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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: As might be expected, I cannot support any of the amendments before us and I believe that Clause 12 should stand part of the Bill. It would be remiss of the Government not to take the opportunity of using the electoral commission to provide voter education, which is so greatly needed. A number of noble Lords have referred to the need for that.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said that he did not believe that that was what the commission was about. I first advocated the step to the electoral commission in 1991: I suggested that part of its brief should be voter education. Therefore, I am particularly pleased to know that if one waits, things finally happen. I believe that the Government's proposal is right and that we would be wrong not to take the opportunity to promote public awareness of elections and electoral systems.
As regards electoral systems, I understand "pending" to relate to those systems which have already been agreed by government and will be put into place. During debates on the Scotland, Wales and London Bills we heard many complaints from the Opposition that educating people about the various systems was not being addressed. We now have an opportunity to do so.
As regards what might happen if we change the electoral system for Westminster, perhaps I may correct the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, did not suggest an AV system but an AV-plus system. Irrespective of my personal views on the need for electoral reform, I hope that the commission will be 100 per cent impartial. It would be wrong for it to take a side on the kind of system which should or should not be available. It might disagree with what I want but I would not be happy about partiality. We have discussed the membership of the commission at length and I believe that as a result of its definition it is certain to be impartial in that respect.
The argument applies equally to Europe. It would not be right for the commission to become involved in political matters relating to Europe. The suggestion that it might become involved in the argument about the euro is a red herring. However, as we are in Europe it should, in a factual sense, explain to people the European institutions and the ways in which the British Government work with Europe. The noble Lord, Lord Shore, suggested that that would be difficult and that it could be done only if the commission told the truth. It can tell the truth if it is factual and unbiased. That is what citizenship education in schools is all about. It explains the way in which we are governed and the role of our politicians in an unbiased way. I would have thought that the same could apply in Europe.
We need to be told because people do not understand about the institutions of Europe. They do not know the difference between the Commission and the Parliament. They do not understand the role of the Human Rights Commission or Court. If we are asking people to vote in an election which will have consequences for those bodies, it is only right that we ensure they understand what they are voting for.
Finally, I turn to grants. We are giving the electoral commission many serious responsibilities and it could take on the responsibility of knowing to which organisations it should give grants. That would maintain its impartiality and ensure the impartiality of the organisations it is assisting. That is crucial in ensuring that people have a greater awareness. An opinion poll published last year or the year before identified how few people knew the meaning of "first past the post". They know what to do when they get into a polling station but they do not have a clue why they are doing it or what the outcome will be.
The Earl of Onslow: I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Is not this the most appalling denigration of the British people? They knew perfectly well what they were doing when they kicked the Tories out at the last election and I may even be right in saying that they were right. But to say that they go in, put a cross on the paper but do not have a clue what they are doing is de haut en bas like an 18th century duchess talking around a servant girl.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I want to say to the noble Earl only that I would never be a duchess. The important point is that the opinion poll clearly showed that people know what to do when they go into polling stations--they know where to put a cross--but they do not know the mechanics of why they are doing it because they do not understand. The evidence is not mine; the position has been made clear. If the noble Earl would care to look at Hansard--I cannot quote chapter and verse but I shall try to find it--he will see that the issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, during debates on the different electoral systems. I do not remember whether it was during debates on the Scotland, Wales or London Bill but during one of them he said that people do not even understand "first past the post". It is not what I am saying but in the general sense.
The Earl of Onslow: With great respect, the fact that my noble friend Lord Mackay said it adds no force to the argument at all. It is denigrating to pretend that the people do not understand how to vote for their lords and masters.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: That is not what I am saying. I am sorry that the noble Earl seems determined to misunderstand what I am saying. I repeat that in a general sense it is crucial that people understand the mechanics.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, raised that point. We are giving the commission an enormous amount of responsibility and we expect it to have a great deal of expertise on how political parties and elections are run. Therefore, I do not believe that it is beyond the bounds of possibility that it could explain the electoral systems to the electorate. I also believe that it should take over the job currently undertaken by the Home Office to inform the electorate how to register and to obtain postal votes. That would be a significant role for the commission and is part of voter education. I hope that that answers the point.
Lord Norton of Louth: Perhaps I may respond by saying that it does not. Those matters fall within the election process and are not at issue. No one has challenged the provisions of paragraph (a); paragraphs (b) and (c) raise the problem which takes us beyond the issue she has identified.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I am sorry, but I cannot believe that how one votes is nothing to do with the electoral process. Of course it is. I believe that it is a continuation of exactly that role. I hope that the Committee will reject all these amendments and will allow Clause 12 to stand part of the Bill.
Viscount Cranborne: Perhaps I may first address myself to the question of the Long Title. We are fortunate in the services provided so ably to us by the Clerks when we table amendments to legislation in your Lordships' House. They adjudicate as a matter of course on whether those amendments are within the Long Title of the Bill.
My memory of my time as a business manager for the previous government leads me to remember that officials within the government machine sometimes adjudicated on difficult questions of whether the original drafting of a Bill and particular clauses within it lie within its Long Title. I remember long, and sometimes vigorous, discussions on those points not only between Ministers and officials but between officials themselves.
There is considerable doubt whether Clause 12 comes within the Long Title of the Bill. As a non-lawyer reading the various phrases of the Long Title beginning with the words "to make provision about", there is perhaps even greater confusion here than has been so clearly identified by my noble friend Lord Norton; namely, whether subsections (1)(b) and (c) and (4) "make provision" or introduce something completely new into the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can assist the Committee when he comes to reply.
My collective memory, which is purely anecdotal and perhaps needs to be confirmed by the Minister when he comes to reply, is that very often when there was confusion within government about whether certain clauses came within the Long Title of a Bill Clerks of both Houses would be asked, sometimes informally, for their opinion. Did that happen when the Government gave no doubt detailed consideration to the question whether to include Clause 12? If so, although the Minister will not be able to say precisely what advice was given, can he tell the Committee why he believes that it comes within the Long Title? Since this is questioned by so many experienced former Ministers and people who occupied offices in another place, for example my noble friend Lady Fookes, should we not take expert advice on the matter?
This is a matter of considerable importance for a number of reasons, in particular the future reputation and standing of the commission. I see the noble Lord, Lord Neill, in his place. I hope that he is the first to recognise that if the commission is to be set up it is essential that it should be generally regarded with respect and its impartiality should be beyond question. Otherwise, its establishment will do very little good and it will be dragged into the political arena, particularly in areas of enormous political controversy. I refer not only to electoral systems but, thanks to Clause 12--if it is accepted in all its current glory--matters which are of enormous importance to the future of our country and excite political controversy, whether it is our continued membership of the European Union or the nature of our future association with the EU. If the commission's impartiality is put at risk by asking it to do things that go beyond its clear remit of adjudication, the Government will not do either themselves or the institutions of this country a favour by asking the Committee to approve Clause 12.
I have nothing to add to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Norton about subsection (1)(a). His amendment encapsulates something which I am happy to accept. I hope that the Government will also accept it. It is much clearer and simpler than Clause 12(2), which perhaps attempts to do the same kind of job.
It is important to illustrate why I believe the function of propaganda is so insidious and the Government have been seduced by it. I am about to say something which noble Lords on the other side of the Committee may regard as a little tendentious, but I do so all the same. The Government suffer from what I regard--perhaps not in an entirely complimentary fashion--as the "BBC syndrome". Some things are so blindingly obvious to metropolitan man and woman that the Government cannot conceive that some may fundamentally disagree with their views. Therefore, in the generosity of their hearts, and because of their natural pedagogical tendencies, they are only too delighted to educate us--that is an expression which they constantly use--as to the self-evident rightness of everything in which they believe. They maintain that stance even if it is patently obvious that the overwhelming majority of the people of this country do not agree with them. When the overwhelming
That is a mindset from which the Government unquestionably benefit; it gives them enormous self-confidence and certainty. It never occurs to them that they might just be wrong. In that they share the kind of prejudice which has brought the BBC into such disrepute. That is a clear warning as to why we should not drag the commission down the same road by agreeing Clause 12. It is a great shame that they have so needlessly complicated the electoral arrangements that people need to be educated as to how they work.
I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, for whom I have the greatest affection and respect, ever stood for election in another place; she probably did. My experience during the relatively short period--two Parliaments--in which I had the privilege to serve as Member of Parliament for the constituency of South Dorset (as it was then) was very different from that of the noble Baroness. My constituents were extraordinarily clear about how the system worked because, after all, it was relatively simple. They knew that if they gave me more votes than anybody else I would win; if not, I would lose. It was patently obvious that they did not need any education on that point.
Infinitely more complex and different systems have been introduced for the Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the citizens of London. That is a highly sophisticated body of people who no doubt understand it better than I do. Nevertheless, I can understand that they need to be educated. I regret that those systems have been introduced, but for the moment I must accept that they are in place. Therefore, since the Government have got themselves into a mess there is some sense at least in trying to explain to the electorate the complications of the system.
But if the Government want Clause 12 they would be extremely wise to drop paragraphs (b) and (c) of subsection (1) and, instead of subsection (2), adopt Amendment No. 42A in the name of my noble friend. They should drop subsection (4) and any idea that the body should be financiers of any other organisation that it might commission to carry out the education function, because if it made grants to one rather than another it would be making a judgment about that organisation and so would compromise its independence.
I hope that the Minister will take advice by consulting through his colleagues the Clerks of both Houses on whether the clause is within the Long Title; and if it is, explain to us why. I hope that he will also listen to the advice he has received about the contents of the clause. The majority of the clause is not only unnecessary but is positively prejudicial to the good standing of the commission before it is even launched.
Lord Neill of Bladen: I had not intended to speak this afternoon. I should like to make it clear that as the chairman of the committee which produced the report, it did not seem appropriate for me to comment on whether the Bill has the matter right or wrong. I do not want to play that part. But I understood the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, to be inviting me to speak about the role given to the electoral commission.
I should disclose one other interest. The noble Viscount referred to the constituents of South Dorset in flattering terms as being a group of people who realised that the candidate with the largest number of votes was likely to be elected to the House of Commons. I was one of his constituents.
I am expressing my own personal view about what Clause 12 purports to do. My opinion is that it is a wholly inappropriate role to give to the electoral commission as we conceived it. I cannot see how it could carry out the duties conscientiously under Clause 12 without being drawn into political controversy. How does one explain the electoral systems of this country in a wholly neutral way? If one thinks of a clause which says that people can be employed to run programmes, who does one invite to run such a programme? Obviously the natural place to go would be to the politics departments in universities. Let us imagine a professor of politics having to give a completely neutral lecture about the electoral system; any professor who accepts the burden of neutrality should not be in his job at all. He should have a clear view.
Could the electoral commission teach one how to achieve tactical voting? Could it do that and point out in which constituency that would be most likely to be successful? One has to think for only about two seconds about the role given to the commission to see that it is one which would get in the way of the other very serious obligations it has under other parts of the Bill. My opinion having been invited, I have expressed it. I regret that I shall not be able to stay because I have a commitment elsewhere. I hope that that has been of some assistance.
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