problems to the House. However, when answering questions on this issue I have aligned myself closely with my department and I have expressed confidence in all the officials who have briefed me. I still have confidence in all the department's officials who brief me.
The noble Lord asked about the issue of pressing on with the franchising process when there was a possibility of something being wrong. We know that serious errors were made, and this interim report spells these out. The reasons why this happened and why the department pressed on regardless will be addressed in the full reports. However, in August, officials had assured the then Ministers that the department's process had been robust.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies, also asked me about the roles of Ministers. Before 12 September, my right honourable friend was advised by officials that potential concerns about two aspects of the franchise process had been discovered, but at that stage it was not clear that these would have made any difference to the outcome of the competition. He was advised that the right course was to continue to prepare the defence to the legal challenge. He asked that further investigations be conducted. In the later stages, from 24 September, this work was assisted by PricewaterhouseCoopers. On Tuesday 2 October, he was advised that the flaws were so significant that the competition would have to be cancelled, and he announced this on that very night.
The noble Lord also talked about delay to the whole franchising process. We will have to wait until we receive the Brown report to see what it means for franchising as a whole-and of course we will get that at the end of the year. He asked about liability as regards the various bidders in the franchising process. He would not expect me to comment on any claims for compensation.
The noble Lord's initial point was that Brown and Laidlaw are compromised by being non-executive members of the departmental board. Sam Laidlaw has outstanding credentials to lead this review. He is a very senior business leader with a deep understanding of how big organisations work. He is the lead non-executive director across government on procurement and is familiar with the issues surrounding public procurement. As lead non-executive board member for the DfT, he has a thorough knowledge of how the
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I have some experience of models, how complex they are, and how very few people actually understand what is inside them. You virtually have to have a degree in econometrics to understand them, and to some extent it is in the interests of the consultants that it should be so, because it keeps them in work. The whole issue of subordinated loans, which is connected with long franchises, means that you are asking the banks to put up a lot of money into the very distant future. We know that the banks are risk-averse and a new method must be found of covering this liability, or else it will bring all long franchises down.
I would like an assurance from the Minister that all the stalled franchises will continue good housekeeping, small investment schemes, support for community rail trusts, and all those things in the time before a new franchise procedure is launched. I warn him that it is going to take a long time, possibly two or three years, to get a viable scheme going.
Is it not better, rather than having very long franchises, to build into the franchise process a reward for delivery of excellent service, whereby each year you get something off the next bid? If you have five good years and then rebid, you may get a 5% advantage over any other bidders. That would underwrite continuity, which is appreciated by the staff and the customers.
I have one final question: will the noble Earl give attention to the large-scale orders that are imminent from rolling-stock companies? I am talking about big money. These will not go ahead unless the department gives some reassurance to the rolling-stock companies that the franchises they let are going to use the rolling stock. That is extremely important, particularly for lots of jobs in Derby and Preston.
Earl Attlee: My noble friend Lord Bradshaw made some important points but, of course, for answers to many of them we will have to wait to see what the Brown report says. However, I agree that we need to be careful to keep what is good about the current franchising system. At this stage, in advance of the report, I would not want to comment on how long it will take to get the franchising system running again. Rolling stock is of course a separate issue from the franchising problems, but he makes an important point and I will draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend the Minister of State.
Lord Martin of Springburn: My Lords, I have stated to the noble Earl previously that every week when I come down here I travel on the Virgin Pendolino and
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Earl Attlee: The noble Lord makes an important point about the human element of this problem. I take this opportunity to make it quite clear that the front-line staff will not be adversely affected. It will be the same staff running the trains and the same rolling stock. In the short term, passengers will not notice any difference. As I said in the Statement, we may even be able to enhance the service. However, it is important to remember that there is a human element to this problem.
Lord Snape: My Lords, will the Minister accept some sympathy from me for having to deliver that preprepared Statement? It referred to the Government having been "frank and open" about this shambles, as my noble friend on the Front Bench rightly called it. Does the Minister accept that the Government have behaved in no such way and that, up to hours before the revelations emerged as a result of the proposals for judicial review, the previous Secretary of State and her successor were assuring us all that the contract was robust and that no problems were foreseen?
I wish to press the noble Earl on the question of cost, to which my noble friend on the Front Bench referred. None of us for a moment believes that the costs will be confined to the £40 million of the existing franchise. Has the department, for example, received any communication from FirstGroup, which was previously awarded this franchise and whose share price has declined by 20% since the emergence of the fact that the system was flawed? How much does the Minister estimate this whole thing is going to cost the British taxpayer? I repeat the noble Lord's plea that in future the front-line staff who have to operate the west coast main line be kept fully informed about what is happening.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, as for the noble Lord's last point, the staff on the west coast main line are of course the responsibility of Virgin. I assure the House that I have repeated many political Statements, and I have done so this time again without the opportunity of editing it because I am just repeating a Statement made by my right honourable friend in another place.
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Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I endorse what my noble friend the Minister has just said. I have no detailed knowledge of these matters, and of course I share the dismay about the very serious difficulties that have emerged. However, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for example, speaking from the opposition Front Bench as he has just done, to take a little care. What would the reaction of the then Government have been if all this had happened, say, three years ago, when they were still in office? I dare say we would have had a whole lot of dissembling, lack of transparency and flannel and not the forthright and straightforward replies which Ministers have given on this occasion and for which I believe they are to be commended. Of course it is a deeply unfortunate situation but I think that Ministers have acted as best as they can and that they are to be commended for their transparency and forthrightness on this occasion.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, is thinking: there but for the grace of God go I. In defence of the noble Lord, he had to come to this House and explain the problems at HMRC, which, frankly, I think he did.
Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who spoke earlier, I do not wish to join in any hue and cry, but does the noble Earl not agree that what has happened calls into question the wisdom of the Government's approach to downsizing the Civil Service as a response to the economic problems that the country faces? Does he not agree that this situation might suggest that they have been going too far and too fast in this? Is it not the case that what has happened here strikes a body blow at the credibility of government processes? When next we get a statement from any department that says that it has employed the most robust processes it is possible to conceive of, who is going to believe that?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, as Sam Laidlaw has stated, these are initial views about potential contributory factors that he will continue to investigate in advance of his final report. Laidlaw has chosen not to criticise any particular individual or groups of people. Tackling the deficit and getting the public finances in order require the Government to tighten their belt like any other organisation. In doing its bit, my department made careful and well considered reductions in its headcount that were designed to save the public money while continuing to deliver on all its priorities, including rail franchises.
Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, I raise my point this evening in the spirit of making sure that we learn the lessons of this very serious exercise. Today, the Minister has very clearly laid out the position. He described the situation from the report as very serious. He talked about things such as technical flaws in the bids and the lack of transparency. However, these
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Earl Attlee: My Lords, the noble Lord talked about lessons learnt. As I said, the next stage of the Laidlaw report will look at why the errors occurred and at the lessons to be learnt. The interim report is not very long and should be available in the Library. I urge noble Lords to read all of it. I read it just this afternoon, so it is not a long report. The noble Lord asked me a point-blank question. Perhaps the answer is that officials did not realise that the flaw existed or how serious it was.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I have no inhibitions at all about making strong criticism of what happened over this franchise. I think it has been a complete and utter disgrace and a fiasco. Indeed, when we consider the humiliating spectacle of the Government having to go cap in hand to the very franchisee who was rejected to ask it to continue running the railway, it is clear that we have got into a very serious situation indeed. Quite frankly, I believe that this Statement smacks of complacency about the whole matter. Let us just have a look at what the interim inquiry says about it. Sam Laidlaw refers to a lack of transparency in the bidding process and the fact that published guidance was not complied with when bids were being processed. Why not? Finally, he talks of inconsistencies in the treatment of bidders, and that is the most serious of all because it smacks of corruption somewhere in the department. I am sorry to have to say it but it has to be said in the light of that particular sentence. I ask the noble Earl whether the department is now shown to be not fit for purpose. Is there going to be a root-and-branch reorganisation of the department to see that this sort of thing never happens again in relation to railways or, indeed, any other franchises in which the department might be involved?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, talked about strong criticism and of course it is justified. Ministers are not denying that the problem is serious. The Virgin bid was not rejected; it fell victim to a better bid from FirstGroup. The noble Lord talked about inconsistency in the treatment of bids. There is no evidence of bad faith on the part of officials. As we understand it, it was purely an error. Finally, he talked about reorganisation of the department. We will have to wait to see what Sam Laidlaw says about the reasons and the lessons learnt. I will not promise that we will reorganise the department but I assure the House that we will make sure that this problem does not arise again.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: The noble Earl said that there was nothing wrong with the process, but it was shown that everything was wrong with the process. In fact, Virgin went to the High Court because it believed
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Taylor of Holbeach): My Lords, the House will know that on 15 November the people of England and Wales will go to the polls to elect their first police and crime commissioners.
The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 sets out the basic rules for the elections, and the detailed rules, forms and notices can be found, in English, in the Police and Crime Commissioner (Elections) Order 2012. The Government are, of course, committed to ensuring that the Welsh language is given full parity with English in Wales, so have brought this further order to establish a bilingual ballot paper for use in Wales on 15 November. Our commitment to ensuring that the Welsh language is given equal status with English in these elections is shown by the fact that we have established Welsh names for the four offices of PCCs in Wales formally. We are also ensuring that our candidate website in Wales is also in Welsh, with a website address in Welsh too.
Should they wish, police and crime commissioners on election will be able to take their oath in Welsh. I can assure noble Lords that all other forms and notices for the election can be issued bilingually without an order. These suggested forms are available on the Electoral Commission website. However, ballot papers require an order and I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in supporting the need for these forms to be available bilingually. I beg to move.
Lord Touhig: My Lords, what a complete shambles this has become. We are less than 48 hours away from the deadline of five o'clock on Wednesday when the first ballot papers in both languages should be sent out to postal voters. Until we conclude our business this evening, there is no authority to use ballot papers in both languages. This is further evidence of the lack of interest that this Government show to Wales, her people and the Welsh language. The Electoral Commission points out in its helpful briefing for this debate:
We are barely two weeks away for the first election for the police and crime commissioners and until this order is agreed there will be no bilingual ballot papers available. Some of us are sceptical about the whole idea of police and crime commissioners, coming at a time of the difficult economic situation in our country. Many of us question spending £75 million on this election. On top of that, I see in an Answer given to my right honourable friend David Hanson, the Member for Delyn in the other place, a further £350,000 has been spent on printing ballot papers in English only in case this order is not made in time. With the passing of this order allowing for the use of bilingual ballot papers, the English only ballot papers, which have already been printed, will be thrown away. That means that £350,000 will have been spent on creating waste paper.
I share the Electoral Commission's view that rules relating to any elections should be clear at least six months before the election. The commission has already told the Government of its concerns and about the unacceptable lateness of the Welsh ballot forms order that we are now considering. Indeed, in a letter of 28 September from Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission to the Minister, Damian Green, she said:
"No draft legislation vital to the conduct of an upcoming election should be made only 16 days prior to polling day after candidate nominations have opened. In this case, the legislation is likely to be made only just before postal votes are dispatched, with the result that there will be significantly increased costs for the public purse".
We have to ask: how have we come to this? This shambolic Government seem to stagger from one crisis of their own making to another. I accept that it is the responsibility of the Home Office, and I have great sympathy for the Minister having to come here to answer, but where were the Wales Office Ministers in all this? Did they know about this mess? If so, what did they do about it? After all, there are three of them now. The last time we had three Ministers in the Wales Office was before the National Assembly for Wales existed. In pre-devolution days, the Wales Office ran public services such as health and education. It was responsible for everything from agriculture to transport. The present Wales Office runs nothing at all. When the National Assembly was created it took over many of the responsibilities of the old Welsh Office and as a result, the number of Welsh Office Ministers was cut from three to two, and rightly so.
In the four years that I had the privilege of serving as a Welsh Office Minister, we had just two Ministers and we certainly had a much greater workload than the three there now have. That included responsibility for taking through legislation, which is something that the present trinity of Ministers do not have to do because the National Assembly for Wales now has legislative powers. The Wales Office has some 60 staff-23 in Cardiff and 37 in London. Seventeen of its staff are on loan from the Welsh Government. Did no one spot the fact that the Government had not made this order? Were none of the three Ministers aware of this debacle?
There is something called collective responsibility. When I was a Minister we took that seriously. We looked across the range of government departments to see what they were doing. All interdepartmental correspondence between Ministers was copied to all Ministers. Staff were alerted to bring to Ministers' attention not simply matters relating to their own departments, but matters across a wide range of issues, usually specified by a diligent Minister. I suggest that the Wales Office Ministers be provided with a copy of the excellent book written by my friend Gerald Kaufman, How to be a Minister because it seems that they do not know how to be Ministers. To be fair, I certainly exclude the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who has only just become a Wales Office Minister, but the Secretary of State for Wales was the former Under-Secretary of State for Wales. The other Minister, Mr Crabb, was also a Whip. Those sleeping beauties of Gwydyr House did not seem to be aware of what was happening at all.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord German, is seeking a debate stressing how the Welsh and UK Governments can work more closely in the interests of the people of Wales. Well, if this abysmal track record is anything to go by, Welsh Ministers will not be working in partnership with their colleagues in Cardiff for the benefit of the people of Wales. We have all heard the term, "sleeping partner", but I am sure that we did not expect it to apply to an entire government department. Under this Government the Wales Office has no profile. The Ministers are invisible; they have no mandate; and it is clear from the mess caused by the delay of this order that they have no great interest in Wales. The lateness in laying the order is typical of this Government-a Government who only a while ago forced through a Bill cutting the number of Welsh MPs by 25 per cent. The voice of Wales will be heard. We will not be silenced, and whatever happens to the parliamentary boundaries, I have no doubt that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs will certainly be given their marching orders at the next election.
Lord Wigley: My Lords, I am very glad of the opportunity to speak briefly on this order. I thank the Minister for his courtesy in pointing out last week that this debate was taking place, but having said that, I may not be quite so positive towards the Government. I certainly agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, in what has been an incredible episode in these events.
That applies in this case. It is not something new. The first Welsh Language Act was in 1967, there was another in 1993 and there was a revision from the National Assembly two years ago. That is known to the Home Office and has been known all through the procedures relating to the police and crime commissioner elections. Why on earth are we now, two days before the deadline for these papers to be posted out for postal vote purposes, are we having to spend an extra £350,000 to cover the mistake made by somebody in the Home Office?
"Police Area Returning Officers have put in place contingency arrangements; they are printing both bilingual and English language ballot papers so that postal ballot packs can be issued promptly. If this Order comes into effect in time, bilingual ballot papers can be issued in postal ballot packs. If not English language ballot papers will be used. The UK Government has agreed to provide additional funding to cover the additional cost of printing duplicate postal ballot packs".
That is £350,000 at a time when we are told that every penny is vital. With all the cutbacks going on under the Welfare Reform Bill and other legislation we see this waste of money because no one thought about it in time. That is of great concern. Rhydian Thomas further states:
"We are strongly of the view that the rules relating to any elections should be clear at least six months in advance. We have already made clear to the UK Government the unacceptable lateness of the Welsh Forms Order and our concerns about the inconsistency in their approach to prescribing forms and notices in English and Welsh for these elections".
So we have not only got a mess through not having a Welsh language version, but the English language version that was drawn up was also incorrect according to the deputy head of the electoral structure in Wales. That cannot be acceptable. I fear that it indicates an attitude within the Home Office towards what is happening in Wales which, at best, is remote and uncaring and, at worst, is disdainful and contemptuous towards the needs in Wales.
I noted what the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, said about Wales Office Ministers, who clearly have a responsibility in this, but the primary responsibility for these forms lies with the Home Office-it should have got it right-and if the Home Office is incapable of getting it right on something as basic as this when the legislation has gone through the House, then, as in the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Home Office should come under the National Assembly where, whatever else happens there, it would not have made a mistake of this kind.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I join with the condemnation of the noble Lord, Lord Touhig-apart from his final remark, which I do not accept at all-and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. This is a shambolic way in which to undertake any kind of election. We have it on good authority that the ballot papers will be going out within the next 48 hours but it is only tonight that we will say, "Yes, let us have the bilingual papers". How the staffs in the various local authorities will manage to do this over the next day or two is beyond my comprehension. Not only is this part of the election process at fault but the whole issue has been conducted in haste and has not been thoroughly thought through.
As to the postal ballot papers that are being issued, in the previous Parliament I campaigned to ensure that members of the Armed Forces then in Iraq and in Afghanistan now received ballot papers to allow them
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To divert a little-I make no apology for this-how will candidates access the electors in their constituencies? Greater Manchester has 2 million people-I do not know whether that is the number of voters-so how are the candidates standing there going to get in touch with those 2 million people? Liverpool has 1 million people and North Wales has about 500,000 people: who will be able to contact these people with details of the candidates and their policies; how will they get through? There is no free post but a polling card was sent out about two weeks ago. That could have been used to provide at least a page from each of the candidates standing in the various constituencies-as they do in London mayoral elections-but nothing came.
No one will be able to say that this is a fair election. They may say, "It will be on the internet" but 8 or 9 million people have no access to the internet. How will those people know who is standing, which party they belong to and what are their proposals for policing in their particular area? It could have been so different.
Only the wealthy or well-funded candidates in North Wales-which is only a small electorate-could possibly afford £50,000 to mail people in their areas. No ordinary person-certainly no independent person-will be able to afford this. So some candidates will have access because they have money; others will be unable to afford access. Would there not be a case for a legal challenge to the results when they are announced? Someone will have to think that through thoroughly.
While I am delighted that at long last we are to have Welsh ballot papers and that a prototype is in our briefing, so much else is wrong. This is a total shambles which does not reflect on the people of the areas it is supposed to represent. As to the point about this being approved at the last hour, we cannot call for the election to be declared invalid now but certainly we need to go through it thoroughly in the future.
I support what has been said. I am glad that there has been at least an acknowledgement of Welsh-which, of course, is one of the great languages of the western world-but we will try to ensure that discounting us without a thought will not happen again.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I endorse with enthusiasm the chagrin that has been announced by each of the three previous noble Lords who have spoken in this matter. I have no doubt that, at best, it is an embarrassment for the Government; at worst, it could well be a disaster. In saying that, I exculpate completely the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in this matter, and the new Minister, whom I congratulate on her position.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has already shown himself a person of great sensitivity and sincerity in relation to Wales and has shown a considerable chivalry as well. He wears the gown, as it were, of defending counsel in this case. I know something of what that role sometimes involves.
There is no doubt that disaster lies very close to our elbow tonight. If this legislation is not carried by five o'clock on Wednesday, which is less than 48 hours away, it will be impossible for these Welsh forms to be part of the election. There is no dispute about that. If that can be done-and I have no intention of dividing the House; nor, I am sure, has any other noble Lord-it will have been a very close-run thing.
However, there are lessons that we have to consider in this connection. This is a tale of two statutes: one is the Welsh Language Act 1967. The combination of Sections 2 and 3 of that Act mean that anything that is done in the Welsh language has equal validity as if it had been done in the English language. The blade was pushed a little further by legislation passed in 1993 and thereafter, but the basic principle was established in that Act. I am very proud indeed to have been a Member of the other place at the time.
The effect of that is that there is a statutory obligation on Her Majesty's Government to use the Welsh language whenever they possibly can so as to establish the principle of equal validity. On this occasion they failed to do so. I think they failed because the procedures were so convoluted. They meant that someone in the Home Office had to translate the title into a very simple Welsh phrase, "heddlu a throseddu". Only one letter was wrong. "Throseddau" was the translation, but that means "offences" or "crimes". "Throseddu" means "crime". In other words, the title should be "Commissioner for Police and Crime", not "Commissioner for Police and Crimes". The difference is not infinite, but it is significant. Why ever was that particular responsibility left with the Home Office?
I have referred to the 1967 Act, but the other one is rather older. It is the Act of Union 1535 or 1536. That Act contains a massive preamble. If you want to know how to use 10 words whenever one can be used, read this preamble. It is a classic example of long-nosed Tudor verbosity. In the Act, Henry VIII enounces the principle that the people of the dominion of Wales use a language that is different from and in no way consonant to the mother tongue of the people of this realm. That began it all; it was an attack upon the Welsh language. By that Act, the Welsh language was effectively excommunicated from the realm of law. It meant that no one could hold a position unless he could speak the English language, that no document would have validity unless it was written in the English language, as well as many other instances in addition.
I am sure that the Minister will accept that we are approaching this with very considerable sincerity. It is not a matter of pettifogging Welsh lawyers logic-chopping, splitting hairs or in some way trying to be a nuisance to the established Government of the day. This is a massive insult to the Welsh language. The Act of Union tried to kill the Welsh language; the Act of 1967 tried to save it. It is as simple as that. So, looking to the future and in no way seeking to embarrass the Minister for reasons that I hope I have explained very fully, I will ask this question: is it necessary for procedures such as these to be in some way outside the ambit of the Welsh Assembly? As the Minister knows, 20 fields of legislative authority were transferred to Wales under
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As a fallback position, I would ask the Government to consider a matter that I have raised more than once in the House over the past few years. When the legislation to establish a Welsh Parliament was going through in the late 1990s, or rather the Welsh Assembly eventually leading to a parliament, the point was made that there were many areas where there would not be a direct transfer of authority, but that there should be an understanding. The word used-I do not think it is used in the Act itself, but it certainly was in the debates at the time-was "concordat". There should be an understanding between the department in Whitehall and the department in Cardiff as to exactly how they could work together. If there were a concordat, I would prefer to see a transfer, but if there were no more than a concordat, this shambles would not have occurred. The quotation I rely upon comes from Tennyson, not from "Le Morte d'Arthur" in the Idylls of the King, but from "The Charge of the Light Brigade": "Someone had blundered". Let us see to it that it never happens again.
Lord Rosser: My Lords, this order needs to be effective by the end of this month, which is in a couple of days' time, so that postal ballot papers can be issued in time to allow voters to receive and return their postal ballot papers for the police and crime commissioner elections in Wales before the poll closes on 15 November. If this order is not passed, the ballot papers used in Wales will only be available to voters in English, despite the fact that, as my noble friend Lord Touhig and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, have said, there is a legislative requirement that in Wales, the Welsh language is treated no less favourably than the English language. The debate on this order seems to be being held remarkably close to the deadline for the issuing of postal ballot papers to begin. When he comes to reply, perhaps the Minister will tell us why this is the case. Was the need for the order overlooked until a late stage or is there some other reason why we are debating it just two days before it needs to come into effect?
The Electoral Commission is clearly unimpressed about the apparent delay, since it has made clear to the UK Government its view on the unacceptable lateness of the Welsh forms order we are now considering and its concerns about the inconsistency in the Government's approach to prescribing forms and notices in English and Welsh for these elections. Statutory forms and notices, including all those used by voters in the process of voting, were prescribed in English in the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order 2012 which came into effect towards the end of July this year.
The Welsh forms order, in front of us now, prescribes only the form of the ballot paper to be used in Wales. The remaining forms and notices have been provided by the Home Office on a non-statutory basis to those involved in administering the elections. The Electoral Commission has stated that if English language material is prescribed and provided to those running elections, then it is an important principle of consistency that the same approach should be adopted for all Welsh language material, and that this is done at the same time-not, as in this case, more than three months afterwards and only a few weeks before polling day. Do the Government agree with the view of the Electoral Commission on this issue and is it the Government's intention, as the Electoral Commission has urged, that a further Welsh forms order should be brought forward at the earliest opportunity in order that it will be in effect for future PCC elections, including possible by-elections?
Returning to the police and crime commissioner elections next month, if the order we are discussing is not made, the ballot papers used in Wales will only be available to voters in English, and postal ballot papers are due to go out in a couple of days. As a result of the late appearance of, and a decision on, this order, the police area returning officers have had to put contingency arrangements in place. Accordingly, they have had to print both bilingual and English language ballot papers in order to ensure that postal ballot packs can be issued promptly. It appears that the UK Government have had to agree to provide additional funding to cover the costs of printing duplicate postal ballot packs. Perhaps the Minister could indicate either what those cost actually are, or if that is not known, what it is estimated they will be? Is the £350,000 figure that has already been referred to the correct figure or not? The Government say so often that money is not available because of the financial situation but I take it that this will not be the case when it comes to finding the money to pay for the cost of government ineptitude, as in this instance.
The Electoral Commission has said that if this order does not come into effect on 31 October, it should not do so until after the election on 15 November to avoid there being two different sets of rules in effect at different points in the timetable for the same election. Do the Government share that view?
Of course, the Government attach great significance to having police and crime commissioners. They made their decision to proceed in 2010 and have since spent their time minimising the achievements of the police authorities, under which crime had fallen steadily and consistently during the period of the previous Government-and under which, this Government say, crime has continued to fall. Obviously under this Government the price of success is abolition.
We are now close to the PCC elections that will be held in November. These are national elections taking place across England and Wales. We do not normally hold national elections in November, since the weather and daylight hours do not encourage people to vote. When challenged about this in the House of Commons earlier this month, the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice memorably replied that,
So that's all right then. The Government have imported the idea of police and crime commissioners from the United States and now apparently they have also imported the election date from the United States.
The Government have also introduced an arrangement for this election under which, unlike other national elections, there will be no written information about the candidates sent to the electorate and delivered free of charge from the candidate's point of view unless an individual rings up a phone line and asks for such written information to be sent to them-this in an election where the Government claim that police and crime commissioners are needed to provide more visibility, transparency and accountability. The Government said that they wanted to encourage independent candidates to stand. However, unless independent candidates are well off and can afford to pay for a mail shot or delivery, they are invariably more dependent than other candidates on the free delivery to help get their name and message across. The Government say it is about cost, but if they were really concerned about cost, they would not be introducing these elections in the first place-certainly not at this time.
Today we are debating an order that appears to reflect a degree of incompetence on the Government's part, in particular a department that seems to have a happy knack of drawing adverse comments from your Lordships' statutory instruments committee. The Electoral Commission seems to have cottoned on to this as well, since it will be publishing a report early next year on the impact of the content and timing of the passage of the legislation that enabled the PCC elections to take place-including, it says, the late laying of the Welsh forms order. The commission also says that its report will look at the role of the Home Office, and comments that this is a department not usually tasked with the running of elections. To task it with the running of an election was of course a ministerial decision.
Parliament has decided that elections should be held for police and crime commissioners in Wales. Those elections are imminent. Despite the typically incompetent way the elections have been and are being managed and handled at ministerial level, we shall not seek to stop this order coming into effect as intended.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Well, I thank the noble Lord for that support. This has been a stimulating and useful debate. It has given me the opportunity to inform the House and to some degree clear the air on some of the issues that have been raised, and I know they have been raised with some considerable passion.
As we know-and is a shared objective of all noble Lords who have spoken-the order will ensure that voters in Wales will have the opportunity to mark their vote bilingually. The House's support of this measure means that it can be done in Welsh and English and both languages will have full parity.
Noble Lords can be assured that throughout this process the Government have consulted with the Electoral Commission and returning officers. As noble Lords will know, these are independent officers acting within local authorities, running the election, in developing the design of the ballot papers and the mechanics of delivering a Welsh and English bilingual ballot paper for the electors in Wales.
I should make it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, who I think had expected to find a Welsh Minister here today, that no criticism should be made of the Wales Office; the Home Office is the responsible organisation. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, made quite clear, the Home Office is responsible for conducting this election. The focus of the issue should be directed to the Home Office. It is indeed the Home Office's intention to ensure that we have a long-term way of dealing with the Welsh language element of elections. As noble Lords will know, currently this requires a separate order from the general secondary legislation that is required to bring about publication of other forms.
The Law Commission is investigating the whole question of elections. Although it will take some time for the Law Commission to report, it is the Government's intention to respond to that. It may well be that in future it will not be necessary to keep coming back for each election. I remind noble Lords that for the previous general election, the Government had to bring in a special order in April for the May 2010 election for exactly this issue: to produce a bilingual ballot paper. The process is complex, to the extent that we need to ensure that we have the form of the election material right in the English language before we seek to translate it into a Welsh or bilingual format. This has been a more convoluted process than noble Lords might at first think.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: Is there any good reason why translation from English into Welsh should not be the exclusive purview of the Welsh Assembly? That would avoid all these complications, would it not?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: That will have to be for future legislators to consider. It is certainly not possible under current law. As I have explained, the responsibility lies with the Home Office to deliver these elections in England and Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, showed a great deal of understanding about the complexity of statutes under which Welsh language elements of elections have to be conducted. He mentioned the two statutes and the complexity of the issue. I thank him for his understanding of that matter.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord Rosser, mentioned the cost of £350,000. That is within the £75 million budget, and it will not cost any additional money nor extend the budget for these elections. It is within the contingencies that noble Lords have mentioned.
We take the Welsh language very seriously. I am an English-speaking Englishman who has to receive any part of the Welsh language culture second-hand. However, I appreciate it enormously. It enhances all our lives that we have a second living language spoken in these
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Lord Wigley: We all appreciate the noble Lord's positive words towards the Welsh language and our heritage that goes with it. On the lessons to be learnt from these mistakes-I am sure he would accept that there have been mistakes somewhere, otherwise we would not be in this position-will there be an opportunity for the Home Office to review how they deal not just with Welsh language matters but with matters relating to Wales where there is an overlap with the National Assembly, such as the interface between crime and social services and the way in which they work with the devolved Administration, to make sure that we do not get into this mess again in any context?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I implied in my response so far that the key lies in getting mechanisms whereby some of these things that have required separate consideration by Parliament are automatic and part and parcel of the process. The translation of election material into the Welsh language is something that the Law Commission should be looking at. How that is delivered is a matter for the Government and Parliament to consider when the Law Commission eventually reports on elections. However, one lesson that comes out of this is that it gives us an opportunity to look at how we do these things in the future. I am grateful for that aspect of the debate, which has overridden, I hope, some of the other aspects of the debate that have not perhaps been quite so positive in the assessment of the Government's intentions.
The Electoral Commission is right that we should take whatever steps we can to make sure that this order comes into effect by 31 October. That is the point at which returning officers can start to send their postal voting packs to voters. They cannot send them before. I hope that noble Lords will support this order and then I am sure that these voting packs will go out by 1 November.
There will be opportunities for us to look at this issue in the future and I thank noble Lords for their contribution to the debate today. I hope this order will have the support of the House and I commend it.
"(1A) Provision under sub-paragraph (1) must authorise or require institutions providing secondary education (as defined by section 2A of the Education Act 1996), the Student Loans Company Limited, the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency, tenancy deposit schemes (as defined by section 212 of the Housing
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Lord Rennard: My Lords, Amendment 10 is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler. The Government have been trailing data sharing with the DWP database since orders were passed through this House last year. We very much welcome their aspiration to data match some two-thirds of eligible voters from the old household register on to the new individual register using this process. However, we worry that this process will not prove to be as robust or successful as everyone hopes it will be. Other databases are, in our view, needed to make a success of this project. We have talked many times at the various stages of this Bill about the need for the electoral register to be complete. I believe this amendment about the use of other databases will show whether it is really the intention of the Government to walk the walk on this issue, as opposed just to talk the talk on it.
It will be a matter of judgment as to which databases may be appropriate for automatic registration, as the DWP's will be, and which should only provoke invitations to register from electoral registration officers. What is clear is that to restrict ourselves to the DWP's database, in either endeavour, is missing a real opportunity to improve the completeness of the registers, even from their present positions. For all the talk there will be about the dangers of the new system, we have to recognise that the old system has proved quite unsatisfactory. We now know that the electoral register is complete up to only 82% of eligible voters, as opposed to the 92% quoted by Ministers very frequently a year ago. Whether we have the old or the new system, we need better and more comprehensive data matching and data mining in order to help overcome the difficulties of registering voters.
We believe in particular that the information held by the DVLA-a comprehensive database of drivers-could provide a rich source of information better and more diverse than that of the DWP. Its database of national insurance numbers is of course notoriously unreliable: there are 80 million national insurance numbers in a population of only 51 million. We know there are many people on the DWP database who will have real trouble voting, since they died a long time ago. It would be particularly worrying if we restricted data matching to the DWP database only, as the Government could give the impression that they were keen only to see one demographic group of voters registered and not so keen on seeing other demographic groups registered.
Pensioners are not generally underrepresented on the voting registers or in the votes on election day. It is other groups where there is a more significant problem. There is a danger of unintended consequences in proceeding only with the DWP records, because they deal disproportionately of course with retired people. It is known that they vote disproportionately, although not exclusively, more in favour of the Conservative Party than perhaps other social groups. I know that our coalition partners would not want to give the impression that they are particularly keen on assisting
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It therefore seems very important that the Department for Transport allows use of the DVLA's database in the same way and with all the appropriate safeguards about personal data that the DWP applies. We are told by the Electoral Commission that the Department for Transport does not wish the DVLA database to be used in this way. However, the DWP has given permission for its database to be used in this way. My proposition is simple: that there should be consistency across government databases, using all of them to maximum effect, with the proper safeguards about personal data, in order to ensure that as many people as possible are registered.
Lord Reid of Cardowan: I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am not in principle against what he is suggesting but, as someone who bears the scars on my back of false accusations when in government of an intention to mine data, match data and cross-match data, can he tell us when the Liberal party came to the conclusion that it was perfectly legitimate to mine and cross-match the data from DVLA, from pensions, from national insurance, which the noble Lord mentioned, and from transport? Once you have created this precedent there will be very good reasons for using it, presumably with data from HMRC and others, right across the spectrum so it is not something that should be entered upon lightly.
Lord Rennard: Indeed, I understand that and we would not do so lightly. We had significant differences over the national identity card scheme, which we were told would cost something like £300 million. What I am suggesting in terms of electoral registration would obviously cost far less. The essential principle, rather than the costings, is that this is a one-way process with data whereby we are trying to make sure that everybody who is entitled to vote is able to vote. The safeguards that would be in place would ensure that the only information made available is someone's name and address. If the database shows that they are there, they could then be invited to register if they are not on the register.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we are in Committee but I think I am right in saying that the procedure is that until the noble Lord has moved the amendment, no others should intervene. Could we allow the noble Lord to move the amendment? Then we can have the normal Committee stage open discussion.
Lord Rennard: I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister. All that I am arguing in my contribution is that there should be consistency across government
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Attainers are a particularly important group. Sixteen and 17 year-olds could be identified through schools. There is a precedent for doing this in Regulations 41 and 42 of the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008, under which the previous Government brought in a system whereby schools had electoral registration officers visiting pupils at the age of 16 or 17 as part of their civic lessons. At the conclusion of their lesson about voting systems and registration, forms were completed to register those 16 and 17-year-olds at school. However, so far there is no such provision to do so in Great Britain. There is also a particular difficulty with transient tenants in the private rented sector. They could be tracked down through tenancy deposit schemes and, again, invited to register and reminded of their obligations to do so.
These are all government databases and my argument is that the Government should be consistent in using them for data mining and data matching to try to make sure that we improve registration to improve the health of our democracy. There are also private databases and a huge wealth of information available through credit reference agencies-many of which are used at the moment by local authorities, including many Labour local authorities. The credit reference agencies use the electoral register as their own starting point, so some of these people are already registered. Those agencies also know of many more people with perhaps several forms of credit made available to them, more than one bank account legitimately registered and, perhaps, several credit cards used legitimately. Yet they know that those people, who exist, are not on the voting register even though they are clearly entitled to be on it. I believe that they should be invited to be on the register and told of the requirements.
At the moment, many local authorities are using exactly these data to try to check on the single person's council tax discount. They know from their data that there is often one person on the register yet several people are resident. Local authorities are using these reference agencies to write to the people they know within this household, pointing out that they know that those people are there and should be on the electoral register and that perhaps it is not appropriate for them to claim a single person's council tax discount. Local authorities have no difficulty in doing this. I think there is a great deal to be said for using more effectively the data of the credit reference agencies. I know that the Government have been holding discussions with them. However, there is as yet no commitment from the Government to use either these other public databases to which I have referred or the private ones.
I turn briefly to Amendments 11 and 15 to 20. I would simply say that they appear to be also on the Marshalled List for the purpose of probing these sorts of issues, so I will not comment further on them from our Benches. However, we believe that the Government must look closely at all these areas and give some commitments before Report so that we can be sure that the final regulations on data sharing are far more ambitious than they are at present and that they are seen to be fair and in the interests of promoting our democracy. I beg to move.
Lord Reid of Cardowan: My Lords, I am sorry if I have breached the long-standing conventions of the House. I intervened at what I thought was the appropriate point but in terms of process, I should obviously be commenting now. I had not intended to comment when I came in to listen to the discussions but the precedent being suggested by the noble Lord has huge implications and significance. It ought to be regarded and scrutinised with some care before we proceed.
I do not for a moment doubt the noble Lord's intention, which is to maximise the number of people on the voting register in order to enhance democracy, although perhaps I might express the wish that some of the comments made during earlier discussions had been listened to. It was predictable that we would end up with a shortfall on the electoral register and an anticipated greater shortfall. I think that lies behind the measures that the noble Lord has raised.
Let me make this point. If, however good the ends, we adopt the means of proliferating the use of data mining and data matching, that would be of considerable significance. If we are suggesting that we data mine and data match records from HMRC, the DVLA, the DWP-that has already been agreed-the Student Loans Company and credit reference agencies, that is a suggestion of huge import and ought to be scrutinised for its possible consequences.
It is, with great respect to the noble Lord who spoke, a complete red herring to compare this with identity cards. I say that for two reasons. First, they were voluntary and not all of what he suggested would be voluntary in so far as the person whose information is being mined would volunteer-although in some cases he suggested that they be contacted with a view to volunteering. Nevertheless, the ID cards were voluntary. Secondly, and more importantly, part of the reason for them was the spread of databases and the anticipation that data matching and data mining would become the norm in a cyberspace-dominated environment. Biometric protection was therefore enshrined in the ID card. In short, anticipating the use over the coming decade of greater dependence on an individual's identity marked in a data bank and the possible loss of that identity or of that data bank by a government department, no one could have used that to gain access to any of the material in it-including bank accounts and so on-unless they had the fingerprints and the iris of the person whose bank account details were taken. In other words, it was a completely separate intention: to protect people should someone wish to use their identity if a databank was lost. It did not presuppose the Government going down this road of using records, which are exclusive to
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I do not for a moment doubt that the intentions of the noble Lord are benevolent, benign, progressive and democratic, but the process of getting there, if it includes such widespread data matching and data mining as he has suggested, has profound implications and should therefore be subject to profound scrutiny in terms of the principle before this House.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I, too, share some reservations on this matter. I was glad to see my noble friend Lord Rennard describe these as probing amendments, so, fortunately, they are not part of the coalition agreement. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Reid, that one wants to improve the methods of registration, particularly as regards students. I am always amazed that students are relatively lowly represented in political registration. That might change because, now that they have to pay for so much of their education, their association with citizenship is made much more vivid to them at an early age. I suspect that that will be reflected in their registration in the years to come.
My concern about this proposal is that it seeks to enact that information should be provided from a series of databases, including the Student Loans Company and further education and secondary education institutions-I presume that sixth-form colleges and FE colleges would be the principal area. Those institutions would be required,
not to a registration authority but to another person. "Another person", I suppose, could be an election agent. They could be an election agent of the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party, the Labour Party or, presumably, the BNP-anybody could have the information. I would not be very keen on passing on some of the information to such people.
The provision would be a giant step towards a more prying society which I would be reluctant to go along with. I share some of the more general points of principle set out by the noble Lord, Lord Reid. Any data swapping has to be very carefully controlled for specific purposes. I am quite sure that the Liberal Democrats would condemn private companies getting into the business of data swapping in order to determine the patterns of consumer spending, for example. Many companies could justify that in the way the noble Lord seems to justify it for electoral purposes.
A method more suitable to our constitution would be the one cited by the noble Lord in the case of Northern Ireland. I see nothing wrong with registration officers of local authorities speaking in secondary schools and explaining to students the importance of electoral registration. That is a proper thing. If action were taken, as under some of the Labour amendments here, directly by the registration authority itself, rather than our seeking to tap into other things, it would be the right way to proceed. The action could be made much more effective if that procedure, which is the more constitutional practice in our country, was preserved, rather than our seeking a fundamental change whereby
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Lord Tyler: My Lords, we have just heard from two very distinguished senior members of former Administrations. I find their cynicism about the way in which the public service operates rather discouraging. I am not suggesting that every word of our amendments may be precise, but I want to put it absolutely clearly on the table: nobody is forcing anybody to do anything. The purpose of the exercise is to make sure that the process of compiling the very building block, the foundation stone, of our democracy-the electoral register, which is important, as the noble Baroness said earlier, not just for voting purposes but for jury service and other purposes-is as well informed as it can be from public sources. As my noble friend said, the amendment does not propose that the electoral registration process should give back information in the opposite direction; it is one way. It has been very clear from successive Administrations and Ministers that it is for that purpose alone and not to provide information in the opposite direction.
In other words, it has to be for that purpose and that purpose alone. It may be that the wording can be tightened up still further by government amendment between now and Report, but I make it absolutely clear to my noble friend that not any other person could benefit from this data mining.
Lord Baker of Dorking: With great respect, that is what the amendment says. It does not say a registration officer or a local authority employee; it says "another person". "Another person" in English law means anybody who says, "I'm actually going to seek this information in order to register more students. That is what I'm doing it for. I'm doing it for a public purpose. The fact that I am an election agent for my party, forget it. Forget that I am a registered Liberal"-that may be too difficult to forget, but-"Forget whatever I am". That is what the amendment says.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, if the Government feel that the amendment is inadequate in that respect, and my noble friend has made his point eloquently, obviously they can adjust the wording at a later stage. However, the amendment is here for the very specific purpose of assisting a registration officer in Great Britain. In other words, I would take that to be somebody who was within their organisation. If my noble friend has better wording, that is fine, but the point that I have to make is simply this: we already have the precedent,
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Lord Reid of Cardowan: I make it clear to the noble Lord, as I did previously, that I do not approach this proposal with cynicism, and I certainly did not suggest that I was in any way suspicious of either his motives or those of the noble Lord who moved the amendment. Indeed, it is courageous that representatives of Liberal Democrats want to put more students on the electoral register. That illustrates that they are not doing it entirely for their own benefit. What I am saying, however, is that you should not take a step down this road, which is to bring together data mining and data matching across government departments, unless you recognise the profundity of it.
Does the noble Lord accept that there will be increasing pressure, in times of austerity, for the government departments that he mentioned to move to the cloud, rather than retain their own databank and their own hardware? There will be great pressure-I see that the noble Lord agrees with me. Does he understand that many of the cloud servers have a business model that is dependent on mining the data that pass through their server in order to get to the databank? Therefore, you should not aggregate these data in such a way unless you recognise that the people in the private sector offering you the service of the cloud will mine those data. Maybe the noble Lord has already considered this but I am trying to make sure that we do not take such a step-not because I am cynical or doubt his motives but because real, profound questions arise out of it.
Lord Tyler: The noble Lord has been generous enough to say that he does not in any way question the integrity or approach of my noble friend or me. I do the same for him. I very much appreciate and endorse what he said. In the fast-moving world that we are talking about, these are proper concerns. The whole issue of who would operate the identity cards to which he and his Administration were committed raised precisely those questions, too. I think he would now accept that.
All we are saying here-I look forward to what the noble Baroness will say-is that, having already committed to the use of the DWP data, it is only reasonable to examine other databases that may be balanced in a different way demographically and politically. Maybe the terms in which our amendment is written need to be more carefully considered. That is fine; it is what a Committee stage in your Lordships' House is all about. I entirely understand the concerns that the noble Lord expressed but we have to be very careful. If we went right down the road of being risk-averse on these
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I do not know if the noble Lord was in the House earlier, but we had to identify that the status quo now is totally unacceptable. We have dropped back to the low 80s in terms of the completeness of the register. We are not where we were 10 years ago. I think it is agreed on all sides of the House that we have to look at every possible way to improve the integrity of the register both in completeness and accuracy. That is the purpose of our amendments.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for the little education he gave me in an earlier group about the precise wording of Amendment 24. I am very grateful for that. I also thank him for moving this amendment. I speak to very similar ones tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and me. All these amendments seek to achieve essentially one thing: that those who hold, for quite proper and official reasons, the names and addresses of our citizens should make them available to election officers who then must write to those citizens, encouraging them to register.
I say to my noble friend Lord Reid and the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, that we are in a position where the Government want to move very fast from one system of registration to another. I hope they will both remain for the next group of amendments, which are about another device to ensure a full register-an annual canvass. That is a different group of amendments. Without these sorts of activities, we risk after the general election of 2015 suddenly moving on to a half register. Unless we take these sorts of steps, we will not have contacted a large swathe of people who absolutely have the right to vote and, I would argue, therefore have the right to be told that they have the right to vote and what they should do about it. Whether it is, as suggested by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler, the Student Loans Company, DVLA and tenancy deposits schemes, or, as we suggest, pension benefits agencies, the Passport Office, education establishments and landlords, they should all provide quite willingly information to the relevant election officers, who would then be under an obligation to write to those not on the register encouraging them to sign up.
One of the reasons for this is that we know from research-I think done by the Electoral Commission-that many of those not on the register believe that they are. That may even be the Minister's own research. Forgive me for not getting the source quite right. We know that a large number-I think it is 45%-of people not on the register think that they are. There will be many of us who have done the political work on polling day of taking people round only to find that they are not on the list. There may be a number of reasons for that. One is the assumption that it just happens. Maybe they have lots of other dealings with the state: they may have applied for and been issued with a passport or driving licence, get a pension or a benefit, pay their council tax or visit their local hospital or GP. That gives them the feeling that they are part of society and a community, and are a citizen. A number of them probably assume that, as part and parcel of
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It is also important that the Bill should require EROs to let all people know of the other important uses made of the register. The Minister mentioned credit checks earlier in Committee and there is certainly also mortgage eligibility. When those of us of a certain age want our freedom passes, the first thing our local authority will do is see whether we are on the electoral register. There are many advantages to being on it.
Until my noble friend Lord Reid and the noble Lord, Lord Baker, spoke, I thought that it would seem obvious to most people that EROs would look to the sources of data that exist elsewhere to find those missing from the existing registers-or the new ones as individual registration comes up-and write to them. It seems that we should not just leave it to EROs to take that initiative, but write in the Bill that such data should be shared, and shared in a timely manner so that those of our fellow citizens not already on the register will receive a personalised invitation to register for what is their right-the ability to vote.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, before I address the amendments directly, I take up some of the broader issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Reid, which were touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, in our first Committee session before dinner. They are extremely wide issues and I agree that they are important. It was for that precise reason that I went to be briefed by the head of the Government Digital Service last week.
As the noble Lord, Lord Reid, pointed out, as we move towards cloud computing, the questions of where data are stored, to what uses they are put and how far they are shared become a very delicate and important area. I also flag up that the question of what is a public database and what is a private one becomes a little more difficult than it is now. There is a whole set of issues there that we need to return to in other contexts because this has the potential to transform the way in which society, the economy and government work as a whole. I was assured that the protocols that now govern what is called identity verification-the very limited use of data sharing to ask, "Is this person real?"-are strong and, as used by the credit agencies and others, provide firewalls which prevent too much information being shared.
Some of us might differ on how far we would be happy for the DWP, HMRC and the National Health Service to share information on what people claim to be earning, claiming or whatever; those questions will also come into that debate. I strongly agree that this is an extremely important long-term issue. However, if I understand it correctly-and I am at the absolute outer limits of my knowledge of computers at this point-I am told that one does not need to amass new databases. That is the difference between what is now beginning to happen and the old ID debate. One can
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The Government believe that maximising electoral registration and voting is not purely the function and responsibility of the Government. It is the function of political parties; it is the function of all sorts of voluntary organisations. We all know about Operation Black Vote and Bite the Ballot. Noble Lords may be interested that one person last week suggested to me that if Tesco was willing to offer a voucher to everyone who signed up to the electoral register at the age of 18, that would increase the number of 18 year-olds signing up. For myself, I would prefer the Co-op to do it. Perhaps we should consider the extent to which such incentives are, sadly, in our modern world, necessary.
The Government are sympathetic to the spirit of the amendments, but wish to stress that we are already working in this area. We want to retain a degree of flexibility, and a lot of pilots are under way. In last year's pilots, we matched databases from not only DWP but HMRC, the Royal Mail, the address reallocation service, the Department for Education, HEFCE-the Higher Education Funding Council for England-the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Transport, the Student Loans Company, the Ministry of Defence for service voters and the Improvement Service company. The noble Lords, Lord Reid and Lord Martin, will understand about that company a little better than I do, because it holds data on behalf of local authorities in Scotland.
Lord Tyler: Perhaps my noble friend could address the particular problems found when the Cabinet Office funded additional research by the Electoral Commission about the completeness and accuracy of the register. As the noble Baroness said earlier, a high proportion, 44%, of those not on the register in April 2011 incorrectly believed that they were. Even more significantly, only 14% of those who moved between the 2010 canvass and those who appeared on the register in April 2011 were there. It is often the move that is the problem. That is why some of the data-matching suggestions made, to which my noble friend has just referred, were particularly addressed to those people. DWP does not particularly help with those; DVLA, Royal Mail and all that seem to be more relevant.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I entirely take the noble Lord's point, and add that an information campaign is clearly an important part of the transition to get to those who think that they might be on the register but may not. I would be entirely happy for noble Lords to press us further on the question of attainers, education in schools and civic education, which must be part of the transition process.
We resist the exact terminology in the amendments, and ask for more flexibility on the terms that we are looking at all these areas. We do not want to limit such schemes to the organisations named; we are experimenting with the range of datasets that can be helpful in this regard.
The Government will reflect carefully on all those points and make clearer our intention on Report. So we are considering the precise detail of the alternative verification procedure beyond the immediate, primary identifiers and will consider a range of options to provide an accessible but secure approach.
Amendment 11 would require local authorities to share their data with electoral registration officers. That already takes place. Electoral administrators are part of local authorities and have for some time accessed relevant other local authority databases for the purposes of checking names and addresses together. The Bill would allow for such data sharing if it were decided that it was necessary and valuable in addition to that which already takes place. The next phase of government data-matching pilots will look at which datasets are most useful for electoral registration officers to carry out their duties. Some of the pilots will target students; some will target recent home-movers, which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, flagged up as particularly important; others will explore how sharing data between two-tier local authorities, in those parts of the country where they exist, may assist them further.
However, on local authority data, I repeat that registration officers are already authorised to inspect records held by the authority that appointed them and are required to inspect records where they are permitted to do so both under the 1983 Act and the Representation of the People Act 2001.
On Amendment 15 and the whole question of students, we are already working with the National Union of Students, which represents students, and organisations with which students interact, such as the Student Loan Company and universities, to establish ways in which the registration process and the transition for those groups can be as simple and accessible as possible, building on the changes that we are enabling to the registration system, which will make registering to vote more convenient for all. Again, that work is under way; we are discussing and consulting with the other relevant public and private stakeholders.
Similarly, as for sheltered accommodation, which is the subject of Amendment 16, registration officers already have the power to require information from an individual to maintain their election register. That would include requiring managers of sheltered accommodation to provide the names of residents. Once registration officers are aware of that information, Clause 5 would require them to write to each individual who was not already registered at that address to invite them to register to vote. Amending the legislation is therefore unnecessary to empower registration officers to obtain information about individuals in sheltered accommodation or to require a registration officer to invite them to register.
As noble Lords will gather, the Cabinet Office is already actively engaged in a programme of work with groups which represent students, helping to provide alternative channels of registration, looking at the elderly in sheltered accommodation and how we could signpost people towards registration as they come into contact with other government agencies.
Amendment 17 addresses the question of private landlords. The real question here is whether a requirement on private landlords adds sufficiently to the toolkit of electoral registration officers to be worth the additional burden being placed on private landlords. That, again, is something that we are investigating further but our current view is that the marginal benefits of that measure over, to take just one example, the canvassable properties in the area do not justify imposing that additional burden.
Amendment 18 talks about the local authority providing additional information on council tax and other documents. Again, the Cabinet Office is testing out where it is most valuable and useful to provide additional information and, as the behavioural unit puts it, to prompt people to consider more actively ensuring that they are registered to vote. There are some questions about the complexity of the council tax document. I am not entirely sure that I read the whole of my council tax documents either in Bradford or in Wandsworth last year, but I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, read his in great detail from cover to cover. We are therefore not entirely sure that this is the best document to use for these purposes.
Amendment 19 requires local authorities to invite individuals to register to vote when they first register and begin paying council tax. This idea has a certain amount of utility and there is certainly no reason why local councils should not do that on the initial council tax form, but of course this would capture only the bill payer. There is a need for additional mechanisms to be in place to capture other people living inside the same property.
On Amendment 20, on the whole question of awareness-raising in other, wider government services and other transactions, we are looking with organisations from the public, voluntary and private sectors-I emphasise that it is not just in government agencies-to see where we can identify a potential benefit to introducing, for example, some form of prompting or signposting during the course of a transaction. We will test the different options to establish the extent to which they will assist the citizen.
On Amendment 24, to provide the explanation of the other uses of the register, opinions might differ on whether that was a plus or a minus. There have been one or two suggestions that there are those who wish not to be on the register so that they avoid jury service; it is not one of the most popular aspects of civic duty. That is another issue that we should perhaps explore further.
To sum up after this very large discussion of different ways of using and accessing databases and encouraging people to register, this is very much what we as a Government are already engaged in. We are happy to brief people further on what we are doing, how the data-matching pilots are going and how the information
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Lord Rennard: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of what the Government are doing and his confirmation that he is still willing to talk and listen about what we can do to ensure that the Government walk the walk to emphasise maximum voter registration. In his discussions with all parties who are concerned about this issue, I ask him to keep emphasising that while people talk about "data sharing", imagining that these are a lot of data on someone, we are simply talking about name and address-nothing else. In his discussions with people on this issue, he should emphasise that it is simply a matter of names and addresses so that we contact people to ensure that they are aware of their right, and their obligation, to register to vote so that we have a healthy democracy. People are concerned about access to data, but these data are names and addresses. In this debate some people seem to be unaware that if you wish to get details of someone's name and address in any area, you walk into a local library where a "database" called the electoral register is freely available, and you look at the names and addresses on the register. So the principle at the moment in this country is that the names-
Lord Rennard: If the noble Lord will forgive me, I am about to say that I will not press the amendment to a vote but I ask the Minister to consider further the remarks that we have all made during this debate. I welcome his open-mindedness on these issues, particularly with regard to 16 and 17 year-old attainers, and I am sure that he could alleviate the fears raised by a number of noble Lords in this debate by emphasising that the issue is simply a one-way movement of information about name and address, which should not be a severe threat to people's civil liberties. On that basis, with the leave of the House, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, this is perhaps the most important of the amendments that we will discuss today. This group of amendments has basically a twofold purpose. One is to maintain the annual canvass. The annual canvass is a critical tool, not only in compiling the register but as the only way of judging whether the other systems, which we welcome, and all the other work that is taking place on getting information from a variety of data sources are actually working. Without the annual canvass, there will simply be no check on the completeness of the register.
I have discussed this with a number of people who have more current experience in this area than I do, and they are adamant that the old fashioned canvass remains a crucial tool in locating citizens domiciled in Great Britain. Simply put, as has been said for other reasons, houses do not move. Ensuring that their eligible residents are on the list is best done via the canvass-really, nothing else competes.
We will press the Government hard on this, so our other proposals in this group to make it harder to abolish the canvass and to ensure that this could happen only with the super-affirmative procedure would, we hope, not actually be needed. Certainly I think it would be unacceptable to this House for an elected politician in government to take the decision to dispense with this crucial democratic tool. Our amendments, should any such proposal to abolish be considered, would ensure that the Electoral Commission's report on this came before Parliament, not just to the Minister, and that any similar report published on piloting proposed changes to the annual canvass also came here, with time for debate on those, and that any proposals to change the canvass were made only with Electoral Commission approval. The Electoral Commission was quite rightly set up to take many of these decisions about the running of elections out of the hands of those with a vested interest in the outcome; in other words, elected politicians. It is therefore right that any proposals to change the way the register is compiled, for example, should have the Electoral Commission's public nod of approval so that everyone can see that fair play in the interests of voters and democracy is taking place. I doubt that anyone will argue with that.
There are other proposals in this group where I doubt the Minister will raise any objection, particularly that the local registration officers should ensure that they have addressed every residential property with which they have contact, whether for council tax or anything else, as well as those in the relevant gazetteer.
There is one further word in these amendments to which I would draw the Committee's attention: October. It is no good having a January canvass because by the time the register is complete it is almost too late for all the systems to download all that information. It perhaps sounds an easy job but, because it is done locally, the computer formats used by local authorities are not quite the same. I have looked them up. Formats include three types of Strand format, a Pickwick format, a Pickwick variant, CSV files, Xpress formats and page image formats. If all those come in, it takes a lot of
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The Government said that they currently have no plans to remove the power to abolish the annual canvass. I wondered about the word "currently". I hope it means that the Minister will listen to us about the need for an annual canvass and remove from the Bill that ability to abolish it. Only a few minutes ago, he said that instead of addressing landlords, it was much better to have a canvass of all properties-I think I wrote down his words correctly. Amen to that. A canvass of all properties is an essential tool for making sure we have caught everybody, and the idea that it could be abolished by a Minister without Parliament having a say is one that we could not go along with. I beg to move.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, the annual canvass is an established part of our electoral arrangements and, on the face of it, there cannot be a more effective way of finding people living in their homes than to go knocking on their doors. I am therefore instinctively sceptical about the prospect of abolishing this annual exercise. Like so much of the transition to individual electoral registration, the possibility of ceasing the annual canvass is very much contingent on the success of other parts of the package.
If there is a comprehensive process of data matching and data mining, of the sort we discussed in the previous group of amendments, and electoral registration officers get a serious suite of ways to discover that someone has moved into or out of a local address, the Government's argument that the canvass may at some time in future become redundant starts to look more realistic. However, there should always be a duty on returning officers to visit a property where they believe an elector is based and to revisit and revisit again, if necessary, to find them in. We know that just sending letters is not enough, and to that extent Amendment 14 raises a particularly important point about what returning officers have to do. We will come back to look at that again in the context of a duty to take all necessary steps to establish a complete and accurate register when we get to Amendment 39 on Wednesday.
Turning briefly to the specific provisions in some of the amendments in this group, I would make the following observations. It does not appear, on the face of it, that there is a good reason for an annual canvass always to take place in October. Indeed, in many ways, it would be easier and more sensible to undertake such work in the spring, when evenings are lighter and days are longer. The tradition of the October canvass goes back to when 10 October was the fixed date of electoral registration and therefore the canvass was timed for October to coincide with it. Once we sensibly moved to rolling registration with the ability to go on the electoral register at any time, it was no longer necessary to have an October canvass, so the annual canvass can take place at any time. It seems to me that on a cold, dark night, people would be less willing to open their doors. We all know that from our canvassing experience. It would probably be better to do this canvass earlier in the year.
Like some of the earlier Labour amendments, Amendment 37 seeks to turn the Electoral Commission from a body that reports and gives advice to Parliament to one that makes decisions. We are not therefore inclined to support this amendment, which would mean that the commission had to agree every pilot which might take place. In general, like the previous Government, I am in favour of piloting and I do not think that it should be subject to the veto of an advisory body. Pilots of this nature generally should be welcomed.
No doubt in his concluding remarks, the Minister will make reference to Clause 7, which was added on Report in the Commons specifically to make sure that the Electoral Commission had a strong role. The role given to the Electoral Commission in the Bill appears to be the one that it asked for in its briefing at the time; namely, to make clear that the Electoral Commission must be consulted and its response made available to Parliament before any order is made to reinstate the annual canvass. We do not think that it is right to alter that very logical and consistent position.
Amendments 31 and 38 perhaps provide a neat reassurance. Looking at them, they probably provide a middle way between having this provision and not having it, in that the use of a super-affirmative procedure to remove the annual canvass in future would by definition ensure that such decision underwent thorough scrutiny. We would very much welcome that.
Lord Martin of Springburn: My Lords, I am very supportive of continuing the annual canvass because it is crucial. Anyone who has been involved in the front line of politics and has had dealings with people seeking to get votes at elections-whether they are for local government, national government or, in particular, by-elections-will know the importance of that canvass. It is no easy task and, in my view, some canvassers deserve a medal for going around some of the areas where they have to go. I do not like to talk about rough areas or to make the generalisations that some people make about housing estates but some places where people have to go can be very rough. There is a big difference between a canvasser going to a nice, leafy suburb or another area where, let us face it, there may be vicious dogs that are trained to attack strangers. Sometimes they mistake the canvasser for a rent-man or some other person.
It is very important that we keep that canvass. Any of us who has had a constituency as an MP often will have been surprised that, when we have walked by a factory, a sawmill, a garage or whatever, we had not realised that someone lived there. At times, it was not until you got some correspondence that you discovered that the person who owned the property as a commercial viability also was resident there. The canvasser can draw out information that would not be available when you depend on people downloading or sending information across a website. That also goes for disabled people who cannot get out. Often, at the time of the canvass, it is the canvasser who is the contact point.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I know the reasons that the noble Baroness gave for having the canvass in October but, for the safety of canvassers, I
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Good luck to the Electoral Commission with the work that it has to do but I often wonder about its supervision. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what system is set up to keep in constant contact with the Electoral Commission, not on a day-to-day basis but perhaps on a regular basis, to find out exactly what it is doing and how it is approaching its work. We are leaving with it a very big responsibility, not only of seeing how the electoral register is drafted up, but we are due a referendum in Scotland, and it will be responsible with or helping with the wording of that referendum. We have a responsibility to know whether it is carrying out its job in a professional manner.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, having come to this debate and this Bill recently, I have found this evening very thought-provoking. I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lords for all their contributions.
The amendments in this group fall largely into two groups-those relating to the conduct of the annual canvass and those relating to the powers in the Bill as to the abolition, amendment or reinstatement of the canvass. Amendment 12 raises the question of when the canvass should take place. One effect of the Bill is the removal of the current requirement for the canvass to collect information about who is a resident at an address on 15 October. This would potentially allow registration officers to carry out a canvass at a time of their choosing, as long as the revised register is published by 1 December.
The reference date is not the only factor that drives registration officers to carry out the canvass in the autumn. Binding registration officers just to October is unduly restrictive, and I was interested in the comments made by my noble friend Lord Rennard and the noble Lord, Lord Martin. This issue has also been discussed with an expert panel of registration officers and electoral administrators who welcomed the removal of the reference date, which is seen to be confusing by many members of the public. For that reason, I do not see the need to include a reference date or a specified canvass period in the legislation.
Amendments 13 and 14 are more specific and relate to the duties of electoral registration officers in carrying out the canvass. I would question the necessity to set out in primary legislation, as Amendment 13 seeks to do, the precise categories of property that a registration officer must contact to comply with the requirement
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Similarly, Amendment 14 seeks to impose a requirement to carry out house-to-house inquiries. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Rennard referred to these matters. Section 9A of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already requires registration officers to take "all steps ... necessary" to maintain the electoral register. This specifically includes making house-to-house inquiries on "one or more occasions". This will remain in the 1983 Act, and it is therefore unnecessary to make the suggested amendment to the Bill. As well as carrying out house-to-house inquiries to obtain information when no canvass form has been received, or to supplement this information, the Bill also enables registration officers to make use of house-to-house inquiries before sending out canvass forms. Indeed, that proposal has been much welcomed by many registration officers.
The next set of amendments relate to the powers set out in the Bill allowing the Government to abolish or amend the annual canvass, but also to reinstate it, if it were to be abolished. Amendment 30 would remove the provision enabling the Minister by order to abolish the duty to conduct an annual canvass. If I may, before addressing this amendment I would like to set out the reason behind the provision to amend or abolish the annual canvass by order in Clause 6. This power is included in the Bill to allow provision to be made in future to help us build a modern electoral registration system, potentially using methods other than a traditional household canvass. However, I assure the noble Baroness that the Government would take the step of abolishing the annual canvass, whether in whole or in part, only if there was another or more effective way identified. In this situation the role of the annual canvass in the upkeep of the electoral register would be less significant than under the scheme set out in the Bill. Only when the annual canvass was less pivotal might it be amended or abolished. Indeed, this diminished significance of the annual canvass would then make it reasonable to use secondary legislation to make this change.
Clause 7 requires any proposal to amend or abolish the annual canvass brought forward under Clause 6 to be subject to rigorous scrutiny and safeguards. Indeed, I remind noble Lords that Clause 7 was in the Bill as from introduction. It sets out that the Minister bringing forward the order must ask the Electoral Commission to prepare a report assessing the extent to which the registration objectives have been met and the merits of alternative ways of achieving those objectives. Then, in turn, the Electoral Commission would be required to publish its report no fewer than three months after being asked to do so and the Minister would then be required to present the report to Parliament alongside the draft order subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses. Clause 6 also provides for the reinstatement of the annual canvass in the event of the abolition
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Amendments 31 and 38 also relate to the Government's power to amend or abolish the annual canvass. They would mean that if an order was laid to modify or abolish the annual canvass a draft of the order would need to be laid before Parliament accompanied by a ministerial recommendation of the parliamentary procedure-negative, affirmative or super-affirmative-which the Minister recommends should apply. In responding to these amendments, I draw the noble Baroness's attention to Clause 10(2) of the Bill which already provides that any order made under Part 1 of this legislation is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It may be made only if a draft of the order is approved by a resolution of both Houses. As the Bill already provides that an affirmative resolution is necessary to make any order under Part 1, the question to consider is what additional safeguards this amendment would introduce. The super-affirmative procedure is rarely used and is appropriate only where the extra scrutiny that it enables is necessary. One of the main features of the super-affirmative procedure is the inclusion of a consultation stage before each House is asked to approve the proposal. However, in the case of the provisions in Clause 6, there is already a two-stage process of a report from the Electoral Commission followed by the normal affirmative procedure in addition to the provisions for a report by the Electoral Commission set out in Clause 7. I believe that this negates the need for a consultation ahead of the laying of the affirmative order which would be required by the super-affirmative procedure.
Amendment 32 seeks to remove the power to reinstate the annual canvass if it has already been abolished. The power to reinstate the canvass if it has been abolished by an order made under Clause 6 is an important safeguard for the system. This provision ensures, for example, that in circumstances where the abolition of the canvass had an unexpected detrimental effect on the completeness of the register, the canvass could be quickly reinstated to reverse this trend.
Amendment 33 relates to orders amending or abolishing the annual canvass. The Government have no current plans to make any such order, but it is important that the provision for this to happen enables it to happen in the right manner. As it stands, Clause 6(5) provides that such an order may also include provision to create further secondary legislation. We would anticipate that an order under subsection (2) would make the main changes to the canvass, including amendments to the existing provisions of the 1983 Act and the main features of the alternative system. We would not, however, expect the detailed procedures to be provided for in this order. Instead, we would expect the order to transfer a power to make separate regulations containing this detail, enabling this to be included in the regulations prescribing other details of the registration system. Those separate regulations would themselves need to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. So this is not about avoiding scrutiny but about structuring the legislation in the most appropriate manner.
Amendments 34 and 35 relate to the Electoral Commission's report that will precede the abolition or amendment of the annual canvass. Amendment 34 would mean that the Electoral Commission's report on any future proposals to amend or abolish the annual canvass must be laid before Parliament and not given to the Minister. Clause 7(6) indeed requires the Minister, when laying a draft order under Clause 6-for example, an order amending or abolishing the annual canvass-to lay at the same time a report by the Electoral Commission about the proposal. That report must assess the extent to which registration officers are currently able to ascertain those unregistered people who are entitled to be registered, those people who are registered but not entitled to be, the extent to which the proposals in the order would meet this objective, and the merits of alternative ways of meeting the objective. Amendment 34 proposes that rather than giving the report to the Minister to be laid with the draft order, the Electoral Commission should itself lay the report before Parliament. While the commission's report will undoubtedly be important for the consideration of any draft order, it will also be an important tool in determining whether the draft order should indeed be laid in the first place. The laying of this order will be at ministerial discretion. Unless the draft order is laid, the Electoral Commission's report is not needed to assist parliamentary consideration of it. Therefore, in the Government's view, this amendment is not necessary. In addition, once the commission has given the report to the Minister, we would expect the report to be published on the commission's website and it would therefore be in the public domain for parliamentarians to read, if they wished to do so.
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