Elections Bill

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Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage
Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Elections Act 2022 View all Elections Act 2022 Debates Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 96-I(b) Amendments for Committee (Supplementary to the Marshalled List) - (10 Mar 2022)
We completely understand the aims of the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and why she is trying to make an appalling situation better and, as the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, said, “pull it back from the brink.” But we agree very strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that it is grotesque while people are dying for democracy and that the most honourable thing to do is to delete these clauses from the Bill. Our position is that they should not stand part of the Bill and should be removed. I look forward to the debate on this, which we will come to later today.
Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness opposite for her kind remarks at the outset, and make clear that I have been privileged by and welcomed the discussions I have had with her and other noble Lords in the passage of this legislation so far. I give an assurance to the House that I will always be open for those discussions. We may not agree, but I am concerned to hear the opinions and seek to address the concerns of noble Lords on all sides. I may not be able to succeed, the Government may not be able to succeed, but that is the spirit in which we should go forward.

I hope the one thing we might agree on is our revulsion and scorn—and hatred, actually, which is a word I do not use often—for the activities of the Russian Government and army in Ukraine. But I beg that the enormity of what is happening there should not be adduced as an argument in questions of judgment about the degree of our regulation of electoral amendments, which this amendment before the Committee is about. I do not believe it is comparing like with like. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. She seemed a little surprised, but I thank her for putting these amendments before the Committee.

I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, was in his place and rose swiftly to read a 13-minute speech on these amendments to the House. Perhaps, he was not as surprised as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, by the events which occurred.

I did not intervene in the debate because the glory of this House is that it is a free House; it is the master of its own procedures and its own way of going forward. The group of amendments we have just discussed has nothing to do with excising Clauses 14 and 15. There is no amendment to Clause 14, and the noble Baroness suggests leaving out two lines and adding a couple of points to Clause 14. On the Order Paper, we have a clause stand part on Clauses 14 and 15. The appropriate procedure, I venture to suggest, with the greatest respect to your Lordships’ House—protecting and arguing for your right and freedom of procedure, which I, as a Member of this House, regard as one of its glories—is that we should address in Committee points that are before the House in Committee.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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I apologise. Did the Minister just say that the amendments have nothing to do with Clause 14? They are amendments to Clause 14.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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No, I said that what was before the House was not a clause stand part debate. I will address the amendment before the House. The proposal to excise Clauses 14 and 15 comes later today, in the sixth group, in your Lordships’ House. The noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, actually said—

Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
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My Lords, I am doing my best, on the basis of only 20 years’ experience in this House, to follow the Minister. Is he saying that he is going to try to improve a clause in Committee, when later we are going to have an opportunity to choose whether to reject the clause as a whole? Of course, we must do both. I hope that it is rejected eventually but in the meantime, the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, goes some way to mitigating its worst features.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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No, I am not saying that in the slightest. I will address the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, because that is the proper thing to do in Committee. All I respectfully submit to your Lordships is that, if there is a clause stand part amendment—the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, made a clause stand part speech because, as he explained, he is not going to be here later—then the appropriate place for it is probably within that debate. The noble Lord—

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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Following on from my noble friend, I have only been in this House for 16 years, so I am a relative newcomer compared with some Members, but I have sat through lots of Committee stages. I say this with great respect to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, as she is a former Speaker: in the first debate in a Committee, I have often seen Members take the opportunity to speak more widely than the specific amendment. I do not think that either Back-Benchers or, particularly, the Front Bench should object to that.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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No, and the noble Lord, for whom I have the greatest affection, is never slow in coming forward in such debates. Indeed, he used the amendment to say that the whole Bill should be thrown out, not just these two clauses. I assume that he includes in that tackling postal vote fraud, clarifying law on digital campaigning, protecting voters against intimidation and various other things in this legislation. Do I infer that the noble Lord, as he said in his speech, would like to throw the whole Bill out?

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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I look forward to the evidence being put forward about postal vote fraud. I have certainly not seen a lot of it around where I vote; I have not seen any intimidation at all. Anyway, these things could be dealt with in different ways.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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Okay, I take that as a yes: that the noble Lord would like to reject the whole Bill. I will be interested to see in Committee if that is the position of the Labour Party.

As I said, I make no objection to the free procedures of the House—

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I slightly object to that, because the Minister is extending a response to one point to a general point. He was able to read the Second Reading speeches of all noble Lords, including mine and that of my noble friend, which made our position on postal votes and on intimidation absolutely clear. For the record, I hope that he will understand what the Labour Party’s position is.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I am grateful for that, and I do know that that is the Labour Party position. I was pointing out that the noble Lord sat at the back might not actually have the support of the Labour Party on his proposition to throw the whole Bill out.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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I agree completely with what my noble friend has just said. I was saying that there are different ways of dealing with this, rather than in this huge omnibus Bill which deals with so many things and does not allow us to scrutinise matters such as postal votes, fraud and intimidation. These should be dealt with properly, and given the time needed to consider them properly, rather than in this mammoth compendium of a Bill.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I anticipate that we will discuss all those things. I intend, if nature allows, to be present for every hour of Committee on this Bill and every hour on Report, and to give full attention and respect to everything your Lordships say. Perhaps I could get on with the amendments before the House—

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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I point out to the Minister that he has just spent 10 minutes doing exactly what he has told noble Lords not to do. Now that we are in Committee, will he come to the substance of these amendments?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I would have done so slightly quicker if the noble Lord had not intervened.

The suggestion before the House, which I will deal with later, is that the Government are attempting to interfere with the operational independence of the Electoral Commission. We contend that that is a mischaracterisation, and I will deal with that at the appropriate time. Reference has been made in the debate to the illustrative statement the Government have published for the Election Commission, which we will discuss later. I hope that all noble Lords will have a look at it. It states:

“This Statement does not seek to interfere with the governance of the Commission, nor does it seek to direct specific investigative or enforcement decisions of the Electoral Commission. This Statement does not affect the ability of the Commission to undertake enforcement activity as they see fit”.


The Government are not seeking to direct, as has been submitted, the Electoral Commission. Amendment 4A seeks to amend Clause 14 so that the commission only has to consider following the guidance in the strategy and policy statement if the commission considers that the guidance aligns with its own objectives. As I have set out, the duty on the commission to have regard to the statement on the discharge of its functions contained in Clause 15 is not a directive; it simply asks the commission to consider the guidance. This protects the operational independence of the commission and means that the amendment is unnecessary.

Amendment A1 would remove the provision for the strategy and policy statement to be able to set out the role and responsibilities of the commission in enabling Her Majesty’s Government to meet their priorities in relation to elections, referendums and other matters in respect of which the commission has functions. First, on a technical note, this amendment would not limit the scope of the strategy and policy statement, as intended, as the clause would still provide for the statement to set out guidance relating to particular matters in respect of which the commission has functions. Secondly—and we will debate this later—it is entirely right that the Government should include within the statement the role and responsibilities of the commission in enabling the Government to meet their priorities in relation to elections.

For any Member who has not already seen the illustrative strategy, I say again that I hope noble Lords will review the document, and that many will find it to some degree reassuring—to the use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Butler—and hard to disagree with the content. However, I will listen to the comments on that, as on anything else. The statement sets out the Government’s expectation that the commission should tackle voter fraud, improve accessibility of elections and increase participation. I hope we can all agree that these are important aims that it would be wholly appropriate for an electoral regulator to support. For these reasons, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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The Minister did not address my concerns around consultation on the document. Will he come back on that, please?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, we will come to that document later. The specific recommendations taken up in these proposals were those of the Pickles committee in 2015.

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Moved by
1: Clause 14, page 21, line 13, at end insert—
“(3A) The statement must not include provision in relation to elections, referendums and other matters so far as the provision would relate to the Commission’s devolved Scottish functions or the Commission’s devolved Welsh functions.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that a statement under the inserted section 4A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (“PPERA”) must not include provision about matters so far as relating to the Electoral Commission’s devolved Scottish or Welsh functions.
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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I apologise to the Committee at the outset for the large number of amendments in this group. They are technical amendments, in the main, and the overwhelming number of those I speak to—Amendments 1 and 2, 21 to 24, 26 to 30, 33 and 34, 36 to 38, 40, 43, 46 to 51, 106 to 108, 110 to 118, 124 to 133, 157 to 160, 162 to 167, 169, 173 and 174—are related to the discussions the United Kingdom Government have had with the devolved Administrations in preparing the policy and drafting the legislation. We undertook extensive engagement with them.

For a number of measures that are within devolved competence, the United Kingdom Government considered that a co-ordinated UK-wide approach would have been beneficial, ensuring consistency and operability for electoral administrators and those regulated by electoral law while strengthening protection for electors and relevant political actors. It is therefore regrettable that while the Government sought legislative consent for these measures, the Scottish Parliament has not granted such consent and the Welsh Government have recommended that the Senedd does not so. In respect to those positions, we have therefore tabled these necessary amendments to ensure that measures in the Bill apply to reserved matters only. In addition, an amendment has been tabled to the digital imprint provisions, which already apply UK wide, to ensure they will continue to function correctly once other parts of the Bill concerning devolved matters are amended.

We welcome the indication from the Scottish and Welsh Administrations, however, that they are considering legislating comparably in a number of areas covered by the Bill. The United Kingdom Government remain committed to working closely with the Scottish and Welsh Administrations to support consistency in electoral law and ensure clarity and coherence are achieved across the United Kingdom for voters, the electoral sector and those regulated by electoral law.

Additionally, this group contains technical amendments in my name that are necessary for the measures to be fit for purpose and operate as intended. I will give a brief description of each and the reasoning behind them.

Amendment 82 relates to voter identification and clarifies the information to be displayed on both the poll card and the large notice in polling stations. These will tell electors which forms of identification will be accepted. Amendments 74 to 77 and 123 to 133 are minor clarificatory drafting changes to Schedule 1 and Schedule 6 to reflect that Northern Ireland-registered voters and GB-registered proxies are not mutually exclusive categories, with a further change to make sure that dates of birth for GB-registered temporary proxies can be checked at Northern Ireland Assembly elections, in line with the intended policy. Amendments 157 to 160 are minor amendments to the European Union voting and candidacy rights provisions in Part 2, to remove an unnecessary reference to Northern Irish local councillors in the transitional provisions for officeholders.

In addition, Amendments 5, 6, 10, 11, 15 and 16 are government amendments relating to the Electoral Commission measures in Part 3. This partly answers the noble Baroness’s questions. I was going to answer them later but, since they have come up now, they relate to the change in the committee which is responsible and reflect the parliamentary consequences of the recent machinery of government change, where ministerial responsibility for elections was transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

As a result, the amendments replace PACAC as the statutory consultee on the strategy and policy statement with the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee which will have responsibility henceforth for looking at electoral matters, in line with the machinery of government. This would also align the consultation requirements with the recent change to the membership of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, where the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee chair has replaced the PACAC chair. The noble Baroness and the Committee will know that the chair of that committee is Mr Clive Betts, who is, I say with all sincerity, a very distinguished and experienced Member of the other place. The amendments are technical in nature, as is the move, and does not result in any other changes to the statutory consultation requirements and process.

Amendments 181 to 196, the final government amendments, are to the digital imprint provisions in Part 6. Once again, these are all technical in nature and aimed at ensuring that the provisions deliver the policy as intended. I urge noble Lords to support these technical and necessary amendments—I apologise if I have missed citing any in my speech—and I beg to move.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, on this occasion, I have a lot of sympathy with the Minister. As I understand it, these amendments have been tabled because of the consultation that has taken place since the original drafting of the Bill. I commend the Government for the process—I will come to substance of it—and I have sympathy with him.

However, in dealing with this, the Minister has the support of an excellent team—I see the Bill Committee officials here—whereas my noble friends on the opposition Front Bench have, in comparison, a very limited group of people helping them; they are limited in number—I had better make that clear—but able in every way. That makes it difficult to deal with such a complex Bill. However, I ask the Minister to think of the problems of Back-Bench Members, who have no help whatsoever. We have a huge volume of legislation to consider at the moment, not only this Bill, which is big enough in itself, but so many others, and this does create problems for us.

I would have liked to have spent more time discussing these amendments, particularly as they relate to Scotland and Wales. I was a great advocate of devolution in Scotland—and subsequently in Wales—and strongly supported giving more power to the Scottish Parliament. I served as a Member of the Scottish Parliament for four years, so I know the kind of work that is done there. Some of it was very effective, although it is less effective now under the SNP—much less effective than it used to be in the joint Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration. I wonder if all the differences that are now demanded by the current Administration in Edinburgh are genuinely sensible or just for the sake of being different in Scotland. I sometimes think that they just want to be different for the sake of it. I would like the Minister to reassure us that this is not the case in any of these amendments, because what difference is there?

In relation to voting at elections in Scotland and England, people move quite a lot from Scotland to England, so in one year they may vote in Edinburgh and the next year they may vote in London. Therefore, some degree of consistency has an advantage. The only difference that I know of at the moment is the voting age in Scotland, which is 16 for Scottish Parliament elections, but apart from that I think that the procedures are fairly similar. Can the Minister assure us that each of these amendments—as I say, I have not had the time, opportunity and support to be able to go through them one by one—is a genuine, excepted difference? Or has the Minister had his arm twisted and, wanting to keep the SNP Administration quiet, has he just agreed to do what they suggest?

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To sum up, the Government have had to table all these amendments relating to the devolved Administrations because they would not give consent. The reasons for withholding consent are due to concerns that should deeply worry us all; in particular, that the Bill risks disenfranchising voters and threatens the independence of the Electoral Commission. It is a great shame that the UK Government did not heed the concerns of the devolved Administrations and go back to the drawing board.
Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in the debate. Perhaps I am allowed occasionally to speak as an individual from the Dispatch Box as well as a Minister, and I have not changed a view that I held as Back-Bencher, which is that the minimum number of amendments is desirable and that all Governments should seek to get Bills into the best possible condition before they come before your Lordships’ House. That is desirable, and I made an apology at the outset.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, and others pointed out, a significant number of the amendments arise from our decision to respect the recommendations of the Senedd and the decision of the Scottish Government. We believe that some of the issues concerned are important and that we should proceed to legislate, but, as I said in my opening remarks, we intend to continue discussions with the Scottish and Welsh Governments and would be interested to see how they proceed. We have welcomed the indication that they are considering legislating comparably in a number of areas covered.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked whether there were areas where we were deferring to the Scottish nationalists. I would not put it that way. Some of the areas were where there was a disagreement. Your Lordships have already indicated that you might also disagree with Her Majesty’s Government—let us say, on the elements relating to the proposed strategy and policy document, and that is one area covered by these amendments, as the noble Baroness opposite said.

However, one consequence of the withholding of the consent Motion will be that the modernised undue influence offence will apply only to reserved and excepted elections. The Government’s view is that a UK-wide application of the measure would have delivered greater levels of integrity by upholding what we submit in this Bill should be a basic principle: that those guilty of an intimidation offence should not be allowed to stand at any election in the United Kingdom. That is why we sought legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament on those measures. Following these amendments, which we have introduced for the reasons that I have given, and if your Lordships give assent to the legislation, offenders will still face a five-year ban from standing for all elected offices in the UK save for the Scottish Parliament or Scottish local government. In respect of devolution, it will be for the Scottish Government to make the necessary changes themselves to disqualify individuals who are disqualified for such offences in other parts of the UK. Other areas of undue influence, sanctions against intimidation, measures on notional expenditure—referred to by the noble Baroness—and third-party campaigning will apply only to reserved and combined regulated electoral periods.

There will be divergence, and in some cases there is already divergence. There is already some minor divergence, for example, between the current version of the undue influence offence in the 1983 Act and the situation in Scotland. That has not so far caused any confusion, and we do not expect this to be any different. We would expect ambiguities to be straightforward for the courts to resolve.

Obviously, we will continue to watch events. I am not anticipating that the Scottish Government would not wish to legislate in this area, or indeed, as the noble Baroness said, that the Welsh Senedd might not. But we are submitting to Parliament the idea that Parliament should act in respect of things such as undue influence, intimidation and the measures on notional expenditure. We have taken the judgment to proceed—showing respect to the devolved Administrations not by waiting, but by excising and allowing them to make their own decisions and proposals.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked me a specific question on a specific matter, which I undertake to write to her about, and to place the letter in the House in the normal way. My noble friend Lord Hayward asked about the designation of the new committee. This is in the legislation, because the effect of one of the amendments before the House is to remove PACAC and put in the other House of Commons committee. Ultimately, if this Bill is not thrown out—as was impishly suggested at the start of our proceedings—it will go back to the other place for it to determine. I shall give way to my noble friend Lord Hayward in a moment.

It surely is the case that if a government department is responsible for an important subject such as elections, the scrutiny should be conducted by the committee of the other place that is responsible for scrutinising that department. As I said, that will be the committee that is being substituted, under the chairmanship of Mr Betts. I give way to my noble friend.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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I am sorry if I did not make this clear, but I was asking a question about the future structure of committees, beyond the next change. I think I used the term future-proofing, as it takes into consideration Governments’ habit of changing structures. Is there a part of the Bill that will future-proof structural change, so that when we move on from one select committee having responsibility for overviewing elections matters to another committee having that responsibility, it will not require a change to primary legislation?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I have not had advice from the Box on this, and that is always a dangerous place for a Minister to be. However, I try to read carefully what I put before your Lordships’ House, and I think it is provided in proposed new section 4C(8) that,

“If the functions of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee at the passing of this Act with respect to electoral matters … become functions of a different committee of the House of Commons, the reference … to that Committee is to be read as a reference to the committee which for the time being has those functions”.


Maybe I am parsing that wrongly. If I am, I will apologise to my noble friend and to the Committee and come back with a better explanation—but sometimes a Minister just has to try his best at the Dispatch Box. Does the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, want to intervene?

Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
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My Lords, I am sorry to come back to something the Minister said just before the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, but I think the record will show that the Minister said that, when we have passed such amendments as we do, we send them back to the other place for it to determine. I do not think that is the procedure. I thought they came back here, and then we decided whether we accepted them or not. Will the Minister please set the record straight on the procedure?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I think I did set the record straight on the procedure. According to the principle of amity—I have great amity and respect for the noble Lord—I was not going to pick up the fact that he took me to task for saying that someone had spoken for a long time. I did not say that; I said it was an interesting coincidence that a prepared speech was ready at very short notice. I did say to the Committee—I reiterate this, and the noble Lord can give me a few strictures if he sees my departing back—that I would sit through every hour that your Lordships require of me on this Bill.

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Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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May I take up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, raised earlier? We are now about to agree—or otherwise—more than 100 amendments, after 42 minutes’ debate. Those amendments are vital in Scotland and Wales, as well as in England, and will determine the future of a whole range of aspects of the electoral structure. This is not giving the matter proper consideration. Perhaps in an unguarded moment, the Minister said that he was prepared to spend all the hours necessary to consider such matters, and we need to consider this in more detail on Report. How can we do that, and look at all the aspects relating to elections in Scotland and Wales as well as in England, without just passing them through in well under an hour?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, the groupings put before your Lordships’ House are agreed through the usual channels. I can only serve the House in the way that has been agreed through those channels. As for the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I have nothing to add to my explanation. If the substitution of PACAC with the new appropriate House of Commons committee is agreed by your Lordships’ House, it will become a Lords amendment to the Bill, and will go back to the House of Commons and be considered by it appropriately. I have nothing further to add.

Amendment 1 agreed.
Moved by
2: Clause 14, page 21, line 15, at end insert—
“(5) For the purposes of subsection (3A)—(a) the Commission’s “devolved Scottish functions” are the Commission’s functions in relation to—(i) Scottish Parliamentary general elections, elections held under section 9 of the Scotland Act 1998 (constituency vacancies), and local government elections in Scotland, so far as those functions do not relate to reserved matters within the meaning of the Scotland Act 1998, and(ii) referendums held throughout Scotland in pursuance of provision made by or under an Act of the Scottish Parliament;(b) the Commission’s “devolved Welsh functions” are the Commission’s functions in relation to—(i) general elections of members of Senedd Cymru,(ii) elections held under section 10 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 (elections for Senedd constituency vacancies),(iii) local government elections in Wales, and(iv) referendums held under Part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 or Part 4 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 (referendums relating to local authority executive arrangements),so far as those functions do not relate to reserved matters within the meaning of the Government of Wales Act 2006.” Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment defines what is meant by the Commission’s “devolved Scottish functions” and “devolved Welsh functions” for the purposes of the new subsection (3A) added to the inserted section 4A of PPERA.