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Constitutional Law

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010

I beg to move,

That the draft National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 25 October, be approved.

This draft order amends the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007, which makes provision for the conduct of elections to the National Assembly for Wales—[Interruption.]

Order. May I gently interrupt the Minister? This matter is of very great interest to Members representing Welsh constituencies, so I appeal to the House to come to order. If Members do not wish to listen to the debate, they are of course welcome to continue their conversations elsewhere, but I am keen to attend upon every word of the Minister.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The order makes provision for the conduct of elections to the National Assembly for Wales and was made under powers in the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Government of Wales of Act 2006. The draft order makes a number of modest policy and technical changes to the 2007 order, which comprehensively reflected changes made to electoral law since the previous order in 2003, in particular by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The 2007 order runs to 273 pages, and I am sure that you will be relieved, Mr Speaker, to hear that I do not intend to speak in any great detail about its contents. I will, however, outline the main changes that would be made to it by the amending order before us.

Article 3 amends the definitions of “Assembly constituency”, “Assembly electoral region” and “elector” in the 2007 order to ensure that they are consistent with the Government of Wales Act 2006. The relevant provisions in that Act did not commence until after the 2007 order was made. The definition of “elector” also reflects changes to the Representation of the People Act 1983 made by the Electoral Administration Act, and this includes references to anonymous voters.

Article 4 amends the 2007 order in relation to registration appeals. Where decisions on appeals about entries in the register in respect of postal votes are determined before the election, these decisions will take effect and the register altered. The article also clarifies the relevant provisions under which an appeal can be made and a notice of alteration issued.

Article 5 makes an important change to the 2007 order. Currently, the election agent for a candidate in an Assembly regional election must have an office in that region. A number of political parties raised concerns about this requirement during the 2007 elections, because a party might wish to appoint only one election agent to represent all its regional candidates in an Assembly election. The previous provision, which required the election agent to have an office in the region, prevented it from doing so. Following a recommendation by the Electoral Commission, made after the 2007 Assembly election, this requirement is to be relaxed so that an agent’s office must be located within Wales, but not in every region of Wales.

Articles 6 and 7 make minor changes to the 2007 order to reflect changes made by the Legal Services Act 2007. Article 6 expands the definition of bodies capable of exercising regulatory functions over the legal profession. If a legal professional is found guilty of a corrupt practice during an election campaign, an election court must inform these bodies. Article 7 amends the relevant part of the 2007 order which requires the Director of Public Prosecutions to attend election courts, expanding the definition of whom the DPP may send as a representative. Articles 8 and 9 amend references in schedules 1 and 3 to the 2007 order respectively which we subsequently found to be incorrect.

Article 10 makes the most substantive change to the 2007 order by changing the design of the constituency and regional ballot papers. In October 2009, the Electoral Commission published its guidance on designing voter materials—it was called “Making Your Mark”—having consulted political parties, electoral administrators and disability awareness groups. This guidance highlights best practice when designing voter materials such as ballot papers to ensure that they are as accessible and intelligible as possible for voters. It is clearly in the interests of democracy that every eligible elector is able to participate in elections, and that the voting process is as clear and simple as it can be. In designing the new ballot papers, we have worked closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that we adhere to both the spirit and the letter of the guidance.

Apart from the design, the key change is the removal of the names of those on the party list from the regional ballot paper, as is also the case in Scotland. Hon. Members will know that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which is currently before the other place, provides for the referendum on the alternative vote system for electing Members to this House to be combined with the elections to the National Assembly on 5 May next year. The provisions within this draft order are not affected by the combination provisions.

The Government and the Welsh Assembly Government are committed to working together to ensure that the polls next May are a success. Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission and the chief counting officer for the alternative vote referendum, who will have the lead role in the combined polls, said earlier this month that the commission believed that

“enough progress has been allow the National Assembly elections and referendum on 5 May to run smoothly”.

In preparing the order, the Wales Office worked closely with electoral administrators, including the regional returning officer for Wales, the Electoral Commission, the Welsh Assembly Government and the four major political parties in Wales. The provisions of the order are modest but necessary for the efficient running of next year’s Assembly elections, and I commend it to the House.

It is a pleasure to follow the Minister. As he said, the order is largely uncontroversial. The principal amendments are to article 39 of the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007, which stipulates that the office for an election agent for a regional election should be within that region; articles 114 and 133, which relate to the Legal Services Act 2007; and schedule 10, which relates to the format of the ballot papers for the constituency and regional lists. We are content that the amendments in articles 6 and 7 of the draft order, which expand the description of bodies regulating the legal profession that must be considered by election courts and describe the duties of the Director of Public Prosecutions therein, are entirely reasonable and appropriate, and we will be supporting them. We are also satisfied that the changes to schedule 10 described in article 10 of the amending order, which relate to the nature of the ballot papers, are also rational and evidence-based changes, based on consultation with all parties and the Electoral Commission. We will be supporting those, too.

We welcome, too, the change proposed in article 5 of the draft order, which amends article 39(2)(b) of the 2007 order and which, in keeping with suggestions made by the parties, the National Assembly and the Electoral Commission, allows election agents for the regional elections to have their offices anywhere in Wales, not solely within that region. That, too, is a sensible and practical change that reflects the realities of how political parties organise themselves for elections, with both regional and constituency bases. In fact, the changes to the constitutional law described in the draft order are all reasonable and sensible amendments. They have all been drafted after respectful consultation with the devolved Administration and are free of party political taint. As such, they stand in sharp contrast to all the other constitutional legislation that we have been debating in this House in recent weeks.

My hon. Friend talks about consultation. Does he know whether any research has been undertaken on the propensity of voters to go for the top name on the list? If so, does he know whether any thought been given to the fact that, with party names rather than individuals’ names appearing on the list, there will perhaps always be a tendency for a certain party to be at the top?

I do not know whether there has been any research on that. I confess that I suspect that there has been none, and I doubt whether many of the provisions in either this order or, more importantly, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill have been adequately tested, as it has been rammed through with such unseemly haste.

As the Minister said, several of the reasonable amendments in the draft order are predicated on recommendations made by the Electoral Commission for Wales in its report on the conduct of the elections to the National Assembly in 2007—an election that was described in the commission’s document as having been

“alright on the night, but…by the skin of our teeth”.

The commission continued:

“The management of elections in Wales, with significant levels of postal voting, is a substantial exercise requiring strategic investment…project planning and risk management”.

There are lessons that we need to learn, and we need to ensure that the authorities in Wales—the Welsh Assembly Government and, I would suggest, Ministers—have learned those lessons.

My hon. Friend referred to how costly things could be. The funding given to local authorities for electoral registration officers is not ring-fenced, so what guarantee can he give—or, indeed, the Government of the day give—that this money will not only be ring-fenced, but be spent by local authorities on what it is supposed to be spent on?

I am afraid that I cannot give those guarantees, but I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to give us further reassurances about that; I shall cover that point further in a moment. We are deeply worried that, with the combination poll and all the complications that will attend on that, this election has the prospect of being a very difficult one. I fear that we have probably not tested the possibilities or made provision for all the complications that could ensue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister would be wise to listen to the professional election administrators in Wales, who have warned of the potential for huge voter confusion next year when we hold different types of elections on different franchises using different voting systems?

Absolutely. That is an extremely important point, very well made. We have a significant problem ahead of us next May, with the combined poll. It is going to be complicated, and I fear that due consideration has not been given to our concerns.

I would therefore like to ask the Minister what dialogue he or the Secretary of State have had with the First Minister and other Welsh Assembly Ministers to satisfy themselves that the necessary planning and resources are now in place. The omission of any measures to address these concerns in the order, or in any related legislation, suggests that the Minister is wholly confident that, once again, it will be all right on the night. That is despite the fact that, as many Labour Members have pointed out, this time around, thanks to the disrespectful placing of the complicating referendum on AV on the same day, along with the cuts to the Assembly budget and consequently to local government budgets in Wales, there will be far more to handle at this poll and far fewer resources with which to do that.

We remember the chaos in many polling stations earlier this year, with people being ignominiously turned away from the polls. We also remember the chaos in Scotland in 2007, when more than 100,000 ballots were spoiled. Thankfully, Wales was exempt from both those instances, but is the Minister certain that there is no possibility of this happening in 2011 in Wales? He will know that it is much easier to destroy trust in the democratic process than it is to build it up. These ballots must go through without a hint of the problems that we have seen elsewhere. I can only assume that, in his response, he will be able to give us an absolute assurance that he is confident that the ballots will go off without a hitch

Notwithstanding the fact that we will not oppose the order tonight as its passage was not assumed in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, as was the case with the associated orders for Scotland and Northern Ireland, is it not instructive that we are debating it after that Bill, which will fundamentally undermine the Welsh elections, has already been hustled through this House? Is this not also illustrative of the high-handed party political approach that this Government have taken to dealing with all constitutional issues in recent weeks, given that such things are usually treated with far greater respect and given far more even-handed deliberation?

I should like to comment on the point made by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Plaid Cymru normally comes at the end of the list, following the British National party, the Conservatives, the Greens and everyone else. But, as the good book says, the first shall be last—[Interruption.] Or is it that the last shall be first? I say that as a Williams.

I am glad to be discussing these issues on the Floor of the House, although I am surprised that we are discussing them here, given that the order is of a technical nature, and that the more historic agreement to hold a referendum on transferring part 4 powers was held in Committee. The most important change in the order is that the names of regional list candidates will no longer be on the ballot paper. That makes sense, because it will make it clear that the electors are voting for parties rather than for individuals. Of course, some people might say that electors should have the right to know for whom they are voting, but the list vote is essentially done on a party basis.

Previously, there have been only four possible seats on the list and no party so far has won more than three regional seats, but some parties have taken the liberty of adding rows and rows of names to the ballots. My own party has adopted the sensible provision that we have only four candidates on the list. However, there was one party in South Wales Central that had 11 names on the list. I am not sure whether the number of votes that it received equalled the number of candidates.

Another change, which I welcome, is that election agents for regional elections will no longer need to have offices in the regional constituencies, but will be able to be based anywhere in Wales. That makes sense. I would expect the central party to be responsible for the administration, and that is a very positive change.

The changes in the order are essentially technical. It has been consulted on with major stakeholders and agreed to, and I am sure that we will agree to it again tonight. I look forward to an orderly election.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) for what appeared to be a broad welcome for the order, although the welcome from the hon. Member for Pontypridd was somewhat well camouflaged. He asked whether a guarantee could be given that expenditure by local authorities would pass to electoral registration officers. The Welsh Assembly Government are responsible for that. In response to his request for an assurance that the process will run without a hitch, I remind him again that the professionals, namely the members of the Electoral Commission, have said that enough progress has been made to allow the elections and the referendum on 5 May to run smoothly. However, the Government will of course continue to work with the Welsh Assembly Government in the run-up to the elections to ensure that that happens.

The hon. Gentleman asked what consultation we had had with the First Minister and the Assembly. We have engaged in extensive consultation with both the Assembly and the First Minister, and the Presiding Officer of the Assembly has written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State stating:

“Constitutionally, I have no objection to the proposed UK AV referendum and the NAW general election coinciding. I am strongly in favour of voter convenience, and rationalisation of expenditure on polling arrangements.”

Question put and agreed to.