14 Jan 2013 : Column 465

House of Lords

Monday, 14 January 2013.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Education: English Baccalaureate Certificate

Question

2.36 pm

Asked By Baroness Perry of Southwark

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential benefits to pupils of all ranges of abilities of the English Baccalaureate Certificate; and how they will measure those benefits.

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, the Government are committed to providing pupils with new qualifications which match the best in the world, providing the strongest possible basis for further and higher education and for employment. These will be universal qualifications sat by all those who currently sit GCSEs. The introduction of these new qualifications, in tandem with other reforms, will benefit all pupils. This will be evidenced by our performance in international tests and in the wider economic benefits that will arise from setting expectations which match those of our highest-performing competitors.

Baroness Perry of Southwark: I thank my noble friend for that reply. Can she assure me that there will be provision within the English baccalaureate certificate for those young people who are less academically motivated but who have very strong talents in the technical and vocational sphere?

Baroness Garden of Frognal: I can indeed assure my noble friend of that. Nothing on the academic side should detract from the value we place on vocational education. In response to the Wolf review of vocational education, the Government have accepted the recommendations made, which will ensure that pupils whose talents and motivations are more on the vocational and practical side can be catered for within the school curriculum.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, is it not the case that, over the years, Labour and Conservative Governments have chosen to congratulate themselves on the much higher proportion of passes at various kinds of examinations? Is it not the case, as has been recognised on both sides, that this has been detrimental to both the most talented and the least talented? Therefore, should we not be welcoming something like the EBacc if it will help us to restore our international reputation and build up our schools to something approaching the best of northern Europe?

14 Jan 2013 : Column 466

Baroness Garden of Frognal: The noble Lord has great expertise in these areas. Yes, it appears to be a fact that there has been some form of grade inflation within examinations. We are intent on making sure that the qualifications which our young people acquire through school fit them properly for further and higher education or employment. One factor worth mentioning about the EBacc is that it is encouraging social mobility. The proportion of children on free school meals in schools who are now attaining the basis standards in English and maths is far higher than it was under the previous regime.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, is the noble Baroness sure that the English baccalaureate is inclusive enough with regard to design, which is one of our great, national traditional strengths?

Baroness Garden of Frognal: Design is of key importance but the English baccalaureate is not compulsory. It is quite possible for schools to offer other provision and design will feature strongly in the alternative provision that schools can offer.

Lord Storey: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the UK music industry contributes nearly £4 billion to the UK economy. Sadly, since the introduction of the EBacc in 2010, we have seen the number of people studying and teaching music declining. How can we reverse that decline? Does the Minister think that having an arts pillar as part of the EBacc may be the solution?

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My noble friend again speaks with the expertise of a head teacher. The Government certainly recognise the valuable contribution that music makes, not just to the economy but to the quality of life as well. We have published the national plan for music, which should enable all children to learn a musical instrument, to make music with others in an orchestra or band, to learn to sing and generally to have the opportunity to progress. We certainly hope that that will encourage more young people and give them the opportunity to pursue music.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, will the noble Baroness clarify what proposals are being considered for the accreditation of subjects that are not to be included in the English baccalaureate? Will it be through a continuation of GCSEs or some other form? What assessment is being made of the impact of this uncertainty on the teaching of these subjects to those pupils who may opt to study them?

Baroness Garden of Frognal: The right reverend Prelate makes a valid point. At the moment, GCSEs will be superseded by English baccalaureate certificates. They, in turn, will make up an English baccalaureate if pupils have attained the right standard in the five main subject areas. There should, we hope, be a time of discussion as to the transition between the exam systems. We hope that this will not be too big a hurdle for teachers and pupils to accommodate because it is important that we do not lose that flow of continuity for teaching and learning.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 467

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I welcome the Government’s intentions with regard to strengthening and increasing the credibility of examinations, but will the Minister take this opportunity to reiterate the Government’s commitment to raising the status of teaching and perhaps acknowledge that recruiting and retaining the best teachers, and giving them the best support, will be the most important factor in improving educational outcomes and keeping us internationally competitive into the future?

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, the Government are committed to getting the brightest and best people into teaching. In that way, you end up in a virtuous circle with enthusiastic, motivated and bright teachers transmitting that enthusiasm to their pupils. The Government have gone a long way to ensure that teachers have the opportunity for proper training. Under programmes such as Teach First, which has been a great success and was introduced by the previous Administration, we get bright graduates choosing to go into teaching, which has had an immense impact on schools.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, following on from the earlier question about the advisability of having an art strand within the EBacc, what are the Government planning to do to ensure that schools continue to offer these subjects that are not included in the EBacc, and not only continue to include them but actively encourage them to take up all the opportunities that the Government have created through, for instance, the work of the Darren Henley review for people to benefit from the arts, which will otherwise, I fear, be lost?

Baroness Garden of Frognal: As the noble Baroness will be aware, we have a debate on this later today. The EBacc is designed to leave at least 20% to 30% of the curriculum for other subjects within it. We have had reviews from Darren Henley on music and culture in schools, and we are taking forward his recommendations on such things as art, design, music, dance and so on. We hope that there is every opportunity for young people to be able to take advantage of those sorts of activities within the school day.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, will the Government undertake that they will allow schools to continue to offer the IGCSE and will they continue to report the results of that examination in the annual performance tables?

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, as far as I am aware, that is still under discussion, as is the key stage 4 curriculum. Perhaps I may come back to my noble friend if that is an incorrect answer.




Justice: Interpreting Services

Question

2.45 pm

Asked By Baroness Coussins

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what quality criteria they are using to assess the performance of Capita in delivering interpreting services to the criminal justice system.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 468

Baroness Coussins: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, performance under the language services contract with Capita is measured by agreed indicators, including the success rate for bookings. I am pleased to report that this improved from 66.5% to 95.3% between February and August 2012. Complaints during this period also fell significantly. The National Audit Office recommended that the Ministry of Justice obtained independent advice on quality standards under the contract and I am pleased to report that the Minister has already met umbrella interpreter organisations in this respect.

Baroness Coussins: My Lords, I am delighted that constructive talks are finally taking place with the professional bodies following the damning reports from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. However, is the noble Lord aware that the success figure of 95% that he gives excludes the large number of short-notice requests from the courts, which would bring the fulfilment rate down to more like 56%? In any case, that figure tells us nothing about the competence of the interpreters who do turn up. Will the Government now agree to conduct a thorough, independent inspection of the service so that the quality of service can be improved and the number of properly qualified interpreters who are willing to work for Capita can be significantly increased?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: The noble Baroness makes a valid point about short-notice bookings. In that respect, it is true that bookings for hearings with less than 24 hours’ notice were temporarily descoped from the contract in mid-February and the courts and tribunals reverted to previous arrangements. However, I can report to the House that a pilot to return these bookings has begun in selected criminal courts across England and Wales and will be phased back across regions and jurisdictions when the project board has continued confidence in performance.

Turning to the competence and qualifications of interpreters, the new contract allows for an increased range of acceptable qualifications and experience. Under the contract, all foreign language interpreters must show evidence that they have the required qualifications before they can undertake assignments. We have a tiering facility and all courts are encouraged to ensure that interpreters are qualified to tier 1 or tier 2 for all bookings unless otherwise agreed with the court or tribunal.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, there was also a requirement by the National Audit Office to ensure evaluation of the incentives provided for professionally qualified linguists, interpreters and translators that would encourage them back to the courts to work. What is being done on that score?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, all the National Audit Office recommendations have been taken on board and are being fully looked at and implemented.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 469

Lord Hylton: My Lords, can the Minister comment on how Capita is performing in asylum and immigration applications? Does he accept that good interpretation leads automatically to good first decisions and avoids masses of appeals or judicial reviews? Finally, will he do his level best to ensure that women interpreters are provided for women applicants?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: The noble Lord makes important points in relation to immigration and women. In general terms, service volumes are in excess of 72,000 and involve 163 languages. I will write to the noble Lord specifically about immigration matters but it is important to note that complaints for this particular service have also decreased quite significantly, showing the growing competence of Capita. In criminal courts, for example, complaints declined from 9.9% in February to 1.4% in August. In civil and family courts, complaints declined from 5.8% to 0.6% and in tribunals from 17.1% to 5.2%. I am sure your Lordships would agree that booking success rates have increased, costs have come down and complaints are down, and that that is good news.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: My Lords, given the difficulties and unhappiness that there has been with the contract with Capita, what lessons have been learnt for the future about tests for outsourcing professional services of this type before contracts are placed on other occasions?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: I thank the noble Lord for his question. I think life is for learning and such matters apply to the granting of contracts. Reference has been made to the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. As I have alluded, their recommendations are being looked at with a view to improving service. I again assure the House that the Government have taken on board the issues that were raised, and the statistics and the reviews are showing positive progress towards achieving the given targets.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, when it came to short-notice bookings, the noble Lord used the term “descoping from contract”. Does that mean that the contract was withdrawn from Capita? If it does, was the company asked to pay a financial penalty?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, when I mentioned the descoping, it was with reference to short-notice bookings, as the noble Lord said, but, as I have already said, a pilot has begun to return these bookings to that contract. With reference to fines, specific credits can be put place, against which non-performance is measured, that are set at 98%. I am pleased to report to the House that from the middle of this year, they are being looked at and tallied. However, there was a period when that particular compensation, for want of a better term, was not used, but that was in light of the fact that Capita had provided £3.5 million in addressing the shortcomings of the service.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, in my noble friend’s reply to an earlier question, I think that I missed his comments on whether it is any longer lawful in this country for a

14 Jan 2013 : Column 470

woman to express the wish to have a woman interpreter. Is that not quite obviously a sexist attitude of the kind that our equality legislation should prohibit?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: As ever, my noble friend’s contribution is well made and very eloquent. I assure the House that in the provision of interpretation services it is important that anyone in our justice system is given an interpreter with whom they can work—an interpreter who understands their need and who understands their language and all sensitivities. If, in a particular cultural or sensitive case, a woman interpreter is a preferred option, we shall seek to provide one. If a particular language is required, we will seek to provide it. That is the right way forward for this Government.

Carers

Question

2.52 pm

Asked By Lord Touhig

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the saving to public funds as a result of the work of unpaid carers in the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, the Government themselves have not estimated savings to public funds as a result of unpaid carers’ contribution to care and support, although we are aware of estimates by other organisations. There is scope for debate about how best to put a financial value on this care but there can be no doubt about its huge value to those who receive care and to the wider community.

Lord Touhig: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister would agree that we owe a great debt to the carers of this country and, indeed, the Government recognise that because they have promised that families with a disabled child and in receipt of disability living allowance will be exempt from the housing benefit cap. However, according to the regulations, when that disabled child becomes a disabled adult, the child is considered to be a separate household from the parents who they live with. No matter that the disabled adult will perhaps need the same level of care that they received as a disabled child; the parents will then be subject to the housing benefit cap. Why?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lord will have to forgive me because I will need to write to him about benefits, which do not directly fall under my remit in the Department of Health. However, I can say to him that more young carers services are extending their age group to cover young adult carers, and there needs to be a proper join-up between the two. In some situations, it is true that the young adults’ needs are unmet; they can fall down the gap and not receive adequate support. A transition between children’s services and adult services should be smoother—we acknowledge that, and we are addressing this in the draft Care and Support Bill.

Lord Wigley: My Lords, does the noble Earl accept that many unpaid carers manage to carry their enormous responsibilities only because of respite care and other

14 Jan 2013 : Column 471

assistance, sometimes from paid sources, and that if those paid sources were not available, many people now living at home might find themselves in institutional care? Will he therefore, in any government cut backs, make sure that no action is taken that undermines the position of carers?

Earl Howe: I agree with the noble Lord. Carer’s breaks are extremely important, which is why we have pledged to invest £400 million between 2011 and 2015 to improve the NHS’s support carers to enable them to take a break from their caring responsibilities. The current operating framework for the NHS requires the service to work closer than ever before with local carers organisations and councils to agree plans to pool resources and ensure that carers get the support and the break that they deserve.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in November 2011, in a report from the Cass Business School for Carers UK called The UK Care Economy: Improving Outcomes for Carers,the authors noted that the only reliable data about carers comes from the census, which is national? Given that CCGs and health and well-being boards are about to start commissioning services locally and that their information is at best incoherent and inconsistent, what help will the Government give them in order properly to assess the numbers of carers and the level of need they are supposed to be meeting?

Earl Howe: My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely important point. Our report, Recognised, Valued and Supported: Next Steps for the Carers Strategy, had four key priorities, one of which was to identify carers earlier. Healthcare professionals undoubtedly have a role to play in supporting those with caring responsibilities to identify themselves as carers in the first instance. We therefore made around £850,000 available in the previous financial year to the Royal College of General Practitioners, Carers UK and the Carers Trust to develop a range of initiatives to increase awareness and understanding of carers’ needs in primary care. We are building on that further.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I remind the House that the figure usually given is £119 billion that is being saved from public funds. Since the census now shows that the number of carers has increased by 11%, no doubt that figure will go up. Since many carers give up paid work to become carers and only 600,000 of them receive the carer’s allowance, does the Minister agree that many of them will be building up poverty for themselves in the future? What guidance must be given, therefore when carers’ assessments are being made to enable them to stay in paid work for as long as possible?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the latest figure I have for carers from the census is that there are 5.4 million unpaid carers in England. The noble Baroness was right to mention the figure of £119 billion, although it is a figure we can argue about. It is probably an overestimate as regards the cost to public funds. However, she makes a very important point about employment.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 472

The Government fully recognise the importance of supporting carers to remain in work. The Department of Health has established a task and finish group with employers for carers to explore how to improve support for carers to remain in employment. Jobcentre Plus provides practical assistance for carers seeking work; in particular, it can offer practical support for all carers who are employed for less than 16 hours a week.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the concern of many adult carers of children with disability at the number of changes in social workers that their child has, and how that undermines their ability to be effective advocates for these children, especially as they make the transition to adult services? Does the Minister monitor the number of changes in social workers supporting such families? How can we ensure that this important factor is improved upon?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Earl makes an extremely important point about continuity of care. I am not aware that my department monitors the point that he raises, although it is one that we expect local authorities to bear closely in mind as they fulfil the criteria to be rolled out in the social care outcomes framework, which contains a strong strand relating to service user satisfaction.


Health: Cancer

Question

2.59 pm

Asked By Lord Aberdare

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the Department of Health 2013 generic cancer symptoms awareness campaign will help improve early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, from today, we are piloting a general cancer symptoms campaign to raise awareness and encourage people with relevant symptoms to visit their GP. The campaign will run in five cancer network areas until mid-March and will be relevant to a range of cancers, including pancreatic cancer. Data, including GP attendance, urgent referrals for suspected cancer and diagnostic test activity, will be collected and analysed to assess the impact of the campaign.

Lord Aberdare: My Lords, pancreatic cancer is the fifth most deadly cancer in the UK, accounting for some 7,900 deaths a year. UK survival rates are significantly worse than in some other countries, as are the numbers of patients being referred for operations, the only effective cure. Since earlier diagnosis is essential to improve these outcomes, what plans does the Minister have to ensure that the proposed campaign includes new tools to help GPs detect pancreatic cancer and better pathways for them to refer suspected cases for further testing and support?

Earl Howe: The noble Lord is absolutely right about the importance of earlier diagnosis. I can give two examples of work running this year to assist GPs

14 Jan 2013 : Column 473

in the assessment and earlier diagnosis of cancer patients, including those with pancreatic cancer. Rolling out from March, Macmillan Cancer Support, with funding from the department, will be piloting an electronic cancer decision support tool for GPs to use as part of their routine practice in order to help identify and assess more effectively patients with possible cancer. The initial pilot will cover a number of cancers, including pancreatic cancer. Further, the National Action Cancer Team is supporting the distribution of further desk-based versions of risk assessment tools for use in general practice, and these include a pancreatic cancer risk assessment tool.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that people think that there is no effective treatment for pancreatic cancer—we are always told that lung and pancreatic cancer are the two worst—but other treatments are being given in other countries? A very dear relation of mine in Australia has benefited from having radium pellets injected directly into the secondary lesions and is progressing very well indeed in the second year since her treatment. Her symptoms are much improved. Can he give an assurance that we will give people in this country hope that we will look at treatments being used in other countries that are improving pancreatic cancer outcomes and ensure that we are not left behind in this area?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am very interested to hear about the treatment mentioned by my noble friend and I can remind her, although I am sure she needs no reminding, that one of the key roles of NICE is to keep evidence of new treatments under review. I do not doubt that as a result of my noble friend’s intervention, it will wish to look at that particular treatment. Pancreatic cancer can grow initially without any symptoms and it is possible that people might not recognise the symptoms. That is why the “Know 4 sure” campaign, which I have mentioned, highlights four key symptoms including loss of weight and pain, which can be symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

Lord Turnberg: My Lords, is it not the case that the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is extremely difficult? The organ lies deep within the abdomen and cannot be seen or felt, so by the time the patient shows symptoms, it is often too late. What we really need is research that will provide us with a biomarker which can be used for screening and early diagnosis. Can the noble Earl tell us whether research along these lines is going on within the NHS?

Earl Howe: My Lords, via the Medical Research Council we are supporting a study to assess the effectiveness of a new test called the Mcm5 protein test to see if it can help to diagnose cancer of the pancreas, bile duct and gall bladder. I am also aware of a number of other research projects that my department is funding in the field of pancreatic cancer and I would be happy to write to the noble Lord with the details.

Lord Sharkey: My Lords, where you live will dramatically affect your chances of surviving pancreatic cancer. In south-west London the one-year survival

14 Jan 2013 : Column 474

rate is 22% while in north Trent it is 11%. Do we know why this is? What are we getting right in south-west London but not in north Trent?

Earl Howe: My noble friend is absolutely right to raise the point. To support the NHS in tackling regional variations in cancer survival rates, we are providing data to providers and commissioners that allow them to benchmark their services and outcomes against one another and to identify where improvements need to be made. Surgical resection is currently the best curative intervention for pancreatic cancer, and through the National Cancer Intelligence Network we have already made available data collections on the survival rates and surgical resection rates across a range of cancers, including pancreatic cancer.

Lord Kakkar: My Lords, what proportion of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is managed in specialist centres by a specialist, multidisciplinary team? What proportion of patients in those centres is entered into clinical trials? We all recognise that participation in clinical research improves clinical outcomes in these centres.

Earl Howe: My Lords, the UK now has the highest national per capita rate of cancer trial participation in the world, which is something that not everybody realises. We have improved the amount of information available to patients, clinicians and the public about clinical trials by establishing the UK Clinical Trials Gateway. I will write to the noble Lord with information about specialist centres, but he will know that surgery for pancreatic cancer is a complex business and needs to be undertaken by those who are very well versed in that particular line of clinical activity. I am sure that a high proportion will be treated in those centres but I will find out more if I can.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I refer the House to my health interest. On the question of variation, the noble Earl mentioned earlier the role of GPs. Will he accept that there is a wide variation in the performance of GPs? Can he confirm that we can expect the NHS Commissioning Board from 1 April this year to start taking action where GPs are not doing what is required?

Earl Howe: Yes, my Lords, because a major role of the Commissioning Board is to support general practice and, indeed, vice versa. In the current year, cancer networks are continuing to support GPs to diagnose cancer earlier through a range of work including continual professional development, primary care-led audits of cancers, and ensuring that GPs are prepared when patients present in response to public cancer awareness campaigns. Therefore, there is a range of work going on to ensure that GPs are better versed in this area.


Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill

Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill

Third Reading

3.08 pm

Bill passed.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 475

Public Bodies (Abolition of British Shipbuilders) Order 2013

Public Bodies (Abolition of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal) Order 2013

Motions to Approve

3.09 pm

Moved by Lord Gardiner of Kimble

That the draft orders laid before the House on 1 November 2012 be approved.

Relevant documents: 14th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, 11th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, considered in Grand Committee on 8 January.

Motions agreed.

Electoral Registration and Administration Bill

Electoral Registration and Administration Bill5th Report from the Constitution Committee6th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee8th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Committee (2nd Day)

3.09 pm

Relevant documents: 5th Report from the Constitution Committee, 6th and 8th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee.

Amendment 25

Moved by Lord Lexden

25: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—

“Representation of the People Act 1985 (Amendment)

(1) The Representation of the People Act 1985 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 1 (extension of parliamentary franchise) omit subsections (3)(c) and (4)(a).

(3) In section 3 (extension of franchise for European Parliamentary elections) omit subsections (3)(c) and (4)(a).”

Lord Lexden: My Lords, in moving Amendment 25, I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group, which are all in my name. My principal purpose is to draw attention to a grave injustice that afflicts large numbers of our fellow countrymen and women living overseas and is keenly felt by many of them. Amendment 25 would sweep away entirely the existing severe restriction on their right to vote in our elections—a right that so many of them wish to exercise freely and without interruption while they reside in other countries—no matter how long their residence abroad may last. Surely Parliament should regard it as a duty to make full, principled provision to enable all our fellow countrymen and women living in other countries to take part in our elections if they wish, rather than just some of them, as is the case under the current, arbitrarily devised rules for British subjects overseas.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, some 5.6 million British citizens are now living in other countries, of whom around 4.4 million are of voting age. During their first 15 years after leaving Britain, they are eligible to register for, and vote in, our elections. Thereafter, these rights are confined to

14 Jan 2013 : Column 476

members of the Armed Forces, civil servants, employees of the British Council and employees of charities registered in the United Kingdom. For everyone else, the shutters come down firmly after 15 years. Those who have been registered under the 15-year rule can expect to receive a cold, terse letter from their registration officer in Britain, informing them that their rights to register and vote are at an end. Some of these letters may be better than others; perhaps I am a little prejudiced, having recently seen a scrappy communication from the electoral registration officer of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which contained a number of mistakes and addressed the recipient by her first name, getting that wrong too.

The loss of the right to vote can cause not inconsiderable distress. I have a great deal of correspondence on the matter. One lady in her late 70s wrote that, “Even though I expected it, when I received a letter from Corby Borough Council in November 2010 telling me I was no longer eligible to register as an overseas voter, I was devastated and still am. Since reaching voting age way back in the 1950s, I have never, ever not exercised my democratic right to vote. But now I have been disenfranchised”. However, at the same time, the right to vote under the present restricted arrangements has not been widely claimed. The most recent figures, produced by the Office for National Statistics at the end of 2011, show that only 23,388 British citizens living overseas were registered to vote here. That extraordinarily low number should be prominently in our minds as we debate this important legislation, whose object is to produce a better, more accurate system of registration which gathers in those who are eligible to vote as fully as possible. It is undoubtedly true that the number of overseas voters under the current 15-year rule would be considerably higher if the process of registration and voting were simplified and streamlined. That is what the last three amendments in this group are designed to achieve.

The fundamental issue at stake here is the complete exclusion of so many British citizens living abroad for more than 15 years from the right to vote here. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 55% of those who moved abroad in 2008 did so for work-related reasons, 25% for study and 20% for life in retirement. With an ageing population, and increased opportunities for work and study abroad, people are likely to continue to leave the United Kingdom in substantial numbers. Many of them will reside abroad for more than 15 years. In the countries to which they move, voting rights rest overwhelmingly on nationality, not residence. Apart from some nine Commonwealth countries—mainly islands in the West Indies—I understand that no state permits British citizens to vote in its principal national elections. They therefore exist in an electoral limbo.

Our existing law, restricting to 15 years the right of British subjects abroad to vote in our elections, is open to serious objection on the grounds that it does not conform with the requirements of international law on human rights. A much publicised case is winding its way through the European Court of Human Rights, brought by the redoubtable 91 year-old Second World War veteran and, in his younger days, Labour Party activist, Harry Shindler. As a non-lawyer, I cannot help but feel that he deserves to succeed, simply for

14 Jan 2013 : Column 477

showing such guts and determination. It is Harry Shindler’s contention that Britain’s restriction on overseas voting violates his right to choose his place of residence without being disenfranchised. He is invoking Article 3 of the first protocol and Article 14 of the convention itself. In a debate in this House on 2 March 2011, my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill described the various periods of time that have been used since 1985 to restrict overseas voting—first to five years’ absence, then 20 and now 15—as,

“entirely arbitrary and, I dare say, discriminatory in a way that violates Article 14 of the European convention read with Article 3 of the first protocol”.—[

Official Report

, 2/3/11; col. 1124.]

The judgment of the European Court is eagerly awaited.

I come to the nub of the matter. It is this: where voting rights are concerned, our country today serves its citizens abroad less well than many others. Great democracies, such as the United States, Australia and France, confer on their citizens living in other countries a lifetime’s right to vote, and take considerable pains to ensure that the processes of registration and voting are simple and straightforward.

3.15 pm

Within the European Union, Britain compares unfavourably with most of its partners. Of the 27 EU members, 22 countries allow their expatriate citizens the right to vote, without any restriction on the period of residence outside the home country. That is apart from Germany, which restricts it to 25 years for expatriates living outside the EU. Just two countries, Denmark and the United Kingdom, restrict the period for voting rights: the UK to 15 years and Denmark to four. In three countries—Cyprus, the Republic of Ireland and Malta—expatriates have no right to vote.

Within the European Union, the United Kingdom comes 23rd out of 27 in terms of the voting rights it allows expatriates. Is that where we really wish to be, at a time when there is a marked international trend—not only confined to the developed world—towards wide, unrestricting voting rights for expatriates? Why, for example, should British expatriates living in Spain lose their right to vote here after 15 years, when Spanish citizens happily established in the United Kingdom retain the right to vote in perpetuity in Spanish elections? The Deputy Prime Minister’s wife finds herself in that satisfactory position. Mr Clegg, however, seems strangely reluctant to champion the interest of his fellow citizens living in Spain.

The world has become much smaller. Britons overseas can listen to our radio via their computer, they can watch British television and read British newspapers just as rapidly as anyone living here, if they subscribe to them electronically. I make a confident prediction that this debate in our House today will attract one of the largest television online audiences abroad that your Lordships have had. I have met many British overseas residents who are as well, if not better, informed about British political affairs than the average voter here. So the old argument about expatriates’ inability to make an informed judgment about the great issues in our political life no longer holds.

At the same time, the contribution that expatriates make to our economy becomes ever greater—for example, those working for overseas affiliates or for foreign

14 Jan 2013 : Column 478

companies with bases in the United Kingdom where profits are taxed. Is it right for us to say to these people: “Yes, please go and work overseas, but of course you will not be able to vote after 15 years”? Should we say this to our fellow countrymen and women who are studying in other countries or to those who have retired from a lifetime of working for, or service to, our nation, receiving pensions which are taxed in Britain and affected by laws made here?

We should acknowledge and rejoice in the pride and deep interest which so many of our fellow British subjects take in the nation to which they belong. I have heard from a vast number of people living abroad since I gave notice last July that I would table this amendment. All have stressed the strength of the ties that continue to unite them to their country. In this connection, I have been inundated with offers to inspect tax returns, pension payment slips, deeds of property and returns—not very high at the moment—on investment savings in Britain.

The essence of the matter was well expressed in 2009 by Jenny Watson, the head of the Electoral Commission. She said:

“British citizens living abroad come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but we know that most maintain strong links with the UK. It is easier than ever before for British citizens abroad to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues back home and many will also want to have their say in elections”.

Any time limit is inherently flawed because there is no definitive way of deciding what the limit should be. Any limit that may be set has to be arbitrary and so is inevitably unjust. That is why our 15-year limit should go, as Amendment 25 proposes.

Amendment 26 requires no more than a few words. It is designed to provide the Government with an alternative to the immediate abolition of the 15-year rule. In the various statements that members of the Government have made on this subject, there has been no hint that immediate reform is likely. Though sympathetic to the case for change, they say that the matter requires further consideration. I hope that my noble friend will be able to tell the House today that the Government have now been persuaded by the arguments in favour of swift action, but I recognise that, sadly, he may not. Amendment 26 provides the acceptance of the need for change in principle and for the creation of a framework through which change could be introduced by secondary legislation in due course.

The remaining three amendments seek to improve the processes for registration and voting for our fellow countrymen and women overseas. At present, those who wish to remain on the electoral register must go through the protracted process of reregistering every year, after having to get their initial applications countersigned by another, unrelated British citizen not resident in the United Kingdom, even though a passport number provides positive identification of them. The requirements deter many from registering. The annual repetition of the whole process is widely felt to be unnecessary. It seems that the forms are rarely, if ever, checked. It must make sense to consider extending the period of validity of each registration of an overseas voter until the day following the date of the next general election. That is what Amendment 27 would

14 Jan 2013 : Column 479

do. There would be negligible risk of fraud because overseas electors are positively identifiable by means of their British passport number. Extending the period of registration should result in the more complete and accurate registration of overseas voters.

Amendment 28 seeks to ensure that overseas voters benefit as fully as possible from the development of online registration as envisaged by the Bill. Online registration can be expected to become the procedure of choice for British citizens overseas. Here, too, they have the advantage of being positively identifiable by means of a single, uniform identity document, the British passport. All British passports are now issued by the Identity and Passport Service of the Home Office, and from a date due to be announced this year, all applications from British citizens overseas will have to be made via the internet. It should not be unduly difficult to make effective arrangements through the Identity and Passport Service so that online application forms for passports from British citizens overseas include a question asking applicants whether they wish their passport applications to be treated simultaneously as an application for overseas voter registration, and if so, provide their most recent address.

During the 10-year period that passports are valid, their holders may of course move from one place to another. To ensure that they continue to be included on the electoral register, they could be asked to register their change of address on the Foreign Office’s LOCATE database, which is freely available via the internet. Therefore, it should be possible to devise an efficient system for online registration using existing online facilities at minimal extra cost and with the security of the passport.

Finally, Amendment 54 relates to online voting. Extending the electoral timetable for our parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 working days should make it much easier for British citizens overseas to be able to vote by post. However, the use of online methods could improve voter turnout further, as last year’s French elections indicated so clearly. In the French elections, there were just over 1 million registered overseas voters out of a total French population resident abroad of some 2.2 million. Around 700,000 of France’s overseas electors chose to vote via the internet; 300,000 voted in person or by proxy, using 800 polling stations outside France; some 70,000 voted by post. Clearly, online voting, which was offered for the first time in those elections, would seem to be the way of the future. Surely a similar system could be devised for British citizens overseas or, alternatively, a simpler e-mail-out/post-back system akin to that used by American citizens overseas, which was seen in action successfully last autumn.

I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for adding his name to Amendment 25. I beg to move.


Lord Lipsey: My Lords, we are all grateful for the opportunity given to us by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, to address this subject this afternoon. I am also grateful to the clerks, because the letter from Simon Burton about the next set of amendments to come before us said:

14 Jan 2013 : Column 480

“The bill has only two purposes—individual electoral voter registration and the administration and conduct of elections”.

I find it difficult to see how either rubric fits the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. However, the clerks have assured me that it is in order. I look forward to studying their explanation of why this is so this evening, and I am glad that we are debating this amendment this afternoon. I also hope we shall debate the next amendment. I shall be relatively brief, but some of the arguments that have been put should be answered.

At the moment, expats keep the vote for 15 years and then, except for the military and those enumerated, lose it. The aim of this amendment is to extend that period.

Who are these people? There is a huge range of them: some are abroad because they are working abroad long term; others moved abroad to be with their friends and relations; others for the warm climate, or perhaps in a few cases for the cheap gin and tonics; and a few are tax exiles. However, of those who speak to us, I do not doubt their sincerity in wanting to keep voting. I remember in particular the firm lobbying of members of the Brussels Labour group, who wanted the vote to express their Labour and pro-European sympathies.

There is, however, one less obviously desirable reason why they are lobbying for the vote. There is a very well organised lobby which objects to the fact that, broadly, outside Europe British pensions are frozen. Expats in receipt of pensions reasonably think that, if they had representation in Parliament—if they had a vote for MPs—they would be more likely to get this changed. This is entirely understandable. However, we must understand that conceding this would not be favourable to the British taxpayer. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, when he was the Minister responsible in 2005, estimated the cost at £3 billion, which is more than enough to pay for the total cost of the recommendations of the Dilnot report, which would do so much for elderly people living here.

How much do they want the vote? As I said, there is a very strong lobby, but a fact that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, mentioned makes me a little sceptical. There are estimated to be some 5.5 million Britons of voting age living abroad but in 2011 only 23,388 of those registered to vote—under 0.5%. If the people who have left only quite recently are not bothering to register, how many of the people who have been gone for 15 years or more are clamouring at the door for us to concede it?

This debate is not the first time that Parliament has examined this matter; there was a Question for Short Debate in this House. However, the main document referring to it is a 1998 report from the Commons Home Affairs Committee. That was some time ago, but the argument has not changed much since. Far from recommending an increase, that committee recommended that the period should be reduced to five years. It has not been put into effect but that was its recommendation.

I looked at the evidence put forward to that committee. I want to put the case as it was put to the committee by Professor Robin Blackburn, one of our foremost

14 Jan 2013 : Column 481

constitutional experts. He spoke of the absurdity of extending the franchise so that,

“an expatriate living hundreds or thousands of miles away, for the duration of a period exceeding a whole generation, carrying memories of British politics in the past and with little or no personal knowledge of contemporary issues in the constituency where he or she used to live, can influence the election of the government of a country to which he is not subject and to whom he or she may be paying no taxes”.

In a nutshell, you cannot have representation without taxation. I rest my case.

3.30 pm

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I listened carefully to the eloquent case made by my noble friend Lord Lexden, but I want to speak briefly as a former Member of the House of Commons and one who was devoted to his Cornish constituents.

One of the benefits of the single-Member constituency system that we have is that it provides a very special local link between each area and one Member of Parliament. I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Lorton of Louth, speak eloquently in support of that principle, so I am surprised to see him endorse this amendment in its current form. It is true that the countries in the European Union that my noble friend Lord Lexden cited all have different electoral systems; they do not have the same direct link with the individual constituency as we have. I want to put the debate about overseas electors in that context.

If an MP’s primary role is to represent his or her area, and the constituents within it at that time, how does that square with a proposal which would see him or her representing people who live perhaps thousands of miles away in a very different economic and social context? And should we really equate in value the vote of someone who has departed—some would say deserted—this country for 15 years or more in favour of the Spanish sunshine with that of a British soldier currently serving his country in Afghanistan? That would be the effect of the amendment.

In 2020, it will be 15 years since I retired from the other place—in that respect, I sort of left North Cornwall then. It is surely beyond the limit of what is reasonable to ask my excellent successor in North Cornwall to represent after 2020 people who left that constituency as long ago as I did.

I accept, as my noble friend said, that there is some validity in the notional principle here about taxation without representation. In that connection, perhaps we should look at the system used for French national elections, to which reference was made, where representatives of a number of special “overseas” constituencies are elected in national elections by French voters who live abroad but who still somehow have a stake in French society. If more than 76,000 electors registered for such a constituency, it would justify under the previous legislation that we passed in your Lordships’ House having that separate constituency, but we are not in that position. However, that would be much less arbitrary than marrying people in perpetuity to an area with which they have had no direct connection for more than 15 years.

It has been asked whether there should be taxation without representation. Well, perhaps we should also think about representation without taxation. Why should

14 Jan 2013 : Column 482

someone who has lived on the Costa del Sol for the past 15 years still vote by post in local elections and therefore influence the local level of council tax in Cornwall for residents of Coads Green or Crantock in my former constituency?

Those of my overseas friends who have urged this change may come to regret raising this issue; they should be careful what they wish for. If all those overseas who have retained the right to vote in the United Kingdom in recent years now find themselves having to pay council tax, higher VAT or fuel tax, or even additional taxes imposed by the devolved Assemblies, the proposers of these amendments may not be as popular as they apparently are with overseas voters at the moment.

Meanwhile, I am particularly alarmed by the proposal under Amendment 54 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lexden for overseas citizens to be able to vote online. While that same convenience is not afforded to our own fellow citizens in this country at the moment, it would seem extraordinary to extend it to those people. As we know from previous experiments, there are real problems about that proposal anyway, quite apart from its unfairness, because it could raise a major risk of fraud.

For those practical reasons, we on these Benches ask my noble friend the Leader of the House and other Ministers to take the problem of taxation without representation seriously, of course, but also to find a solution which is less invidious and which properly recognises that our current system of single-Member constituencies makes it extremely unfair to introduce this particular proposal in this form.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, as one would expect, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, made a cogent and well researched point in favour of effectively extending the timeframe not only beyond 15 years but perhaps indefinitely, so long as one can still claim British citizenship. Therein lie various practical problems, which I will come to in a moment.

My noble friend Lord Lipsey said that of the 5.6 million overseas voters only 23,000 currently take advantage of that, which suggests that the demand is not very great. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made the point about the key principle in our country of representing a constituency and those who live within it. We await with interest the result of the determination of the European Court of Human Rights, but I recall discussing this problem with a representative from the country in the European Union which is probably the closest to us—that is, the Republic of Ireland. A friend who was a Senator from Ireland said, “Well, think of all the Irish people who are overseas, the Irish diaspora. If we were to give a vote to them all, there would probably be a Sinn Fein Government in Ireland”. That is the point he was making.

Clearly the intention is obvious—to extend the vote to as many overseas British citizens as possible. I shall be brief because there is an important debate to follow, but there are clearly technical problems and grounds of principle that make one feel very cautious about this proposal. The potential numbers have been mentioned, particularly as more people travel and work overseas. There may be British citizens in Australia, Pakistan,

14 Jan 2013 : Column 483

Canada, Bangladesh and of course in all the European Union countries. There is a great range of countries and it will be very difficult to check adequately the bona fides of those who claim citizenship and claim to be eligible to vote. How do we prevent fraud? Those problems will be formidable and there will be also be a great problem in checking whether people are still alive after their last declaration.

On the grounds of principle, I recall the debate in the other place in 1985 when there was a package of proposals. I concede that the length of time is arbitrary but there was a consensus result at that time. Now of course the numbers are very much greater and we have, as has been cited, the reverse of the Boston Tea Party—that is, representation without taxation. We cannot extend that totally because many of the British citizens living overseas will be eligible for British pensions and therefore they have some stake in this country. Perhaps it would be better to say “representation without a substantial stake in this country”? Everyone who is resident in the UK has that substantial stake and those who live for perhaps a very extended period overseas increasingly lose sight of this country and lose sight of any stake they may have in it. Therefore, their stakeholding in this country becomes less and less serious. I will not go any further save to say that in my judgment there are considerable technical problems in the proposal and there are also major obstacles of principle.

Lord Deben: My Lords, I intervene having heard the three previous speeches. First, to listen to a strong advocate of almost any electoral system except the first-past-the-post, single constituency arrangement, fight for this proposal was a surprise, particularly as the noble Lord will go on to support a misuse of the electoral system to ensure that we have an unfair electoral system for even longer. That is a peculiar case to put forward.

Then we heard the internationalist party explain how people who lived abroad might not understand what was happening in Britain. Sometimes I think that a number of people living abroad understand rather more clearly what is happening in Britain than some of those here who do not appear to follow the newspapers or the media very closely.

Then we heard the definition of how people voted. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that those of us who have been elected to the Houses of Parliament know that the reasons why people in this country vote and the logic on which they make their decisions, people who have never travelled abroad, certainly would not meet the conditions which he put forward as reasonable conditions for anyone who is voting.

Then there was the argument that because we might find that people who are at the moment, in their view, penalised because pensions for which they have paid out of taxation and national insurance are, because of their particular place of residence, refused, that they might vote in a different way than that which the Government might like, that evidently is a reason to deny them the vote. That is the argument of totalitarian regimes down history. That is why people did not want the extension of the franchise in Britain. People said,

14 Jan 2013 : Column 484

“My goodness, if those who are at the moment misused are given the vote, they might object to that”. I find that an odd argument to come from any part of the House, but to hear it from the party opposite, which is about to say that some voters in this country are to have a bigger vote and more say for a longer time than would otherwise have been the case, seems to me to be an affront.

Although I have no particular view on this—I think that roughly speaking, what we have is perfectly reasonable—I hope that this House will take seriously the fact that we have now heard three speeches designed to say that people should not vote if by their voting they might do something which was inconvenient for noble Lords on either side and should therefore be refused the vote. That is precisely the debate that noble Lords are about to have, which is to say that because a particular reform proposed in this House today would give people a fairer vote but thereby might give a different result, we should not change the voting system to accommodate them. That is an attitude to democracy about which we should be ashamed. Our decision should be on what is fair, what is equal and what is reasonable. I happen to think that the present rules about 15 years more or less meet that, but the three speeches that we have heard show that some people are prepared to use the system to get a particular result rather than seeking to have a system in which the result is the decision of the public.

Lord Wills: I address myself briefly to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, with which I largely agree. I think that the criterion should be that it is fair and reasonable. Incidentally, I do not think that taxation is an issue here; taxation has never been a criterion for voting in this country and it is not now. It seems to me that what is, to use the noble Lord’s phrase, fair and reasonable, is that those who have chosen in a significant way to sever their relationship with this country should, after a certain period, lose their right to have a say in the affairs of this country. What that period of time should be is a matter for judgment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Deben, I think that 15 years is about right.

However, I want briefly to raise one significant issue that I would be grateful if the Minister would address in his response to the amendments. There is one important group of expatriates who deserve special consideration—those British citizens who have chosen to dedicate their lives to the service of large and small international organisations, such as the United Nations. There seems to be an anomaly there. These are people who have chosen to give their lives to public service which takes them all over the world, doing a job which serves this country and the rest of the world very well for the most part. It seems to me that there is a case for making a special exemption for those groups of people. There are lots of practical problems with that. Defining the kinds of international organisations which can be brought within the scope of such an exemption is difficult and problematic. In the past the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has championed the cause of such expatriates. However, there is a case for that group of British citizens to be considered separately, and I would be grateful if the Minister could address that in his response.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 485

3.45 pm

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I will assume it is a case of leaving the best till last. I very much agree with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, has just made. I have raised the issue before about people in that very situation.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about the Long Title, the Long Title is that this is a Bill,

“to make provision about the registration of electors and the administration and conduct of elections”.

I would have thought that amendments about the registration of electors fall quite clearly within the subject matter of the Bill—unlike, I think, what is to follow.

I have added my name to Amendment 25, as my noble friend Lord Lexden mentioned, but I also support the amendments that he has brought forward. My noble friend’s amendments raise an important issue of principle. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, was raising matters of practice, but there is a fundamental principle. It is perfectly clear that some British citizens live abroad because they wish to do so. Some live abroad because they consider that they have to do so. Most emigrants from these shores move abroad, as my noble friend said, for work-related purposes. Some will be working for British firms; some will be teaching English; some will be paying taxes in the UK.

The important point is that they are and remain British citizens. So long as they remain British citizens, I see no reason why they should be disenfranchised. If they no longer feel any connection with the United Kingdom then it is open to them to seek the citizenship of the nation in which they reside. The fact that they chose to remain British citizens should not be dismissed but rather regarded as an asset for this country. British citizens are often important ambassadors for the United Kingdom. Just as overseas students in this country return home with British degrees and serve arguably as the most important source of British influence abroad, British expatriates are a notable source of British influence around the globe. Rather than discouraging our own citizens, and indeed overseas students, we should be treating them as an important resource in maintaining our influence on a global scale.

The principle is one that appears to be accepted by other EU member states. We are, as my noble friend has said, in a somewhat anomalous position. The largest number of British citizens who live in a non-English-speaking state reside in Spain, with the second largest number in France. Neither of those states disenfranchises its citizens who live abroad in the way that we disenfranchise ours. The link with constituencies is not particularly relevant in terms of the fundamental principle involved. Other nations, such as the United States, do not disenfranchise their citizens either and I see no reason why we should disenfranchise ours.

Like my noble friend, I have been struck by the number of British citizens presently living abroad who have been in contact to make the case for ending this anomaly. The fact that they feel intensely about the subject reflects their commitment to this country. They are not seeking any material benefit through this route—they are clearly proud to be British citizens and wish

14 Jan 2013 : Column 486

to retain the intrinsic feature of citizenship in the form of the franchise. At a time when we are having difficulty persuading many of our citizens at home to vote, it seems inappropriate to prevent citizens who do wish to vote from doing so.

My noble friend’s amendments therefore address an important issue, but they do so in a modest and ingenious manner. They are modest in relation to the principle and ingenious in relation to the practical problems involved. The Minister may claim that we need more time to reflect on the principle and that we should not rush to abolish the 15-year limit. My noble friend’s amendments would not abolish the limit but would rather allow the Secretary of State to introduce an order to extend the time period. There is thus time to reflect and build a consensus in order to extend the period.

There are practical problems, as no doubt the Minister will emphasise, in the process of registering British nationals who live abroad. My noble friend’s amendments seek to address those problems. The Minister may argue that they are not adequate, in which case, if the principle is conceded, the onus rests on the Government to come forward with proposals of their own. It is thus incumbent on the Minister to address the principle and explain why British nationals living abroad are treated less favourably than the citizens of other EU nations living abroad, and why we seem unwilling to acknowledge what constitutes a great British resource. We should not be encouraging EU nationals to desert their commitment to the United Kingdom but should rather be acknowledging that commitment. I hope therefore that the House will support my noble friend’s amendments.

Lord Flight: My Lords, I support my noble friend’s amendments. I have lived as an expatriate and, unless you happen to have parents resident where you want to register to vote, it is extremely difficult to get registered, particularly if people are busy with whatever their careers are.

My particular point is this: in most places, you are not entitled to vote in national elections wherever it is that you are living abroad. If such individuals cannot vote in the country of their nationality or in the country where they live, which is indeed the case with this country, then effectively you are denying them any major political vote whatever. No one seems to be concerned about that, but it is an unreasonable thing to do.

I was rather proud that in the most recent French elections London was, I think, the seventh largest-voting French city of the French electorate, as a result of so many French citizens living in London. Clearly there would have to be changes in the way that representation deals with expatriates if we were to adopt permanent voting by passport-retaining British expatriates, and the concept of the local constituency where they might have lived 10 or 20 years before does not work particularly well, but I suggest that for once it is worth while looking at how France runs its affairs because it deals rather more fairly with its expatriates than we do.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, my noble friend who moved this amendment is a historian, and I wish to add a historical footnote as well as to pay tribute to the chivalry of others involved in the

14 Jan 2013 : Column 487

exercise. In the late 1980s there was considerable embarrassment and concern that the amount of money being spent on parliamentary by-elections greatly exceeded the amount that agents, in signing for those expenses at the end of the election, were themselves putting down. It was a risk being run entirely by the agents, and all parties were involved in the problem.

I suggested to my noble friend Lord Hurd, who by coincidence I am sitting next to at the moment although I have not mentioned this to him, that it would be sensible if we managed to pass legislation briskly to correct this problem. He sensibly advised me that the only way in which that could be done would be if I could reach agreement with other parties, and it was sensible that that should occur. He referred me to the shadow Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, who referred the matter to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, who had some responsibility within the Labour Party for these matters. She and I had a meeting; we agreed that it was a problem and that, were we to recommend legislation to our respective Home Office Ministers and if there would not be a problem in getting it through the House promptly, then it was worth doing. We also determined that the same legislation should in fact increase the number of years from five to 20, and that was agreed between the noble Baroness and me.

I say that this is a matter of chivalry because she and I reached in private extremely rapid decisions on the matter that then went through the House of Commons in less than a month. I simply say that everyone has been involved in this story quite deeply in the past.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. I realise that a lot of people here are actually waiting for the main event; we are perhaps just the warm-up for that. As has been said, these amendments would, in effect, extend representation without taxation. They would allow people who do not, on the whole, pay council tax, income tax, value added tax or, presumably, any death duties here to continue nevertheless to elect people who decide on the level of those taxes. We also have to remember that this is not just about taxation; it is also about expenditure and these non-residents do not school their children here, use our health service, drive on our motorways or live day-to-day under our laws. Nevertheless, the amendments would give them the right to continue to elect the politicians who run our health and education services and who decide on our drink-driving laws, speeding laws and a myriad of other laws under which the rest of us live.

We supported a period of 15 years, by which people—basically those who tended to move away to study or work for quite long periods—were likely to return. We agreed that they should retain their democratic links here by retaining their votes. However, these amendments are largely about those who have left these shores for ever and do not participate in our civil life; they simply keep a UK passport. It is difficult to understand why they should continue to elect a Government under whom the rest of us pay our taxes and live with the consequences of our votes. Those people do not live with the consequences of theirs.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 488

There is another major issue that needs to be considered. Should these amendments be agreed, these people would also be able to make donations to our political parties—a form of overseas subsidy that I thought we had outlawed. Section 54 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 allows UK nationals who permanently live abroad to remain on the electoral register for 15 years. By being on the electoral register, they are also categorised as permissible donors to a political party.

Following the controversy in 2007-08 around donations—in that case to the Conservative Party—the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 was passed. Section 10 prohibits a registered party accepting a donation from UK nationals living abroad and on the electoral register if it is more than £7,500 in any 12-month period unless they become resident in the UK and pay UK income tax. That Act also requires such donors to make a written declaration to the Electoral Commission as to whether they satisfy the rules. However, this section of the Act has yet to be commenced; it comes into force on a date to be decided by the Secretary of State under a statutory instrument. The Government have indicated that they do not intend to commence this part of the 2009 Act, which means that those living abroad can continue to give any sum that they like as permitted donors.

These amendments would therefore permit all UK nationals permanently living abroad to give unlimited donations to our political parties. I cannot believe that this House would support that. The Electoral Commission has confirmed to me that the test of whether individuals are permissible donors is whether they are on the electoral register, and that includes overseas electors. Therefore, if overseas electors were to be able to stay on the register for longer than 15 years, they would remain permissible donors for as long as they lived and as long as their money held out.

There are practical issues. The Bill that the Committee is discussing will, if we fail to change it, mean that quite a few people who live in this country are going to fall off the electoral register. It seems extraordinary that we should not be turning our attention to those people, rather than adding to the register those who have long since ceased to live here.

This Bill is important; it is about moving to individual registration, but the only registration for those abroad at the moment is, as has been said, that they have a passport and get someone to certify that they are still alive. Here, those who do not have to go through all this may not realise that there will be all sorts of data matching and checks on their NI, and such issues. It would seem extraordinary if those living abroad could get on the electoral register easier than others.

It is hard to see why those who have left these shores for ever and do not pay tax but simply remember their old address and maintain a passport should continue to elect our Government. As of this moment, we have heard no compelling arguments to support these amendments.

4 pm

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for this wide-ranging debate. The amendments in this group seek to remove the 15-year qualifying

14 Jan 2013 : Column 489

period for overseas electors and enable the Secretary of State to remove or extend the qualifying period via secondary legislation. Amendments in this group also seek to extend the 12-month registration period for overseas electors and to enable overseas electors to register and vote online.

I know that my noble friend Lord Lexden feels strongly about these matters, and I am well aware of the continuing loyalty to the United Kingdom of so many who have lived and worked overseas for many years. Indeed, this was echoed by my noble friend Lord Norton.

The current 15-year time limit on overseas voting rights, which Amendment 25 seeks to remove, was approved by an earlier Parliament. Whether the time limit remains appropriate is a wider question, which remains under consideration within government. I refer to what the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said about overseas employees. British Council employees, for instance, already have that continuing right, as well as other sectors. Therefore, his point will be part of that continuing consideration. There are valid arguments on both sides which need to be carefully considered alongside any practical issues before any informed decisions can be taken.

In the mean time, we have already taken steps in this Bill to improve the overseas voting process. The proposals we are introducing to extend the electoral timetable for UK parliamentary elections will facilitate greater voter participation. As part of the move to individual electoral registration, I am happy to announce that we also plan to remove the requirement for a person’s initial application as an overseas elector to be attested by another British citizen who is resident abroad. This change will simplify the registration process for electors living overseas.

Moving to Amendment 26, we believe that the franchise for UK elections should remain set out in primary legislation. It would be very unusual to provide for a change to the franchise in secondary legislation. Proposals regarding the franchise are important matters which should always be considered by Parliament before they become law.

Regarding Amendment 27, it is important that overseas electors update their registration and verify their details each year along the same lines as UK electors. This helps to ensure that postal ballots are despatched to the correct address whenever an election is held and enables the electoral registration officer to verify that an overseas elector’s 15-year qualifying period has not elapsed. Allowing overseas electors to remain registered until after the next general election would lead to inaccuracies in the register and open up avenues for others potentially to use fraudulently another person’s registration or to vote despite being ineligible.

Amendment 28 would compel local authorities to provide an online facility for overseas electors to make the declarations necessary to register to vote. Providing a full online facility for applications to be made that is similar to the domestic system that we are creating could prove to be very expensive relative to the number of people who are registered overseas, largely due to the necessary security against fraud that would need to be built in. We have, however, not ruled this out in

14 Jan 2013 : Column 490

the medium term and intend to see how much uptake there is of the domestic online system before making a decision.

While I support the sentiment behind Amendment 54 —that steps should be taken to enable those based overseas to participate effectively in elections—I do not think a provision to vote online is the best way to facilitate participation for this group. As noble Lords are aware, electronic voting is not in use at any statutory elections or referendums in the UK. It was piloted and considered by the previous Government and in some other countries but it has not been pursued in the absence of evidence of improved turnout and because of concerns about security.

The Government are assisting overseas voters to receive and return postal ballot packs. The extension to the electoral timetable from 17 to 25 working days will benefit overseas voters. Given the measures already undertaken to assist postal voting, the proposals to simplify registration and the ongoing consideration of the 15-year limit on overseas registration, I ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Lexden: My Lords, we have had a useful and productive debate on an issue of international as well as national importance. I am grateful to all those who have taken part and illuminated various aspects of the issue. At the centre stands the principle, so clearly stated by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, that British overseas citizens who want to take part in our elections, reflecting their enduring commitment to our country, should be entitled to do so, particularly since they are disenfranchised in the countries where they live. Voting should rest on nationality not on residence or anything else.

I listened with particular care to the Minister’s speech and noted one or two encouraging points. Overall, however, I listened with some disappointment. I shall read his comments in full and reflect on them further. For now, my Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 25 withdrawn.

Amendments 26 to 28 not moved.

Amendment 28A

Tabled by Lord Hart of Chilton

28A: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—

“Amendment of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011

In section 10 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, in subsection (3), leave out from “(a)” to “and” and insert “not before 1st October 2018”.”

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Hill of Oareford): My Lords, as I think everyone already knows, I have received advice from the Public Bill Office that Amendment 28A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, is inadmissible because it is not relevant to the Bill. It is therefore my duty, under paragraph 8.56 of the Companion, to draw the attention of the House to that advice and I readily do so. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde placed a copy

14 Jan 2013 : Column 491

of the advice in the Library on 31 October last year and I wrote an open letter to the party and group leaders, attaching the advice, earlier today. That advice from our clerks is clear and unequivocal and, as the

Companion

requires, I ask the House to endorse it.

It is rare that we find ourselves in this position and I therefore hope it will help for me to explain what happens next. We are, essentially, in the hands of the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton. There is no separate Motion or vote on the question of admissibility. When I sit down, it is for the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, to decide whether to move his amendment in the light of the sense of the House. When my predecessors have been in this position—and that has not been often; just three times since 1999—the amendment has, on each occasion, not been moved. If the noble Lord, Lord Hart, chooses to move his amendment, debate will follow and, no doubt, a Division. That Division will be on both the question of admissibility and on the substance of the amendment. For those of us who want to endorse the Clerk’s advice, the way to do so is to vote “Not Content” at the end of the debate for the sole and sufficient reason that we have been advised that the amendment is not relevant to the Bill and therefore inadmissible, irrespective of the substance of the amendment. Having explained that, I have to say that I regret that we find ourselves in this position at all.

My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford asked a question in an earlier debate on this subject: why could the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, and his supporters not find a way to put their substantive proposal before the House that was consistent with our rules? A Private Member’s Bill could certainly have been drafted and delivered to the Commons between October and today. I very much regret that instead of using the procedurally sound approaches that are available, the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have put their names to the amendment are asking us to set aside our rules, which I suggest is the wrong thing to do.

The last thing I want to say is that for the House to consider this amendment today is the wrong thing to do in principle as well as in particular. The House itself is of course the only authority that can decide on the admissibility of an amendment. The Clerk’s role is to advise, and the House is the arbiter. We are self-regulating. But our system of self-regulation is based on the very few rules which we have set for ourselves in the Companion. It means that only we can enforce our rules; it does not mean that we do not have any. The Companion is clear that on this issue of the admissibility of amendments,

“it is expected that this advice will be taken”—

that is, the advice of the clerks.

It would be unwise for us to get into a situation where we try to change referee when we think that it is expedient. The amendment is not relevant to the Bill because the clerks say so, in accordance with the precedent. It is they and they alone whom we have entrusted with advising us impartially in these circumstances. Over the past week, I have looked at the precedent and, on every occasion that I can find in the files, the House has endorsed the clerks’ advice on

14 Jan 2013 : Column 492

the admissibility of an amendment. Although I am relatively new to this House, I care very much for our culture, including the courteous, consensual way that we have of doing our business. I think that it enhances our work, role and reputation as a revising Chamber. That culture depends on our respect for our rules and, on certain very rare occasions, on the professional referee in the form of the clerks. If we choose to set aside the clerks’ advice on this occasion, why not tomorrow? Why not next week?

Today, we are taking a decision that is not just about a particular issue but potentially about the whole way that we work. If the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, moves his amendment, I ask Members around the House this afternoon to set aside their views on the substance of the amendment and to endorse the clerks’ unequivocal advice. It is for the House to decide which is more important for us. I choose the latter and, if it comes to it, I will therefore be voting “Not Content”. This is a difficult moment for the House, but there is someone here who can help us out of our difficulty, and that is the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton. At this last moment, it is still possible for him to rescue us from our difficulty and to say, “Not moved”. I call on him to do so.

Lord Hart of Chilton: My Lords, I should like to make one preliminary point which is to repeat that, in intending moving this amendment, as I do, I intend no disrespect to the clerks, for whom I have great admiration. Of course, I have written to tell them that. However, there is a serious, genuine difference of opinion about admissibility, which I believe should be subject to the view of this self-regulating House.

Accordingly, I rise to move the amendment tabled in my name, and in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, Lord Rennard, and Lord Wigley, whom I thank for their support. The effect of the amendment would be to postpone the review of parliamentary constituency boundaries for one electoral cycle, and similarly delay the reduction in the number of Westminster seats from 650 to 600. It would ensure that the 2015 general election is contested on the basis of current boundaries. It would also provide a window of time to address the current deficiencies in the electoral register and the likely impact on its accuracy and completeness from the introduction of individual electoral registration. As the building block on which boundary reviews are being conducted, the status of the electoral register is fundamental to our system of representative democracy.

4.15 pm

The amendment has two principal purposes. The first is to allow time for the new system of electoral registration to bed down and to allow for opportunities to test how far the register is complete and accurate. That is essential, because the register provides the raw data to be used by the Boundary Commissions in determining constituency numbers and, hence, constituency boundaries. The two are inextricably linked, because any inadequacy or flaw in the register feeds inaccurate calculations in terms of seat numbers and their boundaries. It has the potential to be damaging

14 Jan 2013 : Column 493

to democracy and to seriously undermine the coalition objective of political renewal and re-engaging with the public.

Throughout the Second Reading of this Bill in both Houses, and from many sides, there have been warnings that the register, whatever its policy, will not be sufficiently complete for its purpose. It is generally accepted that, currently, at least 6 million people eligible to vote are missing from the register. That is around 10,000 people—I am averaging the figures—in each constituency; it equates to a missing 88 Parliamentary seats, based on current averages. This is a serious problem for our democracy which must be put right. However, it is also clear that the changes brought about by the Bill, with the transition to individual electoral registration—for all its merits—will lead to a further large number of voters falling off the register. This would be an additional blow to democracy and to the accuracy of the raw data on which boundary reviews will be based.

Furthermore, the pattern of people who are missing from the register is not random. I have heard no one dispute the fact that among those missing from the register are likely to be the young, the very old, the disabled, those from black and minority ethnic communities, those living in areas of high social deprivation and those in private rented accommodation. Some of those groups are already the most marginalised in society, and the shift to individual voter registration—without the proper safeguards which my noble friends on the Front Bench have been calling for throughout the passage of this Bill—will compound this democratic deficit. It is those groups from which even more will be likely to go missing.

The status of the register—its completeness and its accuracy—is extremely important. The Electoral Commission lists the consequences of a flawed register as being people being unable to vote, or wrongly registered at a polling station which is not in their local area; people not being contacted by candidates and political parties campaigning during elections, or campaigners finding that the people on the register are no longer there; people not being summoned for jury service; increased risks of electoral fraud; and, most important for my argument, people not being counted in setting boundaries.

The move to a system of individual electoral registration is welcome; it is due its time, and enjoys cross-party support. It is recognised that the shift may help to tackle problems of fraud. But it is also recognised that there are risks involved in the transition. As I have said, it is clear that the changes contained in the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill are very likely to mean that an additional large number of voters will fall off the register, at least in the initial transition period. The Electoral Commission warns that the introduction of individual electoral registration risks bringing registration rates down from around 90% to as low as 65%.

By the Government’s own admission:

“Individual Electoral Registration (IER) is the biggest change to our system of electoral registration for almost a century and it is essential we get it right”.

However, preliminary findings from the Government’s data-matching pilots, using DWP data to confirm people’s entries on the electoral register, show a success

14 Jan 2013 : Column 494

rate of around 70%. However, looking in more detail at the 14 pilot areas, some returned match rates that were as low as 55%. The Government have judged this to be a good starting level of registration for the transition, but that is a 70% success rate based on a register which we know is already missing 6 million eligible voters. Put shortly, the shift to individual electoral registration risks disenfranchising millions of British electors. My amendment allows time for checking and, if necessary, taking action to put matters right.

My second reason for this amendment is that there is a crisis of uncertainty and confusion in terms of the administration and conduct of the next general election arising from the ongoing but seemingly moribund boundary review. The state of limbo in which that review currently exists is both wasteful of public resources and damaging to democracy. The Deputy Prime Minister has stated repeatedly that the Liberal Democrat Party will not be supporting the boundary review proposals when they come to the other place for voting in the autumn of 2013 and that,

“we are not going to introduce the changes ahead of the general election in 2015”.—[

Official Report

, Commons, 16/10/12; col. 146].

However, the Leader of the Conservative Party, the Prime Minister, has vowed to plough on with the planned timetable for the boundary changes. Reacting to a statement by Mr Clegg in August, the Prime Minister insisted that the boundary change vote would go ahead. The coalition’s mid-term review published last week pledged that:

“We will provide for a vote in the House of Commons on the Boundary Commission’s proposals for changes to constituencies”,

and yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph reported that Mr Cameron remains “absolutely committed” to boundary reforms and is personally determined to press ahead with the policy. This represents a significant confusion at the top of the Government which is damaging to democracy and once again undermines attempts at restoring public trust in our political system.

Certainty is needed now because it is right that the public should know as early as possible which constituency they are in, and therefore who their candidates are to be, and what they are doing and saying. This is a key element of accountability in our democratic system. Under the current proposals, voters might know neither their constituency nor their candidates until a little over a year before the next general election. The connection between an MP and his or her constituents is probably the most important element in a healthy democracy. That connection is being challenged by this impasse. The continuing uncertainty about boundaries is having a chilling effect on selections, planning and the distribution of resources. It is also inevitably going to be a source of concern and distraction for sitting MPs who should otherwise be focusing on their central role of representing the people who elected them.

Achieving a conclusion and stopping the boundary review process now will also save significant amounts of public money being wasted on a process that appears to be doomed. Government figures released at the end of last year show that the Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland and Wales have so far between them spent around £5.8 million on the current review and related purposes, with a further likely expenditure

14 Jan 2013 : Column 495

of £3.8 million before the end of the review. So this amendment provides a practical solution to the political difficulties and confusion that confront us. It is not a wrecking amendment; it postpones the proposals for boundary reform by one political cycle. It also affords the time and opportunity to check the results of the new system of individual registration, the biggest change in the franchise for 100 years, to ensure that the register is not simply accurate, but complete before it is relied upon by the Boundary Commissions for future boundary reviews.

In a democracy nothing is more important than to ensure that those who are eligible to vote are enabled to do so. If the fountain or well of democracy is tainted, so too is democracy itself. I beg to move.

Lord Rennard: My Lords—

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords—

Lord Elton: My Lords, I really was up first and I merely want to ask the noble Lord this question. He has made a very moving and appealing speech. Before he sits down—

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I appreciate that this is of great interest to many noble Lords in the House. I remind noble Lords that we are in Committee and therefore the device of saying, “Before the noble Lord sits down” is not necessary. Of course Peers may ask the noble Lord who moved the amendment—the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton—questions. He is at liberty either to answer them as part of an exchange in Committee or to answer them later. Therefore my noble friends Lords Elton and Lord Forsyth will be in order when they next ask the question. They were out of order when they tried to prevent the Lord Speaker from putting the Motion.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the noble Lord has made a moving, interesting and in some ways compelling speech, but he omitted the prior question. He has not answered any of the points made by my noble friend the Leader of the House and has given no reason for riding roughshod for the first time for decades, if not centuries, over the advice of the Clerk, upon which the smooth running of the House depends. I do think he ought to give us his reasons for so doing.

A noble Lord:The noble Lord does not have to reply.

Lord Hart of Chilton: Well, I shall. The relevance comes as a result of the Boundary Commission’s work deciding numbers and constituencies upon the raw data from the electoral register. As I have said, if the electoral register is wrong and produces wrong data then the Boundary Commission and its findings in terms of constituencies and numbers will also be wrong. That is the relevance.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I apologise for getting the procedure wrong. My point was rather similar to my noble friend’s. The noble Lord has given by way of response, as a justification for riding a coach and horses through our procedures, an argument about the Bill and its provisions. What is at stake here

14 Jan 2013 : Column 496

is not whether his opinion is different from the Clerk’s, but that our convention has been that we accept the Clerk’s advice. Can he explain why he is prepared to ride roughshod over that, with all the precedents that it creates and the difficulties that it will cause for the House, which is nothing whatever to do with the substance of the Bill?

Lord Hart of Chilton: I explained, I hope, a moment ago why what I am saying is relevant to the particular proposals of the Bill. It is for the House to decide its procedure. In the sense that I have found it completely compelling that it is relevant, it is for the House to decide, in due course, what the outcome of the debate should be. If the view of the House is that what I have said is irrelevant, out of scope, nothing to do with the Bill at all, then the voting will take place accordingly. If, however, there are people——and I suspect there are many—who agree with me then they will vote to the contrary.

Lord Rennard: The four Members from different parts of the House who signed the amendment may all have slightly different arguments to make about why we each support it, but we are all agreed that the electoral register on which the current boundary review is taking place is not really fit for that purpose and that the current review of boundaries should therefore be postponed.

This issue was the subject of fierce debate during the lengthy passage of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, with many noble Lords saying that it was not fit for purpose then. However, most of us relied on the best evidence available at the time that the electoral register contained the details of 92% of the people who should be included on it. Since then, however, work done by the Electoral Commission, commissioned and paid for by the Cabinet Office, shows that across the country, only about 82% of the names that should be included on the register are presently on it and that there are wide variations between different areas. For example, in the London Borough of Lambeth, only about 73% of the names that should be there are on the register.

This electoral register provides the basis for boundary reviews, and it is now clear that, if we want to have equal-sized constituencies, we must have an electoral register for which every possible effort has been made to make it as complete and accurate as possible, and that special efforts must be made to tackle underregistration in some areas if that objective is to be achieved.

4.30 pm

Lord Naseby: As a former leader of the London Borough of Islington, which is very similar to Lambeth, I can say that the electoral register over time has never been more than 70% to 75% accurate. What magical qualities are there now that will change the situation in boroughs that have a transient population, always have had and always will have?

Lord Rennard: Those of us who have followed in great detail the Committee proceedings on this Bill will know that I have argued at length, together with

14 Jan 2013 : Column 497

other noble Lords, for a large number of measures that could greatly improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register, particularly schemes of data matching and data mining, which would enable public and private databases—

Lord Cormack: Was it this purity of motive that provoked the Deputy Prime Minister to make his off-the-cuff statement on 6 August?

Lord Rennard: The Deputy Prime Minister’s statement on 6 August was clearly not off the cuff and noble Lords to my left should have been aware of what he was going to say in the event of other issues which took place.

If I might proceed with some of my arguments, I would also like to say that for some of these Benches, another argument is very important. In the long deliberations on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, we considered the relative effects on the power of the Executive and Parliament of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600. My party has always considered the need to reduce the number of MPs in the context of issues such as greater devolution and decentralisation, and the reform of your Lordships’ House. Not all my noble friends behind me will agree on some key aspects of Lords reform, but we all want to see an effective second Chamber able to hold a Government, of any party, to account. The failure to achieve—

Baroness Browning: I am concerned at this linkage between Lords reform and the measures that the noble Lord is now espousing. I took the effort over the weekend to read 22 Days in May, by our colleague David Laws, who was part of the negotiations. In the book, I found nothing in those negotiations that links Lords reform with boundary changes.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, the constitutional package that resulted from those 22 days—or however long it was—of deliberation clearly linked together many aspects of constitutional reform. If I may be allowed to develop my argument, I am suggesting that there is a clear link between the accountability of government to Parliament and the number of MPs. It is the view of my party that the failure to achieve any measure of reform at all here means that the hoped-for increased ability to hold the Executive to account will not happen. It may even decline as the Prime Minister prepares to make many more nominations to this House.

With the so-called payroll vote approaching half the membership of the government side of the House of Commons, the power of government to control Parliament is effectively increased. I believe that the opposite should be the case. This is, therefore, not the right time to reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Executive to account by reducing its membership. There are no signs that the size of the Government’s so-called payroll vote will be reduced and coalition government probably makes it less likely. Many in my party take the view that the reduction in the number of MPs proposed in the current boundary review should not take place without reform that would strengthen the legitimacy of this House.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 498

The media would make too much of two coalition parties going into two different Lobbies today. But in countries across Europe where coalition is much more the norm, this is not so unusual and people understand that different parties vote in different ways on some issues, while agreeing on packages of measures where they can find agreement on what they both consider to be in the national interest.

On the whole package of constitutional reform set out in the coalition agreement, it was not possible to deliver what was promised in that agreement and in the gracious Speech following the general election. So my noble friends to my left should not be surprised that we are where we are today. Noble Lords who have followed our many debates on electoral registration will know that my consistent aim—and that of my party—has been to improve the process of electoral registration so that we have a system fit for the purpose of conducting elections and reviewing boundaries as and when required. The question that now must be considered is what is the link between the boundary reviews and the process of electoral registration being considered in this Bill.

It seems to me that the issues of electoral registration and boundaries are inextricably linked. As my noble friend the former leader of the House, Lord Strathclyde, stated when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was debated,

“the boundary review will be based on the electoral register in force at the time of the review”.

He pointed out that all:

“Previous boundary reviews have used the electoral register”.

He also relied on the fact, which we now know to be incorrect, that,

“the registration rate in the UK is between 91 and 92 per cent”.—[

Official Report

, 26/1/11; col. 1040.]

If the Bill that we are currently considering is passed, we will soon have a very different electoral register—one that, according to the aims of all Ministers, should be both more accurate and more complete. It is right that we use the new registration system for the next review of boundaries.

In considering the scope of the Bill, I too have great respect for the advice that we receive in this House and I note that it is for the House itself to decide on the basis of conflicting advice. However, I also have long experience of electoral registration and administration issues. I need hardly point out that elections simply cannot be conducted without a process to determine constituency boundaries and that this amendment is about the timing of that process. It is an integral part of the process by which boundaries are revised and why the amendment is highly relevant.

I thought long and hard about the Clerk’s advice and alternative legal opinions. It seems to me that even if electoral registration and boundaries were not considered to be connected, this Bill could not be considered to have only one or two simple purposes— the basis of the view that the amendment may be out of scope. It is clear to many of us that the Bill is about more than one or two things, since it actually covers at least eight areas: first, individual registration; secondly, the timetable for elections; thirdly, polling stations and district reviews; fourthly, the performance of returning officers; fifthly, emblems to be used on ballot papers;

14 Jan 2013 : Column 499

sixthly, the right of police and community support officers to enter polling stations; seventhly, alterations to the postal vote regime; and eighthly—and relevantly—repeal of existing powers for a centralised, national electoral register.

This means that the Bill is open to this amendment and, with good reason, we on these Benches support it.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, as my noble friend the Leader of the House has reminded us, the Companion states in specific terms that it is expected, in the circumstances that have arisen, that the Clerk’s advice will be followed. He was absolutely right in the warnings that he gave about the possible unintended consequences of the actions now being taken. That seems to be one powerful reason for rejecting this amendment. It is not a sensible way to change the conventions and practice of the House.

I want to concentrate on a second reason for opposing the amendment, although I will say this about the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Hart, about the information being incomplete and the register being inaccurate: of course, it is freely acknowledged that under the present arrangements the information is substantially out of date and often very substantially incomplete.

Last Wednesday in the Constitution Committee, I questioned the Deputy Prime Minister on the subject that we are now debating: the implementation of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. I do not refer to this exchange with any great expectation that I can persuade my Liberal Democrat friends to abandon their stated intention to support the amendment but because I think that noble Lords in other parts of the House should be clear as to why they are being asked to act in the same way.

Both in our committee last Wednesday and in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place on 13 December, the Deputy Prime Minister made it quite clear that his decision had absolutely nothing to do with merit and was entirely due to a political judgment that the implementation of this measure must be postponed to keep,

“the overall balance of the packages of the things that we included in the Coalition Agreement”.

He rejected my opinion that the balance argument did not hold up and that a desirable Bill should not be dropped simply because the public had given “a big thumbs down” to the measures or because he had not persuaded the House of Commons that the House of Lords Reform Bill was a good Bill. He equally firmly rejected what I described as my “old-fashioned” point of view that you should support or reject a measure because of its merits or lack of them.

The Deputy Prime Minister could not have been clearer about the merits of the Act. At Second Reading in the other place, he had identified,

“three problems with the current electoral map. Constituencies vary too much in size, they are based on information that is out of date, and there are too many of them”.

He provided specific examples of these grave discrepancies, saying:

“On the broken scales of our democracy, 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/12; col. 36.]

14 Jan 2013 : Column 500

Later, referring to the number of Members of Parliament that we ought to have, he said, “600 is about right”.

In both committees, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was strongly in favour of the Act and hoped that it would be implemented, but that he wanted its implementation delayed for a full electoral cycle. He wanted that to happen for one reason only: because Conservative Members of the Commons had by their votes blocked his House of Lords Reform Bill. He repeatedly asserted that they had done so despite being elected on a manifesto commitment to reform the House of Lords. My noble friend Lord Lang of Monkton pointed out that the Government voted in support of the House of Lords Reform Bill and tried to ensure Back-Bench support and that the manifesto commitment was to seek a consensus, which is totally different.

In my view, we are not dealing with two measures that can be put neatly on each side of the balance scales, but with a whole string of measures covered by the coalition agreement, some of which, to use the Deputy Prime Minister’s own words, the public had given “a big thumbs down” to.

4.45 pm

I think I was right when I said to him,

“you are saying that the next general election should not be fought on a fair basis. You have described why the present basis is not fair and yet you are arguing that we put it off into the next Parliament and that it is entirely reasonable that we should fight the next election on a basis that you have described, in eloquent terms, as being unfair and as producing more Members of Parliament than we need and unbalanced constituencies, some small and some large. That seems to me a most extraordinary position to attempt to argue”.

I repeat my final comment to him, which seems to sum up the issue before us this afternoon:

“You referred to the broken scales of democracy … What you are actually saying is, ‘We will not go ahead on the merits of this proposal; my party is insisting that the next election is to proceed on the basis of the broken scales of democracy’”.

This House should not allow that to happen.

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard: My Lords, I was sorry not to be in the House on Tuesday when tributes were paid to the departing Leader. What was said was very well said, I wish I had been there to say something too.

When my name appeared on this amendment, I was summoned by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to explain myself. There was a little bit of the headmaster’s study about it, but it was done with his customary style and charm. I will explain to the House why my name is on this amendment in exactly the terms that I explained it to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. It is for reasons that are to do with Scotland. I believe that the largest threat at the moment to the constitutional settlement in these islands is the secession referendum in Scotland next year. The First Minister of Scotland is an extremely skilful politician, and one needs to be very careful of being complacent about where the public opinion polls are. The Scots, who are extremely good at grievances, have in the boundary changes and the changes to the number of constituencies, a very real grievance. Unusually for the Scots, the grievance is real. The reduction in the number of constituencies in England will be 6%, in Scotland it will be 12%.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 501

When we were debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, I argued several times that we should take due account when we were considering the size of constituencies and the size of the franchise—the 5% either way—we should take account of peripherality and sparsity, the distance from London, the difficulty of the MP’s job, and the difficulty of getting round the constituency if it was an enormous one. I remind noble Lords that the coastline of Argyll is longer than the coastline of France. If we look at the results, we see that leaving aside the four island constituencies, the two Scottish island constituencies, and the two on the Isle of Wight, the average Scottish constituency fetches up considerably larger than the average English constituency. This seems to be a perverse reading of the principles of peripherality and sparsity.

I do not wish to see this proceeded with in advance of the secession referendum in Scotland. It would be perpetually argued in the campaign that the numbers show Westminster less and less willing to listen to Scottish concerns and that defending Scottish interests requires secession, something I profoundly disagree with.

I remind noble Lords that the suggested reduction to 52 seats in Scotland is on top of the reduction from 72 11 years ago. The number went down in 2005 to 59, now it is to go down again to 52. The reason it went down in 2005 is to do with devolution. Once we have dealt with the secession threat, once we have secured the right result on the referendum, we need to come to the West Lothian question, but I do not believe that any of us in this House believe that the right answer to the West Lothian question is to make it more and more difficult for Scottish Members of the United Kingdom Parliament to do their job. I think that most of us believe that the right answer is to have Scottish MPs not voting in the Westminster Parliament on matters where they would be voting only on English, Irish or Welsh law. If we succeed, I think that we will have a chance to come back to the question. That is the moment when we should consider how many Westminster seats there should be for Scotland.

Urged by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and because I have great respect for the clerks, I have considered very carefully the question of relevance. I admit that I have considerable difficulty with a definition of “relevance” which is so narrow and so far removed from what the outside world would understand. The subject matters of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act and this Electoral Registration and Administration Bill are inextricably intertwined. The argument was explained most clearly in our earlier discussion in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan. The intertwining is particularly close during the present transitional phase as regards registration. Every constituency in the land is changed by the PVSC and it seems quixotic to use data which are so out of date and will be so radically altered by the new registration arrangements. The matters clearly are closely connected. We see from the quotation from Erskine May circulated with the Leader’s letter that amendments relating to the purposes of the Bill, if it has only one or two purposes,

“or touching on matters closely connected with them”,

14 Jan 2013 : Column 502

can be considered as relevant. I cannot conceive of anything more closely connected than the issues that we are talking about now.

Were we in the House of Commons, and were we being guided by Erskine May, there would be no question but that this was an admissible amendment to the Bill. After deep thought, I am encouraged to stick to my guns by the advice that we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, when she told us of her experience in handling such tricky matters in the other place. I was heartened by what she said. She urged us to rise to our responsibilities. It is for us to decide; we cannot delegate that task to the clerks to decide for us. It is for us to make up our minds, and it is in that spirit that I maintain my support for the amendment and hope that the Committee will vote for it.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I was intrigued as to why the noble Lord had put his name to this amendment. I was particularly intrigued, because of his background as a very senior civil servant whom we all held in very high regard, as to why he would go against the principle, which has been upheld in this House, that we accept the advice of the clerks. The noble Lord is arguing is that, where the players on the field do not like the result, they should have a vote on whether they agree with the referee. The noble Lord prayed in aid the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, for whom I have even more regard—indeed, I voted for her as Speaker in the House of Commons—but the position in the other place is completely different. They have a Speaker, and I say to the noble Lord that, if we go down this road, we may very well end up with such a situation in this House, which would be a very bad thing indeed.

However, it never occurred to me for a moment that the noble Lord would bring Scotland into the argument. He takes as his title, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. Kinlochard is at the bottom of the loch by which I live; I look at Kinlochard. I have to tell the noble Lord that the people in Kinlochard are not beset with the question of how many Members of Parliament represent them. In fact, their view of Members of Parliament is probably best not repeated in this House. To argue that the nationalists will use the legislation to exploit opposition to the United Kingdom is utterly ridiculous. Alex Salmond wants there to be no Members in the House of Commons from Scotland and to argue that he is going to be concerned by a reduction in the number of Members is ridiculous. To be fair to the SNP, it has always accepted that in return for more powers—which they call devo-max—there should be a reduction in the number of MPs. This is a wholly spurious argument. If the noble Lord had said that he was supporting this amendment because he thought it would help the Labour Party to win the next election, I could have understood the argument, but I have to say that his argument cuts no ice with me at all.

What is the origin of this? How have we got into this mess? Why are we faced with this problem? The answer is that the Deputy Prime Minister is cross. He is cross that, despite repeated warnings, his Bill—which was not properly thought through—crashed on landing in the other place. He said something quite extraordinary

14 Jan 2013 : Column 503

the other day. Before he had even heard the Prime Minister’s speech which is to be made in Europe, he said that he was going to go to Europe in order to translate the Prime Minister’s speech on Europe from double-Dutch to Dutch. What we are seeing today is that the Deputy Prime Minister is capable of going from cross to double-cross, because that is what this is. It is a double-cross.

Noble Lords: Shame! Withdraw!

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I certainly will not withdraw. There was a clear commitment which had nothing whatever to do with House of Lords reform. I have sat in this Chamber and have gone along with things that I did not like at all, such as the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, the boundaries Bill, the coalition agreement and the deal on AV. All these things we went along with on the basis that there was a bargain which was in the interest of the nation. At no stage, as my noble friend Lady Browning pointed out, was the issue of House of Lords reform in any way attached to the question that we are considering today. The Prime Minister is being cheated by his Liberal colleagues.

I want to oppose this amendment because, to me, it breaches three important constitutional principles. The first is collective responsibility. We have Ministers in this Government who are Conservatives and Liberal. When I was in the Government, I understood that if you were a member of the Government and you did not agree with their policy, you resigned from the Government. You do not take the Queen’s shilling and then go through the lobbies and vote against the Prime Minister. That is what is going to happen tonight and it is an absolute disgrace.

The second principle is the one which I have talked about—maintaining the self-regulation of the House of Lords. The third is the integrity of the Boundary Commission decisions. I have told this House before that when I was Secretary of State for Scotland I had to sign a Boundary Commission report which destroyed my constituency as a Conservative opportunity in 1997. There were other factors in 1997 which may have added to my defeat. I freely acknowledge that, but it never occurred to me for a millisecond not to sign off that Boundary Commission report, because it is an absolute principle that people should not play politics with parliamentary constituencies and boundary matters.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I know that noble Lords opposite are thinking back to Mr James Callaghan and all that, but that was a long time ago. In those days, there was a very big row about it as I recall. Of course, it could be argued that a deal was done by the coalition whereby they got their AV referendum, and I may say the Prime Minister risked the future of the Conservative Party as a party of government by agreeing to that. The Liberals believed that they could win it and the voters gave their answer; yet here today we have the Liberals still trying to gerrymander our constitution. That is what is going on here because they voted for the legislation which has been approved by Parliament that gave an instruction to the Boundary

14 Jan 2013 : Column 504

Commission. The right thing to do now is for both Houses to approve the Boundary Commission proposals. That has been the precedent and this is an attempt to gerrymander our constitution for political reasons because it has occurred to the Liberals that they might very well evaporate at the next general election. All they have to hang on to is the thought that they might be able to hang on with the benefit of incumbency. Of course, if we had fair constituencies, many of their people would not have that incumbency and they would lose their seats. So they are putting their own party interests before the democratic interest, dressing that up as some kind of defence of democracy and linking it with House of Lords reform.

5 pm

On the subject of House of Lords reform, down the Corridor, PPSs in this Government were sacked because they voted against a Bill which was not thought out and was simply ridiculous. Those PPSs were sacked and told that their careers were over. I understand that tonight we are to see Liberal Ministers going through the Lobby voting against the Government. Are they to be sacked? I think not. I have a proposition. There must be among some of them a faint sense of conscience. If tonight they vote with the Government of whom they are members, they may make themselves a footnote in history, because they will be the first Ministers to be sacked for supporting the Government of whom they are members. They may even find themselves the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question in future.

Lord Wigley: My Lords, as one of the four Members whose name is attached to the amendment, I am aware of the feelings that some have harboured about the appropriateness of tabling such an amendment and, in particular, of pressing it when, in the opinion of the clerks, it might be out of order. I am therefore glad to have the opportunity to outline why it was and remains my feeling that the amendment is essential.

Two distinct issues are at stake. The first is whether the amendment is in order. If it is, the second is whether it should be passed. If a majority of Members of this House were to have indicated that they did not believe that the amendment was in order, I would of course have accepted that willingly. Unfortunately, we are required to debate both issues together, which, frankly, is rather unsatisfactory.

If passing the Bill made it impossible for the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 to be workable as intended when it was enacted, it would surely not only be in order but a duty on us to table consequential amendments to the Act either to make it workable or for parts of it to be repealed. It would be most unfortunate if our perceived Standing Orders prevented us from addressing such an eventuality.

We surely cannot detach the content of the Bill from its consequences. If the implications of passing the Bill were to make the constituencies Act incapable of fulfilling its original objectives, we should flag up those dangers to give the other place an opportunity to overcome the difficulty. If that is the case, it must be in order for us to suggest ways in which those difficulties can be resolved.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 505

Therefore, central to the question of whether the amendment is in order is the basic issue of the effect of the Bill, if passed in its present form, on that legislation. I contend that individual registration would have far-reaching implications for the application of the constituencies Act in practice and, in the extreme, could materially undermine its purpose.

When he introduced the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill for its Second Reading on 6 September 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Nick Clegg, stated categorically:

“New rules will demand that every constituency is within 5% of either side of a single size”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 37.]

He described that as a “strict requirement”. That strict requirement is reflected in the Act as finally passed. Schedule 2 states categorically:

“The electorate of any constituency shall be … no less than 95% of the United Kingdom electoral quota”.

Mr Clegg acknowledged in that Second Reading debate that our existing registers are woefully inaccurate and that the inaccuracies are not geographically evenly spread. He cited inner cities and coastal areas as having particular problems. He put that forward as a reason for,

“accelerating the shift to a system of individual, rather than household, registration”.—[

Official Report

, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 40.]

The extent of the inaccuracy has been estimated as representing 6.5 million eligible voters not on the current registers. The Electoral Commission itself accepted a year ago that as many as 6 million people could be excluded. The level of registration of students is particularly bad. In the Commons debate at Second Reading of this Bill, the register in one ward in Aberystwyth—both a seaside and a university town—was cited as having only 56% accuracy.

The Government’s remedy for that is that the last canvass under the existing system will be up to the spring of 2014 and that thereafter there will be a transition to the new, individual registration system. The register on which the 2015 election will be fought will therefore be a hybrid. It will consist in part of people who have been registered under the old system, which Mark Harper MP, the Minister introducing the Second Reading of this Bill, described as a “carryforward” provision. He anticipated they would make up two-thirds of the new register and that people who had been registered individually one-third.

It is my contention that a register composed in that way will inevitably contain distortions. Some socioeconomic groups within society will respond more positively than others to the invitation to register individually. It would hardly be surprising if illiterate or less educated people were slower in responding to the new system. Older people might well respond on their own behalf but younger members of their household—who previously had been entered by the head of the household—might not respond, particularly if they are away at university. There is every likelihood that introducing individual registration for one-third of the register will have a differential effect in geographic, age and socioeconomic terms.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 506

When individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, it initially led to a reduction of 11% in the registration levels; this was subsequently retrieved and higher levels were achieved, but that took time. This could not conceivably be accomplished before the election in 2015, a matter of months after the new system has been introduced for one-third of the register. It allows totally inadequate time for registration officers to undertake the checks, including matching every elector on the register against the DWP’s customer information database. The additional costs of introducing this change will amount to £108 million, reflecting the complexity of the transition. It is my contention that an accurate and comprehensive transition just cannot be achieved by 2015.

In order to underline the complexity of the process proposed by the Government for 2014-15, I draw to the attention of the House the words of the Minister, Mark Harper MP, at Second Reading of this Bill on 23 May last year. He said:

“At the end of the canvass, the EROs will send personally addressed individual electoral registration application forms to individuals who appeared on the electoral register produced at the end of the old-style canvass, who have not been verified individually and whom electoral registration officers do not believe to have moved … That will be a robust process”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/5/12; col. 1181.]

For “robust process” I would suggest the words, “Herculean task”.

The effect of all this will inevitably be that the registers on which the 2015 election would be fought would be substantially different from those on which the Boundary Commission undertook its equalisation process. It is totally inconceivable in practice that every constituency will be within 5% of the UK quota. On the proposed new basis there are no fewer than 63 constituencies in Britain which, as things stand, are between 4% and 5% below the UK quota. A proportion of these will inevitably pass the 5% lower tolerance figure, and such constituencies will be in default of the provisions of Schedule 2 to the 2010 Act. The effect of the electoral registration Bill, as it now stands, will be to frustrate the purpose of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.

The British Academy forum discussed these changes and, in an article last year arising from that forum, Professor Ron Johnston and Professor Iain McLean commented:

“The introduction of IER is likely to have a considerable impact on how representative constituencies are, and therefore on the fairness of the British electoral system ... The potential impact of IER is greater than it might otherwise have been because of new rules for the definition of constituency boundaries laid down in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011”.

They go on to warn of,

“an under-representation of urban areas in the new electoral map”,

and that,

“changes arising from the interaction of the new rules for defining constituencies with the introduction of IER will contribute to a considerable alteration in the nature of British representative democracy”.

That is why we should think carefully about the changes that this Bill will introduce and why we should ensure, to the extent we can, that in rushing the combination

14 Jan 2013 : Column 507

of changes we do not trigger a third act—the act of unintended consequences. Incidentally, there will also be consequences for the devolved elections in Wales in 2016, and no doubt in Scotland, if it is still part of the union.

The logic of the situation as proposed in the amendment is that the elections on the new equalised constituencies should not be introduced until after the Boundary Commission’s submissions, due on 1 October 2018. That would allow for the purpose of the Bill—for individual registration to be introduced in a coherent, timely fashion. It would allow registration officers to do their work without the frenetic pressure that the current proposals imply, and would produce a comprehensive register on a unified basis, not the hybrid register now being proposed.

The House of Commons needs to think again on this most fundamental matter, central to the working of democracy. Passing this amendment would give it an opportunity to revise the proposals in a coherent manner, and I urge noble Lords to support the amendment in the Lobby.

Lord Dobbs: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has said, this matter involves many different aspects, some of high principle, some of good practice and some of base politics. It should be about fair voting, of course. “One voter, one equal vote” is a formula so simple and so powerful that it has underpinned every democratic system that has ever been. That is why I believe in it, and others do too; many people have welcomed that concept.

Somewhere along the line, though, something seems to have changed, and a fundamental principle has somehow been sacrificed during the summer rains. Our Liberal Democrat friends have been wholeheartedly in favour of fair voting. I excuse noble Lords on the Labour Benches of that, of course; there was a time when their forefathers and foremothers stood shoulder to shoulder at Peterloo and marched with the Chartists through the streets of our cities—but then, as Mr Blair kept insisting, the Labour Party is not what it used to be. I wonder whether noble Lords can remember what the Chartists’ demands were. They were universal suffrage—

Noble Lords: Annual suffrage.

Lord Dobbs: Yes, annual suffrage, a secret ballot and, goodness me, equal constituencies. I would have been proud to have been a Chartist, as I am proud to be a Conservative. I know that this party seems a little fuddy-duddy at times, but this was after all the first and only party to elect a Jew as Prime Minister and the first and only party to elect a woman as Prime Minister, and I very much hope that we will be the first party to elect a black or an Asian as Prime Minister.

As was said earlier in the debate, the principle lies behind so much of what we promised and what has been done. Today it is not about the Conservative Party or the Labour Party—essentially, this debate is testing the principles of the Liberal Democrats. Last week at Question Time, my noble friend Lord McNally stood at that Dispatch Box and rounded on the noble Lord, Lord Bach.

14 Jan 2013 : Column 508

A noble Lord: Where is he?

Lord Dobbs: That is a very interesting question.

Noble Lords will remember that it was to do with the legal aid order, and I am sure that they will remember his words. He said that although the noble Lord, Lord Bach, kept alleging that a commitment had been made, “It was not made”. That is a direct quote. I found that pretty stirring stuff. It certainly stirred me; I went in search of the evidence to back up the claim that constituency boundaries are linked to Lords reform. We have heard so much about that and, after all, that is the reason why we are here today. I went first, and naively, to the words of the Deputy Prime Minister. I am sorry; is my noble friend trying to intervene?

Baroness Browning: Yes. A section of David Laws’s book is relevant to what my noble friend has just said. In the negotiations that he attended, he reports,

“‘So what I am suggesting is this,’ said Danny”—

that is, Danny Alexander, who is now a Minister.

“‘We will support your proposals on redrawing the constituency boundaries to make voting fairer. But in return, we want your support for a referendum on a reformed first-past-the-post system’”.

It is very clear what the deal was.

5.15 pm

Lord Dobbs: I am grateful to my noble friend for that intervention. There are so many quotes that one could bring to bear. Let me offer the House another one:

“votes should have an equal value, an equal weight, whether you are in the farthest reaches of rural Cornwall or in the inner cities, and whether you are in England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland”.—[

Official Report

, 15/11/2010; col. 592.]

I hope the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, does not mind me quoting his words; they are very fine words and I agree with him entirely.

There is another one; I wonder whether noble Lords can guess who said this:

“It is barmy to have general elections on the basis of boundary reviews that, by the time they come to be tested, are nine years out of date”.—[Official Report, 16/11/2010; col. 764.]

I suspect that the earthiness of that approach gives the game away. I am sad that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is not in his place to stand up and take a bow for it.

Let me go to the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, because he has talked endlessly on the matter, talking about the package of coalition reforms and the crucial linkage between Lords reform and boundaries. Speaking about the coalition’s commitment to Lords reform, he said it was,

“a commitment to deliver legislation, and indeed elections, come 2015”.—[

Official Report

, Commons, 3/9/2012; col. 38.]

It may seem petty of me, but if you go back to the coalition agreement and bother to read what it says on the tin, you will find that no such commitment ever existed. The agreement talked about many things—about setting up a committee and bringing forward proposals—but unlike many other parts of the coalition agreement, there was absolutely no commitment to legislation. There was no mention of whipping the vote and not a whisper of a date like 2015. I have the coalition agreement here. It is very clear about what it says and what it does not say—unless any of my noble friends

14 Jan 2013 : Column 509

on the Liberal Democrat Benches want to draw my attention to any other part of the coalition agreement which says otherwise. No, I did not think so.

However, the agreement does talk about legislation, and I am going to be petty and quote the wretched thing again. It talks about legislation—wait for it—

“for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies”.

It is illuminating stuff—this little booklet—when you read it. There was the linkage, a very direct linkage, but not with Lords reform. The linkage was with the referendum Bill. It was in the same sentence; there was not even a full stop between those commitments, which is why I and my colleagues held our noses and eventually helped pass that referendum Bill. I personally crawled through that Lobby to support it. So where now is the other side of the deal?

Nevertheless, the Deputy Prime Minister keeps going on, and on, and on, about some linkage with Lords reform. Where did that linkage come from? In my search for enlightenment, I decided to put down a Written Question, in which I asked the Government,

“whether they envisage a direct link between proposals for reform of the House of Lords and proposals for the revision of constituency boundaries”.

I thought that was sure to clarify things, particularly as the Answer came from my noble friend Lord McNally. His signature was on it. I always enjoy getting notes from my noble friend Lord McNally; they are unfailingly kind and helpful, and this was no exception. This is what it said:

“These are different elements of the Government’s constitutional and political reform agenda and there is no formal link between them”.—[Official Report, 21/3/2012; cols. WA 167-68]

I may be too dull to understand what that means because it seems to me that the Answer is that there is no formal link. If my noble friend were here, I would thank him for his characteristic honesty. So I think we have reached the truth of this matter: there is no linkage and there never was. It is a distraction, an excuse, an alibi and an invention. The truth is that this is solely, sadly and cynically because the Deputy Prime Minister did not get his way on Lords reform. Now he wants to exact a little retribution. It is nothing less than a great political sulk.

Those on the Benches beside me are my noble friends. Of course they are; many of them are dear personal friends. They are men and women of principle, but right now you would need the telescope at Jodrell Bank to discover where those principles are hiding. I do not blame them. This one came from the top, but the Deputy Prime Minister has form. He tried to fix the voting system to his own advantage with the referendum, and he failed. He tried to fix the House of Lords, and he failed at that, too. Now, once again in pursuit of his own advantage, he is trying to fix the next election. I have to say that if he were a plumber, I would never let him anywhere near my bathroom.

The issue before us underpins all our freedoms: one voter, one vote, one equal vote. It does not get simpler than that. That is all we are asking for. The Liberal Democrats were asking for that too until ambition and their leader’s manipulation got in the way. A lot can be said about his manoeuvre. Perhaps we might use the language that he used about this House, the House

14 Jan 2013 : Column 510

of Lords. It was so unnecessary. We could say that his manipulation is cynical, illegitimate, disgraceful and, to use his own words, “an affront to democracy”.

This should not be about partisan advantage: we should be concerned about creating a level playing field for the voters. That is what fair votes are all about. That is what I hoped Liberal Democrats believed in. We fight for what we believe in with a passion but when in politics we come to fight for what we do not believe in, we hold ourselves hostage. This is not the coalition’s finest hour. I hope that it gets better than this.

I should warn my noble friends that when they go into the Lobby this afternoon, into what will become that hall of shame, they had better not do so with their heads held high. There is a better chance that they will be recognised as Liberal Democrats. That fact will be taken down, and at the next election it will be used as evidence against them in every constituency in this country.

Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, as I have been mentioned in earlier exchanges, perhaps I might have a word, which will be very brief because I commented at length on this matter in mid-November. Not wishing to be tedious or repetitious, I shall make only a couple of points. If there was any success in the Speakership of the Commons during my period of office, much of it was due to the advice and support that I received from the clerks. I have to admit that there were a couple of occasions when I overruled that advice, one of which was against convention. But I did so because I thought that it was right to provide an opportunity for debate on a contentious issue which was of public interest and of concern. The roof did not fall in.

We have no such arbitrator with authority to make a decision in your Lordships’ House but we are often reminded that we are a self-regulating House. While, of course, we must examine the advice of the Public Bill Office and the clerk, there can be no authority that can in advance rule an amendment out of order. The bottom line is that the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment ultimately can be determined only by the House itself. When I spoke last year, I suggested that the Government allow this House to determine the issue for itself and I am delighted that we have the opportunity of so doing today.

Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I will be brief but I want to make one point on admissibility before turning to my main points concerning the substance of this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hill, who we are delighted to see in his place, made a moving appeal to my noble friend Lord Hart to withdraw his amendment. All of us will have felt the force of that even if we cannot go with him.