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National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2010

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 1 December 2010

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft order laid before the House on 25 October be approved.

Relevant document: 6th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, this draft order makes a number of modest policy and technical changes to the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007. The 2007 order makes provision for the conduct of elections to the National Assembly for Wales and was made under the powers in the Government of Wales Acts 1998 and 2006. It also comprehensively reflects changes made to electoral law since the previous order in 2003 and, in particular, by the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

While this draft order only numbers some 10 pages, the 2007 order runs to some 273 pages in total, so I do not intend to speak in any great detail about its contents. I do intend, however, to outline the main changes that will be made to it by the amending order before the House this evening.

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 the Government of Wales Act 2006 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, which were made by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. This includes references to anonymous voters.

Article 4 makes amendments relating 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 now 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, under which the election agent for a candidate who stands 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, as a political party might wish to appoint only one election agent to represent all the regional candidates for that party in an Assembly election. The previous provision, which required the election agent to have an office in the region, prevented them from doing so. Following a recommendation by the Electoral Commission, made after the 2007 Assembly election, this requirement is being relaxed so that an agent’s office must be located within Wales.

Articles 6 and 7 make minor changes to the 2007 order that reflect changes made by the Legal Services Act 2007. If a legal professional is found guilty of a corrupt practice during an election campaign, an election court must inform bodies capable of exercising regulatory functions over the legal profession. Article 6 expands the definition of these bodies. Article 7 amends the relevant part of the 2007 order which expands the definition of who the Director of Public Prosecutions may send as his representative to attend election courts.

Articles 8 and 9 amend references in Schedules 1 and 3 of the 2007 order respectively which we subsequently found to be incorrect. Article 10 makes perhaps 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, Making Your Mark. 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 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. Noble Lords will wish to know that this also occurs in Scotland.

Noble Lords will know that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill before this House provides for the referendum on the alternative vote system for electing Members to the other place 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, chair of the Electoral Commission and chief counting officer for the alternative vote referendum, who will have the lead role in the combined polls, said last month that the commission believed that,

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

In conclusion, in preparing this order, the Wales Office has 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. I commend the order to the House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing this order before us today. Although this is not a milestone on the devolution road which we travelled last week, it is nevertheless an important order, although largely technical in nature. As the Minister has said, it corrects drafting errors in previous legislation and its provisions update the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007, bringing the 2010 order in line with changes to electoral law effected under either the Government of Wales Act 2006 or the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

Article 3 updates the definitions in the 2007 order to ensure that they are consistent with those in the Government of Wales Act 2006. It also updates the definition of elector as set out in the current definition in the Representation of the People Act 1983. We agree with this tidying-up amendment. We welcome the change proposed in Article 5 of the 2010 order that amends Article 39(2)(b), which stipulates that the office of an election agent for a regional election should be within that region. This amendment is in keeping with suggestions made by the Electoral Commission to allow election agents for the regional elections to have their office anywhere in Wales and not solely within the region. This practical amendment makes sense: in most cases the campaign for the regional list candidates would be run centrally, usually from the political party's headquarters in Wales.

We are content that the amendments in Articles 6 and 7 reflect changes made by the Legal Services Act 2007, which expands the description of bodies regulating the legal profession that must be considered by election courts and describes the duty of the Director of Public Prosecutions. These are reasonable and appropriate amendments and we would support them.

We are content with the changes to Schedule 10 described at Article 10 of the amended order relating to the format of the ballot papers for the Assembly constituency elections and for the regional elections. The changes improve the ballot paper, making them easier to understand, and correct omissions on one of the forms and one of the poll cards used in the elections. They are rational and evidence-based.

I believe that this format for the ballot papers is much easier and clearer for the voters. In the case of regional list ballot papers, electors are asked to vote for a political party rather than for a named political party candidate, unless of course the candidate is an independent. Will the Minister confirm that a full list of candidates will be on display at the polling station?

We agree with the order before us. They are sensible and practical amendments to the elections laws for the Welsh Assembly elections on 5 May next year. Agreeing to them tonight means that they will be in place in time for those elections. I am pleased to say that we support these amendments.

My Lords, there are two good reasons why one should welcome this order. The first is that the House is not experiencing any problem as far as seating is concerned. The second is that, for once in the history of Wales, we have a development that seems to be applauded generally and totally by everyone. That is almost unique in a land of such fissiparous divisions as my own land and nation of Wales. The Electoral Commission and all those bodies responsible for these amendments are to be commended on the way in which they have conducted themselves. They have consulted fully and have managed to achieve a rapport among all bodies. All that is involved in the order are amendments that are consequential on legislation that this House and the other place have passed over the past four years.

Having said that, perhaps I may, with the indulgence of the House, take one minute to mention other matters. No one can speak of elections in Wales without being aware of the vulturous presence of legislation that will in a few months affect Wales greatly. I refer specifically to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which will deprive Wales of one-quarter of its constituencies. That is an immense proportion. Reducing the number of constituencies of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by 50 will mean a reduction of one-thirteenth. If my mathematics is anywhere near right, that is about 7.8 per cent of the totality. In Wales, it will be 25 per cent.

Many people may say, “Well, come off it, you have managed to have this advantage for many decades. Has not the time come when you should surrender this advantage?”. That exact point was put to the right honourable Kenneth Clarke as Home Secretary when he was conducting the parliamentary commissions Bill through the House of Commons in 1992. He said, “I am not having it. Wales is a land, a nation. There is a constitutional arrangement here, which I respect and am determined to uphold”. Wales is no less a land, a nation, now than it was in 1992.

If the House wishes to have a sleepless and nightmarish experience over the next few hours, one need only contemplate the possibilities of what will happen not in May 2011 but in May 2015—assuming that Parliament will by then have passed an Act making the life of Parliament a solid five years, no more and no less. It will mean that the elections to the Welsh Assembly will coincide exactly with the elections to Westminster, and people will be in constituency A of the House of Commons but constituency B of the Welsh Assembly. It is, as I say, a wholly terrifying and nightmarish consideration. But that is not strictly relevant to this issue.

My Lords, I appreciate the words of both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, both of whom I consider as colleagues and as friends. However, looking at this order, I am not quite as appreciative of it as others who have spoken. There is some concern that the order distances us from local areas and local people. It is true that you can have one agent for the whole of Wales, but it means that the Wales campaign is centralised, not localised—or it can be. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, knows more about this than I do. So you could have a central campaign that does not reflect local interests.

There was a time when I was a young candidate and every ward had its own committee room on election day and every constituency had its central committee room—its swyddfa ganolog. Then there is the region. Yes, you can get on in the region, but remember that Welsh regions, like Scottish regions, are quite massive sometimes; they can stretch for many miles. The agent is far away, even at a regional level, from the local activity. We could possibly accept this, but some may remember when we had not one agent for Wales, but we had subagents covering so many areas of a constituency. To have an office located anywhere in Wales could present difficulties in the organisation of election days and electoral officers. It needs to be very well thought out.

The region-less ballot paper—the new one that has been presented to us—is far less cluttered than previously because, as has been stated, no candidate’s name is printed. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, suggested that Scotland has the same kind of ballot paper. Is this the first time in the United Kingdom that we have had a ballot paper with just the party’s name but no candidates? Is this a step in the right direction? I can understand why, because many parties—my own included, I am sure—have in the past nominated, say, 12 candidates for each region. Let us say that you have six or seven different parties contesting and most of them give you a dozen candidates. Wow, that ballot paper will be very cluttered. But to go further in a different direction and simply say Conservative, Labour, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, Greens, without giving any indication of who is the lead candidate, would cut away the personal link. It makes the regional candidates second-class Assembly Members, because they have not been elected as individuals, even though, as the noble Baroness mentioned, you can have a list of them in the polling station. When I go into a polling station—and I am allowed to vote at some elections, including the Welsh Assembly election—I do not look at the posters, I just look at the ballot paper I vote on.

I would ask—and other people are thinking this way—that we do not put 12 names for each party, but that we print the four top names selected by each party on the ballot paper of a regional list. At least we would have a personal involvement. People will have some idea about who they are going to return, not just someone who they have never heard of and whose name is totally strange to them. I speak to the Minister as a very dear friend of mine. I hope it is not too late to amend this order. I suggest we have four names—it might be three, it might be five—so that we keep that personal link with the regional list members as well as with the constituency members.

What you are doing also is that you are increasing the authority of a party and making it far superior to the individual candidate. Is this a danger? I think it is a dangerous step—a very dangerous step. We do not have to take that step—it is not too late—because we can amend it to include the lead names for each party.

I am more than happy with the constituency ballot paper. It is clear and the sort of ballot paper that we are more or less used to. Mind you, there is one great sadness. You are asked to put an X in one of the boxes. I hope the time comes when we do not ask for Xs but for 1, 2,3, and 4 and we have a proportional system.

My Lords, in so far as that particular specimen ballot paper is concerned, has the noble Lord noticed that all the names used were Anglo-Saxon ones—there was not a Jones, an Evans, a Morgan or a Williams? It may very well be that this was done, as lawyers would say, ex abundanti cautela—out of an abundance of caution; I must say it struck me as rather strange that there was not a single Welsh name among them.

I of course defer in this to the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan; he not only has one name on the ballot paper, he has two. I am reduced to the very inferior status of a Roberts, but, as a Roberts, I say, yes, I welcome the constituency ballot paper. Then I ask the Minister to look again at the absence of names on the regional ballot paper. I think that we may have to accept the one agent for the whole of Wales, although I still remember the ward committee rooms with great affection.

The National Assembly for Wales is a real success. It is striking out on its own trajectory. It is barely 10 years old, but it has done so much and has grown in stature. To cut the number of parliamentary constituencies in Wales by 25 per cent is something of a folly. No doubt we can return to this matter another time, but it cannot be right.

I acknowledge the erudite introduction by the Minister, and I also thank my noble friend Lady Gale for her observations from the Dispatch Box. If anybody knows about elections in Wales, it is my noble friend, for she has a magnificent record of general election campaigning in Wales. The statistics indicate that hers were always the best results for the Labour Party throughout Britain. My noble friend is very surefooted in the matters delineated in the order. Yes, it is a tidying-up measure and not controversial. I support it. Surely it will be passed.

It is good to see the parity given to both languages in this order. The Government cannot be too careful on matters concerning language in Wales. Language is now at the forefront of consideration in public life in Wales, and I think that it will remain so. I am glad that the order has comprehended that.

The schedule helpfully presents Form CK, Form CK1 and Form CL. In the Explanatory Memorandum is a splendidly deadpan sentence under the heading, “Territorial Extent and Application”. It states:

“The Order extends to the whole of the United Kingdom but applies only in relation to the election to the National Assembly for Wales”.

I think Sir Humphrey lives; it is a delicious catch-all. Constitutional change always fetches up example after example of such glorious lines as that. What fun the civil servants must have had; how enjoyable the draftsmen must have found it. Sir Humphrey lives and, without a doubt, devolved government presents for all of us here in your Lordships' House a perpetual learning curve.

In the schedule, the mock constituency ballot paper and the mock regional ballot paper are very helpful. There is an interesting coincidence where Sarah Gale is concerned. I am looking again at surnames—there is no relation of course. I very much agree with my noble friend that there are no genuine Welsh names, and I would not be the first in this debate to point that out. It cannot be right. My noble friend was right in his mischievous and humorous way to tell us of that fact.

In the 1997 Parliament in another place, the then Madam Speaker appointed me as the chairman of a new committee, the Political Parties Committee. The committee was to settle upon the description of a political party’s name—the words describing the party. It was also to settle upon the logo that that party could adopt. It is interesting now to see the ballot papers proposed. All the political parties in Great Britain, and some that one never knew existed, came forward with their logo and their self-descriptions. I had been on the Intelligence and Security Committee, appointed by the Prime Minister, for some 11 years, but I learnt more about the Communist Party of Great Britain from its description of itself than I ever did from being a member of that committee.

My Lords, perhaps I may make a short intervention in support of my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno on the issue of the regional ballot paper. It will give me the opportunity also to answer one of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, about the coincidence of elections. It is incidental to the order, but I cannot resist the opportunity of answering that point.

There is a long and noble tradition in our electoral system of people being able to vote for people. If I have to look at the wall of a polling station to find out who will be elected if I put my vote against a party’s name, it is not quite the same as having the name there on the ballot paper. I understand the point about numbers, but only four people can be elected from the regional lists for any constituency in Wales. If the top four names for each of the parties are given, people will be able to say, “If I am voting for this party, I am voting for these four people in this order”. It will be quite clearly laid out on the ballot paper. I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister to consider this matter and see whether it chimes with political parties and the Electoral Commission for the elections next year.

On the coincidence of elections, we now have four elections in Wales: a European election, a National Assembly election, local council elections and elections for the other place. After the Bill passes, as we assume it will, there will be two five-year terms, for the European elections and the elections to the other place, and two four-year terms, for local authority and National Assembly elections. The National Assembly has previously moved elections for local government so that they do not coincide. The one, obvious way out of this difficulty whereby elections might clash on any number of occasions in the future—just as local elections and National Assembly elections would have clashed in the past—is to make all elections have five-year terms. We have two elections with fixed terms, European and Westminster; it seems that we should do the same for National Assembly and local elections.

These are personal views. I am testing them on this House so that people might consider them as a way out of the confusion created by having two sets of elections occurring at different intervals. Those of your Lordships who are good at mathematics will know that, if you have two fives and two fours, the fives and the fours will eventually clash. If it is logical to have fixed-term Parliaments for Europe and for the other place, it might be logical also for the National Assembly and local councils. If the logic is that fixed terms give you more time to make your programme of government work, that logic can be applied also to the National Assembly and local government.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I am grateful for the general welcome that has been given to the order. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, rehearsed his speech for the debate that we will undoubtedly have during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I rather suspect that it will fall to me to answer that part of the Bill. At least I am well prepared by knowing from where the attack will come, and I can expect it also from the noble Lord, Lord Jones.

There will undoubtedly be an opportunity to consider the coincidence of elections when we come to debate the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill—I hear the point made by my noble friend Lord German. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, and the House will perhaps be reassured to hear that the Government are aware of the concerns that have been expressed in some quarters about the coincidence of polling dates in 2015. They are consulting the Welsh Assembly Government, all political parties represented in the Assembly and representatives of the Assembly itself on options for moving the date of elections to the devolved legislature—a similar consultation is taking place also in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We will decide whether further legislation is needed in the light of the consultation.

The two issues of concern to my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno related to the location of the agent’s office and the names on the ballot paper, which my noble friend Lord German mentioned as well. The relaxation of the rules for agents is only for the regional election. The order states that the office must be “in Wales”. It could be in the respective regions, given that they are all in Wales. Only if political parties choose to have one agent for every regional election will it now be possible for an office not to be in every region. That arose during the 2007 election and has been taken forward. No party has objected to the change. I remind my noble friend that this rule applies to the agent’s office and not to the candidate’s offices. Candidates will still have offices in the respective Assembly constituencies. I hope that that gives some reassurance to my noble friend, who I know will engage in the electoral battles with the same gusto as I have seen from him over many years.

It shows just how much attention I pay that I had thought that names had been on the regional list for the previous Scottish elections; I am told that they were not, that that already is the case in Scotland. Such was my enthusiasm to vote for Scottish Liberal Democrats, I did not pause to notice whether the names were there or not. The names of the candidates will be displayed in the polling stations. My noble friend asked whether it would be possible to amend or reduce the number of names to four. That could happen only with the agreement of all the political parties that would be putting up more than four candidates; and although that agreement has been sought, it has not been forthcoming. It could be done by primary legislation, but clearly there will not be an opportunity for primary legislation between now and the elections.

The Government did give careful thought, and did consult the main political parties in Wales, before deciding which was the appropriate way to go forward. In the regional elections voters cast their votes predominantly on the basis of party affiliation rather than individual candidates, although independents can of course stand; and we believe that the change will help ensure that ballot papers do not become unduly unwieldy if all the names are on them. I am advised that representatives of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Labour Party agreed the proposal, while the Welsh Liberal Democrats did not object. No comments were received from the Welsh Conservative Party, although it was circulated with it. The change is strongly supported by the Electoral Commission and by the representatives of the Association of Electoral Administrators in Wales, including the regional returning officer for Wales.

After every election there is a wash-up by the Electoral Commission. No doubt in May next year, this may be something that the respective political parties may wish to reflect on with the Electoral Commission in the light of that experience.

With regard to the sample names that have been mentioned, I had noted—the noble Lord, Lord Jones, beat me to it—that the candidate on the constituency ballot paper representing the farmers of Wales was Sarah Gale. I am not sure of the Welsh origin, if there is any Welsh origin, of the name which the noble Baroness is no doubt proud—

What struck me was not the name of the candidate but the bovine that represented the logo. It was not a Welsh black, it was a Friesian.

Even more damning, I suspect. I rather suspect that the names were put there to be neutral. I only conclude on this point by noting that in the regional ballot paper, where there is one independent named, he goes under the name of Xavier Alfonso. I may be wrong, but it does not sound like the name of a boy from the valleys to me.

In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said that this was perhaps a unique moment given that all sides were applauding a particular order; and the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, commended the order for its evidence base, for being practical and for being sensible. I think there is general agreement. I have no doubt that when the time comes, the respective parties will engage in electoral combat with great passion, but no matter which party we belong to—or none—it is in all our interests that these elections are conducted effectively and efficiently, and I believe that with this order, we put in place the machinery for doing so. I commend the order to the House.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.