Clause 31 - Observation of proceedings and - working practices

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am ar 17 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question again proposed.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 1:00, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I was talking about overseas missions—missions from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe or the Council of Europe—observing election procedures. I have served on a number of election monitoring missions, and other members of the Committee may also have done so. When we are monitoring elections elsewhere we are, of course, accredited to the overseeing organisation, whatever that may be—the equivalent of the Electoral Commission in the Bill—and one of the requirements is that we have appropriate badges and so on to show who we are, and that we have rights of access. We have interpreters so that we can ask what is happening and observe conversations between people who are in the process of voting, or at the count.

We certainly do not say in advance which polling station or count we are going to, or give forewarning that an international monitoring mission is about to descend on that place of polling, because to do so would be completely to undermine the principle of observing that elections are free and fair. We would normally be furnished with a list of polling stations in a particular district. An observation team, usually a couple of parliamentarians with accompanying staff, has the option of devising its own plan for the day and deciding how and when the team will call at polling stations, and perhaps at the count later in the day to observe the proceedings.

It is clear from the provisions in the Bill for accredited organisations and observers that such spontaneity will not be possible here. An observer who is already accredited by the Electoral Commission will have to apply separately to a specific returning officer, presiding officer or accounting official to be able to observe the conduct of the election. That would not be acceptable in an emerging democracy in eastern Europe or central Asia. Are we attempting to ensure that the proposal is compatible with what in loose terms are treaty obligations within the framework of   the international organisations? We may actually be putting an unnecessary impediment in the way of observation missions.

I have not tabled amendments at this stage, because the Minister may already have had discussions with the relevant authorities on those international bodies to ensure that what is proposed is in line with their usual practice. But I suspect that it is not, and that for some reason an extra layer of bureaucracy has been interpolated, which is counter-productive to establishing, for international purposes, that our elections are free, fair and properly organised.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The clause sets out the mechanisms and arrangements for official observations of elections and electoral services. At present there is no legislative provision for elections in this country to be observed either by international or by domestic observers. The clause tackles that situation by providing for observation of elections themselves and other electoral processes such as registration and processing postal vote applications. It is long and detailed because it starts from scratch.

The clause inserts five new sections into the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The first provides for representatives of the Electoral Commission to attend elections and referendums after having notified the relevant returning or counting officer that they wish to attend. It allows a returning or counting officer to refuse or revoke permission, but they must have a reason for doing so. It sorts out the current position, which does not allow the official attendance of commission representatives, even though they are required to report on elections.

The second new section allows Electoral Commission representatives similar access and terms to observe the working practices of electoral administrators, perhaps outside election time—for example, at registration.

The third new section allows for individuals to be accredited as observers to attend certain election proceedings, including the issue and receipt of postal ballots, the poll and the count, and provides for individuals to apply to the Electoral Commission to be accredited as observers. Once they have obtained such accreditation, they can apply to a particular returning or counting officer to attend particular election proceedings. Both the commission and the returning or counting officer will have the power to refuse or revoke the accreditation, but in each case they must give reasons.

The fourth new section provides for a similar accreditation to be given to organisations, to allow them to nominate members of the organisation to act as observers at the same election proceedings on the same terms.

The last new section requires the Electoral Commission to prepare a code of practise to regulate the attendance of all the observers. The code will provide for the application process, set out the criteria for granting or refusing applications and give guidance on the operation of the code. The code must be   prepared in consultation with the Secretary of State and must be laid before Parliament.

I am well aware of the important international role pointed out by the hon. Gentleman—in particular that played by Members of the House who go to observe elections in other parts of the world, sometimes in uncomfortable if not downright dangerous circumstances. I would like to pay tribute to all those Members who go to places such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Belarus and other parts of central and eastern Europe—as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has done—Iraq, and Tanzania and many other African countries. They play an honourable and important role, and I am glad to have the opportunity to pay tribute to them

For the first time in UK law, those new sections recognise the importance of an observation process in ensuring an open and transparent election, and put us more or less on a par with other democracies. The aim has been welcomed by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Whether it be bureaucratic or not, I think that what we consider right for here is the right approach. I do not think reciprocity for the sake of it is something that would commend itself to people here. They want us to decide what we think is fair and right about the way we run elections, and how much access and openness there should be. The returning officer remaining responsible, so the idea of that person having the ultimate say makes sense to people and would command support. The returning officer must have the opportunity to say no, if necessary. He or she would have to give reasons; in practice, a refusal would be unlikely and a refusal without good reasons more unlikely. The OSCE and the ODIHR recognise that returning officers expect to know who will be serving in their areas and where they will be, for security and other reasons, such as space.

For my own part, I would like to see parties of school students, perhaps doing their citizenship classes, attending the count. I would like to see them attending in all sorts of circumstances. Opening up and making the process more transparent is right, just so that people know what is going on. We all know about counts; we have all been there and heard the rustling of the papers—but we ought to be more open about the process. The immediate justification, of course, is our international treaty obligations, but leaving the registration officers in control of the situation is right. I commend the clause to the House.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I do not think that we are far apart on what we are trying to achieve. The returning officer must have control over whether observers who are present for any part of the electoral process keep to the codes. If they do not, they should be removed. That is the case in whichever country one is carrying out observation missions.

Although I accept that every country has its own system, and that there is not perfect reciprocity, when monitoring, and having been accredited and within the rules that are set down, we expect to have access to any polling station on the list with which we are provided,   in order to certify that an election is free and fair. I remember going into one polling station unannounced and finding that the presiding officer had put his Kalashnikov on the table in front of him next to the ballot box. I suggested that that was not best electoral practice.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

It was not in Frome; it was considerably further east than that, I am happy to say.

I ask the Minister to check that we are doing what the ODIHR and the OSCE want us to do. It would be silly to go half way and allow people from emerging democracies to say that we do not allow them the same sort of access that we expect them to give to us, that the situation is not fair and that some countries are considered to be inherently fairer than others. We in this country have nothing to hide with regard to our electoral arrangements, so we should be big enough to abide by the same rules as other countries in Europe and central Asia. If the Americans can do it, so can we.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.