Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Monday 13th December 2010

(13 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord McNally Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally)
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My Lords, as ever it is a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, not least because his speeches never fail to give the feel of how he tries to persuade the House. To give an example, he said in his summing up that 200 Members of Parliament voted in favour of votes at 16. That is an impressive statistic, but actually 196 voted in favour, on 18 October, while 346 voted against. Occasionally, in his wonderful summings up, the noble and learned Lord leaves out the odd fact that the House might like to have and I think that knowing that 346 Members voted against might help this side of the House.

I do not object to the debate, as I found it absolutely fascinating. The span of it, on the Benches opposite, illustrated why the amendment should not be pressed. The noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Howarth, were against, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, were for, while the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was agnostic. That is the kind of spread and I can see why the Labour Party wants a free vote. It is a very interesting issue to debate.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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In being so divided, we are just like the Liberal Democrats.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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These shafts of wit will throw me one of these days. In the mean time, I address the problem with this proposal. I am surrounded by parliamentarians of great expertise, who know that there are two kinds of Bill. There are the Christmas trees, which people hang things on—I have hung many a thing on a Christmas tree Bill and had great pleasure doing so—but then there are the clear, simple Bills, whose beauty and simplicity are their major strengths. As has been said on this side of the House since this debate began—it seems like years ago, but apparently it was only four parliamentary days ago, as we gallop into Clause 2—this Bill is about fair votes on fair boundaries. All the other things are interesting and will undoubtedly continue to be debated as this Government carry forward their constitutional reform agenda.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is constantly asking to see the big picture. Tomorrow I am speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Legal and Constitutional Affairs, when I will give the constitutional big picture, or big vision, from this Government. I hope that the noble Lord will come along. In the mean time, what we are trying to do is to keep this Bill clear and simple in its objectives.

Lord Soley Portrait Lord Soley
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I invite the noble Lord to remember his Christmas tree. There are only two things hanging on it—one is the Liberal Party and the other is the Conservative Party. It would be better if he just admitted it and then we would all know where we were coming from.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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That Christmas tree lifts the spirits and lights these gloomy days.

The amendment seeks to amend Clause 2 to enable 16 and 17 year-olds to participate in the referendum. As I have said before, the amendment is similar in intent to one tabled in the Commons, which was lost by 196 votes to 346. Then as now, the Government’s position on the franchise and in all other aspects relating to how the referendum is run is that we should follow the arrangements for parliamentary elections unless a particular circumstance is presented by the referendum that would require us to adopt a different approach. There is no requirement here to depart from the standard approach to the voting age of 18 that applies in those elections. The Government have no current plans to lower the voting age. I recognise that there are different views on whether the voting age in this country should be lowered to 16, but if we are to have a debate about reducing the voting age it needs to be had in relation to elections more generally. The passage of this Bill is not the right platform on which to discuss that issue.

There is a wider debate to be had about the voting age more generally and we need to consider the arguments for and against. I recommend that, when there is a Bill to bring the voting age down to 16, tonight’s Hansard should be required reading for anybody persuaded in that Bill. My noble friend Lord Newton, to whom I can almost say “Welcome home”, is right—this Bill is not the right forum for that debate. I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton
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If this is not the right Bill, could the Minister deal with the practical issues to which I referred, as that would influence me in relation to whether it was the right Bill? He has not dealt with any of the arguments; he has just said, “Wrong place, close it down”. But it would be of interest to the House to hear the practical objections to putting this measure in.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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On the practical objections, I could almost refer to the opening three or four lines of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, when he summed up my arguments perfectly. We are determined that this Bill will not be a Christmas tree. It is a simple Bill in its objectives of fair votes on fair boundaries. That is what we are aiming to achieve.

One interesting thing was that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, raised the issue of using the national insurance database to register all 16 year-olds. Almost as an example of how this Government are thinking about the broader issues involved, we are running data-matching pilots next year and we will be looking at how we can use the wider government database to get more people on the register. As the Minister responsible for data protection, I would like to see some of the implications of that. That is why some of these things cannot be rushed.

Baroness McDonagh Portrait Baroness McDonagh
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I thank the Minister for giving way. I wanted to give one point of information. To date, all voters in the UK are registered from the point when they are 16 years and three months. Would the Minister agree that that is why it is important to retain household registration and not move to individual registration? As I am on my feet, I shall ask a second question. Given that the noble Lord thinks that it is not right for this Bill to reduce the voting age to 16, does he have any intention to bring forward another Bill?

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Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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As Lord Peart used to say, “Not next week”. I am not looking forward as far as that. On the question of the 16 year-olds, according to this amendment we would also need to identify all those who are now 15 but who will be 16 on 5 May. Registration officers have no power to do that and it would be a real practical burden to do it in such a short timescale. I could not quite work out whether the noble Baroness was backing off individual registration. This Government are certainly not doing that.

Lord Soley Portrait Lord Soley
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The noble Lord misquoted me. I certainly did not say that this was the wrong sort of Bill for the proposal; I said that he would say that the Electoral Commission would have difficulties with it. I would like to know—as, I suspect, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer would like to know—whether that is true or not. Secondly, I said that it would be difficult to deliver this proposal in such a way that the votes could be put into effect. Those were the two things that I said and that was what my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer was asking about.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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It would be difficult. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, indicated, the implications of the amendment go far beyond normal electoral registration and far beyond what it would be proper to debate in a House of Lords amendment. My noble friend Lord Newton wisely guided me on that. I will keep bobbing up and down as long as other noble Lords do, but I emphasise our determination to keep the Bill simple and clean. I feel a tingle between my shoulder blades and will sit down.

Lord Campbell-Savours Portrait Lord Campbell-Savours
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The noble Lord referred a few minutes ago to data protection issues arising over the transfer of information from departments for the purposes of registration. Is he suggesting that the Department for Work and Pensions has reservations about the transfer? The issue was raised during the passage of the Bill when the matter of electoral registration was discussed. Is there a problem looming with data transfer?

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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As I said, the issues are not simple, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who served in that department, knows. We are running pilot projects; there is no great mystery.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Portrait Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords, including the noble Earl, for their support for this amendment. As a new Member, I was amused by the description of this as a simple Bill—I am dreading the next ones—and by the idea of a Christmas tree. My noble friend Lord Soley said that there were two things on the Christmas tree. I now picture the Minister as the fairy on top. The image will remain with me.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, is not in his place, but I think that at one point he suggested that this was an attempt to delay the referendum. It is absolutely not that. I am particularly interested in a high turnout for the referendum and in catching the interest of our young people. The more that they are involved in the arguments, the higher the turnout will be. I have tabled another amendment to set a threshold. I hope that those noble Lords who also want a high turnout will support it.

The noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, said that he had already voted for two parties. If in the local elections he would like to go for a third, I can suggest one that would be very attractive. He said that this was not the right vehicle. I had not thought about that argument, but my noble friend Lord Soley was right: the Bill is about reform of the parliamentary voting system and there is almost nothing more important than who has the vote in that system. Whether the voting age should be 16 is a key issue, even for those whom I may not have persuaded. I was asked whether there was a demand for this. I cite the Youth Parliament and the research of the Power inquiry, which suggest that there is. I was horrified by my noble friend Lady McDonagh saying that it was 40 years since the voting age was lowered to 18. I would have guessed that it was about 20; that says something about one’s age. It is time to look at this issue again.

Basically, those of us who put our names to the amendment won the argument. There is general support for voting at 16. The objections that were thrown up were practical ones rather than issues of principle. The practical objections could be overcome if there was a desire to do so. As my noble friend Lord Desai said, this is not a constituency-based vote but a national one—although I may challenge that in future. The real issue is that nearly everyone supports the idea of voting at 16. I would hate to embarrass my former friends on this side, the Liberal Democrats, by forcing a vote, because it would be difficult for them to vote against what I know they believe in. Therefore, I will not test the opinion of the Committee. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.