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Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2011

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2011

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2011.

Relevant document: 16th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the regulations concern the use of emblems on ballot papers by candidates at local authority mayoral elections in England and Wales. Their purpose is to make the changes necessary to address an oversight that has arisen in the drafting of the existing regulations governing the conduct of local mayoral elections.

The changes being considered today will enable a candidate who is standing on behalf of two or more registered political parties at such an election to request that the ballot paper should feature, alongside the candidate’s particulars, an emblem registered by one of those political parties. I understand that a number of local mayoral elections are scheduled to take place in England in May 2011—I think that the number is five. The regulations will ensure that the issue is addressed ahead of those elections.

Under Section 29 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, a political party registered with the Electoral Commission may register with the commission up to three emblems for use on ballot papers by candidates standing for the party at elections. Electoral law is clear that a candidate standing on behalf of a single party may request that an emblem registered by that party appear on the ballot paper against the candidate’s particulars.

However, at the May 2010 general election, it came to light that amendments to the parliamentary election rules set out in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 made by the Electoral Administration Act 2006 had had the unintended effect of preventing candidates standing on behalf of two or more registered political parties at UK parliamentary elections using on the ballot paper a party emblem registered by one of those parties.

This has affected jointly nominated candidates who have wanted a party emblem on their ballot paper, most notably those wishing to stand for the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party, and the Ulster Unionist Party and the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party, where candidates have stood under the description, “Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force”. I should perhaps pre-empt any comments from the other side by saying that, as far as I know, these are the only two examples of political parties planning joint candidatures in the future.

These provisions have been replicated in the rules governing the conduct of various other elections. These include the rules for the conduct of local mayoral elections in England and Wales as set out in the Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007. Schedule 1 to those regulations contains the rules for a stand-alone local mayoral election and Schedule 3 sets out the rules where a local mayoral election is combined with another poll. As a result, there is now an inconsistency in the use of registered emblems on ballot papers at local mayoral elections by candidates standing on behalf of a single party and those standing on behalf of more than one party. The draft regulations we are considering today address this inconsistency, which has resulted from an oversight in the 2007 regulations. As I have explained, these regulations are being made to address the issue ahead of the local mayoral elections scheduled for the 5 May. It might be helpful if I briefly explain the changes made by the regulations.

The issue arises in the context of the 2007 regulations. Rule 18(4) in Schedules 1 and 3—about candidates using an emblem on the ballot paper—makes reference only to Rule 7(1), which concerns the nomination paper for a candidate standing for a single party. To address the situation, Regulation 2 of the draft regulations before us inserts new Rule 18(4A) in Schedules 1 and 3. It refers to Rule 7(3), concerning the nomination paper for a candidate standing for more than one party. Further, Regulation 2 amends Rule 18(5) in each schedule so that it refers to paragraphs (4) and (4A) of Rule 18. The effect of these changes is that it will be possible for a candidate who is authorised to stand on behalf of more than one party at a local authority mayoral election in England and Wales to use an emblem registered with the Electoral Commission by one of those political parties, if they wish to do so.

The draft regulations allow such a candidate to use one emblem only on the ballot paper, which must be an emblem registered with the Electoral Commission by one of the parties for which they are standing. Our approach maintains the current policy that candidates nominated by a political party may have only one emblem featured against their details on the ballot paper. A candidate’s request to use an emblem must be made in writing to the returning officer before the deadline for the delivery of nomination papers, which is noon on the 19th day before the day of the election. For the local mayoral elections on 5 May, this is noon on Monday, 4 April.

The Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators highlighted this issue in their reports on the May 2010 election. The political parties have also raised this issue with us. There is a broad consensus that the issue should be addressed at an early opportunity and in time for the elections scheduled to take place in May of this year. I can confirm that the Electoral Commission was formally consulted on these regulations and has indicated that it is content with the changes being made to the 2007 regulations. The same issue was replicated in the separate rules governing the conduct of other elections. We are addressing the issue in the relevant legislation for the other elections scheduled for 5 May. It will require primary legislation to address the issue for a UK parliamentary election, and we will look for an opportunity to do this in advance of the next general election.

These regulations make a sensible and appropriate change to put right an oversight in the drafting of the existing rules governing the conduct of local authority mayoral elections to allow the use of emblems on ballot papers by candidates nominated by two or more parties at those elections. In that spirit, I commend them to the Committee.

My Lords, I hope not to detain the Grand Committee for more than a few minutes. Before I come to specifics of the regulations that my noble friend introduced, would he comment on the report I read today? It said that Ministers and departments are under strict instruction, under the deregulation initiative or in/out process, that every time a new directive or regulation is introduced, one should also be abolished or repealed. If that is the case, I hope that we will, in future, get a brief description of what will be repealed to enable the new regulation to be introduced. Obviously, this is a very helpful and entirely desirable improvement to the situation, and I commend my noble friend for introducing it—in a totally non-partisan spirit, because I anticipate that the main advantage will be to the opposition party. I hope that the noble Baroness will acknowledge that on this occasion at least there is no ignoble partisan initiative or motive behind this, because clearly the primary benefit will be for Labour and Co-operative candidates. I know that there is a long tradition of them working together, and I hope that this will be accepted as an extremely helpful and consistent implementation of a principle that has been accepted in other parts of the electoral law.

I have three specific questions. As I understand it, it will now be possible for candidates standing for more than one party to have exactly the same opportunities for the use of an emblem on the ballot paper as those who are standing for a single party. However, it is a standing policy of all Governments that there should always be one emblem. The idea of combined emblems will provide a very interesting design objective in some circumstances. Whether the red rose is sometimes painted green—or there may be other opportunities for amalgamation—it will be a challenge to all designers. But there is also a problem of definition. I imagine that bringing together two emblems in a way that apparently creates a combined emblem will not be entirely easy to distinguish from two emblems separately put on the ballot paper. That is something that all Ministers in all Governments have rightly sought to resist as, once you open to door to that, you could have multi-emblems attempting to get on the ballot paper and more space being required—or else they would be too small to be legible. Is my noble friend entirely satisfied that the regulation will prevent what would otherwise look like two emblems being rather loosely combined? That may seem a small design problem, but it could turn out to cause difficulties.

Secondly, and relating to that, we are approaching the noon deadline on Monday 4 April at considerable speed. The consultation on this issue took place immediately after the 2010 election, both with the Electoral Commission—and I have declared an interest as having a minor role on an informal advisory group for the commission—and more widely. It is unfortunate that the elections for mayors in Bedford, Middlesbrough, Mansfield, Torbay and Leicester, where they must now already be starting their campaigns, have not been briefly and appropriately informed of the change. I have no idea whether there are candidates in any of those five locations who intend to stand on behalf of more than one party, but we are near the deadline and I hope that some attempt has been made to inform people in those areas, the political parties and those responsible for electoral administration, that this proposal was coming forward.

Thirdly, in his introduction, my noble friend referred to the fact that in due course primary legislation would be required for UK parliamentary elections. Can he tell the Grand Committee whether this is yet another candidate for the so-called “Christmas tree Bill”? That is rather an unfortunate description; it might be more properly described as the “Odds and Sods Constitutional Reform Bill”, because I know that a number of different proposals are likely to be contained in it. If it is, how soon may we expect to see that Bill? To adopt more parliamentary language, perhaps it could be called a portmanteau Bill. Either way, it is obviously important that the parties are given due notice that proposals will be brought forward as soon as time is available to deal with the bigger issue of the 2015 general election. As my noble friend has said, it is extremely important that we have total consistency so that the political parties, candidates and agents, as well as those responsible for electoral administration, have clear guidance that there will be a consistent approach right across the board.

Very briefly, since we are dealing with mayoral elections, I hope that my noble friend will be able to confirm that some of the issues arising over how executive mayors have been introduced into this country over the past 10 years are being reviewed in preparation for the Localism Bill, which is already under consideration in the other place. There are important problems that arise from that legislation, not least the fact that financial decisions are incredibly controversial when they are made by an elected mayor, because he or she can introduce a budget when two thirds of a council votes against it. There is also the issue of special responsibility allowances, which give the elected mayor huge patronage opportunities.

Obviously, this afternoon is not the opportunity to discuss these issues. However, I hope my noble friend will acknowledge that we cannot completely detach the issue of mayoral elections from wider concerns about the way in which the system is working, after a long period where it has caused some controversy in different parts of the country. When we come to the Localism Bill shortly, I hope that we will be able to address these.

I think my noble friend and his colleagues in the coalition Government have introduced some very sensible and, some might say, rather latter-day improvements to the system. They are correcting an inconsistency, a discrepancy that unfortunately managed to find its way into the previous basis for the identification of candidates on the ballot paper. I very much support and welcome the order before us.

My Lords, if I may for a moment, I was on the Committee of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I can remember very vaguely why it was called that. It was something to do with political parties so-called registering themselves in similar names—I think it was something like Liberal and Literal—so that voters would be confused by not reading properly. I had a letter in 2007 from someone saying that they had attempted to obtain the committee minutes and reports of this committee. He goes on to say that the committee office had performed a search in the Houses of Parliament and the parliamentary archives for the committee’s records. Unfortunately, and also rather incredibly, they reported on 20 January that the contents of the only file they had located related mainly to the establishment of the committee and included virtually nothing about any advice it may have given about the registration of parties. That seems incredible. I would like to know if in fact these minutes were found. I think it is important, because the registration of parties came before the registration of these emblems. The parties that are registered should be proper political parties, not ones that were originally trying to imitate another party. So I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know if the minutes have been discovered.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the Minister for his clear explanation of the order before us and I completely accept, of course, that it was under the Labour Government that the oversight occurred. I am very glad that the Minister and his colleagues are seeking to put that right. As the noble Lord said, some Labour candidates are also members of the Co-operative Party. I myself am a proud member of both parties. I recognise that we will benefit from this particular regulation, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said.

As a consequence of the oversight, if a person stands for both parties, they are unable to use an emblem for either one on the ballot paper. Clearly, that was not the intention, and I am glad that that is going to be righted. The noble Lord suggested that he was very glad, because there would not be able to be a plethora of emblems on a ballot paper. While I accept that we would not want to have rows and rows of emblems, I would ask the Minister why one cannot have two emblems, perhaps, rather than one. It is just a simple question.

The regulations before us clearly deal with mayoral elections. As the Minister said, in due course—or before 2015, if the Bill currently before the House goes through—there will be a need for primary legislation to deal with general election candidates. However, there may first be by-elections with candidates wishing to stand, for example, for the Labour and Co-operative Party and it would be good if a vehicle for the primary legislation could be found in the not-too-distant future.

I note the Minister’s comment that this was about the Labour and Co-operative Party and the Ulster Unionists and the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland. He suggested that the legislation is only for those parties and that there is no question of any other parties standing together. However, the political landscape is constantly shifting. I am sure that the noble Lord opposite will accuse me of being ignoble and partisan, but I recently read a statement by a Conservative MP, Mark Pritchard, that this will make it far easier for coalition party candidates to be presented to the electorate. I am not suggesting that this is the reason behind the legislation, but it is clear that if a Liberal Democrat and/or Conservative candidate wanted to stand for both parties, they could in future. There is nothing wrong with that. I am suggesting only that, if a mayoral candidate wanted to stand for both those parties, these regulations will make that easier. I have absolutely no problems with these regulations and I welcome them. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers.

My Lords, having desisted from drawing the attention of the Committee to the fact that we are yet again clearing up a mess left by the previous Administration, I was disappointed that the noble Baroness could not resist making the suggestion that this might be legislation for the coalition partners. I thought that I had pre-empted that. As has been clearly stated by both parties, there is no intention of putting forward joint candidates. We will be fighting the next election in May 2015, Parliament permitting the legislation, as separate and distinct parties. I believe that the noble Baroness really knows that.

I was interested in the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Golding. If she were on the committee, we have the guilty woman with us today. She made an important point about how, with the best of intentions, this kind of legislation came about. I remember the by-election in which the guy stood as the Literal Party candidate, while at the Hillhead by-election one of the candidates changed his name to Roy Jenkins in order to confuse. I am therefore well aware that the origins of this legislation were, rightly, to try to prevent the electorate from being confused, deliberately or otherwise, and to clarify the rules around the candidature.

On whether two or more emblems should be allowed, it is a matter of judgment. If we say one or two, someone will ask, “Why not three?”. The general principle of the legislation is that there should be a level playing field for candidates. It is therefore right that candidates standing for a political party may use one emblem only on the ballot paper. I am quite sure that if at some stage somebody wanted to amend a piece of legislation, Parliament would consider it, but I suspect that we would return to the balanced view in the original legislation—that the best level playing field is to have one emblem. As long as the emblem chosen can be cleared by the Electoral Commission, it could possibly be a hybrid of the two, but I suspect that it would make sense to have just the one emblem.

Certainly, I was not saying that this is just for the Labour and Co-op parties, although the noble Baroness is right that the title “Labour and Co-op candidate” has a proud history in British politics. The redoubtable Alf Morris fought all his elections as a Labour and Co-op candidate in my neighbouring constituency of Manchester Wythenshawe when I was in the other place.

Of course, emblems have changed from time to time. I remember the Labour Party as a torch rather than a red rose. I cannot remember what the Conservative Party emblem was before the tree. Was it as torch as well? The torch obviously went out of fashion.

I was also asked whether the mayoral candidates had been informed. The political parties were consulted about these plans. Indeed, I am told—and this shows that the Labour and Co-op party machines are on their toes—that they actually approached the Cabinet Office to seek clarification. I will not say that things have changed since my day, but I was impressed by that.

I was also asked when the point about the general election would be addressed. My honourable friend Mark Harper was more daring than my brief in that he suggested that the individual electoral registration Bill might be a suitable vehicle. I do not know whether that would be the case or whether the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Tyler of a portmanteau Bill would be better. However, I take on board the point made about the by-election. One of the things that we will take from this debate is that there might be a sense of urgency rather than simply thinking that it is a matter for 2014 or 2015. Certainly, the Government’s intention is to address the issue.

On the question of the merits and demerits of elected mayors, although the regulations are about elected mayors, we will have to leave the debate that my noble friend Lord Tyler tried to tempt me into to our consideration of the Localism Bill, if that is where it will be. I do not know whether these regulations are covered by the in/out commitment. I do not know whether the rules are quite so rigid when we are carrying out a tidying-up exercise such as this.

On the question of where the missing minutes are, I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, that I will try to find out. I am also the Minister responsible for the National Archives. Missing minutes are very important, particularly minutes on an issue of such interest. Perhaps the officials responsible for this cock-up in the first place have stolen the minutes. I am grateful to all those who have contributed to this debate and I commend the regulations.

Motion agreed.