|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Norton of Louth : I rise to speak to Amendment No. 42A. I am also responsible for Amendment No. 44. My amendment is designed to address two problems with the existing wording of subsection (1) of this clause. Both concern the scope of the subsection. The problems are addressed in other amendments grouped with this one. However, my amendment seeks to encompass them in what is, in effect, a redrafting of the subsection. It also has the effect of rendering unnecessary subsection (2).
The first problem concerns the use of the word "pending" in paragraph (a). My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish is concerned that this could lead to ambiguity and would allow the commission to promote the case for electoral systems that have not yet been introduced, and may never come into force. I appreciate that subsection (2) seeks to clarify the term. However, it does not necessarily resolve the ambiguity. As I read subsection (2), Parliament could approve a new electoral system for use in a future election and authorise the Secretary of State to give effect to it by order. The system would not be in force and may never be in force, but once the measure was enacted it would be pending.
I can see the case for the electoral commission having the responsibility for giving advice on how a new system works once it has been approved by Parliament. My amendment makes it clear that that responsibility will only apply once a new system has been approved and will be used at the next national or local election. The amendment thus imposes a clear
The second problem addressed by the amendment is the scope of paragraphs (b) and (c). My noble friends Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord Astor seek to delete paragraph (c). As we have heard, they believe that it is not the job of the electoral commission to promote public awareness of the institutions of the European Union. I agree. However, I believe that the same argument also applies to paragraph (b).
The electoral commission is a body set up to fulfil certain functions in respect of elections, referendums and the registration of political parties. The general functions are embodied in Clause 4. The areas of competence of the commission are clear. By "competence", I refer to its expertise. The commission is to be given the personnel and resources to carry out those general functions as embodied in Clause 4. The competence of the commission--I remind the Committee that it is called an "electoral commission"--does not extend to current systems of government in the United Kingdom, nor to institutions of the European Union.
Those who specialise in the politics and government of a particular country or a particular region are likely to know something about the electoral system or systems within that country. But those who specialise in electoral methods or other particular aspects of a political system are not necessarily experts on the political systems that employ those electoral methods. Promoting awareness of systems of government is not some incidental task that can be fulfilled by a body which specialises in elections and referendums. That is the key point. It is a major undertaking in its own right.
I realise that under subsection (4), to which my noble friend referred, the commission may make grants to other persons or bodies for the purpose of enabling them to carry out those functions. But that falls foul of two objections. The first is that the commission itself is not necessarily qualified in terms of its own knowledge to decide what persons or bodies are best qualified to carry out such tasks. The second is that it is not clear that the power itself falls within the scope of the Long Title.
I touched upon the problem of Clause 12 in relation to the Long Title at Second Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, did not respond in replying to the debate but, with his usual courtesy, he wrote to me afterwards. The noble Lord pointed out that the Long Title refers to an "Electoral Commission" and that Part I sets out the commission's general functions. He went on to say,
The general functions of the commission listed in Clause 4 relate clearly to the other matters embodied in the Long Title. The functions listed in Clause 12(1)(b) and (c) do not. Paragraph (a) can begin to fall within the Long Title in that it can be related to election campaigns. In his letter, the Minister confers on the commission a responsibility that is not embodied in the Bill. Under that clause the commission is required to promote public awareness of electoral systems and systems of government. That may or may not produce,
I appreciate, of course, that the Long Title can be changed. I do not want the title to be changed. I want this clause to be amended to ensure that the commission sticks to those matters on which it has expertise.
Lord Shore of Stepney: I am on the side of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, as opposed to that of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. I believe that Amendment No. 42A meets the situation which the Government have in mind. That situation is this: the Government produced such massive changes in the electoral systems in Scotland, Wales and Greater London that half the electorate did not understand what they were all about. Clearly, there was a need for some education in electoral systems, particularly those that had been newly introduced, but only after they had been placed on the statute book, not just generally floated about--I am sure my noble friends did not have that in mind. So I fully understand the need to explain the ever more complicated systems of election on which we are embarked.
I should perhaps declare that I am a member of the Neill committee and therefore I have some connection with the proposals in the report. I apologise to the Committee for not immediately revealing that highly significant fact. But that leads me on to my next point. Promoting political awareness in general is a rather dangerous task to give to an electoral commission and I do not believe we had that in mind either one way or the other. In fact it did not even occur to us when we were considering the functions of the electoral commission when we framed our report. However, whether or not the Government are right in giving the commission the task of promoting political awareness, the crucial question is: awareness of what?
Promoting awareness of election systems--that is, the technicalities of elections--does not seem to me a great offence. I would have no difficulty with that, although I am not a partisan of it. Where I strongly draw the line is in promoting awareness of,
I have an objection on a point of principle in relation to the Long Title of the Bill, mentioned in another context by my noble friend. I do not see how this paragraph can possibly be considered as part of the Long Title. The Long Title talks precisely about the electoral commission and every other part of it relates to electoral systems. The paragraph refers to,
But even if that were not so, it is not wise to encumber the new commission, which will have a large number of duties to perform, with another vague task in promoting public awareness. It has much else to do that is more important. This is just a little bit of frippery which we can well do without.
I feel strongly that the Bill would be far bettter without the entire clause. But if the Government cannot be persuaded to adopt that course, at least Amendment No. 47 would make it more relevant.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page