Clause 61 - Performance of local authorities

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 17 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Llafur, Sheffield, Attercliffe 2:45, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 31, in clause 61, page 63, line 24, at end add—

'(4A) The standards for registration officers determined by the Commission shall include a requirement to notify all registered electors of their status as soon as the final register has been compiled.'.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 32, in clause 61, page 64, line 5, leave out

'may from time to time' and insert 'must'.

No. 33, in clause 61, page 64, line 6, leave out 'such reports' and insert 'an annual report'.

No. 12, in clause 70, page 69, line 6, leave out paragraph (b).

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Llafur, Sheffield, Attercliffe

With these amendments, I seek ministerial clarification on two issues. The first issue, which is dealt with in amendment No. 31, is the content of the guidance on standards of performance that the commission is to lay down. I have chosen as an example an area in which guidance might be given, because I have seen a good practice adopted by at least one local council that might usefully be followed by others. It might surprise hon. Members to know that it is Westminster borough council that has adopted that good practice. I know that it has a certain history in electoral matters; we all know of that council's strange record of attempting to manipulate electoral practice through its housing policy, but the matter I raise has nothing to do with that. Indeed, I am sure that if I discussed that matter any further, you would accuse me of straying from the amendment in question, Mr. Conway.

What Westminster does as a matter of good practice is this; each February, when the final register is drawn up, it sends to everyone on the register what is in effect a mock poll card to confirm that they are registered on the electoral list. Well before any local, regional, European or national elections—obviously, it was before the national election recently—everyone on the list in Westminster receives a poll card similar to the one that they will receive at the time of the election. The advantage of that system is that everyone can see whether they are on the list when they still have time to do something about it if they are not, if their registration is wrong or if someone is registered at their address who should not be. In February or March, the individual can go along and correct the registration if it is wrong, ensure that they are registered or get themselves registered in good time for the forthcoming elections. It would be helpful if other local authorities followed that good practice.

I ask Ministers to consider whether they would like the Electoral Commission to include that practice in its standards of performance. I well recollect that when we had the Second Reading debate, the ministerial response to a number of issues was, ''That could be in the standards of performance.'' There is general   agreement that a national standard of performance is needed for electoral registration officers. Practice varies so much on so many matters throughout the country. It is important that the register for national elections is drawn up on a common basis, so performance standards are clearly important.

As well as suggesting that one example of good practice, I intended to ask Ministers how far they intend to direct or indicate to the Electoral Commission what should be in the standards of performance. Will Parliament have an opportunity at any time to discuss, consider, reflect on and make suggestions about what should be in those standards, or will the Electoral Commission produce the standards by itself, independently, exclusively and almost secretively, with no elected Members having a chance to comment? The amendment gives us a chance to tease out from Ministers how the standards of good performance will be drawn up, whether that will be done openly, whether there will be consultation and whether Members of Parliament as well as Ministers could have an input.

I hope that Ministers will take up my second amendment in some form, even if it does not use the right form of words. As I understand it, the form of words in the Bill allows the Electoral Commission to require relevant officers—including, most importantly for this purpose, electoral registration officers—to produce reports. My amendment says yes, there should be reports, but there should be a report every year; not that there may be a report, but that there must be an annual report. That is crucial. If we are giving electoral registration officers new powers and responsibilities to ensure that registers are accurate, in that people who are entitled to register are registered and those who are not entitled are not registered, it is crucial that officers be required to produce every year a report indicating the extent to which they believe that they are fulfilling their duties and the extent to which the people who are entitled to register in their areas are registered; the extent to which their register is accurate.

I hope that, as well as providing the basis for a report to the Electoral Commission, that report would form the basis for a report to the local council, which could be referred to the council's scrutiny committee, so that every electoral registration officer was scrutinised every year on their annual report. I also hope that Ministers might consider the Electoral Commission making an annual report to Parliament based on the annual reports from electoral registration officers, so that we have a chance to scrutinise in the House the performance of EROs throughout the country and to consider how they perform one against another. I am sure that there will be big differences and it would be interesting to start asking questions and to get local councils to act and to answer questions, particularly about registration officers whose performance appears to be somewhat worse than that of their colleagues in other authorities.

I have two aims, the first of which is to tease out how we will go about producing national standards. Secondly, can we have an assurance that there will be an annual report from each electoral registration   officer and other relevant officers at local councils? That report would form the basis of a report to be referred to the scrutiny committee, with the possibility of an investigation at local level. It would also form the basis of a report to the Electoral Commission, which would report to Parliament. We could then scrutinise the performance of one registration officer against another to see how accurate different local authorities' electoral registers are.

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

May I open by saying that I entirely support the points made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe? His local government background permits him to speak with authority on these matters. I come from a local government background in another part of the country.

I agree with his point that the procedure should enable the local authority to make an assessment of performance in the first instance. We should then be told whether that assessment is in the affirmative. There is an enormous disparity in performance across the country, and there should not be. Electoral registration is a function that is organised locally, and all elections are controlled locally. The integrity of the voting system is, however, a national function. We, as a country, are entitled to ensure that every part of the country performs to adequate standards.

For that reason, I welcome clause 61. It is right to have some form of performance audit of the various officers who are involved with electoral registration and administration. My only plea is that a checklist or tick boxes to say that we have met so many targets is not included. That is not the way in which we should measure performance. We should share the type of good practice that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe mentioned. His is an extremely good suggestion. He said that we must ensure that, after a registration process, people know that they are registered or, more importantly, that they are not.

The issue shall no doubt be discussed again. We must be more obvious in our efforts to encourage people to be on the electoral register. That point was raised time and again on Second Reading, particularly by hon. Members on the Minister's side of the House. Registration should be done much better. To do that, we must have effective processes, but we must also make more noise.

We must use methods such as those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on Second Reading. He suggested a registration week in which there would be a maximum flow of information to the electorate to ensure that they knew that they should be registering to vote. We should not only put letters through letterboxes or knock on doors but stop people on the buses or in tube stations to ask whether they have registered. If they have not, we can tell them how to. We must make people aware that they should be registering.

Some local authorities are good at ensuring that those who are eligible have registered; others are very poor indeed. The Government are absolutely right to stress consistency of performance across the country. I hope that will emerge from the Bill.  

We should be able to audit performance satisfactorily, without resorting to bean counting. We must share examples of good practice. Those authorities that are identified as falling short of expectations must use the local government structures in order to do better. The scrutiny committees that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe mentioned were not around when I was involved in local government. However, they are most definitely part of local government practice now. The scrutiny committees should be used to ensure that performance is monitored adequately.

I have one amendment that does not really sit with the others. Amendment No. 12 would amend clause 70, because that is the extent clause. One fact that has been clearly drawn to our attention is that the provisions do not extend to Northern Ireland. There is no obvious reason why they should not. The Electoral Commission would like a degree of oversight of arrangements in Northern Ireland. Those who represent Northern Irish seats in this House would like the commission to have some oversight of the arrangements.

Perhaps there has not yet been sufficient communication between the Minister's Department and the Northern Ireland Office to achieve a happy conjunction of objectives. If so, I urge the Minister to get in touch with a degree of alacrity, because it seems that if we can sensibly send the provisions to Northern Ireland there is no reason not to do so. If everyone wants that to happen and the only problem is the fact that it is not in the Bill, I hope that by the completion of its parliamentary passage it will extend to as many parts of the country as possible.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office 3:00, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I am tremendously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe for allowing us to tease out what we envisage will form the national standards that have been prayed in aid at various stages of the progress of the Bill. When Ministers struggle to answer a particular question, it is always a great lifeline to hold up national standards that will come over the hill and clear us from the mire. None the less, they are important.

I beg your indulgence, Mr. Conway, to move slightly beyond the narrow terms of the amendments to answer some of the questions that have been asked in this short debate. It is clear that the standards and performance of the conduct of elections throughout the country varies enormously. I, too, was a local councillor, and if we were honest we would all say that there was little direct impetus to send a lot of money towards electoral registration officers or to take a great degree of interest in what they were doing. We could not monitor them as we could the standards of social services—or, in Scotland, social work. They were not held accountable to external standards and we did not really know what they were doing with the money. We knew that we had to give money in order for them to conduct what they were statutorily required to, but beyond that, the service—at least in the local authority of which I was a member—was tucked away at the end   of the corridor, and most people did not know what was going on.

We are calling EROs out into the open and saying that we value what they are doing. They are at the heart of what we are about when we talk about increasing participation in the electoral process. That is why we are committing additional resources, but with those resources must come some external measurement of how they are used, and of the outcomes. The variance may be to do with the allocation of resources and money, and staff availability. At budget time, that was always a relatively easy cut to make. Faced with cutting £20,000 from the ERO budget or losing a nursery teacher, it was easy. Those of us who made such decisions perhaps did not always understand the vital importance of the service.

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

I am sure that that is sometimes the case. Human issues may also be involved, as sometimes the experience, seniority and ability to canvass effectively within the organisation of those involved in the electoral registration process is relevant. Those with long-standing senior registration officers may have found that they had a better system than those where a more junior officer took the role.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I am sure that is correct. In Scotland there is an additional complication as, by and large—with two exceptions—local authorities do not have their own EROs. They are distributed on a sub-regional basis. Four local authorities contribute to the ERO who covers my constituency, so when the ERO is not in the building or in a particular part of the authority, it is a case of out of sight, out of mind. I think that we all agree that there are a variety of reasons for the wide variance in performance. The aim of the clause, and of my hon. Friend's amendments, is to raise the standard of all local authorities to the level of the best performing authorities.

New section 9A gives the Electoral Commission the power to set and publish performance standards for elections, referendums and electoral services. The commission must consult the Secretary of State on those standards—that goes directly to my hon. Friend's point—and the Secretary of State will lay them before each House of Parliament. It is unthinkable that the Secretary of State would not want hon. Members to have an input into that process; indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has given a clear commitment. We want to ensure that hon. Members—not just the parties or their leaderships—get the chance to have an input into the consultation that leads to the production of the standards. We do not want to get into trenches and to argue about the issue at official level; we want to do everything as openly and as transparently as we can. When the consultation is under way, we will seek to ensure that hon. Members who want to do so are given every opportunity to participate.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Llafur, Sheffield, Attercliffe

I very much welcome that assurance, because Back Benchers have been led to believe in the past that consultation means a statutory instrument that we can vote for or against. Given the Minister's comments, I think that we will be going much further in this instance.  

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Yes, there are no great ideological divides on this issue; it is a matter of getting things right and sharing best practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is not here, has done the whole House a great service by writing to various EROs, gathering evidence of best practice and disseminating it to other colleagues. That was certainly an eye-opener, because we do not have national standards or national tables. Of course, it should not really be left to the tremendous endeavour of one hon. Member to take those steps; it should be a collective exercise. Clearly, we shall want to proceed in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe indicated.

We expect the standards to lay down a detailed framework of good practice for electoral service administrators, returning officers and polling staff—to follow up a point that I made earlier. They will go well beyond simply stating what the law requires and will indicate what is considered to be the exemplary approach, as well as making it clear that we expect guidance to be followed.

New section 9B provides for the Electoral Commission to require the relevant electoral officials to provide it with reports on how they have met the standards that have been set and published. Those reports may be published by the relevant officer. The Electoral Commission will also publish reports from time to time, and I shall come to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe on that point in a moment. The commission's reports will set out how the performance standards have been met in particular circumstances or over a range of authorities and/or elections.

The aim is to provide the commission with the information on which to make a judgment about where there is poor performance, which services are performed poorly and what action to take to assist authorities in reaching the required standards. We do not necessarily want to name and shame—that is what it says in my brief, although in my book a bit of naming and shaming never goes amiss. We do, however, want to identify any weaknesses to see whether they can be corrected, because it is in everyone's interests that they are. As I said, the aim is to achieve transparency and openness.

Here, we could make a link with the beacon scheme being run by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Councils can apply for and achieve beacon status as a result of exemplary performance in providing a particular service. The next round of the scheme will feature the delivery of electoral services as one of its themes. Particularly good electoral services departments will be able to apply to become beacon councils in respect of that theme, so good practice will inform the process of setting performance standards.

New section 9C allows the Electoral Commission to require electoral officials to supply it with data about their expenditure on elections and election services—a point that has exercised my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd at great length. He has done his own back-of-an-envelope calculations on that. We must get   a handle on that matter and secure greater transparency.

Turning to the specific issues, in part 2 of the Bill, in clause 9, we set out some of the great big themes that will govern how we expect the standards to be framed. We have created the skeleton on which the standards will be built. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe wishes to include further measures in the Bill. I hope that he will withdraw the amendment, because we do not wish to short-circuit the process of consultation by adding measures at this stage. However, I have no doubt that either what he has recommended or something akin to it is bound to form part of the performance standards. I hope and expect that to be the case. If one is going to make the register as full as possible, the type of steps that my hon. Friend has outlined are common-sense ways to achieve that.

As for the second amendment, my hon. Friend may be less sanguine about my answer. We do not wish to fetter the Electoral Commission's flexibility to ask for reports at an appropriate time. We want those reports to come forward on a regular basis. The two amendments together unnecessarily fetter the ability of the commission to produce reports. The Electoral Commission may, for example, wish to produce a report more frequently than on an annual basis. We have all paid tribute to the work of the Electoral Commission, which is very good at issuing reports, even if we may not always agree with them. We do not wish to tell the commission to issue reports in a certain way at a certain time. We must allow it flexibility and discretion to produce reports as and when it chooses. The commission has set a very good performance standard in producing reports. We do not have too much to fear on that front.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

I take the point about the Electoral Commission, albeit with a little reservation. However, the essential aim of my amendments was the requirement for the electoral registration officer and other relevant officers to produce an annual report. I accept my hon. Friend's argument that my amendment might fetter the arrangements in such a way that the commission could not produce a report more often than annually. However, perhaps my hon. Friend would consider altering the clause in due course to state that reports must be produced every year and at other times as appropriate, or words to that effect. If we do not tie that down, hon. Members will lose their influence. Most people think that there should be a requirement for the electoral registration officer to produce an annual report.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

We are returning to one of the great thematic issues in any Committee—the may versus must debate. The second new section created by clause 61 provides for the Electoral Commission to require relevant electoral officials to provide them with reports on how they have met the standards that have been set and published. It would seem odd, given that the Electoral Commission has been pushing for that—and given that that has the support of everyone in the House—if that were not pursued vigorously. I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I take his point, which   was well made—but I am not minded to go any further at this stage, because we would be in danger of fettering the Commission.

I shall finish on the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Office colleagues are obviously actively looking at those issues. They are considering their position because, as we all know, there are circumstances prevalent in Northern Ireland that are not necessarily prevalent here. They may wish to provide a different set of guidance on this issue. However, I am sure that there would be a large amount of duplication.

I do not want to accept the amendment at this stage, because I want to allow colleagues in Northern Ireland and others who deal with the politics of Northern Ireland every day to reflect upon whether they wish to be part of the scheme. Northern Ireland electoral legislation is, of course, planned for the relatively near future, so they may wish to incorporate into it all or part of what we have discussed. We have not yet seen the guidance, so we do not know what it will say.

This is not a matter of not considering that guidance should be issued for Northern Ireland. It is a question of saying that, given the circumstances, it might be best to allow the people there to come to a decision on how they wish to proceed.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:15, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I am grateful to the Minister, but he might have misunderstood the point made in the amendment by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe. It is clear that the council would produce a report to the Electoral Commission, not that the Electoral Commission would produce a report to us.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I said that the second new section provided for the Electoral Commission to require the relevant electoral officials to provide it with reports on how they have met the standards that have been set and published. The only point on which we are at variance is how often that should happen, and who should trigger it. It is clear that the power is there. I do not think that I misunderstood.

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

I am grateful to the Minister. I will look carefully at the Official Report to see what was said and come to a view. I do not want to press him on the matter, because there is no difference of intention between the two.

On Northern Ireland, I hear what the Minister says. I hope that his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Northern Ireland Office will not unduly delay their consideration of the matter. I would accept it at face value a little more easily were it not for the fact that we need only turn the page to clause 63 to find that

''A local electoral officer must have regard to any guidance issued by the Electoral Commission''.

Later in that clause we find that a local electoral officer is an electoral registration officer whose duties include dealing with elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as one who deals with  

''local government elections in England and Wales and Northern Ireland'', so another part of the Bill is already making that connection, regardless of the deep cogitations that are happening in the Northern Ireland Office, and is already insisting that the electoral registration officers in Northern Ireland have regard to the advice of the Electoral Commission. It seems rather perverse for the Government to say that the Electoral Commission may issue instructions, but that it is out of the question for it to have any regard as to whether they have been carried out.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Indeed it would have been perverse had that been the position that I took. Had I said, to quote the hon. Gentleman, ''It will be out of the question'' for the Electoral Commission to have dealings with Northern Ireland, that would have been perverse. What I said was that colleagues in Northern Ireland who deal with the issues every day are considering how best to ensure that such standards apply in Northern Ireland—where there is, after all, only one electoral registration officer. I did not say that it was out of the question for the measures to apply in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman has now mischaracterised my position.

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

The Minister is unnecessarily defensive. If I am not allowed to launch into a little hyperbole on the margins of my comments, it will be much more difficult for me to make my points. I am sure that he understands that although he did not say that it was out of the question, it is certainly not out of the question for the Electoral Commission to provide guidance to the registration officer in Northern Ireland; it says so in clause 63. The problem is simply that clause 61 does not relate to clause 63. Let me say, without any exaggeration, that it is slightly odd that one clause should gallop off in one direction and another should gallop off in a direction that is not identical, although they relate to two parts of the United Kingdom.

I hope that the considerations to which the hon. Gentleman referred will be swiftly concluded, and that on Report we will be able to unite clauses 61 and 63 in a common purpose and ensure that we have a degree of parity between the different parts of the country in terms of the performance of the electoral registration operation.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Llafur, Sheffield, Attercliffe

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his mainly helpful response to my amendments. It was very helpful indeed that my hon. Friend spelled out the fact that there will be consultation on the guidance on performance standards that will be laid down by the Electoral Commission, and that there will be an opportunity for both Back Benchers and Opposition Front Benchers to comment. We can get a lot of consensus on those matters, and many good ideas will come from people's personal experience and practice. My hon. Friend's response on that matter was helpful.

In relation to my point about the requirements for the various officers, including the electoral registration officers, to produce reports for the Electoral Commission, I still feel that if Members of Parliament think that something is required, they   have a right to require that in the legislation. The Electoral Commission is a body set up by Parliament to do the will of Parliament, and to give us advice on a whole range of matters, so there should be at least an annual report. The wording of the clause could be tightened up, so that we do not fetter discretion for the Electoral Commission to require reports at other times, but at least we should have an annual report from local authorities.

Perhaps I could help my hon. Friend the Minister out by suggesting that if he is prepared to have another look at this matter, he could indicate that it was one of the matters that he would like to see the Electoral Commission include in the standards of performance. One of the standards of performance could be a requirement for officers to produce at least an annual report. Perhaps the matter could be addressed in that way so that there was no need for a specific provision in the Bill, which might be difficult to change in the future. That would mean that something was clearly laid down, on which we in Parliament would have a chance to comment before it was finalised. That would be helpful to hon. Members.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I am strongly attracted to my hon. Friend's solution; it is an imaginative way forward. However, he will know that I am not in a position to give a firm undertaking that that is what will happen. However, it is an imaginative way forward out of the impasse that we have got ourselves into. I hope that I can give him some reassurance on that matter.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Llafur, Sheffield, Attercliffe

I am reassured that the Minister is still considering those matters, and I appreciate the way in which he has approached them. With that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 61 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 62 ordered to stand part of the Bill.