Clause 63 - Encouraging electoral participation

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:15 pm ar 17 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:15, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 65, in clause 63, page 66, line 3, at beginning insert

'Following receipt of written notification by the Electoral Commission of the intended steps to be taken,'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 66, in clause 63, page 66, line 3, leave out 'he thinks appropriate' and insert 'are reasonable'.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

I have not proved to be a very efficient Whip, because I have lost my two Front-Bench spokesmen and all my Back Benchers. However, I understand that these amendments were tabled by the official Opposition, and I will explain briefly what they seek to do. To some extent they follow on from the discussion that we had on clause 61, in which the hon. Members for Sheffield, Attercliffe and for Somerton and Frome pointed out that there is huge disparity in the performance of local electoral officers.  

Amendment No. 65 would insert at the start of clause 63(1):

''Following receipt of written notification by the Electoral Commission of the intended steps to be taken.''

In other words, the process would only be triggered on receipt of written notification from the Electoral Commission. That makes sense, because if we have a more uniform approach, that should ensure higher standards across the country. That is very much in line with the theme that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe was putting forward a moment ago.

Subsection (1) says that

''a local electoral officer may take such steps as he thinks appropriate.''

Amendment No. 66 would replace the phrase ''as he thinks appropriate'' with the phrase ''as are reasonable''. That makes more sense, as ''reasonable'' has a clearer definition in law. There are plenty of definitions of ''reasonable''. It is wider, more objective and less subjective. Saying ''as he thinks appropriate'' could lead to confusion. Trying to interpret what the electoral officer's subjective reasoning might be could be a lawyer's dream. The reasonable test would be clearer and more in line with other legislation.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing us to probe these matters a little further, although we shall revisit how such things should be done at the various stages of consultation that will follow the steps that I outlined earlier. We are giving the Electoral Commission the power to set guidance, which will be issued in due course. We will take part in the consultation that will lead to the guidance. The guidance will then be laid before the House. At that stage, it will have the full authority of Parliament. We are at the beginning of the process. My answer to the amendments is that we should not tie ourselves down too early, but I will do the hon. Gentleman the service of replying in detail.

Clause 63 gives local election officers the power to encourage participation in the electoral process by taking such steps as they think appropriate. Amendment No. 65 would remove the discretion of electoral officers to take steps to encourage participation without prior notification from the Electoral Commission of what actions they should take. In other words, we want national standards. We want the commission to raise the bar for everyone, but we do not want people to have to wait until they have the explicit permission of the Electoral Commission so to do. We want a thousand flowers to bloom. However, it is important that such things are monitored, and we need a framework against which we can measure whether something has been successful.

Clause 63 is designed to allow local election officers to run campaigns to encourage participation that are tailored to the local area. It is intended to complement the work of the Electoral Commission and not be a mere extension of it. Election officers might want to design initiatives and campaigns more appropriate to the needs of the local area. We do not want to prevent them from doing that. The clause already states that   election officers should take into account any guidance issued by the commission. We feel that that is sufficient to make the amendment unnecessary.

Amendment No. 66 would change clause 63 so that a local election officer must take steps that are considered reasonable rather than take steps that he thinks are appropriate to encourage participation. Imposing a standard of reasonableness is often difficult, and sometimes not appropriate. We believe that election officers should have the discretion to take any actions they feel are necessary to encourage participation in the local area.

As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, the amendment would change that discretion by implying that those actions would be scrutinised by another party. That is unnecessary. Local election officers have to take account of existing guidance from the Electoral Commission; they will also have to take account of guidance issued under the clause. We should not imagine that there is no guidance at present and that the national framework standards are bringing in something new. Guidance already exists, and election officers have to work within it. Given that overall envelope, we do not want to fetter them unduly by making them an extension or local branch of the commission. We want to encourage them to have some degree of flexibility. With that assurance, and with my initial response that we are at the beginning of a long discussion, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the Minister for his generous and constructive response to my probing amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 63 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 64 ordered to stand part of the Bill.