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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Volume 724: debated on Monday 31 January 2011

Committee (15th Day) (Continued)

Amendments 95 to 99 not moved.

Amendment 99ZZZA had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Amendments 99ZZZB to 99ZZZD not moved.

Amendment 99ZZZE and 99ZZZF had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Amendment 99ZZZG not moved.

Amendment 99ZZZH and 99ZZZJ had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Amendment 99ZZZK not moved.

Amendment 99ZZA had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Amendments 99ZA to 99C not moved.

Clause 12: Boundary Commission proposals: publicity and consultation

Debate on whether Clause 12 should stand part of the Bill.

My Lords, Clause 12 is headed “Boundary Commission proposals: publicity and consultation”. I am interested in a number of questions in relation to whether there will be a change in the notification process as a result of Clause 12. The new Section 5 that Clause 12 inserts into the 1986 Act provides:

“Where a Boundary Commission have provisionally determined to make recommendations affecting any constituency, they shall take such steps as they see fit to inform people in the constituency … (a) of the effect of the proposed recommendations and … (b) that representations with respect to the proposed recommendations may be made to the Commission during a specified period of 12 weeks”.

First, can the noble and learned Lord give us some indication of what timetable the Government envisage for the first boundary review under the Bill, which has to conclude by 1 October 2013? When do they envisage that those provisional reviews will be published? Do they envisage that there will be one review for each country or region, or will the review apply to the whole United Kingdom—perhaps excluding Northern Ireland—all at once? I am particularly keen to know how the resources of those who may have to respond to those issues will have to be deployed.

Secondly, how do the Government envisage that there will be notification to the public of their right to make representations? This might be apparent if I thought about it more, but what is the effect of subsection (3) of the new Section 5? Will its effect be that, where there are new proposals, new Sections 5(1)(a) and 5(1)(b) will apply again with exactly the same time limits? If the Boundary Commission makes a provisional proposal that is then changed for whatever reason, will it be necessary to advertise the proposal in precisely the same way and will the commission need to advertise again that representations can be made?

Separately, do the Government envisage that the boundary commissions will each issue guidance on what they will do to comply with the new Section 5? If the boundary commissions will issue guidance, will that be in draft form so that this House can see it before the conclusion of Report so that we get some idea about how the new Section 5 will operate?

My Lords, I am particularly pleased that we are making such great progress on the Bill. It is very encouraging to have had that earlier response from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to the amendment moved by the Cross-Benchers. It was particularly encouraging that the noble and learned Lord responded and took the initiative, because earlier today I was reading a blog—strangely enough—belonging to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in which there appears a comment by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who wrote:

“There has been a potential (and sensible) deal available on this Bill for at least the past two weeks and the failure to clinch it is (in my view) mainly on the government side. The irony is that the deal has substantial Liberal Democrat support”.

I am glad that the deal has been clinched, and I am glad that it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who came here to do the clinching, as it were.

On Clause 12, although almost everyone in this debate has talked about “the Boundary Commission”, I remind the House—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, does not need reminding—that there is more than one such commission in the United Kingdom. Although England and Wales might have a combined boundary commission—I am advised that they have separate commissions, but that means that my argument applies a fortiori—there is otherwise a different boundary commission in each of the four countries of the United Kingdom.

On this matter, and on other matters, how are the Government going to achieve a measure of consistency in the work carried out in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England in relation to, for example, appeals? Following the passage of this Bill, will guidance be issued to the boundary commissions that says, “This is what we expect you to do”, so that the Government take the lead, or will the Government perhaps say to the chairs of the four commissions, “You should get together and work out a modus operandi for your areas”?

Obviously, local hearings are the important issue that we have been dealing with recently, but there are a number of other issues on which it would be invidious if one decision was made in Scotland and different action was taken in England. It could be that in entirely similar circumstances, an oral hearing was held in Scotland but not in England, or vice versa. It would be helpful if the Minister in his reply could put this into a United Kingdom context and talk about the collaboration and co-operation that he envisages among the boundary commissions.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for their contributions and questions. I was just a bit wary when the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned me coming here for the clinching, particularly for an amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, but I understood the spirit in which he made his remark.

I shall pick up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. He was absolutely right to remind the Committee that in fact there are four Boundary Commissions responsible for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. One of the issues that we will want to address in preparing the amendment which I indicated in the earlier debate is that of consistency. The important point is consistency, but it need not necessarily be one of exactness, which raises issues of how much should be set out in the Bill and what should be left to the guidance of the Boundary Commissions themselves. That is something we want to work through with them.

The noble and learned Lord asked whether the Boundary Commissions would provide guidance on how they will carry out the review. Prima facie this is a matter for the commissions, but the practice in the past has been for them to do so. It is my understanding that the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England confirmed for the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place that they intend to do so again for this review. However, the question of draft guidance is a matter for the Boundary Commissions. I do not think that it has been produced in the past, but if the noble and learned Lord has information to the contrary, I would be interested to hear it. Moreover, I am not aware of any being ready to be published at the moment. In fairness to the Boundary Commissions, it would be difficult for them to produce draft guidance given that we are still at the stage where changes are being made. Indeed, as I indicated in my responses to the amendment moved last week by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on how long it would take to put these matters online, and indeed the matter that was debated earlier today regarding public hearings, it might be rather difficult for the Boundary Commissions to produce draft guidance ahead of the Report stage when your Lordships are still debating what the actual shape of the consultation will be.

I was asked when the initial recommendations would be published. That is entirely a matter for the commissions. I was also asked by the noble and learned Lord whether the commissions have to advertise in the same way for the initial and the revised recommendations. My information is that, yes, they would have to do that. I shall give a little more clarification on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. It is certainly not the Government’s intention to issue guidance on how the commissions should interpret the legislation, but I understand that the commissions work together on issues that are of common interest and common practice. While not issuing them with guidance on how to do that, we would certainly give them every encouragement to work together. It is also my understanding that each Boundary Commission will produce a report, and certainly I do not think it is intended that there would be one UK report. What I could not be certain about is whether there would be separate reports produced at different intervals for each of the regions of England. I really do not know whether that has happened in the past. But, again, it is certainly not my understanding or anticipation that there would be one mega-UK report. There will be reports from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, I assume, England, but I do not know whether the Boundary Commission for England would wish to break up its report into separate regions. At the moment, I am not in a position to say.

The way it is done at the moment is that Boundary Commission reports are issued within England or Scotland covering a particular part, usually a county, because there are limits on being able to cross particular boundaries. You have to decide within a particular area which constituency will go where. We know that that is not going to be the position here, so while I understand completely that there will not be a UK-wide report, I am keen to try to ascertain the extent to which the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will, as a matter of practice, be divided up between areas of, say, the eastern region, the East Midlands and the West Midlands. That is significant in terms of how resources are dealt with by political parties in looking at the particular issue, even though it may well be that the Boundary Commissions have not resolved how to do that at the moment. I would ask, therefore, whether they will produce guidance indicating how they are going to do it or does one just have to wait until a particular report covering, for example, the north-east or the south-west of England is produced so that resources can be put to dealing with the area at that particular point? That is what I was interested in.

The noble and learned Lord took my questions as relating to inquiries, but my question was really about the timing of the guidance. I have with me a document from the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for England covering the procedure at local inquiries. Of course the commission could not possibly have that ready yet because only this afternoon did we find that there are now going to be local inquiries. Having raised the matter, is it envisaged that further guidance relating to the whole consultation process, part of which will be in writing, will be issued? However, I am much more focused on the order of batting and the timing.

The answer I gave was not intended to be specific to the issue of public hearings, but rather was meant to be illustrative of where there obviously will be changes from what is set out in the Bill at the moment as a result of amendments to be brought forward at the Report stage in response to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about counter-representations. That is why I wanted to make the point that we cannot really expect the Boundary Commissions to produce draft guidance when they do not know what they are actually going to be asked to deliver. Clearly, we will have to examine what the issues of public hearings and counterproposals mean in terms of timing in the coming weeks. However, as I just indicated, it has been the practice in the past that, as the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England confirmed for the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place, the commissions again intend to issue guidance. The point I sought to make was that I did not think that they had issued draft guidance in the past, and I certainly would not anticipate any draft guidance before next week or whenever we debate the Bill on Report.

I am also advised that the Boundary Commission for England published its recommendations on a county basis, which coincides with what the noble and learned Lord said. It is certainly a matter for the Boundary Commission itself to determine how it will report. It could use regions, and I understand that it would be consistent with the powers in the Bill for it to do so. But I envisage that this matter will become much clearer when the Boundary Commissions get the Act of Parliament, as we hope, and they can respond. I have no doubt whatever that we will hear what the respective Boundary Commissions propose in terms of bringing forward reports.

The target size is 76,000, with the 5 per cent leeway making a ceiling of something like 79,500 per constituency. What will happen when a ripple effect is caused by the five-yearly review of constituencies which are all on the maximum and there is no slack in the system to take up? Surely the Boundary Commission will have to report on huge areas because of the ripple effect on each constituency which has already met the 76,000 plus 5 per cent limit. Will the Government take into account this ripple effect on Boundary Commission decisions when finally they make their statement on the commission?

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. Whether it would work out like that is a matter of conjecture. However, it underlines the fact that these matters are probably better left to the Boundary Commissions. They should determine how they issue their reports and deal with these points, rather than Ministers or the legislation being prescriptive in that sense. It should be permissive rather than prescriptive.

My Lords, I respect the noble and learned Lord’s refusal to contemplate laying down the law to the Boundary Commissions on exactly how they should conduct their publicity and consultation. However, it might be helpful to them—it would certainly be helpful to the House—if the noble and learned Lord could be prevailed upon, either now or on Report, to think out aloud, to an extent, on this and to indicate in general terms his expectations as to what would constitute satisfactory publicity and consultation.

We live in an age in which there is greatly increased scope for publicity and consultation through new technologies. For example, the use of social networking would be available to the Boundary Commissions if they were intent on communicating with the generality of electors. I hope that they would be. This would be consistent with the principle upon which the Government have agreed that, after all, it would be proper to allow public inquiries to be held. The key principle is that the constitution belongs to the people—not to the Government and certainly not to the boundary commissioners—and we are all the servants of the people. However, it is through the drawing of boundaries and the subsequent election of Members to the House of Commons that the people of this country give their democratic authorisation to the political class, to Members of Parliament, to form a Government and to take decisions on their behalf; and it is through the drawing of constituency boundaries and the holding of further elections that Governments are called to account.

This is such a fundamental feature of our constitution that we have taken the view as a House—and the Government have agreed—that the public should have their say not only through written representations but in oral submissions, either uttered by themselves or their representatives, at public inquiries. However, if that process is fully to engage the citizens of this country and be fruitful, it follows that there has to be effective communication between the boundary commissioners and the people.

We cannot overemphasise the importance of the spirit in which this is done. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to say that he expects the publicity and consultation to be much more than perfunctory; that he expects it to be full-hearted and thorough. There might be a temptation for the Boundary Commissions to make the process relatively abbreviated—not least because they are being asked to proceed on a more rapid timetable than in the past. It will be a genuine challenge for them to transact all the processes involved in redrawing the boundaries in the timescale that the Government have permitted. It should be possible, but it would more difficult to do it to the timescale set by the Government in the Bill if they are to be as thorough and as generous in their publicity and consultation as we hope they will be. It is important that the Government state that they expect a thorough and genuine consultation.

Only if we have that will there be sufficient transparency to enable citizens to have confidence that the boundary commissioners have taken all the relevant considerations into account and have come to a fair and balanced view of them—in particular, that they have balanced the considerations in rule 5 of the new Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act set out in Clause 11. Citizens will need to be confident that those factors—special geographical considerations, local authority boundaries and local ties—have been genuinely and fully taken into account. There will inevitably be scepticism about that because of the difficulty of reconciling a proper weighting of those considerations with the imperative—on which, I fear, the Government still insist—that there has to be the rigid quota of 76,000 electors per constituency, with only a small leeway of 5 per cent either side, a point to which my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours drew attention.

Given the difficulty that there will be in reconciling and balancing these various factors, it is all the more important that there is effective communication with our citizens so that they have confidence in this process. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to indicate now, in general terms, that that is the spirit and the practice that he would expect from the Boundary Commissions. Perhaps when we come to this issue again on Report and have the benefit of seeing the Government’s amendment and their redrafting of Clause 12, this consideration and requirement will be clearly incorporated into it.

I support what my noble friend Lord Howarth has said. Following on from what the Minister said on the briefing about the Boundary Commissions working together, as he knows only too well I am strongly in favour of devolution—as he is—and, where appropriate, different solutions north and south of the border. I am also not too keen on Governments giving directives—particularly this Government, but that is another story.

However, given that we are talking about elections in the United Kingdom, some degree of consistency and guidance is important. Earlier today I read the words of Bruce Millan, one of the greatest Secretaries of State for Scotland, who many noble Lords will recall with great affection. When he was shadow Secretary of State in a debate in the other place—this may seem a long time ago but it is still relevant today—he said:

“On Tuesday I drew attention to the fact that there were differences in approach between the English, Scottish and Welsh Boundary Commissions—for example, with regard to overall numbers. The Scottish commission uniquely among the three started with a pre-determined total and worked from that. Subsequently that total had to be adjusted. I thought that it was wrong in principle that the commission should start with a predetermined total. That approach is not compatible with what happened in England and Wales. It is worrying that there are different approaches to the interpretation of the same rules in the three countries. This is another argument for looking again at the rules.

There were differences in approach by the three commissions to rule 6—the geographical consideration rule. There were also differences in approach in practical terms as to what the commissions did about movements of population after the enumeration date. It is not clear that any commission is entitled to take into account any change in population beyond the enumeration date. The English commission believes that it is not empowered to take any movement of population into account. That has given rise to considerable dissatisfaction south of the border, because England’s enumeration date was 1976. There have been tremendous movements in population since then. The Scottish commission took a more relaxed view. Whether it was entitled to do so is a matter of considerable argument. That should be looked at”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/83; col. 428.]

That points to some of the problems that can arise if there is not close co-operation between the four Boundary Commissions under what I think is the general benevolent guidance of the Government. I know that the Minister cannot give an instant answer, but I hope that he will take this away and look at it to see whether some more guidance should be given, particularly if the rigid figure of 600 is going to be adhered to. I imagine that that is going to make it very difficult for the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish Boundary Commissions to work in similar ways. They are working necessarily to different totals within different geographical areas, and some guidance from the Minister might be appropriate. I am not expecting an instant answer, but it is worth while having a look at it.

My Lords, perhaps I may first respond to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. I hope he would not expect the Government to give directions to the Boundary Commissions, and I indicate that the Bill provides that the Boundary Commissions,

“shall take such steps as they see fit to inform people in the constituency—

(a) of the effect of the proposed recommendations and”—

to ensure that—

“a copy of the recommendations is open to inspection at a specified place within the constituency”—

that is unless, of course, no change is recommended for the constituency—

“(b) that representations with respect to the proposed recommendations may be made to the Commission during a specified period of 12 weeks”.

The provisions of this Bill are a bit different from those of the past. The 1986 legislation made a stipulation with regard to newspaper advertisements, and that is not in this Bill. We are leaving that to the discretion of the Boundary Commission. When I was replying to an amendment moved on Wednesday by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, who was talking about online advertising, I indicated that again it was a matter for the Boundary Commissions. However, as there had been use of online advertising for the purposes of the Boundary Commissions’ work during the last general review, I have every confidence that it will be done again. I am sure there is no way in which the Boundary Commission is going to have a perfunctory regard in ensuring that the proposals are widely publicised. All parts of the House—it should be a matter not just for Government but for Parliament—should be confident that the commissions will continue to adhere to the highest standards that they have shown in the past, irrespective of seeking representations that will strengthen their recommendations. There is a high level of expectation there, and I do not think there has ever been any suggestion that the Boundary Commissions have not lived up to that.

With regard to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—

There will be a difference in the way that the Boundary Commission operates in future, because it is going to have to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600, if that provision stays in the Bill, and it is also going to have to make the quota of 76,000 a paramount consideration. Those two factors are going to constrain it in new ways. I am sure, as the noble and learned Lord suggests, it will wish to be thorough in its consultation, but the question of what it may see fit by way of publicity and consultation, given the pressures it is going to be under, and the pressures of time as well, will depend to an extent on the standard and expectation that the Government express. That is why I hope we shall hear from the noble and learned Lord a sentiment very vigorously expressed, that he would expect no less of the Boundary Commission than the utmost thoroughness of engagement to ensure that every one of our citizens is aware of the proposals that would affect their constituencies and genuinely have the opportunity to make their representation should they wish to make them.

It is not just a matter of Ministers expecting it because Parliament would expect a degree of engagement. I am in little doubt that good publicity will be given to the issue, because I the political parties have a role to play, as we have acknowledged. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, when he proposed that representations should be published online within 24 hours, we would want carefully to consider that before Report. I raised a number of practical issues, but acknowledged that we are living in an age when online communication is probably the norm rather than the exception.

The noble and learned Lord says he is going to frame an amendment—effectively, to produce a new clause to replace Clause 12. Will he consider including wording that really indicates unambiguously the demanding expectation that the Government and Parliament will have for the Boundary Commissioners in this regard?

I am not sure that legislation is the proper place to express exhortation, but I have no doubt that the four Boundary Commissions will be looking at the debates in your Lordships’ House, as indeed in the other place. They will have heard the reasonable expectations with regard to publicity of their recommendations.

I will say to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that perhaps it was a matter of controversy in some of our earlier debates, but one of the reasons why, for example, the British Academy report welcomed some of the features of the Bill with regard to the rules was the clear hierarchy we have laid down and which has not previously been the case. Therefore, I hope that the concern expressed by the former Secretary of State, Bruce Millan, will not arise in this particular case.

For completeness, I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that, as I indicated earlier, it is the case, as stated in new subsection (3) proposed in Clause 12 (1):

“Where a Boundary Commission revise any proposed recommendations after publicising them”,

subsection (1), which contains the publicity part, would apply to the revised proposals, but it does not apply to any proposals that are revised for a second time. I give this for completeness.

I am sorry to come back on a question I asked earlier, but it is quite important. May I give the Minister a scenario with which many constituency organisations across the country may well be confronted? Imagine six Conservative seats in a county all on the margin of 79,800. In other words, they have taken up the 5 per cent slack above 76,000, making a total of 79,800. When the review takes place, they will all have to change. The date when that information is made public is very important because the constituencies in the county next door will want to know exactly what is happening on the boundaries for those six constituencies. Whatever decision is taken with regard to those six will affect the adjacent county where there equally might be Members of Parliament of the same party who are arguing over seats.

Is there a timetable which will be made available to deal with what would happen in those circumstances where all constituencies are on the 5 per cent-plus margin, at 79,800, and where automatically they have to start crossing boundaries to sort out the new quota?

My Lords, as I understood that question following on from the previous intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, we are now looking to the second review which we are looking towards publishing in October 2018. The answer does not vary, inasmuch as it will be a matter for the Boundary Commission to take into account the likelihood of any ramifications of its decisions at that point and the extent to which it publishes, either county by county or region by region. This is not a matter which, with the best will in the world, we could stipulate in legislation. We must leave that to the good sense and discretion of the Boundary Commissions.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for answering the questions. I was trying to get at two strands. The first, as I think everyone agrees, including the secretaries of the Boundary Commissions, is that it is going to be a testing timetable to deliver the first review by 31 October 2013. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that it is for the Boundary Commissions to determine how they will do that, including when they will make their announcements of provisional proposals; how they will divide up the four countries; and the method by which they will announce how representations will be made. When legislation is going through Parliament, it is not unreasonable or unusual in this House to ask that the body concerned, without in any way infringing its discretion, sets out its broad proposals. That helps us then determine the validity or otherwise of a timetable, particularly a timetable such as this. I ask the noble and learned Lord—

While it is one thing is to express an opinion in the House, does the noble and learned Lord agree that having exhortation in the Bill implies that it is somehow necessary to encourage the Boundary Commissions to operate in a particular way? That implies a degree of a lack of trust in the work that they do. I wonder whether he would take this opportunity to reject the suggestion from his noble friend Lord Howarth that to express that sort of exhortation in the actual Bill is not helpful in this case. I accept what the noble Lord says about expressions of support and encouragement for a due process in the discussion that is taking place in the Committee, but to put it into the Bill itself seems to me to be a retrograde step.

Before my noble and learned friend answers the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, perhaps I could clarify that while I have asked the Minister to express on behalf of the Government their expectation of a high standard of publicity and consultation, it would certainly not be my view that we should resort to exhortation in the language of the Bill but rather that we should state a requirement in the language of the Bill.

The noble Lord actually said, and I listened with great care, that it should be in the new clause that my noble and learned friend should bring forward—that is, in the Bill.

If I might interrupt this momentary and rather fascinating debate about statutory drafting, my experience of Bills passed before 1997, and post-1997, is that legislators sometimes resorted to exhortatory language in Bills when they thought it was appropriate. I do not feel able to give the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the comfort that he seeks because, for reasons that I cannot adequately explain to the Committee, that was often the way that deals were done on legislation, so one cannot be quite categoric about that.

My point, if I might revert to it, was: without in any way interfering with the discretion of the Boundary Commissions, if we were able to get some indication about how it would be done that would be helpful to show that it can be done and, just as importantly, it would help the other groups—in particular, the political parties—to prepare their resources for what everybody agrees to be a quite testing process. Secondly and separately, resources provided by the state for this are important to get the requisite high standards and to ensure that consultation will be proper. When we return to this on Report, it would also be of value if there were some indication of how the resources have been worked out and how we are to be satisfied that those resources are adequate. However, I will not stand in the way of Clause 12 standing part at this stage.

That last point is a very fair point. If there are to be public inquiries as well, I am sure that the resources of the Boundary Commissions will have to be increased because that would extend the timescale and, indeed, the work of the activities. On the general questions raised on the nature of the boundary inquiries by noble Lords opposite who had previously served in the House of Commons, very little advice needs to be given to the Boundary Commissions, quite frankly, because in the past—I have been involved in two boundary inquiries myself because my seats were affected—they worked completely honourably, openly and fairly.

The commissions first published a great deal of advice and ask for comments from everybody and then they considered those comments. Overwhelmingly, the comments made at that stage were made by the local political parties. It is quite rare for communities to form a view at that stage. I know that noble Lords opposite have made great play about this provision—that it is disrupting the natures of old communities. When it came to the actual inquiries which I went to there was, first, lots of advertising: it was on the radio and in the local newspapers. I suppose they could now use e-mail and all the rest of it. When the two inquiries which I attended actually took place, no representatives from the local communities turned up at all although there were substantial changes.

The people who turned up at those inquiries were the local Conservative representatives, the local Labour representatives and the local Liberal representatives. It became an absolute haggle: “We’ll move that ward out but have that village back, please”. In that haggling the Labour representatives usually won, in my experience. They are very good at haggling on that basis. However, do not believe for a moment that an outraged community is going to turn up in droves at these inquiries.

No, I will not give way to the noble Lord: I think we have heard enough from him and that he should contain himself.

I feel that that is in fact the reality of the situation which we will be faced with, but the argument that I have seen on the Boundary Commission is, in practical terms, that it works very well indeed. It publishes all its findings and the way in which is going to work. It has a procedure for inquiries which has stood the test of time. We should leave the commissioners to it.

Clause 12 agreed.

Amendment 100

Moved by

100: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—

“Assistant Commissioners’ report

(1) The Commission shall appoint Assistant Commissioners to report on and make recommendations emerging from the written representations submitted for each separate area that provisional recommendations have been published for.

(2) The report of each Assistant Commissioner shall be published by the Commission along with copies of all the representations received, before the Commission either publishes its revised recommendation for the area or confirms its provisional recommendations.”

My Lords, first, I apologise for the fact that I arrived back in the Chamber seconds too late to move Amendment 99ZA. I do not think that anything catastrophic has been lost thereby, because Amendments 99ZA and 99A were in effect accepted by the Minister. We will see the drafting on Report. If I might be permitted to say it, Amendments 99B and 99C are purely technical and if the Minister or his officials would correspond with me about their substance, we might avoid having to return to the subject on Report.

Amendment 100, however, has fine breeding because it is another from the stable of the British Academy, whose thoroughbreds have been praised throughout these debates. It relates to the discussion that we have just had because it is perfectly clear that the commissions have a big task on their hands to complete the work before them by 2013. In particular, the English commission faces a tough task. It would be very regrettable if there was any slippage in the timetable, because it leaves only 18 months for parties to choose their candidates and for those candidates to bed themselves in. That is even without the possibility, which must still exist even under the Government’s fixed-term Parliament legislation, of an earlier general election. It really is crucial that the Boundary Commissions do not get behind with the task.

The Government have been comforting throughout on the question of the resources that will be made available to the Boundary Commissions. That is important, but the British Academy study argues that an additional weapon in the commissions’ armoury would be the appointment of assistant commissioners. This amendment, as I understand it, in effect repeats the provision of the 1986 Act in that regard by providing for the appointment of assistant commissioners. That may, it occurs to me, also have a part to play when the Government bring forward their detailed proposals for implementing the spirit of the amendment spoken to earlier today by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, in providing for oral hearings in some form or another. I hope that this modest, technical proposal—it is of course not saying that the commissions have to appoint assistant commissioners—sourced as it is from the true experts of the British Academy study, will find favour with the Minister. I beg to move.

In light of the Government’s agreement that provision shall after all be made for public inquiries with oral hearings, would my noble friend wish to modify the terms of his amendment when we return on Report?

I am so sorry if I was unclear. I explained that I thought that that new provision might increase the necessity for assistant commissioners and therefore be incorporated into the Government’s proposals.

My Lords, I want to make a couple of brief points in support of this proposed new clause. I think there is general agreement in the Committee that the engagement of the public in this process is desirable. There has been a great deal of discussion about what format that could take, but that principle is generally accepted by everybody and this proposed new clause goes to the heart of that agreement.

When the previous Government looked at a whole range of methods of engaging the public in policy formation—of which this would be a part—we came to the very clear view that fundamental to all forms of consultation was the need for the public to know what had happened to their contributions to the debate. That was crucial for the credibility of the process and it avoided cynicism creeping in about what had happened. I think that this new clause is entirely consistent with that principle. I understand that it might be thought unnecessary to put such a provision into the Bill, but it might also be thought to be a sound principle that could be relied upon and about which the Boundary Commission could be relied upon to make a judgment. Putting it into the Bill in the way that my noble friend proposes with this new clause would signify the importance of such feedback, and I very much hope that the Minister will look favourably on it. I do not think that it fundamentally compromises the Government’s objectives in the Bill and it could play an important part in building public support for the process.

Finally, I notice that my noble friend has used the generic term “published”. I do not think that any amendment to the clause is needed but, if the Minister is prepared to look at the proposal favourably, as I hope he will, I should be grateful if he could make it clear that all forms of publication should be used. Obviously, the web should be deployed but we should also bear it in mind that, even today and despite the best efforts of the previous Government, large sections of the population are excluded from the web. Therefore, I should be grateful if the Minister could make it clear that he would expect the Boundary Commission to use all forms of publication.

It seems to me that what is proposed in this amendment is the more important if one takes the view, as I do—but contrary, I think, to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Baker—that there will be extensive public interest in, at any rate, certain proposals for boundary changes. In recent days and weeks, the people of Cornwall and the Isle of Wight have given us to understand in no uncertain terms that they have very strong views about how constituencies should be drawn in their parts of the world. Given the radical and wholesale changes that the provisions of the legislation will entail, I think that we should be prepared for considerable strength of feeling and for vigorously expressed representations not just on the part of the political parties but, certainly in controversial cases, on the part of many members of the public. It is, as my noble friend Lord Wills suggested, important that people have feedback and that they should know that their representations have been listened to, gathered up and presented for careful consideration by the boundary commissioners through the activity of assistant commissioners, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey has proposed.

My Lords, this is quite an important amendment because it relates to what happened earlier this afternoon. My noble friend Lord Lipsey is proposing that an assistant commissioner should look at all the written representations relating to a particular provisional recommendation and publish the effect of those written representations. That is important because it means that the representations are being considered and the public as a whole can see them all in context. It also seems to be of relevance in determining whether a public inquiry is appropriate. If a proper analysis is carried out, which is what an assistant commissioner will do if the proposal of my noble friend Lord Lipsey is adopted, it will be easier to see whether a public inquiry is appropriate or helpful. The effect of the amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is that, even if the technical requirements are satisfied, there will be a public inquiry only where it is helpful—that is, the Boundary Commission will have the discretion to say no if a public inquiry will not help in any way.

Therefore, I respectfully suggest that the proposal of my noble friend Lord Lipsey will be of value, first, in ensuring that written representations are properly considered and that that is apparent; secondly, in properly analysing what issues there may be in relation to a particular provisional recommendation; and, thirdly, in deciding whether, in exercising its discretion to have a public inquiry, there are sufficient issues for the Boundary Commission to bite on to be sure that such an inquiry will be useful. I respectfully suggest that the noble and learned Lord considers this amendment in the context of the public inquiry amendment and comes back on Report to tell us what conclusions he has reached.

My Lords, perhaps I may preface my remarks by taking up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, made about the earlier amendments. I shall certainly try to ensure that he has a response on that. I think that they are very much tied up with the amendment which we debated last Wednesday and to which we have already indicated there will be a government response with an appropriate amendment on Report.

The new clause proposed in Amendment 100 requires two things from the Boundary Commission as it consults the public on any proposed changes to constituency boundaries: it must publish all the representations that it receives on provisional recommendations relating to an area, as well as publish a formal response written by assistant commissioners which is very much focused on those written representations.

It has usually been the commissioners’ practice to appoint assistant commissioners to manage the process of local inquiries, and the noble Lord seeks to apply this practice to the consultations under the provisions of the Bill. As I indicated earlier in the Committee’s deliberations, and as I think has been touched upon by a number of contributors to this debate, the Government propose a public hearing process enabling an opportunity for the public and parties to express their views. We need to consider how best to achieve that so as to ensure that the timetable for completion of the Boundary Commission’s reviews by October 2013 is met. It is fair to say that in order to do so we will need to consider all the existing provisions concerning consultation in the round, and I hope that that gives some reassurance. The Government have committed to further action on how consultation is undertaken by the commissions not only in terms of public hearings but in terms of counter-proposal provisions as well. On that basis, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Coming so soon after the progress that we have made this afternoon, I obviously entirely accept what the Minister has said. Not all the “t”s can be crossed and the “i”s dotted but I am sure that they will be by the time we get to Report. With that, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 100 withdrawn.

Debate on whether Clause 13 should stand part of the Bill.

My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and my noble friends Lady McDonagh and Lord Kennedy of Southwark and I have given notice of our intention to oppose the Question that Clause 13 stand part of the Bill. We have done so not because we oppose Clause 13 standing part but just in order that we might hear the Minister respond to some questions.

Last week we heard from noble Lords concerning Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, as my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport reminded us. However, we also had a long and interesting—and, I think, worthwhile—debate on Wales, to which Clause 13 relates. The clause amends Section 2 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 so that the Assembly constituencies are those specified in the Parliamentary Constituencies and Assembly Electoral Regions (Wales) Order 2006, as amended. The effect of this change is that any future alterations to parliamentary constituencies made under the new rules introduced by the Bill will not affect Assembly constituencies.

We appreciate that without the first part of Clause 13 the reduction in the number of Westminster seats in Wales made necessary by Clause 11 of this Bill would see a comparative reduction in the number of Welsh Assembly seats. It is not this part of Clause 13 that we object to; we do not wish to see the representation provided for the people of Wales by its devolved institutions affected by legislation which will cut that representation at Westminster. However, the remaining parts of Clause 13 are included to deal with interim reviews of constituencies in Wales which might happen to be undertaken under the terms of the Government of Wales Act 2006 which are ongoing or have not been implemented when Part 2 of the Bill comes into force.

We want to raise again the particular impact that the Bill’s proposals will have on Wales. We wish to ask the Minister whether there might be a phased reduction in the number of Westminster constituencies due to be lost in Wales under the terms of the Bill. If there is not to be a phased reduction, perhaps there is a case to be made that the amount of the reduction be delayed until after the result of the March referendum on powers to the Welsh Assembly and any attendant transfer of power.

The Minister will recall—he is, after all, an expert on this point—that last week he made the comparison with the cut in Scottish Westminster representation following devolution. We would argue that that cut in seats happened only after law-making powers had been transferred to Holyrood. In holding a referendum to extend primary law-making powers in the light of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the Calman Commission, Wales will, in a way, be catching up with Scotland in this respect. Perhaps it is appropriate that, once this has happened, its Westminster representation be reduced and a better judgment can be made as to how much it should be reduced by. I look forward to hearing the noble and learned Lord’s response in due course.

My Lords, if the number of parliamentary constituencies in Wales is to be reduced, it must inevitably follow that the boundaries of constituencies for the Welsh Assembly and the boundaries of constituencies in Wales for this Parliament will no longer be aligned. I do not think that it would be right for us to seek to reduce the number of constituencies that return Members to the Welsh Assembly, but I think we should appreciate that, if we are going to legislate to cause these boundaries to cease to be coterminous and to diverge, problems will arise and damage will be done politically.

My noble friend reminded us that last week we considered two amendments on this issue. One proposed a phased reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies in Wales and the other proposed that the reduction should be delayed until such time as the people of Wales had voted to have primary law-making powers transferred to the Welsh Assembly. Both would be helpful mitigating amendments, but let us recall, in the mean time, that the Welsh Assembly, unlike the Scottish Parliament, does not have primary law-making powers and that policy for Wales is made, on a very large scale, in the Westminster Parliament. There is a block grant which transfers resources from London to Cardiff. Home affairs, criminal justice, social security, pensions and, of course, defence, foreign policy and very major areas of policy are determined still for Wales by the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

It follows from that that it is a responsibility of Members of Parliament representing Welsh constituencies at Westminster to work in close relationship with their colleagues who are Assembly Members in Cardiff. They need to be able to talk to each other about the interests of the constituents that they jointly serve. The needs of Wales need to be represented by Welsh Members of Parliament at Westminster and as things are, they are well represented by Members of Parliament of all parties at Westminster. It is easier for them to do that job because the constituencies of Welsh MPs are the same as the constituencies of Welsh Assembly Members. When that ceases to be the case, it will be far more difficult for Welsh MPs and Welsh Assembly Members to work closely and effectively together in the interests of their shared constituents. There will overlapping of boundaries. There will be cases in which Welsh Members of Parliament will have to try to represent, at one and the same time, the interests of two Welsh Assembly constituencies which may not be in agreement about what it is that they would like their champion in the House of Commons to be arguing for. There will be a muddying and a blurring of responsibility. It will be more difficult for people to do their job.

Of course, the noble and learned Lord, like others in the Chamber, is very well aware of the experience in Scotland. I see that my noble friend Lord Foulkes is not here, but my noble friends Lord McAvoy and Lady Liddell are well able to testify that, whatever the merits may have been of the redrawing of constituency boundaries in Scotland, it cannot have been made easier for an appropriate collaboration to take place between Members of the Scottish Parliament and Members of the Westminster Parliament. This is one reason—there are other powerful reasons—why I believe that it is undesirable to reduce the number of constituencies in Wales, or, if the number of constituencies in Wales is to be reduced, we should do it at a gradual pace. The service that their elected representatives are able to give to their constituents will be impaired if we lose the existing alignment of boundaries.

My Lords, as has been indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, one of the purposes of this clause is to ensure that the number of seats in the Welsh Assembly is not reduced as a result of the proposed reduction in the number of United Kingdom Parliamentary seats at Westminster. Indeed, a similar end was procured in relation to Scotland through primary legislation in 2004. I am not sure whether it was when the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, was Secretary of State, but if it was not, she probably instigated it, and it was to secure the size of the Scottish Parliament, notwithstanding the significant reduction in the number of Scottish seats at Westminster. I am pleased to have heard the noble Lord confirm that he has no objection to that part of this clause.

The noble Lord did inquire, however, about the transitional provisions and took the opportunity to raise again the issues which were pretty thoroughly debated one day last week—I cannot remember which day it was; possibly Wednesday night. We had a thorough debate and I do not propose to go into all the arguments again. Suffice to say that it is the case that, even now, the Welsh Assembly has powers given to it under framework powers in primary legislation, or under legislative competence orders, to promote measures in the Welsh Assembly. As I indicated on that occasion, the underlying principle of the Bill is to ensure equality of constituencies throughout the United Kingdom and I have still not been given any answer as to why a seat in Cardiff should be smaller than a seat in Belfast, Edinburgh or Birmingham. I do not think that we can pursue that matter much further this evening.

The transitional provisions are intended to deal with interim boundary reviews which have already been begun by the Boundary Commission for Wales and have not been completed or have not yet been implemented at the time when Part 2 of the Bill comes into force. The commission will be able to decide whether to continue with any reviews which it has in hand but the consequence of continuing with any reviews would be that, in practice, they would apply only to the boundaries of Assembly constituencies.

The transitional provisions also provide that, where the commission has already delivered a report recommending alterations to constituencies before Part 2 of the Bill comes into force, but there has not yet been any order giving effect to the recommendations, an order must be laid in Parliament in accordance with the previous requirements. Such an order would therefore affect the Assembly constituencies and, where appropriate, Assembly electoral regions, but would not have any effect on parliamentary constituencies, which, of course, would be the subject of the boundary review, which is the substance of Part 2 of the Bill. I hope that that explanation will satisfy the noble Lord. I beg to move that Clause 13 stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13 agreed.

Clause 14 : Orders

Before I call Amendment 100A, I have to tell noble Lords that if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment 101.

Amendment 100A

Moved by

100A: Clause 14, page 14, line 34, at end insert “by the affirmative resolution procedure”

My Lords, it is traditional with all Bills for both Houses of Parliament to seem to ascribe still higher levels to the degree of parliamentary affirmation that must be given to orders under them. In this case, I have been trumped in advance by my noble friend Lady McDonagh, with her desire for the super-affirmative procedure. In this case, though, my amendment might turn out to be of more significance than immediately meets the eye.

I do not want to go over old ground too much, but this Bill was introduced very quickly. It passed through another place before many Members there had fully digested its implications, particularly the fact that it is the starting point for what I call “permanent revolution” in the electoral geography of our country—converting them all into carpetbaggers traipsing around the country looking for a new seat. That penny might have been slow to drop, but I am told by Members of another place—they have many great uses to this House—who have kept in close contact with people down the other end that it has. I think that if the Bill were introduced into the House of Commons today, it would have a much rougher ride than it did. Indeed, if we all had a few pounds for every time an MP—dare I say it, a Conservative MP—had clapped us on the back and said, “Keep up what you’re doing in the Lords”, we should be very much richer.

Who can say whether by 2013 the House of Commons in its wisdom—there should be no question of this House questioning orders under the Bill; that would be quite unconstitutional—will have moved to a very different position? Rather disgracefully, the House of Commons in 1969, on the instructions of the Government, voted down an order to introduce boundary changes proposed by the Boundary Commission, so this would not be unprecedented. It is perfectly conceivable, at any rate, that in 2013, when the Commons sees the damage that the Boundary Commission will inevitably have to wreak in redrawing the maps within the limit of 5 per cent and 600 constituencies, it might not fancy it. Although to vote down an order in those circumstances would be an act that required the most careful consideration, the Commons might want to do that.

When you think that a matter of that magnitude might again come up as a matter of serious public debate, you can see that you really cannot dispose of this other than under the affirmative procedure. It would look, rightly or wrongly, as though the Government were trying to sneak something through, and in the wake of that they would look very bad. It is crucial that the House at the other end is given a full opportunity to debate the orders before it in those circumstances.

As I say, all this might be a mistake. The Boundary Commission might miraculously square the circle, and no doubt that would be a wonderful thing. I am not holding my breath for that, though. More importantly, nor are 650 people not very far removed from this House holding their breath and expecting the circle to be squared before the 2015 general election. In that case, the House would be well advised to pass this amendment and ensure that the affirmative procedure is used for all the orders under the Bill.

My Lords, all three amendments in this group seek to place a higher threshold on passing any order contained in the Bill. My noble friend Lord Lipsey’s first amendment does that quite generally by amending Clause 14, on orders, to ensure that orders are exercisable by an affirmative statutory instrument.

Amendment 102A, also in the name of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, refers to the commencement order bringing into effect the alternative vote provisions in the event that more votes are cast in the referendum in favour of the answer yes than in favour of the answer no. The amendment specifies that any such order must be made under the affirmative procedure.

The affirmative procedure would require an order to be laid in draft for a period of 40 days, after which it would need to be agreed by both Houses. The Companion informs us that if a scrutiny committee of either House recommends between the end of the 30-day period and the end of the 40-day period that the order should not proceed, it might not proceed unless the House concerned rejects the recommendation by resolution in the same Session.

Amendment 101 is in the name of my noble friends Lady McDonagh and Lord Snape, who I look for anxiously.

The noble Lords are not moving their amendments, so I will not comment on them.

My noble friend Lord Lipsey’s amendments give the House the opportunity to think again. They give Parliament an additional check on the changes that the Minister can bring forward by order. In the context of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation that the Bill received, such checks are unarguably a good thing.

There is an issue of whether recourse to the super-affirmative procedure might be appropriate in all cases of orders being moved under the terms of the Bill. This affirmative procedure has significance in the context of a later amendment, Amendment 102AB, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. That amendment says that Clauses 10(2) and 11, which are in effect the operative clauses for changing the rules and for changing the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600,

“shall come into force on a date to be appointed under subsection (1B) following reports from the Boundary Commissions, made as if section 11 of this Act were in force, being laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State”.

As I understand the noble Lord’s amendment, the Boundary Commissions would do their work, Clause 11 would not formally be in force and it would then be for Parliament—that is, both Houses—to vote on whether Parliament wanted to bring Clause 11 into force. Parliament would then be deciding before implementation whether it was the appropriate thing to do.

If Parliament were taking such an important decision, then, in my respectful submission, that decision should be taken in accordance with the super-affirmative procedure proposed by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. There is real merit, although we will debate this more fully later, in what the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, is saying, because it would give the House the opportunity to consider not only the effect of what is being done but what an independent body—for example, a commission set up to look at the size of the House of Commons—had said about whether it was appropriate to reduce the size of the House from 650 to 600 and, if that was not appropriate, what the appropriate figure, if any, was to reduce the House to.

Those of us who have been enjoying the provisions of Committee have come to know well the views expressed by the cross-party committees in both Houses on the lack of proper constitutional process on the Bill. I know that noble Lords enjoy hearing me repeat old favourites, so I say again that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the House of Commons and our Constitution Committee have said that there should have been a public consultative process before the Bill came to the House and pre-legislative scrutiny to enable it to be properly considered. Those points are added to by the fact that it has been very difficult for the Government to justify precisely how they get to the figure of 600. The Leader of the House saying that it is a nice round figure perhaps lacks the intellectual and constitutional justification that one looks for in this significant change in the House of Commons. The lack of intellectual justification and of proper process goes to an important constitutional point. The House genuinely feels uneasy about a majority in the House of Commons and a political majority in the House of Lords—that is, a political majority of the Liberal Democrats and the Tories over the other parties in the House—being able to push through a change in the size of the House of Commons, which reputable independent experts think has been chosen as a means of favouring the governing party.

It is worth quoting a statement that Mr Mark Field, the Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster, endorsed on Second Reading in the other place. Mr Straw quoted from the statement put on the Conservative website by Mr Field. Referring to Mr Field, Mr Straw said:

“He says that ‘the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by Party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office’”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 47.]

Therefore, there is a legitimate argument that this is being done for party-political advantage. The importance, therefore, of my noble friend proposing the super-affirmative procedure is that if, as I hope, we adopt the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, a process will be in place that will ensure that the Government can undertake proper arrangements to look at whether the figure is right, and that when we pass that amendment—I hope that we do so—and debate whether we bring Clause 11 into force, we will be informed by a report of a body that is beyond reproach. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will consider my noble friend’s amendment in that context.

My Lords, the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lipsey is self-evidently proper. The legislation provides for seismic constitutional and political change but has been all too little considered hitherto. There was not only the lack of public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny to which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has referred but the reality of the way in which the Bill was transacted in the House of Commons is that the Committee stage was entirely perfunctory.

At Second Reading in another place some Members of the other place expressed considerable anxiety about the way in which things were being done. For example, Mr Simon Hart, a Conservative Member of Parliament, said:

“I wish to address the issue of honesty. Let us not try to fool people about this Bill. Let us not pretend that it is a response to some kind of great public desire or thirst”.

He did not necessarily want the Bill to fail because he accepts the foundations on which it was constructed, but he continued:

“It is the process, not the principle to which I object”.

He went on to say that,

“there is a fine line between political reform and political vandalism”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 120.]

If the House of Commons passed this legislation in the pretty shallow and perfunctory way in which it did—with a very brief Committee stage and very important sections of the Bill, including Clause 11, not being thoroughly examined in Committee—it follows that the other place must have the opportunity in due course to consider again whether it has done the right thing. If the orders made under the Bill were in effect to go through simply on the nod under the negative resolution procedure, that would not be good enough and the House of Commons would not be performing its proper constitutional role. Therefore, the simple affirmative procedure is probably the right procedure to be adopted for decisions on orders made under this legislation.

I have some reservations that the super-affirmative procedure would create too much scope for obstruction and too much scope for the intervention of party- political interest in the eventual decision-making.

However, it is imperative that, when the other place comes to make decisions on orders under the Bill, it should do so consciously and deliberately, which the affirmative resolution procedure would enable it to do. In that way, the other place might slightly make up for the pretty neglectful and haphazard way in which it considered the primary legislation.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has moved an amendment that seeks to apply additional parliamentary procedures to the delegated powers in this Bill. The amendment would subject all delegated powers conferred by the Bill to the affirmative resolution procedure. As I understand it, the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, will not move her amendment proposing the super-affirmative resolution procedure, so I shall confine my remarks to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey.

There is no doubt that the Government recognise the value of parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, that is why, in both Houses, we have sought to ensure that Members have had adequate time to debate the provisions of this Bill in detail. I cannot accept the allegation made by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, that somehow or other the proceedings in the other place were perfunctory. I cannot remember offhand how many days were spent in Committee of the Whole House or on Report, but I know that every effort was made by the Government to ensure that those provisions in the Bill that were not subject to more detailed consideration in Committee were the ones with which the Report stage started. I think that I am right in saying that the only substantive clause that was not debated in the other place was that on which we have just had a brief clause stand part debate on the breaking of the link between the parliamentary constituencies in Wales and the constituencies of the National Assembly for Wales. That is not an unimportant matter, but I do not think that it is the most controversial part of the Bill.

None the less, we do not believe that it is necessary to apply additional parliamentary procedures, as suggested in the amendment, to those powers in the Bill that are not already subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Moreover, it is worth noting that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has not recommended that any such procedure should apply to these order-making powers. Like our predecessors, we attach considerable importance to what that committee says and, indeed, to what it does not say.

One exception to that was that the DPRR committee recommended that the power to make a transitional or saving provision in Clause 8(4) should be subject to the negative procedure. However, as we indicated when the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, raised an amendment on that matter, the Government have made it clear that they intend to deal with this point by removing the power and instead making explicit provision to deal with the only scenario in which we would anticipate the power being necessary: namely, to ensure that, where a parliamentary by-election is called after the AV provisions are implemented—were they to be implemented—but before the first general election, that by-election would be held under first past the post.

There are a number of reasons why the amendment is not appropriate. Noble Lords may find it helpful if I briefly set out why I think that the increased scrutiny that the amendment seeks is unnecessary in relation to the delegated powers contained in the Bill that are not already subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

First, it is not appropriate to make the order implementing or repealing the alternative vote provisions following the referendum subject to additional parliamentary debate. I think that we had some debate around this when we considered Clause 8, which was probably before Christmas. The relevant provisions in Clause 8 do not give Ministers wide-ranging powers about when the provisions can be brought into force or repealed; quite the opposite, they impose a number of clear, binding duties. The effect is that Ministers must bring certain provisions into force—or, indeed, repeal those provisions—depending on the outcome of the referendum. Furthermore, if there is a yes vote, the provisions will already have been debated in full during the passage of this Bill and the order would simply implement the will of the public as expressed in the referendum.

Fundamentally, subjecting the order-making powers in Clauses 8(1) and 8(2) to the affirmative procedure would change the nature of the referendum. As we also debated when we considered Clause 8, the referendum would become indicative rather than binding, since the order giving effect to the referendum result could subsequently be prevented from taking effect if the order was voted down. The Government believe that voting reform is a significant constitutional reform on which the people should have their say. Once they have had their say, this should not be thwarted by further procedural process.

Another key power on which the amendment seeks to impose an additional parliamentary procedure is that in paragraph 20 of Schedule 1, which provides for an order to be made to determine the maximum expenses recoverable by regional counting officers. That power replicates an existing power in the Representation of the People Act 1983 for parliamentary elections, which is similarly not subject to any parliamentary procedure because it is purely of an administrative nature.

By contrast, I think that it is sensible for the Bill to provide—as it already does in Clause 9—that the power to amend legislation in order to make purely consequential further changes to implement AV should be subject to the affirmative procedure.

On those grounds, I hope that your Lordships will agree that an additional parliamentary procedure for orders that are not already subject to the affirmative procedure in the Bill is neither necessary nor appropriate. No doubt we will return to the important points that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, made about the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, and I would propose to deal with these points then. In the mean time, I urge the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I cannot claim to be absolutely convinced by every word that the Minister has just said. In particular, my antennae started twitching when he started talking about an indicative referendum on AV. Many of my friends believe that the AV referendum should have been indicative in the first place. I would not necessarily go that far, but I accept that if, on the day, the only two people who turn up at the polling station are the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and myself, both of us voting yes, there might be a small problem with the legitimacy of proceeding in those circumstances, to which a political solution will have to be found.

However, the Minister gave a reasonably comprehensible reply. I will study it and, if necessary, return to the matter at Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 100A withdrawn.

Clause 14 agreed.

Amendment 101 not moved.

Clauses 15 to 17 agreed.

Clause 18: Commencement

Amendment 102

Moved by

102: Clause 18, page 15, line 12, at end insert—

“( ) Part 1 of this Act shall not come into force until the Electoral Commission has certified that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible.”

My Lords, the Deputy Prime Minister has frequently tried to place the Bill in the proud lineage of great reforms that led to the introduction of universal suffrage in Britain. I quote from his “new politics” speech, delivered in May last year:

“I’m talking about the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great reforms of the 19th Century. The biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832”.

In the same speech, recalling the “anger and disappointment” felt by thousands of people who were turned away from the polling stations on general election night, he declared:

“You must be confident that, come polling day, your voice will be heard … Under this government’s plans, you will”

However, we know, as the Committee has heard before, that as a result of gaps in our electoral register, many millions of people are going to be denied a voice—indeed, any acknowledgement of their existence—in the two central proposals contained in the Bill.

The Government are fond of saying that this Bill is underpinned by the principle of equality, but you cannot get equality on the electoral playing field on the basis of a grossly unfair or unequal register. This is particularly so in respect of the proposed boundary changes, which are to be drawn on the basis of the December 2010 register, from which it is agreed that upwards of 3.5 million eligible voters are missing.

Putting that problem on one side, I think that the problem of underregistration also has a significant bearing on the referendum on the alternative vote, which is the subject of Part 1 of the Bill. As we are well aware, the Government intend that the referendum will be held on 5 May next, which, in our view, would be an unsuitable date. Even if the referendum goes ahead on that day, the referendum will at least be contested on a marginally more up-to-date electoral roll than that to be used for the boundary changes, if for no other reason than that there is still time to put missing people on the register. If the referendum was not going to be held so soon, this would allow even more time.

Happily, the Bill provides for that eventuality. Following the Committee’s acceptance of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Rooker, the Bill will not actually require a referendum to take place until October of this year. We believe that that extended deadline provides an important opportunity for the registration problem to be properly addressed and sufficient leeway for the acceptance of Amendment 102.

Amendment 102 is concerned with the commencement of Part 1 of the Bill. If accepted, the amendment would require the Electoral Commission to certify,

“that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible”,

before the AV referendum is held. The amendment would not require a certain percentage of eligible voters or resident adults to be registered. In previous debates, that was felt to be an unreasonable target. Indeed, there was some disagreement about what the right percentage target would be. The amendment would simply impose on the Electoral Commission a requirement to judge whether local authorities are doing all that they reasonably should to ensure that as many people as possible are registered to vote.

I have noted what the noble Lord has said. Does he consider that there may be some people—perhaps a lot of people—who do not register simply because they are not interested in voting at all? That may be deplorable, but that may be the case. Therefore, many of those who are not on the register may not be so due to any failure on the part of the responsible authorities in getting them on the register.

Of course the noble Lord is right. There are some people who decide, as a matter of choice, not to vote in any election of any kind or may, in the past, have had some reason for not putting their names on the register. However, my amendment seeks to ensure only that local authorities have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible.

Is my noble friend aware that there is a legal duty to register? It is the choice of the citizen whether to vote, but it is a legal responsibility and requirement to register.

I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for reminding the Committee of that. During the course of this Committee, I asked the Government Front Bench whether it is a legal requirement to register—of course it is not a legal requirement to vote, although I must say that I was brought up to believe, and still believe, that it is a duty. As my noble friend has reminded me—I cannot remember which Minister replied—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in an Oral Question some months ago maintained that it is not a legal requirement to register. That is a very important matter that needs to be determined. It may be that registration is a legal requirement that is observed more in the breach than in fact. That would still make it a requirement, albeit one that is somehow put on one side.

I think that what was said was that it was a legal requirement but that, as far as the Minister knew, nobody had ever been prosecuted.

I think that that puts the law in a very interesting position on this important point. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, and to my noble friend Lady McDonagh for raising these issues.

Will the noble Lord revert to the question of timing? I expect that the noble Lord and I both recall a very powerful speech by one of his noble friends earlier in the Committee's proceedings, in which it was pointed out that, because of the general election last year, quite a lot of people registered even in the last few days when they were permitted to do so. Therefore, the register of December 2010 is probably more comprehensive than one that we might imagine in future. Delaying the referendum, perhaps until October, might mean that people would drop off the register rather than be fully and comprehensively covered by the one that will currently be the basis of the referendum. The noble Lord's point about timing could be taken either way.

The noble Lord is too modest. I think that it was he who made the powerful speech making that point—Hansard will show that—but the point does not lose its value by his repeating it.

My Lords, it was not I. The point was presented much more powerfully on his side of the House, and I simply endorsed it.

In that case, congratulations are in order all round. The point is interesting, but we could improve the register if the referendum was delayed by a number of months, as seems to be the will expressed by the Committee.

As far as voter registration is concerned, noble Lords will recall an Electoral Commission study published this year—it has been quoted before, but I make no apology for repeating it—which states that,

“under-registration is concentrated among specific social groups, with registration rates being especially low among young people, private renters and those who have recently moved home ... The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation”.

I do not need to go through the figures again. We have heard before about the percentages of certain groups of our population who are unregistered. It is a sad story that should not be allowed to continue. The point has been made many times that we did not do enough about that issue until late on in our Government; we are asking this Government to do something about it now, particularly as we are moving towards a plebiscite in the form of a referendum, which is very rare in our country, and we want as many people as possible who are entitled to vote to be on the register. In the context of a potentially low turnout, which the House will perhaps want to debate again on Report, the differences likely to result from the unequal participation of social groups such as young people and others could have a major bearing on the outcome of the referendum.

It is very rare that we resort to a referendum in Britain. When we do, we should ensure that it takes place on an even basis. In the interest of fairness, I urge the Minister to consider our amendment with some care. I beg to move.

My Lords, I support the amendment. It touches on two things. The first is the general principle that we need to improve registration. I have argued before that we have something of a postcode lottery in how good registration is from one local authority to another. That general point relates to this debate because the amendment would require that we deal with that before the referendum. I suspect that the Government are concerned only about whether they could do so in time. However, we must start the process.

As an adviser to the Electoral Commission, I have felt for a long time that we need to improve the registration process. I do not think that anybody on either side of the House disagrees with that. My experience is that until we get an agreement on a body that will raise the standard by saying what that standard should be across the country, some local authorities will carry out registration extremely well, others will do so very poorly and others will be in between. We know which local authorities perform well and we know which perform very badly. The in-between group is more difficult to identify. The Electoral Commission must have a duty placed on it to come up with a standard in electoral registration that local authorities must achieve.

Having just filled in my registration form again, I know that the form suggests very heavily that not to fill it in accurately is illegal and that one would risk prosecution. It implies that registration is a legal requirement in exactly the way that was described in the earlier intervention. I would like the Electoral Commission to have a duty to say that all local authorities have to make every effort to get people on to the register. I recognise that there is a time problem in relation to this amendment and the referendum, but I do not see why we should not make a start. We could do that now. It would be possible to say that, given the variable standards at the moment, the small number of local authorities that we know do not make the effort have got to do so. Perhaps we could then build on that for future occasions, when we would expect the Electoral Commission to say that all local authorities have reached a minimum standard.

The issue of underrepresentation in key areas is crucial. We all know that some areas have much greater underrepresentation than others, and we all know that some local authorities in those areas do not make anywhere near enough effort to get people registered. Those are the authorities that we should focus on. It would be very good news if the Government said to the Electoral Commission, “We expect you to send out to those local authorities a note warning them that if they do not raise the standards in their area and do more to make sure that people are on the electoral register—and do that at least as well as the best local authorities—you will continue to breathe heavily down their neck until they deliver the standards that you expect”.

Underrepresentation is a major problem. It has distorted so many issues that we have debated in the Bill that we should not allow it to continue. What troubles me is that the Minister and the Government have made no effort to find a way of addressing the problem. I ask that in due course they take up this amendment and extend it beyond the referendum to a general expectation of local authorities and the Electoral Commission that they apply that standard.

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly intervene. I am too often tempted in these debates, but this will, on the McNally score, put him 4-2 ahead of me.

The noble Lord's speech was very interesting. In effect, he distinguished between whether efforts should be made to improve the registration system and the way in which that might be tied to a particular part of the Bill. That is exactly my position. I have no problem with trying to improve the registration system. However, there could be big questions of cost, not least arising from any prosecutions that may take place, for example of large numbers of 16 to 18 year-olds. That prospect appeared to lurk in what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said. Those issues can be considered on their own merits. What would not be sensible—this is where, for once, I am on the side of my Front Bench—would be to tie those to a provision of a particular Bill as a condition before something comes into effect.

My Lords, we all accept that it is desirable in any case to improve electoral registration, but I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Newton, in what he said in relation to the Bill. Happily and conveniently, the Committee accepted the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker, and there is therefore flexibility on the date of the referendum on electoral change, and there is no technical problem standing in the way of acceptance of the amendment of my noble friend.

Whatever view we take about the desirability of the forthcoming referendum—I favour a referendum on the question of electoral change—or whatever view we take on whether or not it is desirable to switch from first past the post to the alternative vote, although I prefer to keep first past the post, we can all agree that we want full participation by the people of this country in the referendum. We want its result not only to be legally binding but to have moral force. It will not have moral force if it is mired by a low turnout among those who are already registered. It will have less moral force if, unfortunately, it is conducted on a register which is demonstrably incomplete and inaccurate.

If there is to be an important moment in the national life in consideration of a major constitutional change, we should expect the Electoral Commission to take every reasonable step to ensure that there is a high level of registration. It is then for the campaigning groups to do all they can to ensure that there is a high turnout. This can be done and it should be done. The decision taken by the people at the referendum will have a greater validity. It will be more convincing if it takes place on the basis of fuller registration.

It is timely to have a drive for improved registration because we know that local authorities will have fewer resources in years to come, and that in the next few months they will perhaps still have the resources to mount the drive to improve electoral registration. We also know that given the housing benefit changes that are due to come in, more people may be obliged to move home. We will see more people coming off existing electoral registers and perhaps not getting on to new electoral registers. Before we see the full unfortunate consequences of those benefit changes, we should have a drive to improve electoral registration. It would be particularly timely and appropriate for that to take place in the next few months, certainly to ensure that we have the most complete and accurate electoral register possible when the referendum takes place, and as an investment in the electoral register for future elections.

For all those reasons, I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Bach.

My Lords, this amendment, as has been made clear, concerns the commencement of the provisions relating to the referendum in the Bill. Part 1 provides among other things for the referendum on the alternative vote, for the entitlement to vote in the referendum and for conduct of the referendum. The proposal in the amendment is that the provisions should,

“not come into force until the Electoral Commission has certified that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible”.

It will come as no surprise that the Government wish to resist the amendment. To be fair, it is a variation on a number of the amendments debated earlier in Committee, when debating Part 2, on whether the Boundary Commission’s review should commence until the Electoral Commission had certified that every local authority had taken all reasonable steps. We believe that the amendment would cause a serious risk of delaying the referendum.

Reference has been made to the successful amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Before that debate, I was detained by severe weather and was unable to get to the House, but I have noted what was said and I heard the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, say on other occasions that his intention was not to rule out 5 May, but to provide a lifeboat, whereas this amendment would, to all intents and purposes, rule out 5 May. In fact, the delay could be so substantial, perhaps even indefinite, if the relevant certification could not be provided, that the lifeboat might even be sunk before it was launched. I cannot understand why we should put ourselves in a position whereby perhaps one local authority electoral registration officer was somehow holding back and the Electoral Commission could not provide the required certification.

It should also be borne in mind that there is no such obligation in elections where democratic engagement is at stake. Why impose this obligation for the referendum? No one is suggesting that legislation should be introduced to delay the elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh National Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, or indeed the council elections that are due to take place on 5 May until we have received a similar certification from the Electoral Commission. Given that all these elections are also to take place on 5 May, if that is indeed the date when we hold the referendum, I hope that the turnout will be such that the elected bodies taking office following 5 May will enjoy the moral force of turnouts that enable them to discharge their responsibilities.

Electoral registration officers across the United Kingdom are already under a statutory duty to take all steps necessary to maintain the registers. Perhaps for clarification, I am advised that it is an offence to fail to provide information to an electoral registration officer when requested. That relates to what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said. There is a distinction between that and the issue of whether it is an offence not to register. The Electoral Commission also has a statutory responsibility to promote public awareness of electoral registration and elections, and to set and monitor performance standards for electoral services.

That then takes us to the report quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, which has been quoted in a number of our earlier debates. There is no disputing the importance of accurate and comprehensive registers, but the commission’s report on the performance standards for electoral registration officers in Great Britain, published last March, showed that just fewer than 96 per cent of electoral registration officers met the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registration records standard in the past year.

I hope that noble Lords will agree that the available research does not suggest that drastic steps such as delaying the referendum are needed. That is particularly so given that the amendment would also risk imposing onerous obligations on the commission. As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend Lord Newton indicated, that is a different matter from wanting to encourage electoral registration. I hope that it is a given across the Committee that we all wish there to be an increased number of people on the electoral register. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Tyler and, to be fair, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, pointed out in an earlier debate, during the general election campaign there was a registration drive and a large number of young people in particular registered. We had the benefit of those additional people on the registers who are therefore able to vote in the referendum.

The Government, as I have indicated in numerous previous debates in Committee, are committed to improving registration rates. We are considering what steps can be taken to support this objective in the context of implementation of individual electoral registration in Great Britain. I have also indicated that a pilot will be launched later this year for local authorities to compare the electoral register against other public databases to identify people who are not currently on the register.

The Minister has said that that will encourage improvement and I understand that. We all have to look for a way in which the Electoral Commission can set a basic standard below which people should not fall. I recognise that this point is wider than the amendment; it is not just a matter of improving it but trying to find a way of setting a basic standard.

I indicated that the commission's report on performance standards for electoral registration officers in Great Britain showed that just under 96 per cent of electoral registration officers met the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registration records standard this year. So they are already measuring and, against that, they found that just under 96 per cent had made it. I do not think there is any dispute in this Committee about the importance of electoral registration. We wish to pursue pilot studies to compare the electoral register against other public databases so that we can identify people who are not currently on the register. If the trials are successful, we will roll this out nationally to ensure that registration officers are aware of what has been shown up by the trials so that they can better target people to get them on the register. There is a commitment to improve the rate of electoral registration but we cannot accept that the referendum should be postponed, possibly indefinitely, awaiting the kind of certification which this amendment proposes. Therefore, I beg the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate and particularly to the Minister for what he has said. I am not so sure about the noble Lord, Lord Newton, who made me sound like a kind of modern Herod who wants to lock up 16 to 18 year-olds who do not register. Both sides recognise that this is a serious issue and it has to be dealt with. Of course, I shall withdraw the amendment tonight but we may well bring this up again in some form on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 102 withdrawn.

Amendments 102A and 102AA not moved.

Amendment 102AB

Moved by

102AB: Clause 18, page 15, line 14, at end insert—

“(1A) Sections 10(2) and 11 shall come into force on a date to be appointed under subsection (1B) following reports from the Boundary Commissions, made as if section 11 of this Act were in force, being laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State.

(1B) The appointed date for the purposes of subsection (1A) shall be appointed in an order made by statutory instrument, subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament.”

This amendment relates to the date of the coming into force of Clause 11, which will be Section 11 if and when the Bill is passed. Noble Lords will know only too well from our very long discussions so far that Clause 11 is the important clause which deals with the reviews by the Boundary Commissions, the number of parliamentary constituencies and the equalisation subject to a small margin of the size of constituencies. I tabled this amendment in the hope that it would contribute towards an agreement on the Bill, in particular so that the referendum on the alternative vote could be held on 5 May this year. I even had hope last week and, of course, after today's proceedings I have even more hope.

The thinking which underlies the amendment is that, although there is a clear and close deadline set by the Government for the referendum, the timing for the completion of Part 2 of the Bill on the Boundary Commissions’ reviews and changes to constituencies is not so tight. The Government’s timing on Part 2 is that it will be completed in good time—perhaps by October 2013—for use in the general election of 2015. From the almost 100 hours that I have spent listening to discussions during the passage of the Bill so far, I am well aware of the political imperative for the Government that the Bill should not be split and that there is a link between Parts 1 and 2. Because my amendment still permits and requires the work on the constituencies to keep going forward, I do not consider that the link is broken.

I shall briefly explain my amendment. If Parliament agrees that the Bill be passed, the work of the Boundary Commissions would go ahead because they are required by this amendment to make their reports as if Section 11 of the Act were in force. These reports would therefore be subject to the provisions of Section 11 because they have to carry out their work as if Section 11 were in force. When these reports are complete they will be laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State who will set by statutory instrument the appointed date for the coming into force of Section 11. As the date for the coming into force of this section would be set by statutory instrument it would require affirmative resolutions of both Houses.

What is the advantage of deferring the coming into force of Section 11 until it is needed, while the actual operation of the section continues in the mean time? In my view, there are at least two advantages. First, it will strengthen in practice the hands of citizens who wish to make representations about the Boundary Commission’s proposals because Section 11 will not actually yet be in force. Secondly, and more importantly, it will give time for further examination, in particular independent examination, of the practical consequences of the smaller House.

During the course of the debates in this House, there has been a recurring theme that 600 was a rather arbitrary figure—I choose my words carefully—and that the consequences may not have been fully worked through. So I think that it would provide time for an independent examination of the practical consequences of the proposals on constituencies that are in the Bill. This point has been made in the debates and it was made this afternoon, in a short trailer—I think that is the word—by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, when he rather approved this idea. It is always very pleasant to have a trailer that is favourable so perhaps the drama itself may actually be favourably received.

What I have suggested may be relatively small advantages but I think they are worth having, particularly because my amendment does not slow up the work required by Section 11 in the period before it enters into force. Will the Minister think carefully about the independent examination of the practical consequences of the decisions on the constituencies? In my view it could be done under my amendment—I think it would be right to do that. However, at some stage there is a strong feeling in the Committee that we should not just let it happen without any independent examination.

To summarise my amendment: the Bill passes, the work goes on including the work on Section 11 but, just as in the well known showbusiness phrase that the show is not over until the fat lady sings, in this case the show is not over until the Secretary of State lays a statutory instrument setting the date for it to come into force and affirmative resolutions of both Houses are agreed. That is what I might call the political equivalent of the fat lady singing.

My Lords, this is an important amendment. It is designed to try to promote the settlement of an impasse in the House. We support the principle of this amendment. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, promotes it on two bases. First, it strengthens the hand of the citizen in making representations in relation to individual Boundary Commission issues. Secondly, and more importantly, it will give time for further examination, particularly independent examination, of the practical consequences of the reduction in the number of constituencies.

We thoroughly endorse that approach. It is implicit in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, that that examination should take place before the implementation of the reduction of the number of constituencies. It is also explicit in the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, that Parliament should have another opportunity to consider this before the implementation. At the heart of the case in favour of that is the widespread concern around the House that the production of this Bill and its passage through Parliament have not been attended by the normal processes that one would expect to precede a constitutional Bill of this enormity and importance.

Noble Lords know the quotes well; the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place stated:

“The Government has declared that the Parliamentary Systems and Constituencies Bill is intended as a ‘major step’ towards restoring people's faith in Parliament. The Government’s failure to consult on the provisions in this Bill risks undermining that laudable intention”.

Our own Constitution Committee stated:

“We conclude that the Government have not calculated the proposed reduction in the size of the House of Commons on the basis of any considered assessment of the role and functions of MPs”.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place was even more scathing. It stated:

“The decision to make this reduction has not been prefigured by any public consultation on the role of a Member of Parliament, nor by any analysis of the impact of the reduction on constituency casework. It has not been accompanied by any compelling international comparisons, nor by any information on what the Government proposes should be the size and role of a reformed upper House. The reduction would, on current plans, be made entirely from the backbenches, with no proposals to reduce the number of Ministers or of others on the Government payroll sitting and voting in the House, thus increasing the extent of executive dominance of Parliament. The savings that the Government claims, but has not proved, the reduction would lead to, would make no discernible impact on the national deficit, amounting as they do to around one millionth of the annual budget of the National Health Service. There may be a case for reducing the number of Members”—

the committee states,

“but the Government has not made it”.

The Government's failure to offer any proper explanation or evidential basis for the proposed reduction in the size of the other place is worrying. Its legitimacy may have been eroded yet further by revelations on BBC's “Newsnight” by its political editor, Michael Crick, who said that the Conservative Party is orchestrating an operation to ensure that any of its current Members of Parliament unseated by the reduction to 600 are shipped off up the Corridor to your Lordships' House instead.

Mark Field, whom I cited earlier, said that,

“the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by Party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office”.

It is possible to make light of those matters, but it gravely undermines our Parliament that such allegations are swirling around this proposal.

The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, reflects that anxiety and would provide a sensible mechanism to address it. It raises issues that will need further consideration, but its crucial element, which is attractive and allows legitimacy for this major change in our constitution, is that it allows for an independent body to be set up, populated by people who are experienced and have respect, to look at the issue and come to an independent and authoritative conclusion before implementation of the change. We would need to discuss how best that would be achieved, how and when it should take place. For example, if the independent body reported within nine months to a year; there was then a vote in Parliament before the completion of the work of the Boundary Commission; and the Government were willing to contemplate some delay in the completion of the work of the Boundary Commission while not endangering the review before the next election, the aims of all in this House could be satisfied.

This is a test of the sincerity of the Government's position in stepping back from the precipice. It allows the Bill to go through, but it gives the opportunity for proper, independent consideration of an important aspect of our constitution. I am glad that the noble Lord the Leader of the House is to answer the debate, because we will get an authoritative answer. I really hope that he will respond by saying that he accepts in principle and that we can discuss the detail further.

Will the noble and learned Lord tell the Committee whether it is his view and, perhaps, that of his party, that on the completion of a boundary review by the independent boundary commissioners, he thinks it wise to go back to Members in the other place to ask them to vote on whether they should accept the recommendations of the independent Boundary Commissions on the new boundaries or simply to have the old boundaries—which, by then, will be even more out of date—from the previous general election? Is that not merely postponing an argument which will be even more fierce in another place in a couple of years’ time, or whenever it is, as we are invited to debate whether to accept the boundary recommendations of the independent commissioners or to keep the old ones? Is that not merely creating more of a problem?

I am very disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has responded in an incredibly unconstructive way. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, has made it absolutely clear that what he envisages is a vote on the principle in relation to the issue and that is what we should be focusing on.

It is clear that a significant effort is being made, and I would like to pay my own tribute to the leading figures on the Cross Benches, to resolve the impasse or to bring us back from the precipice, to use the phrase that was used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. I share the hope that there will be a positive and constructive response to this.

The noble and learned Lord indicated that he recognised this was not necessarily perfect and that there was some more thought to be given to the issues, which I thought was a very helpful way for him to have put his remarks. So I say to my noble friend, who I suspect is in a constructive frame of mind—I share the hope that he is—that there is at least one person behind him who would strongly support such a constructive approach.

Those words spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, himself a former Leader of the House of Commons, who always sought to calm troubled waters in that capacity and did so very successfully, should certainly be heeded. I add my appreciation for the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, and the Cross Benchers who, in tabling this amendment, as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, did earlier in the day, have sought to steer our proceedings into calmer waters, recognising that in Part 2 there are some intensely controversial and very major constitutional issues that are not best resolved in a spirit of hot and angry political contest.

In any case, even if the mood of the Committee had been as placid and as genial in the previous 14 days as it has been today, it would still have taken time to consider properly and for us to be able to reach agreed conclusions that are in the interests of all our people and in the interest of sensible, constructive reform of the constitution, not animated by party political considerations but by real concern to reform and advance the constitution so that it better serves our people.

I very much welcome, therefore, what the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, has suggested. He offers a way in which we can resolve some of these very difficult and important issues in a calmer fashion and on a sensible timescale. I hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will respond in a similar spirit.

My Lords, just to make the bait on the hook of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, even more appetising, there is a point to be made. Earlier on the point was made that the problem with the reduction to 600 is that it increases the size of the Executive relative to the Back Bench. That point was taken on board by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. He said he did not think the legislation should be altered but he wanted to think about it. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, provides an excellent opportunity for a structured way in which we could look at that very important question and come up with a solution without amending the Bill. That should also commend it to the Government who have already endorsed the point that lies behind it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, for having introduced this amendment, which he did with characteristic modesty as this was his idea. As he was speaking, I could tell that he had struck a chord in the House and it was no surprise that my noble friend Lord Newton rose to support him. I was going to say that within this amendment there is a germ of an idea, but that belittles it too much. I thought maybe a seed, but really it is a sapling of an idea that we would like to work on.

I must refute the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord that this part of the Bill is fundamentally partisan. It is not designed to be and I know that he accepts that. I can understand why some Members of another place might think that it is, but it is not. The amendment provides that the new rules for drawing up constituency boundaries would not come into force upon Royal Assent, as the Bill provides, but that a boundary review would still be conducted on the basis of the new rules. The new boundary provisions would be commenced only once the Boundary Commissions had reported and following a debate in both Houses. The intention could be that Parliament could consider how the commissions had applied the new rules in drawing up constituencies and then consider whether the boundary reforms should be made. The existing legislation, the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, would remain in force in the mean time, and Parliament would then effectively have the choice of commencing the new rules or retaining the 1986 Act rules.

While I understand that the amendment has been brought forward in a creative and helpful spirit, I am going to explain in a moment why the Government cannot accept it as it is, not as a knee-jerk reaction, but for two principal reasons. The first reason is that it would break the linkage in the Bill between the entry into force of the new boundaries following the review and the commencement of the provisions on the alternative vote in the event that there is a yes vote in the referendum. We have debated that linkage at length, and I understand that there are different views across the House. However, the Government have set out their stall on the matter, and we believe that the current position in the Bill is the right one.

The second reason is arguably even more important as we are concerned at the implications of the Boundary Commission conducting a review with the rules for doing so as if it were on probation. This is the point that my noble friend Lord Rennard made. It is one thing to ask this House and the other place to consider objectively the rules to which the commission should work when setting new boundaries; it is quite another for Members of Parliament, many of whom have a party-political interest in the outcome of such changes, to be shown the practical results of the application of a set of rules which would potentially be applied at a forthcoming election and then be asked to evaluate the merits of the proposals and to consider which set of rules they prefer.

The effect of the amendment would be that shortly after October 2013, when we expect the commissioners to report, Parliament and, in particular, the other place would be asked to vote on two alternative maps: one with 650 constituencies and one with 600. For me, that is a serious change in the nature of the scrutiny role that the House as a whole undertakes when the recommendations of the independent Boundary Commissions are put before it, and I have strong reservations about taking such a step. In addition, if the recommendations were rejected, constituencies would remain as they currently are until the next review, by which time, in England at least, they would be 20 years out of date. There is also the question of whether we should provide for considerable time and resource, not least that of the general public who contribute to these reviews, to be expended on a review that would have no guarantee of ever being implemented.

Having said that, I understand the issues that have been raised in debates about whether the size of the House of Commons set by this Bill at 600 MPs is the right one. I can see that this amendment, perhaps in part, is a response to that since it would ask Parliament to let the review proceed and put off the decision on whether to accept the new rules until after it has had a chance to see the resulting constituency map.

I have set out why the Government consider that approach goes too far. The Government have also been clear that the proposed size for the House of Commons set in the Bill is the right one. However, we would be open to bringing forward a provision on Report for a review under independent supervision after implementation of the new constituencies of the impact of 600 seats and requiring that that begins in a timescale determined in the Bill.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, finds that a helpful suggestion on going forward, and I am sure that he will reflect on it. Moreover, we would be extremely happy to discuss it with him further. However, for the reasons I have outlined, I would ask him to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I would like to comment briefly on the point which the Leader of the House made about the link. I said when I spoke first that I did not actually believe that it broke the link because all the work is going to go forward; and, of course, Parliament controls the result at the end because only the affirmative procedure brings it into effect. The noble Lord’s reply implies considerable pessimism about the coalition’s success in achieving an affirmative resolution in both Houses. I would say that the Government are highly likely to achieve an affirmative resolution in both Houses since the material that we are dealing with is material that they have put into their own Bill. I am therefore not convinced by that argument, but I am convinced of the strength of the Government’s position on it. That is my first point.

Secondly, on the more important question of the independent review, I note that the Government have gone some way towards accepting that there should be an independent review. That is something, but it is not exactly what would result from my amendment, which would make the independent review available before the coming into force of Section 11, so there is a significant difference. I therefore conclude that, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, the Government have not actually clinched anything on this amendment—I think that is the phrase. I am, however, interested in the extent of the commitment to an independent review, what it would be and when it might come into force.

I remain of the view that my amendment has value, and I reserve the right to come back to it on Report, when I hope we will be clearer about an independent review, which a large number of people in the House obviously want. Indeed, I thank all those who have supported my amendment, and this part of the amendment in particular. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment 102AB withdrawn.

Amendment 102B had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Amendment 102BA

Moved by

102BA: Clause 18, page 15, line 16, at end insert—

“( ) Section 11 shall not come into force until legislation has been passed introducing household voter registration throughout the United Kingdom.”

This amendment is not a criticism of the Government but an opportunity to right a wrong created by my own party. I suppose that successive Governments who did so much good would also occasionally get things wrong, and this is one of them. I shall just explain the current situation for registration both now and historically. We have household registration, which means that a form goes to each household, be it a flat, a house or a bungalow, and one person in the household fills out the form on behalf of all others living there. That person is normally mum, who fills out the form for her children who are aged over 16, and her husband or partner. If we think of our own situations, whatever type of family relationships we have or the people we have shared our homes with in the past, there is always one person in the household who takes responsibility for things such as voter registration, paying bills and so on. The result is that we have a fairly accurate register that is one of the cheapest in the world to administer.

As part of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, the previous Government included a section that will change that system so that each individual will be responsible for registering themselves. We need to look no further than Northern Ireland to know what will happen if this change is implemented. In 2002, when the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act was passed, under which individual registration was introduced and each person had to register themselves, 10 per cent of the public were lost overnight from the register, which went from 96 per cent to 85 per cent of the population.

When an investigation was held into the loss from the register, it was found that it consisted mainly of three groups of people. The first group consisted of young people, first-time voters and 18-25 year olds, the second group consisted of people in areas of high social deprivation, and the third group consisted of people with mental health disabilities. Mencap has produced a useful report in Northern Ireland should anyone wish to look at it.

Before implementing such provisions across the rest of the United Kingdom, we should consider the fact that there are sections of the population here that are not similar to that in Northern Ireland. For example, Northern Ireland does not have a very mobile population. There is no high provision of privately rented, insecure tenancies of a year or under; there is very little multiple occupancy; and it has a stable population—people do not move far from their parents and grandparents. The rest of the United Kingdom has a large population of ethnic minorities; a recently arrived, large population of inward migrants; a huge private rented sector of tenancies of a year and under; and many multi-occupancy properties. Many people also move for jobs. We know that something like 20 per cent of the population of Great Britain moves every year.

At the last general election, just over 45 million people were registered. If what happened in Northern Ireland were to happen in the rest of the UK, we would lose 4.5 million people from the register in addition to the 3.5 million that are already missing. This would amount to 8 million. Academics suggest that we would lose another 10 per cent because of the reasons that I have outlined, which would remove another 4 million people from the register. This would mean that almost 12 million people in this country would not have a stake in the democratic election of our Government.

In Northern Ireland in 2005, some 160,000 voters who did not complete registration forms were reinstated on the register. I therefore do not understand why the Government, when looking at their databases to increase registration in this country, could not do something similar to what has been done in Northern Ireland. As I said, there were 160,000 more voters at the 2005 elections.

We have an opportunity to change this situation now because we have not yet moved to individual registration, which was initially envisaged to happen post the 2015 election. I am now confused because I believe the Government might soon introduce these provisions. Perhaps the Leader of the House will come back to me on that if it is envisaged that the new system will be in place by the 2015 elections.

If we retain this as it currently is, it will allow us to have a very cheap form of registration, and it will avoid the dip in registration that was seen in Northern Ireland. Household registration is also a recognition of the big society; it represents the understanding, responsibility and role of adults in the household, and also the importance of the family as a unit.

My own party was misguided in introducing these provisions in the 2009 Act, and this is a fantastic opportunity for this Government to change these provisions.

Is the real danger of individual registration that when it comes to the second boundary review—in so far as there will be a reduction in the number of people who have registered under individual registration—there will be even more distorted constituencies?

That is absolutely right, and that is why I hope the Government will consider this. I also hope that the Government will consider bringing in an average number to each constituency, rather than a simple limit on 600. If this number of people falls off the register—and we all know the areas that will fall off the register—when you combine the current under-registration and the fall-off in the new register, in certain parts of the country some of these constituencies will have something like 150,000 eligible electors, not registered electors. That is not good for our society, in which we have so many people who do not have a stake in the democratic election of our Government. That creates weak communities and ends up creating bad government. I beg to move.

I am sure the noble Baroness will respond to the debate, but I just wanted to raise a couple of questions. It seems to me that since the boundary review will depend on electorates as of 1 December 2010, the only effective change brought about by this amendment would be to change the electoral registration system in Northern Ireland. Did she consult any of the parties in Northern Ireland, or indeed the Northern Ireland Assembly, in suggesting that the basis of electoral registration in Northern Ireland be changed in this amendment? Would it generally be accepted that the only effect of making that change in registration processes in Northern Ireland would be to delay the entire boundary review beyond the date of the next general election in 2015?

At the risk of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, giving his automatic counter another click so that he can update his blog tomorrow, I just want briefly to support the excellent amendment of my noble friend Lady McDonagh. As always, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, finds the nit-picking objections and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler agrees. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, of course, is the constitutional spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. I do not know what that makes the noble Lord, Lord McNally, or indeed Nick Clegg, but the Liberal Democrats obviously need lots and lots of constitutional spokespersons.

My noble friend Lady McDonagh is absolutely right; this is a mistake that the former Labour Government made. It is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is not here today to hear this because he was the principal architect of it, but it worries me. My noble friend has great experience of running the Labour Party and understands these things intricately, and I give all credit to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. He opposed this individual registration on every opportunity in this House—again and again—vigorously and consistently, and no one paid any attention to him.

This kind of legislation reminds me that a lot of the thinking in some of our legislation comes from middle-class, middle-aged people sitting in drawing rooms in the south-east of England. I do not know whether they have sectarian discussions around their dinner table, but they have certainly come up with some of the craziest legislation.

No account is taken of the fact that some elderly people are confused and find it difficult to deal with that kind of form. Many years ago, I was the chairman of the Scottish adult literacy agency. A large number of people cannot read and write and are unable to fill in this form; they need someone to fill it in. I can go through category after category of people who would need help as they would be reluctant and unable to fill in that form. It is very difficult for students away from home and for people overseas. My son is working out in Bolivia at the moment, but he is still going to come back and will be entitled to vote. We can think of all sorts of examples of how this will make it difficult to vote.

My noble friend Lady McDonagh is absolutely right; it is about time that people in both Houses started to think of ordinary people and of the lives that they live. They do not all sit round the dinner table every night discussing these kinds of things. They lead a hard, difficult life. They might have difficulties with poverty or literacy, or they might be confused, in many cases, and need that kind of help. I hope that more people will come and support this.

My Lords, I will intervene only briefly and do not really want to go down all the roads that I went down some years ago during the Labour Government’s two attempts—the second was successful, in my view quite mistakenly—to reintroduce individual registration. I have never been able to understand why the Liberal Democrats supported that. I understand that the Electoral Commission, in its various reports, kept on promoting the principle. However, the Liberal Democrats must have been aware of the dangers that would arise, even in some of their own seats such as the one that includes Bermondsey. Bermondsey is in a seat that could be gravely damaged through the introduction of individual registration, and I simply cannot understand why they seemingly allowed it all to happen.

My own view was very simple; there was a problem to be resolved, and that was fraud within the electoral system. That, I suspect, was the driving force behind those who argued for it. They chose an extremely expensive way of resolving the problem, whereby the whole of the United Kingdom would be subject to individual registration, against the parts of it in which there was a particular problem. Without going into detail, most Members of the Committee will understand precisely what I mean. There is a problem in certain parts of the United Kingdom, which had to be dealt with.

On two occasions under two separate Bills, I came up with a recommendation that would have sorted out that problem by giving local authorities the right to opt for a particular status whereby they would be given additional resources to sort out the problems in their areas, but the Labour Government unfortunately turned it down. Indeed, I lobbied almost every member of the Labour Cabinet about it to try to get them to understand the importance of avoiding individual registration, which will do immeasurable harm to our party in the longer term. Now we have it in place at a time when local authorities’ budgets in this area are not ring-fenced and when local authorities will not place the money that is necessary to ensure a high level of individual registration.

I welcome my noble friend’s amendment, and I hope only that the Government will accept it. They will not, of course, because they too have been convinced by this rubbish recommendation from the Electoral Commission, which should have known better.

I, too, stand convicted of being convinced by the rubbish recommendation of the Electoral Commission. I believe that the principle of moving to individual registration is right. Apart from anything else, the concept of modern citizenship is that the task of registering to vote should no longer be the preserve of the head of the household. However, if the principle of individual registration is correct, the practicality involved in the best way to get there is more complicated. As the experience of introducing individual registration in Northern Ireland has shown, the consequences can be catastrophic if you get the process wrong. The very swift introduction of individual registration in that part of the United Kingdom in 2002 led to a collapse in the number on the electoral register, with a fall of around 119,000.

Learning the lessons of that experience, the Labour Government legislated to introduce individual voter registration according to a clearly phased timetable based on the twin principles of ensuring the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the electoral register. That process gave the Electoral Commission a central role in determining whether the final move from household to individual registration was safe to proceed with, and the transition was based on a two-stage process—a voluntary phase and a compulsory phase. The legislation made it clear that the voluntary phase would not finish before 2014. In 2014, the Electoral Commission would then be required to assess, based on trends in voter registration, whether the collection of identifying information should be made obligatory. Assuming that a positive recommendation was agreed by Parliament, compulsory individual registration would follow in 2015.

The timetable received explicit backing from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Benchers in the other place. It is a matter of deep concern that the Government have now abandoned those pledges and that they intend to tear up our carefully formulated and agreed timetable and to accelerate the introduction of individual registration without the safeguards that we put in place.

As I have already noted, the rush to the production of individual registration in Northern Ireland produced a dramatic fall in registered numbers. The Electoral Commission subsequently reported that the new registration process disproportionately impacted on young people and students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities generally and those living in areas of high deprivation. We must not repeat that outcome when the system is introduced in Great Britain. That is especially important in view of the Electoral Commission’s report of March 2010, which identified who was least represented on the electoral register.

The phased implementation of full individual registration by autumn 2015 was intended to minimise as far as possible the risk of worsening under-registration. The Government already intend to cut seats and redraw boundaries on the basis of an electoral register from which 3.5 million eligible voters are missing. The premature rollout of individual registration would increase that number and, over time, would distort the planned boundary revisions even more. I do not support the policy of reversing the move to individual registration. However, I do support making sure that it is done properly.

My Lords, what an interesting debate this has been, with noble Lords changing their minds about what they had done under the previous Government.

The noble and learned Lord sounded as though he agreed to it in principle but thought that the implementation was wrong, whereas the noble Baroness and the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Campbell-Savours, were never in favour of it. I must say that I very much allied myself with them in the past in that I was not convinced by the case for individual registration. However, I am now in government and we support it.

Noble Lords opposite know exactly what I am going to say; this is not the Bill on which to have this debate, so we are not going to accept the amendment, although there is an interesting debate to be had. I do not want to say “We are where we are”, although we sort of are where we are. Two or three years ago, I think that I would have allied myself with noble Lords on the Back Benches opposite, but the law was changed by the previous Government with cross-party support. Provision was made for an eventual move to individual registration in the rest of the United Kingdom under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The Electoral Commission supports a move to individual registration, and Her Majesty’s Government are committed to speeding up the process of registration in Great Britain because, as is widely known, the current system of household registration is vulnerable to fraud. Although the number of cases of electoral fraud is low, the perception created by them undermines confidence in the electoral system as a whole.

The noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, asked whether we are speeding up the process. The answer is yes. The Government are speeding up the introduction of individual voter registration by making it compulsory from 2014. Under the new plans, the voluntary phase of individual registration will be dropped and, instead, Great Britain will in 2014 move directly to compulsory individual registration. If this amendment were passed, it would delay the commencement of one of the central provisions of the Bill, and this would prevent a boundary review from being carried out in time for the next general election. I am not suggesting that that is the noble Baroness’s motive, but it would be the effect if it were to be agreed. As the Committee knows, we must proceed with a boundary review to ensure that when the next general election is held, boundaries in England are not 15 years out of date and do not continue to exacerbate the inequality that is present in the current system.

Returning household registration to Northern Ireland would, we feel in government, be a detrimental step that is likely to lead in time to the widespread perception of fraud that was so prevalent in Northern Ireland before 2002. We want to prevent that from returning, with the consequent undermining of confidence in the political process in Northern Ireland.

It has been an interesting and useful debate, and I urge noble Lords to run a campaign on it, but they should do it outwith the provisions of the Bill, and I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

I thank the Committee for its contributions to the debate. I will quickly answer a few questions and come back to a couple of points. This amendment would make no difference whatever in Northern Ireland; the 2002 Act has been superseded by the Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Act and we are reinstating and registering people who had not even filled in forms. If the Government were to agree to continue with household registration, I would have no problem in removing Northern Ireland from the provisions of this amendment, but it would not make any difference, as I explained. They have reinstated some 160,000 voters already, and I remind the House that this has not resolved issues of fraud but has disenfranchised adult children, people in areas of social deprivation and people with mental health disabilities.

On the second question that was asked, yes, I do appreciate that it would have an impact on the second boundary and that the current boundaries would be the ones that were drawn up on the register at the end of last year. I am in no way seeking to delay the current Boundary Commission redrawing in my amendment. I particularly want to thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes. I have lived in households that have adults with literacy issues, and it is obvious that one person in the household takes responsibility for registration, bills, paperwork and so on. This is not an old-fashioned concept of the head of the household; it is about understanding families and understanding that everyone has a different responsibility and everyone helps everyone else.

I did see a sapling, a glint from the Leader of the House, on this issue. I thank him for his comments, and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 102BA withdrawn.

Clause 18 agreed.

Clause 19 agreed.

Schedule 1 : Further provisions about the referendum

Amendment 102C

Moved by

102C: Schedule 1, page 16, line 8, at end insert—

“( ) The minimum period between the passing of this Act and the date of the referendum shall be three months.”

My Lords, towards the end of a long speakers list in a debate in this House, someone stands up and says, “Everything there is to be said on this topic has been said, but not everyone has yet said it”. That usually raises a laugh, as it has today; good jokes, like wine, improve with age. Here I have invented a variant on the old saw for Committee stage: “Everything possible has been said on this amendment but it has not been said everywhere. The matter can be raised on the Bill”. That is what a harsh critic would say.

I want to say why my amendment is different from earlier amendments which laid down that the referendum should not take place on 5 May. In our earlier debates, the arguments that we concentrated on for not having it on 5 May were that it clashed with the Welsh Assembly elections, the Scottish Parliament elections and the local authority elections, that this would lead to a lot of political noise—particularly as Liberal Democrat and Labour candidates fought each other—and that that would not be an atmosphere in which there could be sensible consideration of this issue. Those arguments are all valid. My amendment is compatible, I admit, with 5 May as a referendum date. It is three months after Royal Assent. We have only to give the Bill Royal Assent on Thursday night. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will be delighted if we achieve that timetable. Stranger things have happened in these Houses of Parliament, so it would be possible to have it on those days. All that the amendment lays down is that there must be three months between Royal Assent and the referendum to consider the matter. That is three months for information, persuasion and contemplation before decision.

Let us consider the present state of public opinion. I am taking a large poll done by YouGov in September last year. It asked first whether people had heard of AV and knew what it was. Roughly one-third said yes, they had heard of it and knew a bit about what it was. Of that one-third, I bet that half were lying—they did not know what it was, though they may have heard of it. One-third said that they had heard of it but they did not have a clue what it meant, and one-third had neither heard of it nor had a clue what it meant. That is the information backlog that we face as we run up to the referendum on this issue. There is a huge job of basic education to be done before we even get to the arguments for and against. Those arguments, which anyone studying the House’s proceedings on Part 1 of the Bill will have heard quite often, are difficult and balanced and need the most careful consideration. The electorate must think very hard about what they are doing.

The suggestion that this can be done in less than three months is not right. Yes, in that time a referendum can be held—the Electoral Commission can do its work, the ballot papers can be printed and so on—but we will not get a properly valid answer. I say that whether it is the answer that I want, a yes, or the one that many noble Lords want, a no. It will not be properly valid because the people will not have had long enough to contemplate the proposition put before them.

If the verdict seems invalid, that will have consequences for legitimacy. The side that loses will be able to stand up almost immediately and say, “It was fixed. It was cooked. This referendum is not the considered view of the British people. It’s a referendum held at a time to suit a political timetable”. Why on earth the Liberal Democrats want the referendum on 5 May continues to escape me, but they clearly do. That would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the verdict.

It is also true, of course, that had the House made faster progress on the Bill—I do not attribute blame on all this; I am delighted that we are now belatedly making progress—the Bill might by now have been law and the campaigning able to be started, so there would have been time to inform the public. However, the passage of time has meant that the time available for contemplating the actual issue in the referendum has been squeezed. My amendment says that it must be squeezed no further. There should be a three-month period between Royal Assent and the referendum. I hope that this is a common-sense proposition in a common-sense amendment and that therefore it will become a consensual amendment around the House. That just shows that I am a very hopeful sort of a chap. However, it should be understood that the argument is as I have set it out. If the Government reject it, it will be for reasons quite other, and arguably less reputable, than the House and the country have reason to deserve.

My Lords, I intervene briefly and again address my remarks to the Liberal Democrats. They know from previous debates that I support the referendum and am in favour of electoral reform and a version of AV. Therefore, what happens in the polling booth is of great interest to me, as indeed it should be to them. The question is, in what circumstances is it more likely that the AV referendum will be won? I put to them two distinctly different scenarios: one where a person walks into a polling station, having heard a campaign, and votes for it deliberately, in circumstances where it is highly likely that those who are opposed to it will not bother going to the polls. The advantage of having a referendum day on its own is that it would concentrate the minds of those who were in favour of change to go and vote, whereas those who were against change would, more likely than not, simply stay away. The danger of holding a referendum on the same day as an election is that everybody will go to the polling booth and they will all vote. Those who are opposed, who otherwise would not turn up at the polling booth, will then go and vote against electoral reform. The Liberal Democrats will regret what they have done during the course of this Bill. The referendum will be lost for the reason I have given and they will bear the responsibility for that as they will have set the electoral reform agenda back decades.

My Lords, the only way in which the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, could correctly say that his amendment is a common-sense proposition is if it suggested a six-month period. The provisions of the amendment are not compatible with a 5 May date: we do not need to look at our diaries to ascertain that. However, I agreed entirely with the rest of his speech. There is not enough time to do the job properly. There never was, in my view. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, this is a fundamental matter. The Liberal Democrats also know my position. They know that I support electoral reform and I want PR, but this is a dishonest form of AV. In my view, it is a corrupt form of voting. The coalition has chosen the date to match the election date. That is fine; that is the coalition’s responsibility. I am quite happy with that. I do not have a view whether it should be held on that or another day, but the Lib Dems will be severely punished for holding the referendum on 5 May for lots of other reasons. I think that it will be lost. However, it is sad to have a referendum on the major constitutional issue of our voting system—we have never had such a referendum—and to lose it due to insufficient time being given to the process.

I do not want to labour the point but one has only to look at what happened in New Zealand and read the information that was published by the New Zealand electoral commission that went out to individuals. I cannot envisage anything remotely like that being provided here in terms of quality and quantity, and then being taken on board by the electorate. Our Electoral Commission might push out a lot of leaflets but pamphlets and booklets are needed rather than leaflets. This matter goes well beyond two sides of A4. The information must be assimilated and debated if it is to be successful. The assessment was that 10 weeks were needed, which is how we have the date that we have, which was debated in this House back in December. We knew that the Bill needed to get Royal Assent before the recess in February. The assessment was that it could be done in 10 weeks. Mechanically, it can be done. Intellectually and educationally, I do not think that it can be done. That is what I think is wrong with my noble friend’s amendment. It should have been six months, but that is the Government’s responsibility. They have rushed this Bill. There was no need to rush it within a year of the general election. It could still have been done on the election date. I appreciate that the devolved elections come only once every four years, and if that is the key test that more people go out to vote, so be it. However, I just do not think that it can be done in the way that hearts and minds can be won. We will get a poor result. I think it will fail, but it will be for the wrong reasons. I wish it were for the right reasons. I will not support it; I will campaign against it, but I would rather that it failed for the right reasons. I would rather that there were a genuine debate about the real issues; but I do not think that it can be done in the time available.

My Lords, three of my noble friends who support proportional representation have spoken, so it is only fair that the first past the post majority viewpoint of the Labour Party is heard. From my noble friends—who are friends as well as noble friends—what we have here is excuse-gathering. It is always “if only” this had happened or that had happened, people would flock to the banner of PR. People are not interested. In the main, people are quite happy with first past the post because of all its benefits, which have been discussed many times before and I do not intend to go into them. There is always an excuse from the people who support PR that people do not understand it and there is also the deception that people have not been educated about it. Pro-PR people really do not take any account of how they sound. They sound arrogant saying, “If only people were educated, they would learn the error of their ways and flock to the banner of proportional representation”. It is not true.

I will not spend more time speaking about this, but I intend to clear up something, although sometimes it is like a bingo hall in here when you get the clickety-click of the little clicker of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, as he counts the number of times people have contributed. That is fair game. However, I would like to point out something to him. In the context of this, he is either completely unaware of or not interested in studying the way in which the other place operates, or he is quite content to spread misconceptions. I understand from my noble friend that a misconception has spread among the Liberal Democrats. The blog of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, says that Tommy McAvoy—it is quite insulting, actually— “muttered just four words” in the House of Commons in so many years. I do not really mutter. I have never been accused of muttering before. Clearly, either through lack of knowledge or deception—he can tell me which it is—he implies that I could have spoken there; but any politician worth his salt in here who is not intending to deceive people knows full well that Whips do not speak in the other place. I will give way in a moment, once I finish my point, and I will give the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, all the merit it deserves, whatever it is. A side issue is that my good friend Alistair Carmichael—he is a good friend even though he is a Liberal Democrat—is now silent. Does that mean that he is reduced to muttering?

That is absolutely right, but that is the difference between a party that aspires to power and a party that aspires to nothing but opposition.

My Lords, I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lord McAvoy and to confirm what he said, namely that it is the custom for government Whips in the House of Commons not to speak. That has been the case with both Conservative and Labour Governments. I also add that what he did not say in the Chamber, he made up for outwith the Chamber, to keep his friends and colleagues on the straight and narrow very effectively.

I will raise a completely new matter. I make no apology for that, except to the Minister for not alerting him, because I did not know that there would be an opportunity today to raise this. I doubt if officials have cottoned on to this, unless they are really top-notch. The matter was raised yesterday in Scotland on Sunday. The Minister may have picked it up, because he lives in Scotland, as I do, and may have seen the paper. The matter was picked up today by the dailies and I alerted my Front Bench to it earlier. It is a new and genuine worry about having the election and the referendum on the same day. It was raised not by me but by the association of returning officers in Scotland, which said that it would be impossible to do the count for the Scottish Parliament elections on Thursday evening and make the announcement on Friday morning—as was the case in the past—because of the complications arising from having two elections together and the possibility of making mistakes in the middle of the night. We know the difficulties that arise when one has to work through the night.

It is a genuine worry of all parties in Scotland—certainly of the Labour Party and of the SNP Government, and I understand that at least some Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have expressed concern—that this will mean that on Friday morning there will be total confusion about the outcome of the election, because it will take some time to go through the count on Thursday night and Friday, and probably the result of the Scottish election will not be known until Saturday or Sunday. That will create tremendous problems—with the additional member system that we have, when constituencies are counted before additional members—for parties to know which of them will be in power, for there to be discussions between them about possible arrangements or for the largest party to decide to go ahead. It will create tremendous problems.

I will not blame the Minister if he has no immediate response to this, because the matter has just come up recently and I only became aware of it on Sunday. It would be helpful for all of us if he would look at that, take it away and ask officials—particularly officials in Scotland and in the Scotland Office, in discussion with the Scottish Executive—what the problems are and whether there is any way that they might be ameliorated.

I have not seen any of the reports that my noble friend quotes. However, it seems that this is a scam by the first past the posters to attack a PR fair voting system. It is inevitable with a PR system that one will not get an instant result. That has never been the case and no one has ever claimed that it was. So what if it takes 48 or 72 hours to count the votes because they have been cast in a fairer system than first past the post? Is my noble friend sure that he is not part of a conspiracy to undermine the successful operation of the PR fairer voting systems of the devolved Administrations of the UK?

I would love to think that I am part of a conspiracy to undermine the so-called fair voting systems that some people want. It is a genuine slur on the returning officers—I know my noble friend Lord Rooker does not mean it—to suggest that they are part of any kind of scam. They are raising genuine concerns as non-political civil servants who work for local authorities. However, I draw the attention of my noble friend to Belgium, which has this PR system. It is seven months since the Belgian election and the country still does not have a Government. That is probably a better example. In Scotland, we can manage it rather more quickly than that.

Aside from that diversion, I ask the Minister—who has been very helpful, as has the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace—to look into this and, if there is a problem, to see whether there is any way to resolve it.

My Lords, my noble friend’s amendment is entirely sensible. Indeed, following on from the previous amendment, I suspect that the Leader of the House may secretly or quietly agree with it. He may not be able to say so, because, as he reminded us, he is now in government. However, the amendment is sensible and I ask the noble Lord at least to take it back and consider it carefully. Also, the point of my noble friend Lord Foulkes about what appeared in the Scottish press yesterday is well worth the Government considering, if not responding to tonight.

This amendment is not contrary to the will of this Committee, due to the second Rooker amendment that is now well known in political history—the one that this Committee passed on 30 November stating that the voting system referendum must be held at some point before 31 October next year, which is clearly within the three months that this amendment mentions. The amendment of my noble friend Lord Rooker was subtle but important. It was hastily dismissed by the Government at the time of its passing, but perhaps they now regret that. It would have eased the pressure under which the Government find themselves.

By recommending a gap of three months between Royal Assent and the holding of the referendum, this amendment facilitates a period of proper preparation, including, most importantly, a proper information and education campaign on the difficult issues that the public are being asked to vote on, which are not that simple. We were reminded about New Zealand, which, when it changed its voting system in the early 1990s, provided a year-long information campaign.

I remind the Committee that Amendment 6 to this Bill, moved a long time ago, advised that a gap of between six and 18 months be inserted into the timetable for the referendum to allow for preparation and an information campaign. This amendment falls far short of that, but is moved with the same motivation. It seeks to facilitate a state of affairs that is an improvement on the 10 weeks or less that the Government’s timetabling will provide the Electoral Commission with to disseminate information about the poll. It is less than 10 weeks in which to inform the public about an issue which Electoral Commission research informs us there is perilously little information or knowledge about.

This is not the proper context in which to be asking the public to make such an important decision, whether you are for this form of AV or for first past the post. Officials and interested participants should be given adequate time to provide this information.

As I recall, the noble Lord and his colleagues supported the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, which the Committee then passed, on the basis that we could still hold the referendum on 5 May, but it was left open for the referendum to be held at any time thereafter, before October. Is the noble Lord, Lord Bach, now saying that he is precluding the referendum being held on 5 May? That is a change of position, is it not?

My Lords, we now know that the Bill certainly cannot be passed three months before the referendum due on 5 May. Therefore, we think that my noble friend, in moving this amendment, is being realistic. That does not take away from the effect of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Rooker, which we were glad to support and still do in principle. However, if the Government wanted a kind of middle way, they might be very sensible to pick up what my noble friend Lord Lipsey has suggested. We hope that the Government treat the amendment with some sympathy.

One of the most interesting facts that I have learnt today is just how many noble Lords opposite read the blog of my noble friend Lord Rennard. He should be immensely pleased and impressed that he has elicited such a reaction from noble Lords. I hope that at some stage he will commercialise it in an appropriate manner.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked questions about the Scottish association of returning officers. I will certainly look into the questions that he has raised. Earlier in Committee we discussed this and the information we had at that time was that there would be no problem in Scotland. It will be interesting to see whether that has changed.

The view of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was that people are not prepared. Interestingly, he said a number of things in support of the amendment. The amendment provides a three-month delay, as though they would not be prepared now but they would be prepared if there were a three-month delay. I am not sure that is right. I think people have a perception about AV and I am not sure that there will be an enormous difference between the 10-week limit that we have at the moment and three months. The Government see no compelling reason to fix the length of the period for this referendum to a minimum of three months.

It is worth reminding noble Lords opposite that the previous Government worked to swift timetables in organising the 1998 devolution referendums. This referendum was announced as far back as June or July. The Bill was introduced in July in the House of Commons. Of course, as has been recognised, I do not know when the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, tabled the amendment but it would mean that a target date of 5 February would have to be set, and that is later this week. If that target were not met, the provision would need to be given retrospective effect so that the referendum period could still begin three months from the date of the poll; for example, on a date before the Bill receives Royal Assent, and neither is desirable or necessary.

Practical arrangements by the Electoral Commission have been well under way for months, ensuring that the referendum can take place on 5 May under the current referendum period timeframe. The Electoral Commission expanded on that in its briefing on 7 December and said:

“We have been working with local Counting Officers and Returning Officers to prepare plans on the basis of a referendum on 5 May 2011, alongside the other polls planned for that day, and in our most recent assessment we said that sufficient progress has been made for us to be confident they will be well run. Similarly, those intending to campaign at the referendum will have been developing their plans for the date specified in the Bill as introduced”.

So a good deal of work has already been done by the registration officers and those who wish to run the campaigns have been working on their material. For those reasons we do not think that there is a need to extend the referendum period, as everything points to those involved being well prepared.

Can the noble Lord remind the House of the rules governing the ability of the Electoral Commission or any other agency to spend public money on planning implementation of a Bill which has not yet passed through Parliament?

I think the bodies that will need to spend money as a result of the Bill can do so once Second Reading has taken place in the first House. I will check that for the noble Lord but, under these circumstances, I do not think that there is any problem with the Electoral Commission spending money. For those reasons, we think the campaigns are well prepared. A lot of organisation has continued and I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

This has been a trip down memory lane to the early days of the debate on the Bill. I thought we might still be here for some hours to come but that is not so. I am afraid that the Minister has not convinced me. First, he said that practical arrangements could be made by 5 May and I said precisely the same thing myself. That was never in question. The question is whether a legitimate debate can take place in so short a period. The only argument which I think I heard him use against that was the argument from Scottish and Welsh devolution. He did not say what the exact timetable on those Bills was but that the referendums were carried out quickly. That is true, but there is no analogy between the two. The issues of Scottish and Welsh devolution had been matters of the most intense debate in Scotland and Wales. There had been a failed attempt with a referendum about 10 years before the critical referendum took place. There was not a moment when this was not in the public eye in Scotland and Wales, with one political party having a change to the Government’s arrangements as its central and single objective.

There has been a debate about electoral change too. It has been, let me admit freely, up till now largely confined to the political class. It is only now that we really know that the alternative to be put before the British people is AV and not the supplementary vote, STV, AV+ or all the other systems that are around. It is starting miles behind where the devolution campaign started and that is why it is quite wrong to rush it through in this way. As a number of noble Lords have said, the Lib Dems are going to repent of this rapid timetable at their leisure. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 102C withdrawn.

Amendment 103

Moved by

103: Schedule 1, page 18, line 20, leave out “may” and insert “must”

My Lords, I have been preparing for this moment since well before Christmas and I thought it would never come but my hour has come and I shall also speak to other amendments in the group. They may seem a bit of a comedown from the heady constitutional stuff we have been discussing—I was going to say for the last six weeks but the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referring to 30 November in the last debate suggests to me that it must have been at least eight weeks. In any case, I hope your Lordships would agree that the amendments are of considerable importance none the less and I would hope less apt to be contentious in your Lordships’ House.

The purpose of these amendments is to disability-proof this legislation and to ensure that the referendum it establishes is fully inclusive and accessible to disabled people. Noble Lords will remember how the last general election was marred by scenes of voters queuing for hours, a shortage of ballot papers and the electorate being denied access to polling stations. Sadly, this is routinely the experience of millions of disabled voters at every election for every tier of government. There is also a worrying lack of accountability as there is currently no way for people to appeal when they are wrongly denied their right to vote, other than by mounting an expensive, onerous and bureaucratic legal challenge.

Following the report in 1999 of the Disability Rights Task Force—which the last Labour Government set up at the beginning of their administration and on which I had the honour to serve—some attempt has been made to give higher priority to the accessibility of elections for disabled people. Some provision has been made in the Representation of the People Act and the Electoral Commission has produced some helpful guidance. However, local authorities do not always implement it and more still needs to be done at local level to ensure that elections are fully inclusive.

Over the past decade and more the Polls Apart coalition of charities, led by Scope, has produced evidence of the continuing inaccessibility of polling stations and has been working to raise awareness of the need to make elections more accessible. The 2010 Polls Apart survey revealed that in the 2010 general election, 67 per cent of polling stations had poor access for people with mobility difficulties; 47 per cent of postal voters had problems with the accessibility of the ballot papers and nearly half of all polling stations failed to display a large-print ballot paper—31 per cent worse than in the 2005 survey. Local authorities knew that 14 per cent of the polling stations they intended to use would not be accessible to disabled voters, but very few authorities outside Northern Ireland made any effort to tell voters about the accessibility of their polling stations or to offer an alternative option to them.

The right to vote is laid down in statute, the European Convention on Human Rights, and, most recently, in Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but, in practice, voting is still a right denied to many disabled people. We need to bolster the legislation to guarantee that right. Of course, the Bill can do that only for the referendum, but I would hope that if we can get it right on this occasion, that could set the standard for all future elections.

Amendment 103 would give the chief counting officer a duty, rather than a power, to give regional counting officers and counting officers directions requiring them to take specified steps in preparation for the referendum. Amendment 104 would require that such steps should include ensuring that adequate provision is made for disabled voters. Amendments 105 and 106 lay an analogous duty on regional counting officers, for a region; and on counting officers, for voting areas within that region. Amendment 107 further adds to the matters on which regional counting officers should give direction to counting officers,

“directions about the discharge of their functions in relation to voters with disabilities”,


“directions requiring them to address any complaints from voters arising from the administration of the referendum”.

Amendment 110 creates a robust duty for the Electoral Commission to ensure that voters are able to access information about the referendum, and strengthens its general duty to give specific guidance on achieving equality of access to the voting process. Amendment 114 and Amendments 116 to 119 would require counting officers to ensure that the polling places used for the referendum were accessible to disabled voters, to notify voters of any polling stations that may not be accessible, and to provide details of alternative voting options.

The Electoral Commission has stated—and I fear that the Government may say—that it does not believe that the amendments are necessary, given the duties and responsibilities already laid on counting officers and the Electoral Commission by existing legislation. Existing legislation is not working, as the Polls Apart surveys have demonstrated, so we clearly need something more.

I have brought forward a reasonable set of amendments designed to address the situation. If they can do it in Northern Ireland, they can do it in the rest of the United Kingdom. I very much hope that the Government will see their way to accepting the amendments, thus helping to expedite the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

I pay tribute to the part played by the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, on the Disability Rights Task Force and to his resourceful, imaginative and courageous campaigning in the interests of disabled people over a great many years. We are proud to have him as a Member of this House and greatly welcome his contribution not only to debates on the status and position of disabled people in our society but much more widely.

The situation that the noble Lord has described to us is a disgrace. It may be that, as the Electoral Commission has suggested, legislation is more or less sufficient, or ought to be, to ensure that the proper requirements of disabled people within our electoral system are accommodated, but evidently it is not working in practice. Whether that is a matter of lack of financial resources or, more likely, that it is a matter of attitudes and culture I do not know. But in all events, we need to take energetic and determined steps to greatly improve the state of affairs to which the noble Lord has alerted us.

It may be that the amendments he has proposed are the kind of practical amendments needed to rectify some of the deficiencies in existing legislation and regulations. Again, I do not know for sure, but it seems to me that the measures that the noble Lord has proposed are modest, practical and reasonable, and it is hard to imagine what objection could be made to them. But whether or not legislative change is the key to improving the state of affairs that he has described, ensuring that disabled people are included as they should be within our electoral and broader political systems, it is evident that there needs to be leadership and drive to ensure that the attitudes and the performance of professional staff in this field, and I daresay also of the political parties, are greatly improved.

I therefore look forward to the response from the Minister. We should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, for calling our attention to a matter of serious concern and on a purely bipartisan basis. There is no party politics in this. I am sure it is universally agreed around the House that the arrangements that govern elections and certainly the holding of this particular referendum will in practice ensure that disabled people are in no way inhibited or debarred from participating.

My Lords, the Committee should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, for moving his amendment and speaking to the other amendments in this group, and for informing the House about the results of the Polls Apart survey. The noble Lord said that this was a reasonable set of amendments and we on the opposition Front Bench agree. We think they are all sensible as well as reasonable and that they should be supported around the House in due course.

Our advice to the Government is that they should go away with these amendments and think very carefully indeed about how they can implement them. If they do not, I suspect the noble Lord will come back on Report and will have very wide support around the House from all sides so that these practical suggestions can be put into effect. As I say, the opposition Front Bench support these amendments.

My Lords, from these Benches we, too, are immensely grateful for the way the noble Lord, Lord Low, moved his amendments and I am sorry he had to spend so long waiting and listening to the rest of us before he got to them. Perhaps I may say at the outset that the Government enormously welcome the principles behind these amendments. I shall give him a very full reply and I hope that he will consider it before Report.

Similar amendments were debated in the other place and the Government stated their commitment to ensuring that everybody has an equal opportunity to cast their votes in this referendum. It is right and important that every effort is made to ensure that all individuals, with or without disabilities, are able to exercise their democratic rights. The Bill already contains significant provisions to ensure that voting is fair for all. This includes those voters with disabilities. Existing anti-discrimination legislation also already imposes duties on public authorities which are directly targeted at involvement in public life. Specifically, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 was amended to include a duty on public authorities to promote the equality of individuals with disabilities.

Ensuring that ballot papers and polling stations are accessible to all is already a duty that counting officers will need to take forward. For the purposes of the referendum, the chief counting officer will also be able to give directions to counting officers on how they discharge these functions.

The Government have discussed aspects of the Bill with Scope, which does important work in directly supporting people with disabilities and whose reports are taken very seriously by government. We have already made some changes to the ballot papers to reflect its suggestions and have given the chief counting officer power to modify the voter-facing forms to make them easier to use and understand. However, as has been debated in the other place, the Government are not convinced that the amendments that have been tabled on this issue are the best way of achieving the commendable aims that underlie them.

In many instances, the chief counting officer and regional counting officers will already have the power to do what the amendments propose. Amendments 103 to 106 would turn these powers into obligations, which would not add anything to the commission's available options and may be actively damaging. If we take away the commission's discretion to decide when it needs to issue, for example, directions or guidance on disability issues, the commission may have to do work when its efforts could more usefully be directed elsewhere. That might impinge on the commission's activities in other areas. I know that the commission treats disability issues very seriously and is mindful that it is important to ensure ease of access where possible but, given its other commitments in the referendum, we need to give the commission the room to judge what action is necessary to support the aims of these amendments.

The commission provided some very helpful briefing on this matter when the same subject was raised in the other place. The briefing highlighted that,

“We take seriously our duties as a public body under equality legislation, including the Disability Discrimination Act and the Equality Act 2010 (due to come into force in April 2011), to ensure, among other things, that the information provided is accessible and available in alternative formats”.

The chief counting officer will issue guidance and directions to RCOs and COs that will cover their duties in relation to accessibility and disabled voters under relevant equality and electoral legislation. These include: ensuring that polling stations meet the accessibility requirements of the DDA; ensuring that information, forms and notices relating to the voting process are available in alternative, accessible formats; making available enlarged sample versions of the ballot paper in polling stations; and providing a tactile voting device in each polling station to enable voters with visual impairments to vote.

The commission points out that, as at other elections in the UK, voters who have a disability may ask polling station staff for assistance with voting or may take someone with them to the polling station to help them cast their vote and that people voting by post may ask someone to help them with the process of completing their ballot paper and postal voting statement.

The commission will continue to work with Mencap, the RNIB, Scope and other representative and advocacy organisations to ensure that the referendum is managed and delivered in a way that ensures that all electors are able to participate effectively.

The way in which the obligations in these amendments will interact with the very important legal obligations that are already imposed by the Disabilities Discrimination Act and the Equality Act is also a cause for concern. Indeed, these amendments may add relatively little in a substantive sense. If the aim is to ensure that the rights of disabled voters are protected, surely that is best served by clarity of understanding about what is required by law. It would be very unfortunate if a multiplicity of obligations and a confused understanding of how they interacted stood in the way of precisely that sort of clarity, but I fear that that is one potentially serious effect of accepting these amendments.

The Government welcome the debate prompted by these amendments and encourage further dialogue, and I offer any further dialogue that the noble Lord would like, so that it may be brought to bear not on this poll alone, but on the current electoral legislative framework to identify whether improvements can be made in the round. The Government will keep under review ways in which the democratic process can be enhanced, and of course we welcome the views of Scope, the Electoral Commission and members of this House in that debate.

The aim of enhancing equal opportunity for all voters is admirable and I strongly support it, but the Government are not persuaded that amending this Bill in this way is the right way to achieve these important aims. I have spoken at some length, as I promised I would, and I hope that the noble Lord will find some encouragement in my words. I hope also that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate, and particularly I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. He spelled out the dynamics that underlie the difficulties faced by disabled people in accessing elections even more eloquently than I did in moving the amendment. I am extraordinarily grateful to him. I am also most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his support on behalf of the Opposition.

I thank the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for the fullness of his response, which of course I will take away and consider very carefully. I am also grateful to him for the offer of dialogue which I am sure we will want to take up. I would not maintain that these amendments are necessarily and in every respect the best way of seeking to implement the principles that we all share, so if between now and the Report stage we can find a better way of doing it, I am certainly more than open to that. Indeed, I particularly welcome the noble Lord’s reference at the end of his remarks to his desire to see if we can a find a way in which not only this Bill on parliamentary constituencies and voting systems but electoral legislation more generally can be disability-proofed so that it is more user-friendly for disabled people. Indeed, that would be a much better outcome than simply getting these amendments into this Bill. In that spirit, and with the prospect of discussions with a view to trying to make a greater impact than has already been made on general electoral legislation, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 103 withdrawn.

Amendments 104 to 107 not moved.

Amendment 107A

Moved by

107A: Schedule 1, page 19, line 19, leave out “appointed under section 8 of the 1983 Act”

Amendment 107A agreed.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 10.08 pm.