All 10 Baroness Scott of Bybrook debates involving the Cabinet Office

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Procurement Bill [HL]

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Monday 18th July 2022

(3 weeks, 6 days ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for introducing her two amendments. As ever during Committee on this Bill, she has spotted where the nonsense lies and where problems could quite easily be resolved, if her wise words are listened and adhered to.

On her Amendment 96, I know my dear and noble friend Lord Coaker is very disappointed not to be having the must/may discussion with her today and that it has fallen to me, but it is an important point. Different terminology in different parts of the Bill impacts on what is expected. What does that mean? As the noble Baroness clearly demonstrated, if you follow that logically—all the way down the rabbit hole, to carry on the metaphor—it does not make sense any more. I think she has picked up something that could be sorted out straightforwardly and I would be interested to see whether the Minister agrees.

The noble Baroness’s second amendment, Amendment 107, on the lack of assessment and what is in the Explanatory Notes not being sufficient for what we need to know to feel secure about this clause, is again a simple amendment that makes a lot of sense. To me, it strengthens and provides clarity to the Bill. The noble Baroness made the critical point that these kinds of things have a different impact on multinationals from small businesses and, as we have said previously, charities and voluntary organisations. This is important.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, ably introduced the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. I hope the Liberal Democrat Front Bench manages to recover before we come back in September, but I thank the noble Lord for that. They are about terminology —what the words mean and what the impact of that terminology is on the Bill. As the noble Lord pointed out, there are no guidelines and criteria, and nothing specified about what “appropriate” means, nor on whose shoulders it falls to interpret what it means and whether that could be open to challenge. Again, they are small but important amendments and we support them.

There are a number of government amendments in this group. I have read through them and they seem straightforward, but I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s introduction.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I seek to deal with amendments related to competitive procedures. I will start with the government amendments. Amendment 98 ensures that contracting authorities can choose not to assess tenders that do not comply with the procedure. This is different from improper behaviour in a procurement resulting in exclusion, which is addressed in Clause 30. As such, this amendment gives contracting authorities the discretion to exclude for procedural breaches that do not meet the higher threshold for improper behaviour and to ignore an insignificant breach, depending on the context. Government Amendments 99 and 103 are consequential to Amendment 98.

Turning to the Clause 19 amendments, Amendment 106 would replace

“a competitive tendering procedure other than an open procedure”

with “a competitive flexible procedure”, making it much easier to understand the two types of competitive tendering procedure. There are many consequential amendments to update this terminology, including Amendments 108, 109, 115, 132, 133, 155, 156, 157, 161, 188, 189, 192, 195, 199, 202, 213, 221 and 289.

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Lord Aberdare Portrait Lord Aberdare (CB)
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I apologise for interrupting, but I just want to ask a question in relation to Clause 32. It is about supported employment provision, which has been raised with me by Aspire Community Works, an award-winning community enterprise working to promote social mobility.

Its concern is that the current drafting of the Bill represents a significant reduction in the ability of commissioning authorities to reserve contracts for supported employment, first by restricting them only to competitive flexible procedures—rather than open procedures, as is currently the case—and, secondly, by limiting their use only to supported employment providers rather than enabling other bodies to carry out such work within a supported employment setting—again, as is the case at present.

At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord True, indicated that the Bill

“continues the existing ability to reserve certain contracts for public service mutuals and for supported employment providers.”—[Official Report, 25/5/22; col. 858.]

This seems inconsistent with the Bill’s inclusion of the two restrictions I have mentioned. Can the Minister tell us, probably not now but subsequently, whether this is an intentional limitation on the use of reserved contracts or simply an oversight in drafting which I hope she will want to correct in view of the Government’s desire to enhance the role of social enterprises and SMEs in the procurement process? I have probably chosen the wrong time to raise this, but the Minister had just mentioned the relevant clause.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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It is certainly not the Government’s intention to exclude those groups of providers. In fact, we want to encourage them and make things easier and more transparent for them. I will take a look at Hansard and discuss the issues in Clause 32 with the team. We will make sure that, perhaps in those groupings throughout the summer period, we discuss these issues further; I will make a note to do that. It is absolutely our intention not to make this more difficult for those groups but to make it easier, so we will look at how we can do that if this clause makes things more difficult.

In Clause 33, Amendments 200 and 201 would clarify that, where a supplier does not qualify for the reserved contract, the contracting authority can exclude that supplier at any point in the procurement process. Amendments 203 and 204 to Clause 33 are simply to improve the drafting, as I said.

Amendment 206 would make it clear that suppliers will fail to be eligible for reserved contracts only where they have signed a “comparable contract”, as defined in subsection (7), within the previous three years, not just because such a contract was awarded to them. It ensures that there is no risk of a supplier being penalised where a contracting authority had decided to award a contract to a supplier but, for whatever reason, the contract did not progress.

I turn next to Clause 34. Amendment 209 clarifies that competitive flexible procedures can allow for the exclusion of a supplier from both participating and progressing in the procedure where the supplier is neither a member of a dynamic market, nor a part of a dynamic market—for example, a category of goods or services. The current provision refers only to “the exclusion of suppliers”, and this change clarifies that this means participation and progression in the procurement by, for example, progressing to the next stage of a multi-stage procurement. Amendments 214 and 215 are consequential to this amendment.

Amendment 262 in Clause 48 changes “virtue of” to “reference to” for ease of reading.

Amendment 341 removes the more general reference to “procurement” in Clause 56, to clarify that notification of exclusion is required in all competitive tendering procedures.

Finally, Amendments 427 and 428 are technical amendments to Clause 78: the first to ensure drafting consistency across the Bill and the second to reflect the fact that Northern Ireland and Wales have derogated from this provision and so do not require the threshold-altering powers in subsection (4).

I turn now to Amendment 96, tabled by my noble friend Lady Noakes, which questions why a supplier “must” satisfy the conditions of participation in Clause 18(3)(a) to be awarded the contract, while in Clause 21(6) contracting authorities only “may” exclude the supplier from participating or progressing in the competition. I reassure noble Lords that the two clauses work together: suppliers must satisfy the conditions of participation in order to be awarded the ensuing public contract, and that is what is addressed in Clauses 18(3)(a) and 21(2). Clause 21(6) gives the contracting authority the flexibility to decide when to assess the conditions of participation, and at what point to exclude suppliers that have not met them. Having “may” in Clause 21(6) allows the condition to be assessed during the procedure. For example, when it comes to insurance requirements, a company may not have the full cover initially, but it may have the chance to obtain it before that contract is awarded. I hope that this makes it slightly clearer; if not, I am sure that we can discuss it further throughout the summer months.

I now turn to non-government amendments. Amendment 105 to Clause 19 from the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Fox—both of whom I hope will be better very soon—proposes to remove the competitive flexible procedure. The practical reality of procurement is that the open procedure is simply not appropriate in all circumstances. The government procurement agreement contains three procedures: open, selective and limited or direct-award tendering. The open procedure is popular where the requirement is well-defined and straightforward; price is likely to be the key feature. There is no pre-qualification of suppliers, any interested party can submit a tender and they must all be assessed.

We want contracting authorities to use the new competitive flexible procedure, which we could not have had when we were in the EU, to design fit-for-purpose procurements that deliver the best outcomes. This may mean including phases such as a prototype development when seeking innovative solutions. Contracting authorities will use it to limit the field by applying conditions of participation to take forward only those suppliers with the financial and technical capability to deliver the contract. Clause 21(1) requires these to be proportionate so as not to disadvantage smaller suppliers.

The competitive flexible procedure also allows for negotiation and discussion of the requirements, which is particularly important to ensure not only that the best value is obtained but that requirements are clearly understood. The ability to negotiate is severely limited under the current EU-derived rules.

Clause 19(3) requires the contracting authority to ensure that any competitive tendering procedure is proportionate, having regard to the nature, cost and complexity of the contract. Amendment 107 from my noble friend Lady Noakes proposes to make these considerations from the perspective of the supplier. We believe that these assessments are better considered by contracting authorities in the round following pre-market engagement. Otherwise it would be possible for prospective suppliers to challenge and assert that a procedure is not appropriate.

To counterbalance the flexibility given to contracting authorities to design a competitive tendering procedure, we wanted to ensure that procedures do not become overly convoluted or burdensome for suppliers. We believe that Clause 19(3) achieves this, as it will force the contracting authority to consider what is proportionate, without suppliers dictating the specifics of the procedure. I understand that my noble friend Lady Noakes requires more clarity, and I am sure we can do that if that explanation did not provide it.

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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I want to come back to the Minister’s explanation about the word “appropriate” and it being wide. I understand that there may be reasons why a fully open procurement would not be wanted. Amendment 105 deals with what is appropriate. The Minister raised an issue relating to prototypes. Clause 18(3)(a) states:

“In assessing which tender best satisfies the award criteria, a contracting authority … must disregard any tender from a supplier that soes not satisfy the conditions of participation.”


If it cannot do the prototype, it would be debarred. I think further clarification is required about the Government’s view about an appropriate situation in which a fully open tendering procedure would not be required.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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It is obvious that the noble Lord, and probably all noble Lords, need more clarity about this. I do not have any further clarity at the moment, but we will make sure we provide that because it is obviously an issue of concern.

I have just been handed a note to avoid a Hansard correction. To correct something I said about the consistency of Clause 21, I need to refer to Clauses 18(3)(a) and 21(2), which both make clear that conditions of participation must be satisfied. I believe I said Clause 22(2) rather than Clause 21(2). I clarify that we were talking about Clause 21(2), not Clause 22(2).

The competitive flexible procedure also allows for negotiation and discussion of the requirements, which is particularly important not only to ensure that the best value is obtained but that the requirements are clearly understood. The ability to negotiate is severely limited under the current rules—I think I have got past that, but we will keep going.

Clause 19(3) requires the contracting authority to ensure that any competitive tendering procedure is proportionate, having regard to the nature, cost and complexity of the contract. Amendment 107 from my noble friend Lady Noakes proposes to make these considerations from the perspective of the supplier—we have been through all this, and we have agreed that clarity is what my noble friend Lady Noakes requires. Sorry, I went back in my speech. I was looking back because the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, had asked me to go back. I will now go forward.

Procurement Bill [HL]

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Wednesday 13th July 2022

(1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, this is an important group of amendments, which focus on what we believe work in this country should look like. There are a number of amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth, to which I was pleased to add my name. He introduced them in his usual way—eloquently, knowledgably and passionately. I thank him for that.

We believe that a commitment to good work standards in procurement, in response to the new challenges faced in the labour market that noble Lords have talked about, is an extremely important and appropriate part of what we need to be looking at. We know that Scotland introduced a commitment to fair work first and my noble friend Lord Hendy talked about its introduction by the Welsh Government, so this is not new or untried. Other parts of the United Kingdom are looking at how best to achieve this and we think that the Treasury should also be looking at it. It should be not just about procurement but much broader: how do you underpin good work?

My noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth’s amendments clearly recognise that procurement can be a powerful tool to support public policy goals and targets, beyond just ensuring value for money. We have heard about the Institute for the Future of Work and its research that shows that creating and protecting good-quality jobs provides resilience and promotes well-being and prosperity at every level. Again, that supports the Government’s levelling-up agenda. My noble friend Lord Knight also mentioned how it would increase productivity in this country. Surely that is an ambition that the Government and the Minister share. We believe that promoting good work is a public good that advances national, economic, social and health interests and priorities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, spoke in support of my noble friend Lord Knight’s amendments. She made a couple of important points about how work intensity has increased while, at the same time, work security has decreased in this country. I agree with her on the issue of outsourced contracts. That is something that we have to look at because, as the noble Baroness rightly said, quality of work is related to quality of life, because we spend so much time at work.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, spoke to a number of amendments and focused particularly on AI, automation, the impact of new technologies and their potential disruption to jobs. There has been some good research on this, which we need to take account of as we develop legislation. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts on how that could be managed in this Bill or perhaps through other means.

My noble friend Lord Hendy also had a number of amendments in this group and I thank him for his detailed and careful introduction. A lot of this is incredibly important. He spoke about previous and other legislation and how we need to bring it up to date in this Bill. That is incredibly important if we are to get the best legislation that we can. He was quite right when he said that we need to use procurement to improve the lot of Britain’s workforce and ensure that we have high standards.

We all need to pay attention to the point that my noble friend made about P&O Ferries because, as he explained on his Amendment 186, we need some buffer or means to manage bad employers—as you could simply call them—as opposed to good employers. The Government condemned the actions of P&O Ferries, as I am sure the Minister did. If there is anything that we can do with the Procurement Bill to stop that kind of behaviour happening again, we should take clear advantage of it. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, also supported the amendment.

I am sure that the Minister would support the fact that we are trying to improve the quality and security of the British workforce. I will be interested to hear his thoughts on the debate.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I am sorry to disappoint. The following amendments are concerned with placing additional requirements on contracting authorities so that their procurements create good jobs and opportunities in local areas. I will address the issues in turn.

Amendment 54, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, whom I thank for his extremely interesting opening remarks, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, seeks to include a new procurement objective in Clause 11, requiring contacting authorities to have regard to the importance of local “good work” when carrying out a procurement. We believe this is unnecessary. Under the Bill, contracting authorities will already be able to give more weight to bids that create good-quality jobs and opportunities for our communities, where this is relevant to the contract being procured and is not discriminatory. This is absolutely in line with the Government’s levelling-up objectives and means better value for money.

Additionally, the concept of “good work” includes a wide range of matters, such as union representation and access to facilities for career guidance and training. Including this provision would have the effect of slanting public procurement away from SMEs and VCSEs, which this Government have worked hard to champion in the Bill, and in favour of large employers with significant resources and a highly unionised workforce. That is very much the opposite direction of travel to the policy behind the Bill.

Amendment 67 was tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Knight, Lord Hendy and Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cement-Jones, for not only taking us into the future but looking at what is starting now and what has been going on for quite a few years to create a different workforce from the one we have now. He talked about something that we will have to discuss further in both Houses—both the opportunities and the challenges to the workforce that we see today. That is probably not for this Bill, but I can see much further work being done on the issue.

The amendment seeks to include in the national procurement policy statement the creation and protection of “good work”. We have already set out in previous debates the rationale for not including policy priorities in the Bill and why instead the national procurement policy statement is a more appropriate vehicle for this.

Amendment 104, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Hendy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, seeks to lay out a new rule in the Bill which would allow contracting authorities to request information from a supplier submitting a tender about good work standards and practices. This amendment is not necessary: the Bill already allows contracting authorities to set the criteria against which they wish to assess tenders and it is open to them to include these matters within those criteria. Any bidder will therefore have to submit information setting out how they meet the chosen criteria. Including a specific power for contracting authorities to require such information could call into question the ability of contracting authorities to request other information relevant to the assessment of tenders.

Amendment 116, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Knight, Lord Hendy and Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, requires extensive quantities of information about contracting authorities’ good work policies and measures to be included in the tender notice. I have set out already the Government’s objections to including significant requirements on contracting authorities in relation to this and other similar matters. Public procurement needs to be focused on achieving value for money. We do not consider that it would be appropriate to embed obligations on policy objectives such as “good work” in the tender notice or indeed elsewhere throughout primary legislation for public procurement.

Amendments 186, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Hendy, Lord Hain and Lord Monks, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and Amendments 315 and 319, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Hendy, Lord Hain, Lord Monks and Lord Woodley, seek to introduce new exclusion grounds in relation to breaches of labour rights. Employers who seriously violate the rights of their workforce are not fit to compete for public contracts. The Bill expands the range of serious labour violations to be considered as part of the mandatory grounds for exclusion, for example the failure to pay the national minimum wage and offences relating to employment agencies.

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Lord Hendy Portrait Lord Hendy (Lab)
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Why would breaches of ILO conventions not apply to bidders in this country if they apply to bidders from outside this country?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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As that is a legal question, I shall get a legal answer for the noble Lord, and I will certainly write. I thought I had answered him, but I will make sure that that is clearly written legally.

On the TCA, with respect to Articles 387 and 399 of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, procurement law does not grant rights to workers and, as such, the exclusion grounds are not inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under those articles. The rights protected by these provisions are provided elsewhere in national laws, none of which are affected by the Bill. The exclusion grounds are not intended as a means of enforcing labour rights; rather, exclusion is a mechanism to ensure that contracting authorities do not award contracts to suppliers that pose a risk.

I am confident this will enable contracting authorities effectively to protect the rights of workers delivering public contracts, especially when combined with other changes we are making to strengthen the exclusions regime, such as the inclusion of serious labour misconduct in the absence of a conviction as a discretionary ground for exclusion; requiring assessment of whether the exclusion grounds apply to subsidiaries of the supplier; and extending the current time limit for discretionary exclusion grounds from three years to five years.

Amendments 292 and 297, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Hendy, Lord Hain, Lord Monks and Lord Woodley, remove the requirement for contracting authorities to consider the risk of the circumstances giving rise to an exclusion ground recurring in applying the exclusions regime. Exclusion is not a punishment for past misconduct; that is for the courts to decide. Exclusion is a risk-based measure and, as such, suppliers should be encouraged to clean up their act and given the right to make the case that they have addressed the risk of the misconduct or other issues occurring again. This might be through better training, stronger compliance controls or dismissing the staff involved in any misconduct. It is for contracting authorities to decide whether the evidence they have seen is sufficient to reassure themselves that the issues in question are unlikely to occur again.

Amendment 519, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, proposes to use Clause 104 of the Bill to omit Section 17(5)(a) and (b) from the Local Government Act 1988. It would remove the prohibition on relevant authorities, as detailed in Section 17(5)(a) and (b) of the 1988 Act, to consider in relation to public supply or works contracts the terms and conditions of a contractor’s workers and the employment status of their subcontractors.

The Bill provides for a range of labour violations to be considered as part of the grounds for exclusion, which must be considered for every supplier wishing to participate in each procurement within the scope of the Bill. These matters will be subject to further debate, possibly later today, when the Committee considers the exclusions and debarment regime in the Bill. I am sure my noble friend Lord True will have more to say on that.

The purpose of Clause 104 in the Bill is, first, to ensure that authorities to which Section 17 of the Local Government Act 1988 applies are not prevented by that section from complying with their duties under this Bill; and, secondly, to enable a Minister of the Crown or the Welsh Ministers to make regulations to disapply, when required, a duty under Section 17. The clause ensures that authorities covered by the 1988 Act can take advantage of domestic procurement policies that may be implemented during the life of the Bill.

Clause 104(1), which amends Section 17(11) of the Local Government Act 1988, directly achieves this. However, it amends Section 17 only to the extent necessary to ensure that the relevant authorities are not prevented by virtue of the section from complying with the Bill. It would not be appropriate to use the Bill as a vehicle to make further amendments to the 1988 Act, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy.

Amendment 535, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Hendy, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Bennett, creates the concept of “good work”, relied upon by the other amendments in this group. In the light of my responses on substantive amendments, there is little I can usefully add on this amendment. I therefore respectfully ask that noble Lords do not pursue these amendments.

Lord Knight of Weymouth Portrait Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the response and to those who took part in this relatively short debate. The arguments were well made, and I think the Minister at the Dispatch Box, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, agrees with the basic premise. As ever with these things, I was not surprised but disappointed at the response.

My noble friend Lord Hendy made a really good case about the importance of punishing bad labour practice. Recalling P&O Ferries is important; these cases come along and it always ends up feeling like too little too late. This is an opportunity to act more proactively and actually put something into statute.

On the amendments in my name, I was grateful to hear about the UNISON report, as I was not aware of that. I was grateful to hear that the Labour Administration in Wales are getting on with something like this. It is good to hear, as ever, the insights from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on AI and algorithmic accountability and regulation. I will need to think about that. I was really pleased to hear the Minister say that she thought more needs to be done on that.

In closing, I offer this up to the Minister: before we come to Report, is it worth having a chat? I listened carefully to what she said about the impact on SMEs from the way we frame some of this. If she is interested in having a meeting to discuss how we can achieve something on the good work agenda in this Bill, probably including David Davis, because I think he is minded to table similar amendments when it goes to the other place, we would be delighted to do that. Perhaps, with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, tagging along too, we can start to sketch out what we might be able to do on algorithmic regulation in this Bill or in future legislation. On that basis, I withdraw my amendment.

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I would be happy to. There were a lot of amendments. I do not want to break down and not continue, but I have about four more minutes to go. With the Committee’s permission, would my noble friend—

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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Would my noble friend like me to take over his speech, as he is coughing?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, Amendment 131, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best, would prohibit contracting authorities applying relative assessment methodologies for price, costs or value-for-money award criteria, with the aim of preventing “race to the bottom” behaviour by suppliers and helping contracting authorities achieve safe, quality and value-for-money outcomes.

The objective of the Bill is to make public procurement more flexible for contracting authorities and suppliers, not less. In deciding how to assess tenders, contracting authorities must be able to determine what is important to them and the best means of assessing this. In some cases, price may be more important than others and, in particular, price assessment methodologies may be more appropriate in certain circumstances. I must also stress that contracting authorities will be very aware of the need for safe outcomes and that those cannot be compromised. To reiterate, we will publish guidance on assessment to help contracting authorities decide how best to assess tenders.

Amendment 147, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, would require a Minister, within three years of the Bill being enacted, to undertake a review of the impact of the rules on how contracts subject to a competitive procedure must be awarded. In particular, the review must assess the impact of the change from “most economically advantageous tender”, commonly referred to as MEAT, to “most advantageous tender”, commonly referred to as MAT. On the delivery of social value, and whether the needs of service recipients have been met under contracts, the change from MEAT to MAT sends a much clearer message to contract authorities that the contracts do not have to be awarded on the basis of the lowest price. I can assure the noble Lord that the matters he refers to are within the scope of MAT, where they are relevant to the contract being procured.

Amendment 149, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lansley, would make explicit that contracting authorities may exclude a supplier where it has failed to explain satisfactorily why the price or cost proposed in its tender appear to be abnormally low. We discussed this point during a recent SI debate, and I welcome his contribution. I appreciate that tenders may appear abnormally low for a variety of reasons, some of which ought to concern contracting authorities. The Bill’s silence on this point is not intended to discourage authorities seeking to understand the proposed price and cost or interrogating suppliers where they appear to be abnormally low. Authorities are already under an overarching duty to award contracts to the most advantageous tender. This should be sufficient to allow for questions to be asked of suppliers about proposed price and costs, and authorities can structure their evaluation to ensure that tenders can be rejected where the authority has reason to believe a tender is abnormally low.

In summary, this Bill aims to deliver a simpler regulatory framework. It therefore does not include every possible action a contracting authority might wish to take in assessing the validity of tenders or awarding contracts. This approach is better than the existing EU approach, as it offers increased flexibility to design efficient, commercial and market-focused competitions, while reducing burdens for smaller firms. Therefore, I respectfully request that these amendments are not moved.

Lord True Portrait Lord True
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My Lords, I thank your Lordships for your indulgence in letting my noble friend complete the speech. I am most appreciative. Thank you.

Amendments 84 and 85 not moved.
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I think this is a convenient point for the Grand Committee to adjourn on the Bill.

Committee adjourned at 8.44 pm.

Procurement Bill [HL]

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Monday 11th July 2022

(1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, good afternoon. When the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, leads a group of amendments, I often end up agreeing with her; it is a bit of a surprise sometimes. Amendment 30, which the noble Baroness has moved, goes to the heart of it, as do all the amendments, because of the lack of clarity about what Clause 8 really means and what is meant by light-touch contracts. It is a really important job of this Committee to try to tease out a little bit more detail.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, probes in her amendment, why are they not more narrowly defined? There is also an argument for asking why they are not more widely defined. I think the noble Baroness—she will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—is seeking to understand the Government’s thinking and how they have arrived at their conclusions. I think that is what all the various amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and so on, are about.

In speaking to these amendments, I too am seeking clarity from the Government on what this clause means. I will start with the most obvious point. I have read the Library briefing, which refers to the Government’s own memorandum to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee on light-touch contracts, and will quote a couple of things that I think are relevant to all the amendments in this group, including lead Amendment 30 from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes:

“The light touch regime is a facet of the existing rules … and has fewer rules regulating how a procurement is conducted for these contracts. This is reflected in the bill by a series of exceptions of obligations under the procurement regime for the relevant contracts.”


I will be frank: what does that actually mean? Which rules are not applied? There was one set of rules before, under the light-touch regime, which at one point the Government were not going to include in the Bill. That then moved to light-touch contracts, but we are told by the Government that there are fewer rules.

It would be helpful to know what the difference is. What are the fewer rules which the Government have explained to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee? The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made the point that what we are all struggling with is that Clause 8(1) says what “light touch contract” means and then that it will all be done by regulation. In fact, it is a bit like knitting fog to try to understand exactly where we are coming to and what we are doing.

The Government also said in their memorandum to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which, again, is relevant to all these amendments:

“Whilst the scope of what is to be included in the power is known, it is not practicable for the bill to include a long list of detailed CPV codes to indicate which categories of contracts may benefit from the light touch regime. In addition, both CPC and CPV codes may evolve over time, which would … require amendment to the bill. The power will be used to ensure that the scope of what is included with the light touch regime does not extend beyond what is permitted for the UK by reference to the GPA and/or other international trade agreements.”


Again, we are trying to understand what that really means for the light-touch regime which the Government are seeking to bring in as a result of Clause 8 and associated regulations. Some clarity on that would help to answer the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, about why it is not more narrowly defined and why it is defined in the way it is. That would help us to understand the Government’s thinking behind much of the clause.

The amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, gets to the heart of what we are discussing: how the Government have arrived at their position. However, in particular, Amendment 34 from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raises a very important point about ensuring that light-touch contracts will involve various other services and bodies and that they are properly considered for such contracts.

Time and again, at the heart of previous groups, this group, and no doubt groups of amendments to come is a general debate on what a Procurement Bill should or should not include and how far the Government should or should not interfere with the operation of the market. What the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is trying to get at, and what I believe is really important, is some of the ways in which this clause has been put together, so that we understand what exactly a light-touch contract is and the difference between the light-touch regime and the light-touch contracts in this Bill, and the Government’s thinking on what regulations may come forward in due course so that, as a Committee, we can consider whether they have got the balance right and whether this makes sense. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made the point that this clause is wishy-washy—one bit says this and another says that—and the Government’s get-out clause all the time is that it will be sorted out by regulation. This really is not the way forward for primary legislation.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I will start with a question from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I will probably not answer it in a way he understands, but I will give it a go and we will probably have more discussions on this as we go forwards.

The services currently identified via these CPV codes, as the noble Lord talked about, are outside the scope of the GPA, albeit within scope of some national treatment provisions in certain international agreements. As such, these could arguably be subject to even less regulation, but we think we have the balance right to ensure competition where possible, value for money, and appropriate transparency and fairness. That is the background to this. The Green Paper proposed removing the separate light-touch provision entirely, but it was clear that this was a popular concept, recognising that these types of services warrant special treatment with a light touch. If they were subject to the full regime, we would be adopting a more stringent approach than that taken by any other European country. That is why we have put them in, and we think that is correct. I am sure we will have more discussions on that.

Before we turn to the amendments, because they were slightly separate, I will answer the questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, on how this Bill interacts with the Health and Care Act. At Second Reading, concern was raised regarding the interaction between the Health and Care Act 2022 and the Procurement Bill. I hope that my noble friend’s letter of 8 June allays these concerns. To confirm, the intention is that the provisions in the Procurement Bill will be disapplied for a tightly defined subset of healthcare services that will instead fall within the provider selection regime. The provider selection regime has bespoke rules which commissioners of healthcare services in the NHS and local government will follow when procuring healthcare services in their area, and only where delivered directly to patients and service users.

The scope of the provider selection regime will be supported by reference to the common procurement vocabulary—CPV—codes, which will help procurement personnel to determine which regime applies. As the provider selection regime will sit alongside the reforms introduced by the Procurement Bill, DHSC and the Cabinet Office are working together to ensure that the two regimes remain clear and coherent. The Procurement Bill, and therefore the light-touch contract provisions, will continue to apply to healthcare or health-adjacent services that are not delivered to patients but support the infrastructure of the NHS. Light-touch contracts will also continue to include all services procured by authorities other than NHS bodies and local authorities. I hope that helps.

There was another question from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about how the PSR interacts with the new reforms in the Procurement Bill. The PSR will cover the procurement of healthcare services that are delivered to patients and service users, as I have said, and only when they are arranged by relevant healthcare authorities, including NHS bodies and local authorities. The Procurement Bill will not apply to these but will cover all other goods and services.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, could we ask for some clarification on this, perhaps in a letter? Probation services are obviously a personal service that falls outside healthcare. Personal tutoring was raised by my colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. If this is to be a wider sector than purely health and social care, we would like a little more guidance as to how wide it might go.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I understand. We will make sure to get that guidance well before Report.

Amendments 33, 34 and 35, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Lansley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, relate to Clause 8(4). This subsection identifies features that may constitute light-touch contracts and complements the regulation-making power to determine light-touch contracts in Clause 8(2). The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, included a probing amendment to delete Clause 8(4)(a). However, recognising that Clause 8(4) is an indicative list, the relevance of the provision is to identify that light-touch services are often unlikely to be of cross-border interest. I hope that that makes sense; if not, we can discuss it further.

This is still a useful identifying feature of light-touch contracts and helps readers of the legislation to understand why some contracts have light-touch rules. Set against subsections (4)(b) and (4)(c) of Clause 8, subsection (4)(a) identifies that the services are not exclusively domestic. We are content that Clause 8(4) is appropriate as drafted.

Amendment 34, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, requests an addition to Clause 8(4), which aims to ensure that local authorities, social enterprises, not-for-profit organisations, mutuals and charities are properly considered for such contracts. Similarly, Amendment 35, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, has been put forward to include a consideration that

“the suppliers of such services consist of small and medium-sized enterprises and few larger enterprises.”

Clause 8(4) does not dictate how contracting authorities award light-touch contracts. We already have adequate provision in the Bill to support these groups to obtain public contracts—for example, reserved contracts, the introduction of a new user choice direct award ground, and maintaining significant flexibility to tailor award criteria for light-touch contracts. We think that we strike the right balance in the Bill by creating opportunities for these sectors while maintaining fair treatment of all suppliers in the awarding of public contracts.

Amendment 207, proposed by my noble friend Lady Noakes, would make the time limit at Clause 33(5) equal to the maximum duration for such a contract. The intention behind the change is to prevent a public sector mutual from being repeatedly awarded a contract for the same services by the same contracting authority.

It is not considered appropriate to align the time limit with the maximum duration permitted under the clause. It should be noted that there is no obligation on the contracting authority to award contracts that were run for the full five years’ duration allowed, or indeed that use the reserved contracts provision at all. In fact, stakeholder feedback indicated that the existing provision under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 is underutilised due to its tight restrictions.

Public sector mutuals are usually organisations that have spun out from the public sector and most often deliver services to their local communities rather than nationally. It is therefore feasible that a reserved competition may result in a sole compliance tender, especially if the purpose of the contract is to provide services for the single local authority, which is likely often to be the case. If the restriction time limit were to match the maximum duration time limit, this could prevent the reserved competition from resulting in compliant tenders and require a new and unreserved competition to be run, which may not be in the best interests of the public.

The clause currently empowers the contracting authority to manage this risk when considering the procurement strategy, using its knowledge of the market and supported by guidance. If the time limits were to align, it would require more complex drafting of Clause 33 explicitly to enable this risk to be overcome within the time of restrictions. As I have said, if the restriction is too long, it may result in the reserved competition receiving no compliant tenders, given, I repeat, that public sector mutuals are usually organisations that have spun out from the public sector. Therefore, I respectfully request that these amendments are not pressed.

Lord Aberdare Portrait Lord Aberdare (CB)
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I am somewhat baffled by subsection (4) of the light-touch contracts clause. The noble Baroness has rejected several suggestions that criteria might be added to it regarding what light-touch contracts might be used for, on the grounds that it already provides sufficient scope. There are three criteria in the clause and all that the clause says is that the authority must consider the extent to which they are met. Does that mean that they are good criteria or bad criteria? If a supplier is from outside the United Kingdom, does that mean that one should favour them or not? I find it completely baffling.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, it is up to the organisation that is procuring. That is exactly what we are saying; we are freeing up that procurement process.

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I am not sure that we have advanced very much on either of the clauses. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who raised a number of good points about the interaction with NHS contracts, which I had simply not appreciated, not having followed the most recent NHS legislation. I agree with her that the interaction of the two codes is likely to be confusing to all those who come across it and, with respect, I do not think that my noble friend made that any clearer in her answer. Nevertheless, we will come to that later on in the Bill and I am sure that it will be teased out again.

On Clause 8, the main thrust of my amendments was to try to find out what was likely to be covered under light-touch contracts. I am still no clearer at all. I have heard that the “have regards” in subsection (4) are appropriate as drafted but have not heard any argumentation as to why. I have heard quite a lot about how it is really up to the contracting authority to decide what it wants to take account of, and that whether it is good or bad to have overseas suppliers is up to the contracting authority.

I am quite unclear what the Government are intending by this light-touch contract regime. I have no idea at all what they are going to allow to be specified under the regulations, which is what I was trying to tease out by saying that it should be confined to health and social care. That was a placeholder to say, “Tell me what you’re going to put in them”—but I am afraid my noble friend did not tell me what she is going to put in them.

So I am left probably slightly less satisfied with Clause 8 than I was when I tabled my amendments to probe what was in it. I will of course consider very carefully what the Minister has said between now and Report, and we may have further conversations about it, but I politely suggest to her that the Government appear to be in a bit of muddle about what they are expecting from light-touch contracts. Are they simply saying, “We’ll create this power and let contracting authorities tell us what they want to do, and then we’ll have some regulations and do what we like with it”—because that is what the clause allows—or are they intending to restrict the scope in some way and, if so, in what way? That is all still waiting to be teased out, in addition to the issues raised about interaction with the NHS.

I turn to my Amendment 207, which is in connection with Clause 33. I think I heard the Minister say that the Government’s intention was to prevent repeated contracts. That is not necessarily what this measure achieves, except that it tends to prevent a repeated contract if it is of shorter duration. If the initial contract is for three years, they almost certainly do not have a time window to be involved in tendering for a repeat of three years, because of the three-year prohibition—whereas, if they take a contract for five years, that three-year prohibition on retendering will have expired before the retendering comes up again. My noble friend simply did not answer that question, so again I am no clearer about what the Government are really trying to do. Are they trying to stop repeated contracts or allow them? They are allowing them for longer contracts but not for others, which does not seem to make sense.

We have all summer and quite possibly a lot of the autumn between Committee and Report to consider what we need to probe further on Report, but I hope the Minister will be taking back the Hansard of this discussion to her officials and looking at the points that have been raised but not dealt with in her response. However, this is Committee, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Moved by
32: Clause 8, page 6, line 35, after second “the” insert “appropriate”
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I finish where I started: in the end, the Government will need to review all this—the various clauses and the bits that they will end up with when this becomes an Act—and, whether six years later or less, try to understand what difference has been made as a result of the Bill. This group of amendments, like many of the other groups that will be debated and discussed, is crucial for the success of the Bill and for the objectives that we all want to achieve.
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I thank your Lordships for a really interesting debate. A lot of what has been said about support for small and medium-sized enterprises, social enterprises and voluntary organisations is something that the Government also support and, through the Bill, have been trying to support even more. After we finish Committee, we need to meet interested noble Lords and talk more about these issues because they are important to the Committee, as I can tell, but also to the Government. I make no promises, but we should be using all the knowledge in the Committee as we discuss it further.

In that context, I will answer a few questions. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that I am sorry if I did not quite get to the interface with the Health and Care Bill. I will try to get a bit further but I am afraid I do not think I can go as far as she wants. All public authorities will be covered by the Procurement Bill in relation to health except those that will come under the regulations made under Clause 108. There should therefore be no gap in procurement regulations between the two. On health issues, regarding entities under health procurement, further work is going on at the moment in both departments, and we will come back to the noble Baroness as things move forward.

I turn to the amendments in this group. I note that other non-government amendments have been tabled, some of which address prompt payment and relate to SMEs but are also about social values, which have been quite a big part of this debate. Those will be covered at a later stage so I will not cover them; my noble friend the Minister will do so, some of them probably in the next group.

Amendment 38 would impact Clause 10, Amendments 97 and 100 would impact Clause 18 and Amendments 290 and 295 would impact Clause 54. Each of these amendments has been proposed by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, and I thank her for them. They would enable contracting authorities to exempt businesses, based on their size and turnover, from certain obligations set out in the Bill. Public sector procurers are required to determine the most advantageous offer through fair and open competition, and the Bill sets out that the buyer should contract with the bidder offering the most advantageous tender. We want to focus on getting the best value for the taxpayer by opening competition to all businesses of all sizes.

That is not to say that we are not keen to open public procurement, as I have said, to more SMEs; in fact, quite the opposite. First, we are committed to ensuring that the new procurement regime is simpler, quicker and cheaper for suppliers, which particularly benefits SMEs and social enterprises, ensuring lower barriers for entry to the market. Secondly, bidders will have to submit their core credentials only once to a single platform, making it easier, especially for SMEs, to bid for any public contract. The single transparency platform means that suppliers will be able to seek all opportunities, including a pipeline of future opportunities, in one place.

Thirdly, the Bill will ensure that prompt payment flows down the supply chain, making it more attractive for SMEs to get involved. Fourthly, contracts below the threshold listed in Schedule 1 can be reserved for suppliers based in the UK and/or small suppliers where it is good value for money to do so. Thus, the Bill represents good news for SMEs.

While we share the noble Baroness’s keenness to support SMEs in getting access to public procurements, we cannot do that by simply exempting them from procurement rules altogether, as her amendment to Clause 10 would do.

Amendment 50, also proposed by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, would require the procurement objectives in Clause 11 to make explicit the obligation on contracting authorities to have regard to the importance of keeping the burden on SMEs associated with tendering as low as possible. While we support this goal, there are risks in legislating in such stark terms. Contracting authorities must keep an open and fair playing field for all bidders. While we take steps which facilitate access, in particular for SMEs, it would not be wise to encourage the procurement community to believe that some form of active discrimination in favour of SMEs was appropriate.

That said, we have taken significant actions to level the playing field for SMEs without actively discriminating. Some of these I have mentioned, but I add that we have reformed commercial tools, such as frameworks. This will allow longer-term open frameworks, which will be reopened for new suppliers to join at set points, so SMEs are not locked out, and the new concept of dynamic markets—

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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Does the Minister accept the feeling around the Committee that, while we accept that things are moving forward, they are not strong enough? On the framework issue, one of the provisions in the Bill is that a fee has to be paid every time is contract is let. That does not help. Once you get into the detail, there are barriers to the progression of SMEs. What we are not asking for is a system which supports only SMEs; we are asking for a more risk-based assessment, based on what the risk is of the procurement amount, to release some of the normal procedures and bureaucracy that is required to give them a view. One of the issues that the Minister can perhaps look at between now and Report is a more risk-based approach to public sector procurement rather than a one-size-fits-all which, on the whole, the Bill still is.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I agree with a lot of that and I think it is something that we will discuss further. I thank the noble Lord for his ideas.

This will allow a longer-term open framework which will be reopened for new suppliers to join at set points, so SMEs are not locked out, and the new concept of dynamic markets which, like the current dynamic purchasing system, will remain always open to new suppliers. All these will provide greater opportunity for SMEs to join and win work.

Amendment 75B, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, would insert a clause into the Bill on market stewardship, meaning contracting authorities must consider the impact of procurement on small and medium-sized businesses, social enterprises and voluntary organisations. They would also need to consider how to improve the diversity of their supply chains including, but not limited to, these organisations.

I have previously touched on how the Bill benefits SMEs and would also like to highlight Clauses 32 and 33 to your Lordships, which enable contracting authorities to reserve certain contracts to supported employment providers and public service mutuals. We indeed recognise the importance of diverse supply chains and the benefits to the delivery of public services, and that is why in Clause 63 we require that 30-day payment terms will apply throughout the public sector supply chain, regardless of whether they are written into the contract, ensuring SMEs and other organisations receive prompt payments and the increased liquidity they bring.

Amendment 86, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lansley, would make explicit obligations on contracting authorities to consider small and medium-sized enterprises in preliminary market engagement. Contracting authorities are able, under the new legislation, to design their preliminary market engagement in a way which gives consideration to SMEs, but too many obligations on contracting authorities will discourage them conducting this engagement. I therefore suggest this amendment is not needed.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe’s Amendment 534 proposes a new clause that seeks to make legislation obliging a Minister of the Crown to carry out regular reviews to consider the Act’s performance in relation to the award of contracts to SMEs. I draw to noble Lords’ attention that the Government do capture SME spend data for those SMEs contracting either directly or in government supply chains.

Procurement Bill [HL]

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Wednesday 6th July 2022

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Grand Committee
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Moved by
20: Schedule 2, page 81, line 6, leave out sub-paragraph (2)
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I start by clarifying what utilities are covered in the Bill. Utilities are defined in it as public bodies, public undertakings or certain private undertakings that carry out utility activities. Public undertakings differ from public bodies in that they do not have functions of a public nature; their activities are more economic and commercial in nature. While it is no longer one, before the Government sold their shares in 2015 Eurostar International Ltd was a public undertaking.

The Bill covers private utilities only where they have been granted a special or exclusive right to carry out a utility activity. These are rights that have been granted by a statutory, regulatory or administrative provision and that substantially limit other entities from carrying out those activities. Rights are not special or exclusive when granted by following a competitive procedure or where the opportunity was adequately publicised and the rights were granted on the basis of an objective, non-discriminatory criterion.

Private utilities which enjoy “special or exclusive rights” are effectively in a monopoly position and therefore they could, however unlikely it is, engage in preferential treatment that, for example, favours their own affiliates or strategic partners and discriminates against other suppliers bidding for the contracts. The Bill applies to utilities only where they are carrying out the utility activities set out in Schedule 4: specifically, gas and heat, electricity, water, transport services, ports and airports, the extraction of oil and gas, and the exploration for or extraction of coal or other solid fuels.

The two government amendments in this group are minor and technical in nature. Amendment 20 to Schedule 2 is consequential on government Amendment 231, which amends Clause 35(6) to ensure a single definition of utility is applied to the whole Bill. In Schedule 2, paragraph 28(2) is therefore no longer required. The definition at Clause 35(6) is exactly the same as that contained in the deleted sub-paragraph (2).

Amendment 24 amends Clause 5(1) to define a utilities contract as a contract

“wholly or mainly for the purpose of a utility activity”.

The addition of “wholly or” is to reflect the reality that a utility contract can include solely or predominantly utility activities. This amendment to the terminology ensures consistency with the approach to mixed procurement used elsewhere in the Bill; for example, with Clause 8(1) on light touch contracts, where the same principle applies. I beg to move.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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I am grateful for the Minister’s explanations. Her colleague the noble Lord, Lord True, previewed some clarification regarding the Post Office, so perhaps she was forewarned. I have two questions for clarification, further to what she said.

The more specific question relates to freeports, which I raised in the technical discussion this morning. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond now, but if not I would be happy if she does so in writing. There are a number of areas of government policy—I am not debating the rights and wrongs of this—which have activities linked to the provision of utility services but which are not directly, wholly or mainly a utility service. I am concerned, for example, about whether the more commercial activity of freeports, which are government policy and have the benefit of being linked with a utility but do not provide utility services, may well be exempted. That would not bring about the level of transparency in the thresholds that I believe there should be. I am still scratching my head about the status of freeports.

The element raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord True, on postal services is concerning. I am particularly interested in the status of Post Office Ltd. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, raised Parcelforce. I understand that Royal Mail and Parcelforce have a relationship with Post Office Ltd, and they provide different services. I understand that the Post Office is not considered a Schedule 4 utility, but clarification on whether it is covered under the public undertaking elements would be helpful. I ask because postal business of the Post Office is included under the procurement chapter, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord True, and annexe 16A of the UK-Australia agreement, as are postal services, which relate to letters, parcels, counter services and other such services. The classification under the WTO which the annexe uses links with the pick-up, transport and delivery services of letters, newspapers and journals, whether for domestic or foreign markets. I am not entirely clear about the status of that when it comes to Royal Mail services. They are covered within the procurement chapter of the Australia agreement, but I am not sure of their status in this Bill.

This speaks to the wider point that we are now in the realm of having to look at each of the 24 agreements in the schedule. Any authority or likely bidder for any of these works will have to study all these FTAs and all the procurement chapters, in addition to the EU-UK TCA, this legal framework, and the Scottish and Welsh ones. At the very least, we are now replacing one system with 25—or more likely with 27. That means it is not a more efficient way of covering it.

Finally—I asked earlier, because it is not clear in the impact assessment, and Ministers might write to me on this—now that the Government are clarifying their position in the Bill on those that are covered, not covered and the exemptions, I would like to see an update on the information about the likely number of contracts and the values in all these categories. I would be grateful for that information and for clarification on the Post Office.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I must say, I find the utilities section of this quite confusing in some areas. The more clarification we can get from the Minister, the better. It is not just this bit; it is the fact that it is cross-referenced a lot right across the Bill and is impacted by so many other pieces of legislation, including internationally.

We talked with officials about the Australia trade agreement this morning; the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised this. I am still slightly confused as to how that all links together. Rather sadly, after the discussion, I went and found the relevant parts and read them. The Bill talks about universal service obligations, postal monopolies, exclusive suppliers and specified collection, transport and delivery services. I know that the Minister is not able to come back to us on this now but I would appreciate some kind of written explanation of how this all works together and what the implications are of having that kind of reference to postal services in a trade agreement. What impact does that have on future procurement legislation? Will the Procurement Bill have an impact on future trade agreements in this area? Personally, I find this quite confusing; it would be extremely helpful to have it laid out in a crystal-clear fashion so that we do not end up with this kind of confusion and the debates we are having.

I will not repeat all the things that noble Lords said when they talked about having more clarification on Schedule 2. I will just briefly come back to cross-referencing throughout the Bill. In the previous debate, we talked about the committee report, which again mentions Schedule 4, the utility activities exposed to competition, the provisions of the WTO agreement—the GPA—and so on. For me, a lot of this is about having a clear understanding of which utilities lie in this group and which lie in that group; which utilities will have to follow certain rules; which will be exempt; and how they will be exempt. I would appreciate proper clarification on all those areas because this is a lot to take in; a lot of it needs to be right as well.

I appreciate that I have asked the Minister to do quite a complicated task but, in Committee and certainly ahead of Report, that sort of information and clarification would be extremely helpful.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I thank noble Lords. We have listened—I thought that we explained the Australian postal services to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in our debate on a previous group—but obviously further questions still need to be addressed. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, clearly said, the issues of utilities’ groupings and the rules that apply to each group are not yet clear enough. I know that will take extra time for everybody but I suggest that we pull together another meeting purely on utilities and their interaction, particularly with the trade agreements that are in place now and future trade agreements that could be in place.

At the same time, I remember freeports coming up in the first Committee debate. I do not have any further information but we will get that information and discuss it. If required, we will send a letter afterwards confirming everything we have discussed so that noble Lords have that in their packs.

I have good news for the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. I can assure him that this Bill will not change anything from the current regime with regard to Welsh water. I will not try to say it in Welsh because I am not very good at it. I hope that this assures him that everything is fine in Wales.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, brought up freeports on the first day of Committee. We will invite him to have a discussion on that.

These were minor and technical amendments that seem to have grown into something much bigger but they serve to clarify the Bill and ensure consistency on the provision of utilities contracts. I therefore hope that noble Lords will support them.

Amendment 20 agreed.

Elections Bill

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Monday 25th April 2022

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I welcome the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, to highlight the importance that provisions relating to electoral law are consistent with accounting practice. I know that the noble Baroness speaks with great experience and expertise in this area, having served as the president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, as well as holding various senior positions in the accounting and finance area.

Specifically, these amendments focus on the registration of parties and the declaration of assets in relation to this process. It is crucial that the individuals and groups participating in elections are fully transparent in their practices—a point which these Benches have consistently raised during debates on amendments in previous stages of the Bill.

I hope the Minister can provide assurances that PPERA and other legislation governing political activities are already consistent with accounting practice, but I would also appreciate if she could use this opportunity to provide a more general update on how the evolving governance of accountancy and reporting will relate to political finances.

Finally, the Minister will be aware that the Financial Reporting Council is preparing to transition to become the audit, reporting and governance authority. Can she confirm whether the Government expect the new authority to play any role in overseeing finances relating to elections? I look forward to assurances from the Minister.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, Amendments 51, 52 and 53 were tabled by my noble friend Lady Noakes, whom I thank for sharing her considerable expertise in and knowledge of this topic. Her constructive engagement with the Bill, particularly this clause, has been gratefully received in order to ensure that the law works effectively and as intended.

Asset declarations upon registration as a political party is an important matter. In answer to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in Committee, I say that this measure was recommended by the Electoral Commission in its 2013 and 2018 reports—A Regulatory Review of the UK’s Party and Election Finance Laws, and Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters. This led to the Committee on Standards in Public Life making the very same recommendation in its 2021 report Regulating Election Finance.

Clause 22 introduces provisions that will require new political parties to declare whether they have assets or liabilities in excess of £500 when they register with the Electoral Commission as a political party. Those with assets or liabilities in excess of £500 will be required to give a record of them as part of their registration. This will provide an increased level of transparency regarding a political party’s financial position at the point of registration. As part of the registration process, new political parties are not currently required to submit a declaration of the assets they own or liabilities they have. This information only becomes available in their first annual statement of accounts, published on the Electoral Commission’s website, which may be up to 18 months after registration.

The central policy aim of Clause 22 is to ensure greater transparency regarding the financial situation of new political parties. It is my and the Government’s view that my noble friend Lady Noakes’s technical amendments make this clearer and easier to understand for political parties registering with the Electoral Commission. These amendments will remove the requirement to add together the assets and liabilities, therefore bringing this clause into line with the more standard accounting practices that my noble friend has shared with us. I will read Hansard tomorrow and make sure that the noble Lord has a written answer to the questions that he asked. Therefore, I am pleased to say that the Government support this amendment, and I urge the noble Lords to do so too.

Amendment 51 agreed.
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Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 64, so ably moved by my noble friend. It is an inoffensive amendment. The reason I rise is to say that I look forward to the Minister’s reply, because in my bones I feel that the answer we are going to hear from the Dispatch Box opposite is that there is a reason why the Government cannot accept it. I look forward to hearing what that reason or reasons may be, because one would be hard put to object to anything so inoffensive; it does not even have a timetable. Nevertheless, I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, the Government agree in principle that there is a strong case for the consolidation of electoral law, and we have noted the interest expressed in this Chamber and in the recent PACAC report. However, as previously noted in Committee, we must acknowledge that the process of consolidating electoral law will be a long-term project that will take significant consideration and policy development. It is not something to rush, and it is not something for which the Government should commit to firm deadlines in a timetable at this stage.

The changes brought forward by the Elections Bill are part of a large programme of work, which will include secondary legislation and practical implementation matters. As such, it is the Government’s view that the implementation of this work should first be completed before work on the consolidation of electoral law can begin. For this reason, the Government cannot support this amendment.

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for his excellent introduction to this amendment. It is worth focusing on the fact that the Minister has, on numerous occasions, stressed the impracticalities of some of the amendments that have been considered today, saying “We can’t do this because it’s impractical”. Yet, without any thought, the electorate can be increased from 1 million to 3.3 million, as we heard from my noble friend earlier, without any infrastructure or effort to manage the implications.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, talked about other countries. Other countries have different voting systems, such as list systems and regional systems. But our democracy is fundamentally based not on a party system but on the constituency system, where an individual MP represents the people of that constituency. With what is being proposed, we could suddenly have, as my noble friend said earlier, 7,000 or 8,000 people being allocated to a constituency who, according to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, have never lived there. And we will not even make any attempt—or there will not be any practical way—to verify people’s entitlement to vote.

In this Bill, we have said that if a resident in a constituency turns up at a polling station but fails to produce photographic evidence of their entitlement, they will not be given the vote. But someone who lives abroad can get a vote in a constituency and be sent it without any proper checks. It is absolutely crazy that the Government are not taking the time to look at the practical implications of this. It comes back to the point: why is it being done? It does not really appear to be being done to defend and enhance our democracy. I know I have said it before, but all this effort is going into people who have left this country, who have never lived here or who have lived here for a very short period of time—we are extending the vote to them—but people who have lived here for 27 years, and paid tax and national insurance, will not be given the vote. It is crazy.

This amendment is absolutely right. It would ensure that the Government pay proper attention to the practical implications of their policy and do so in a timely fashion. It is not as if we are trying to say, “Don’t do this”—even though I agree with my noble friend and would prefer that the Government did not do it. The amendment is saying, “Okay, if you’re going to do it and if it’s a principle you support, do it properly. Understand the consequences, particularly the consequences for our democracy”. This side wholeheartedly supports this amendment.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I will first answer the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. I am sorry that he did not get as much information as he needed, but I will have to hold the House a little longer to give him more detail.

On candidature, anyone who wants to be a candidate in an election in this country needs to be a resident of this country and to have proof of residency. So, nobody living abroad can be a resident of this country—that is the first thing.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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May I remind the Minister that it is part of the responsibilities of our consuls abroad to look after the interests of British citizens when they are in foreign prisons? So it is not the case that we will not have information on these. Our consular network should have the information relevant to this, but perhaps the Foreign Office has not been consulted.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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Then we come to somebody who was born in the UK and has been here only a short time. The current system allows citizens who have left the UK while still too young to vote the ability to register based on their parents’ or guardians’ previous registration, but this is subject to an arbitrary 15-year limit from when they left the UK. The Government want to remove this arbitrary time limit placed on British citizens who have resided here, and we have no intention to replace one time limit with another arbitrary time limit requiring a British citizen to have been resident here for a certain amount of time before they can register.

The Bill will permit children who are UK citizens and who have resided in the UK to be eligible to vote based on their previous residency here. They would apply in respect of their last place of residency. This approach is consistent with the principle of individual responsibility, which underpins individual electoral registration and ensures that voting rights are not conditional on choices made by others in the past.

Additionally, British citizens born outside the UK must have previously resided in the UK to become eligible to register to vote. In practical terms, someone who left the UK at a very young age or who was present in the UK only for a short period will find it difficult to demonstrate their residency at a particular UK address to the satisfaction of a registration officer. I would also question whether anyone who lived in the UK only for a very short period would have any interest in voting in our elections. I hope that gives a little more substance to my letter.

I now turn to the amendment as tabled. The purpose of this amendment would be to delay the commencement of Clause 13 of the Bill for two years, and the extension of franchise for parliamentary election for British citizens overseas. The amendment would require three conditions to be met before regulations could be laid to bring into force the provisions. The Government have set out much detail on the intended registration and voting process in their policy statement Overseas Electors: Delivering ‘Votes for Life’ for British Expatriates. Referring to the condition whereby the Secretary of State must publish guidance for EROs on determining residentiary requirements of overseas electors, further detail on residency requirements will be set out in secondary legislation.

Electoral registration officers will require British citizens who have been resident, but not previously registered, to demonstrate to their satisfaction that they were resident at a specific address. Section 5 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already lays down the general principles regarding residence for electoral purposes which a registration officer must consider and apply in deciding whether a person is resident at a particular address for those purposes. The same approach to residency must be applied within these boundaries and, as now, registration officers will be supported in this by guidance from the Electoral Commission, with whom the Government will work closely.

As for reporting on documentary evidence, the Government intend to align closely with the existing exceptions process for those domestic electors for whom an ERO considers that additional evidence is required to verify their identity. This is a system that administrators are already familiar with, and we will continue to work closely with stakeholders to develop this process. It will be set out in secondary legislation and be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and to parliamentary approval.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, brought up the issue of how we will help expatriates—the people who want to vote from abroad—to actually be able to vote. I think we had a discussion on overseas constituencies, and it was made very clear that the Government are not supporting that idea. However, the Government have already improved the delivery and return of ballots to overseas electors by working with Royal Mail and the British Forces Post Office, expediting dispatch abroad, and funding the use of the international business response licence that expedites the return of the ballot packs from overseas in a large number of countries, as well as covering any postage costs that might otherwise be incurred.

This Bill will also introduce an online absent vote application service that will allow overseas electors more easily apply for a postal vote.

Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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Will the Minister develop her point about the repayment of postal charges? Perhaps she could explain to noble Lords a little more fully what that implies. To my knowledge, a number of local authorities are quite clear at the moment, that they will not post postal votes overseas because of the additional expense. I do not know if there is an element of guidance needed in those cases, but there might be an element of finance. If one had a constituency with the projected 4,000 or 5,000 overseas electors, it would be a significant additional sum. I wonder if she could say something about the Government’s financing of that additional outlay.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I cannot at the moment. It may be part of the burdens that will be financed for local authorities, but I will get the noble Lord a complete answer on that and make sure it is absolutely correct.

The introduction of votes for life is a manifesto commitment. The framework for the previous Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 was subject to a full public consultation and has formed the basis for this refreshed policy. Since then, we have worked very closely with the electoral service managers and administrators on the design of the processes, and the practical implementation of these measures. On this basis, it is unnecessary to further delay the extension of the franchise, and I hope the noble Lord will feel able to reconsider and withdraw his amendment.

Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for her reply and for the much greater level of detail that she has provided on this occasion, which I very much welcome. She has indeed answered some of the points that I raised, although I think she skirted over the possibility of amending legislation so that some account could be taken of imprisonment overseas. As I say, that is a matter that could easily be covered by an extension of the existing declaration that candidates make.

I am not satisfied with the answer that I have had but at this time of night I certainly do not intend to force my view upon the House. I just say to the Government that I think some of these matters will come back to haunt them, and at that moment I hope to be present to witness the haunting taking place. With that said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Elections Bill

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Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I will briefly address the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. There is an anomaly. The Welsh Senedd has made this clear and made important changes so I am sure that we can get this simple amendment accepted, in the spirit of the previous group. The Minister—I am glad to see him back in his place; I wish him the very best of health—accepted the previous amendments, so I am sure that it will be straightforward for him to accept these ones. I look forward to his response.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, with respect to Amendments 31 to 33 and 38, under the current law, a person who is nominated as a candidate must give their full name. They may also provide a commonly used forename or surname, which must be different to any of the names already given, that they would like to have included on the ballot paper. My noble friend Lord Hayward has highlighted that this does not, for example, facilitate the use of a middle name where someone is commonly known by such a name.

My noble friend’s amendments would widen the scope of the current provisions concerning the use of commonly used names by candidates. They would allow a person to include on their nomination paper any name that they commonly use as a forename or surname. For example, under this amendment, a candidate would be able to choose to use their middle name if that is a commonly known name for them. A candidate may also use a commonly used forename and surname on the ballot paper.

When my noble friend raised this issue in Committee, the Minister, my noble friend Lord True, indicated that the suggestions had some merit. After further consideration, I am pleased to say that the Government consider that these are sensible changes and we are able to support my noble friend’s amendments.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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My Lords, I note the welcome for that from all sides of the House. I am getting slightly embarrassed—this is the second time this afternoon that I have had support from all sides of the House on amendments I have put forward. I thank the Minister for her support and favourable response.

Elections Bill

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for tabling this amendment, to which I have added my name, and for his introduction. I also thank noble Lords for their brief comments.

I want to refer back to Committee. The Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, said that the amendments proposed on automatic voter registration

“contradict the principle that underpins individual electoral registration: that individuals should have ownership of, and responsibility for, their own registration … Automatic registration would threaten the accuracy of the register and, in doing so, enable voting and political donations by those who are ineligible.”—[Official Report, 23/3/22; col. 1058.]

However, does she agree with me that there are underlying problems with the status quo, such as millions of eligible citizens being incorrectly registered or missing from the registers entirely, major strains on the system during a last-minute registration rush ahead of election days, and resource problems for electoral officials? A founding principle of democracy is political equality. We therefore need to ensure a level playing field on election day. AVR could boost voter registration rates among under-registered groups to create this more level playing field.

It is already current law that every citizen is registered. People often get letters saying that they will be fined £60 if they do not register. Voter registration is not an opt-in process. AVR is a solution that would help administratively to best realise what appears to be the current goal of full, compulsory registration. AVR is also the norm, not the exception, in countries around the world. Many countries that have historically not had AVR because of the absence of a population register are now increasingly introducing either direct enrolment for specific groups or assisted voter enrolment through other public agencies. Where they have been designed well, these innovations have proven to be able to deliver cost savings and boost voter registration for specific groups.

As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, we can give millions of people not on the electoral register a voice. If he chooses to divide the House on this amendment, we will support him.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford. He, my noble friend Lord True and I have debated this issue a number of times in this House. The intention behind this amendment—to increase the number of people registered to vote—is one that the Government wholeheartedly support. However, the practical difficulties brought about by automatic voter registration are such that the Government cannot support the amendment.

Given the number and range of public bodies listed, as well as the vast amounts of data they hold, the amendment would overwhelm electoral registration officers with data. Data protection legislation rightly prevents the unnecessary sharing of personal data. This amendment would see unparalleled volumes of personal data shared—even that of the majority of people who are already correctly registered. Likewise, it would see people registered without their knowledge or consent.

There would also likely be a large number of security and privacy concerns, such as when it comes to handling the data of minors, those who are escaping domestic violence, those who wish to remain anonymous electors or those who do not want to be on the register—and there are a number of people who do not. I do not know whether it has happened when you have knocked on doors, but people have certainly said to me, “We are not on the register and do not want to be”.

The amendment also takes no account of the coverage, currency or accuracy of the data held by the various public bodies. As they would be listed in primary legislation, these public bodies would be required to share their data, even if it is of no use for electoral registration. Using inaccurate or out-of-date information to register people to vote automatically would seriously undermine the accuracy of the electoral register. That is the crux of the issue: accuracy is just as important as completeness. Having more individuals on a register is not inherently a good thing if those individuals are registered at incorrect or multiple addresses.

When it comes to implementation, a whole host of other issues arise. How would an ERO deal with contradictory evidence from different data sources? If an individual was removed from the register because the ERO determined they were no longer eligible, how would this be picked up by an automated system so that they were not automatically added again? What these questions point to is the fact that there is no true system of automatic voter registration; any trusted system of registration requires the active input of both electors and EROs to determine eligibility. The Government also contend that such active input is important to aid electors’ understanding of the process and their awareness of upcoming electoral events.

Lastly, the Government cannot accept the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, because it is deficient. It leaves untouched all the existing legislation for electoral registration. It would require significant further work, and possibly a whole new Bill, to unpick which elements of current law would need to be amended or repealed to accommodate this amendment. For these reasons, and more I have no time to go into—

Lord Grocott Portrait Lord Grocott (Lab)
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I am grateful that the noble Baroness has explained a whole series of practical reasons that she says will make it difficult. I would like to know what the government position in principle on this is. If the practical differences can be overcome, in principle are the Government in favour of all those who have the right to be on the register actually being registered?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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Of course we want maximum registration, but not through a flawed system. There are many other ways the Government will continue to work on getting more people on to the electoral register, if they want to be on it.

I urge the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, to withdraw his amendment. Tackling under-registration is an important and complex issue, but this is not the way to address it.

Lord Woolley of Woodford Portrait Lord Woolley of Woodford (CB)
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I thank the Minister very much for that answer. The irony of this discussion is that we have spent hours and hours on the Bill, and we are proposing an expenditure of about £200 million on the basis of one fraud: one out of 47 million. What I am suggesting is that we find a way, first in principle, to get 9 million people to have a voice. I know it is difficult; it will not be a walk in the park, but what price is democracy? What price is telling every individual out there eligible to vote that we will use all our powers, all our political will and all our decency to make sure that they can have a voice in these Chambers? The answer should not be, “It’s too difficult”. The question should be “How do we do it?” I am afraid that I want to put the will of this House to a vote.

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Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I shall speak very briefly to Amendment 42. First, I have huge admiration for my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and I recognise the history of campaigning on these issues. A lot of interesting points have been made this evening, but given the hour, I just want to say that I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Stansgate for providing his context and family experience. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, says. This is a very interesting debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, the Government’s position on this matter remains one of principle: namely, that it is not right for any one citizen to have the privilege of being represented twice. Enfranchising noble Lords to vote in UK parliamentary elections would give us two ways of being represented in Parliament: through our permanent membership here and ability to vote on legislation as we are today, and through our elected MP.

As we discussed in Committee, this is not the case for those currently sitting in the House of Commons. Once an election is called and Parliament is dissolved, an MP ceases to be an elected official and must seek re-election before returning to their place in the House of Commons. It is therefore right that they are able to vote in parliamentary elections, as not allowing them to do so would mean denying them a say in the democratic process.

We, however, do not cease to be Peers at the time of an election, and to allow us to vote would give us twice the representation of other citizens. In our roles in this Chamber, we are privileged to have an active role in the scrutiny of legislation and active participation in the democratic process of this country. To extend this participation further would undermine the principle that all citizens are equally represented in politics. I urge that this amendment be withdrawn.

Lord Dubs Portrait Lord Dubs (Lab)
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My Lords, to take just the last phrase or two of the Minister’s comments, all citizens should be treated equally. All I am asking is that we are treated equally and have the right to vote. In nearly every democracy except this one, Members of the second Chamber have the right to vote. The world will not come to an end. It is a very simple democratic proposition. I beg to move.

Elections Bill

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, in speaking to my Amendment 144B, I would like first to take the opportunity to thank the Patchwork Foundation for its very helpful briefings on this matter. I will be brief because we have already heard that the current system of voter registration really is not working to the benefit of many people, and that voter registration rates are disproportionately low among young people and some minority groups.

There is confusion among eligible voters about how and when to register. The University of East Anglia carried out a survey in 2016 which found that two-thirds of electoral registration officers reported that citizens had complained to them about the voter registration process being bureaucratic, and that this had discouraged them from registering. Surveys of poll workers have also found that the most common problem that they encounter is citizens asking to vote when they are missing from the electoral register. Furthermore, a poll conducted by YouGov before the 2019 general election found that 16% of respondents believed that they were automatically registered to vote if they paid their council tax, and 17% believed that they were automatically registered when they turned 18. There is a lot of confusion and we belief that AVR will go a significant way in tackling the disparities and the inefficiency of the current system. It would diminish the impact of cyclical registration patterns, which can put so much pressure on voting infrastructure and the officials who are running and managing it. It would also go some way in bridging the current gaps in registration across various ethnic and social economic groups, as other noble Lords have said.

The UK is one of the few liberal democracies that does not already have some sort of system of AVR in place. Of 40 liberal democracies assessed by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and the University of East Anglia, the UK came out as one of just six countries that does not have a system of either automatic or assisted voter registration. Where it is in existence, it has proved very effective at encouraging first-time voters to vote. By contrast, the UK is witnessing a fall in the number of young people registering to vote.

We have had quite a discussion on this, and I will finish by saying that this is terribly simple and straightforward. As other noble Lords have said, people are already written to ahead of their 16th birthday with their national insurance number. If we can do that, why can we not at the same time have an automatic registration to vote? We have the means to do it, so why do we not just get on with it?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the Committee for the debate; it is a debate we had two years ago when we were discussing a previous Bill. If applying to vote was difficult or time-consuming, the Government might have more sympathy for this proposal, but it is not. It can be done online, by paper and post, in person, or by telephone, where the registration officer offers these services. Online, it takes five minutes and can be done anywhere, anytime, on a smartphone or a tablet; I have done this recently myself.

As a small but very positive step to encourage young people to vote, HMRC now includes additional information on registering to vote on letters issuing the national insurance numbers, and this practice has been in place since the end of September 2021.

These amendments contradict the principle that underpins individual electoral registration: that individuals should have ownership of, and responsibility for, their own registration. At this point, I say that some members of our communities do not want to register—we have all probably met people who do not want to go on the electoral register. Automatic registration would threaten the accuracy of the register and, in doing so, enable voting and political donations by those who are ineligible.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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The noble Baroness may be aware that there is an equivalent of a national register: Experian, which collects a great deal of data and is used by a lot of private and public authorities. If it can do that, why cannot the Government?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I do not know, but I will look into that with the team.

Automatic registration therefore risks not being truly automatic or adding ineligible people to the register. For example, under the EU voting and candidacy rights changes provided for in the Bill, very few EU citizens who arrived to live in the UK after 31 December 2020 will have the right to register to vote, but most will be issued with a national insurance number. Moreover, most national insurance numbers are issued before someone is 16, which is too young to be added to the register, even as an attainer, in England and Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Government have no plans to introduce automatic registration at this stage, and I request that this amendment be withdrawn.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and a number of other noble Lords asked what we are doing to encourage registration. Since its introduction, the register to vote website has revolutionised the ability of electors to participate, with over 60 million applications to registers being submitted since 2014. In the last UK general election, a record 47 million people were registered. We continue to refine and adjust the way that the digital system works to improve its security.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, brought up accessibility. It is very pleasing to see that the register to vote service has the highest accessibility rating—AAA—under the web content accessibility guidelines. It is also the responsibility of the Electoral Commission to promote participation, and it runs an annual campaign to encourage eligible voters to register.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I will ask a question, because this may impact on another group. The Minister mentioned that we will not know whether EU citizens who have come here properly after a certain date have the right to vote. The Government have signed agreements with a number of EU countries—Spain, for example—that will allow EU citizens to vote from them. Why is that a problem, in terms of this issue? How many EU countries have we signed reciprocal voting arrangements with?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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No, I think we will deal with that later—but if we do not deal with that today, I shall make sure that the noble Lord gets a note on it, because I do not have a list of them to hand.

We have no plans to introduce automatic registration, and I request that the amendment is withdrawn.

Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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Could the Minister address the inconsistency to which I referred—that someone with a British passport and a British driving licence, obeying the requirements in this Bill for identification for voting, could be denied the right to vote because they are not registered?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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No, because they are not registered. You cannot just have anybody walking into a polling station with some pieces of paper or a passport and saying that they have the right to vote. They have to register to vote.

Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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So the Minister is saying that a British passport and a driving licence are random pieces of paper. Is that how she is referring to them?

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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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No, my Lords, but you have to register to vote in this country, and going into a polling station and just saying that you have a passport but you have not registered cannot allow you to vote.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, this has been a very interesting and informative debate and I thank the Minister for her answers, and thank all noble Lords who have participated.

To pick up some points from the Minister, she suggested that it was not difficult or time-consuming to register. Perhaps this is not something that most people in your Lordships’ House do very often, but moving house is up there just below divorce and death in terms of people’s level of stress. Moving house is something that many people in our society, particularly younger and poorer people, find themselves doing regularly at six- or 12-month intervals—and now we are going to make this extra thing that they have to remember when there are so many other things they are worrying about. Perhaps when people are younger, the first or second time they move they do it religiously, but by the time they get to the sixth, or the eighth or the 10th time that they move, and they have so many things to worry about, it is unsurprising that they do not. It is difficult, when it is mixed in with that whole difficult experience.

The Minister made the point about people owning their own registration and that they might get registered accidentally when they should not be. Of course, the form that automatic registration could very easily take would be to change your driving licence address in the box and then respond to the questions about whether you were eligible to vote, providing any extra information that might be needed. I shall have to go away and look at this, but all the information that you have to provide for a driving licence would be sufficient, I should have thought, for voting. I shall go away and look at that.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, brought up an interesting point about complications around EU citizens, which we will come to—but again that could be answered by a tick-box arrangement.

One key point has come out of this debate, well highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, but also by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. This is a balance to voter ID. I do not agree with voter ID but, if you are going to have it, as the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, said, and you turn up with your paperwork, and you are still told, although you have your passport, that you are not really a proper citizen because you have not ticked a box on a website, that is going to create some real anger.

I am not sure that the Minister really addressed the important points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, who so often in your Lordships’ House is a champion for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, and many other excluded groups in our society. For all kinds of reasons, it is so much more difficult for those citizens, and we should be going to extraordinary efforts to make sure that their voice is able to be heard.

I pick up also the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, about the Government’s own impact assessment. If this is the aim of the Bill, it is very hard to see why the Government should not be taking these steps.

I make the final point that I raised a question with the Minister that was not answered—whether the Government are looking to make it easier to check whether you are correctly registered. You may have moved two or three years ago in a mad flurry—maybe your relationship had just broken down and that was why you moved—then there is an election coming, and you think, “Did I register to vote or not in that difficult period?” You would then have to know what council you are in and find its electoral services and send them an email or ring them up—and we all know what ringing a council up is like. Are the Government doing anything to improve that? If the Minister cannot answer that now, perhaps she could write to me about that, and perhaps she could commit to that before I withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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I think from the discussion it is very obvious we are going to return to this on Report, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for his introduction to his amendment. I thought what he said about the opportunities that are available for new technologies to drive inclusion in our electoral process is really important if we are looking to the future. We completely support his aim to encourage the Government to invest much more in technologies in this area. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, let us catch up with many other countries which are looking to do this and looking to invest more in this in the future.

One thing we do know is that electronic voting machines are often more accessible for disabled voters. I give the example of the United States, where visually impaired voters can use an audio interface while those with paralysed limbs can select candidates from a screen using head movements. There are all sorts of different innovations that we should be looking to investigate and see how we can bring them into our own system.

I turn to my amendment. The Government’s 2019 manifesto—I go back to their manifesto—included a commitment to

“make it easier for British expats to vote in Parliamentary elections”.

I also say, as part of that, they should be looking at the Electoral Commission’s research after the elections since 2015, which has consistently found that overseas voters have experienced difficulties in voting from outside the UK. This is mainly because many did not have enough time to receive and return their postal vote before the close of the poll.

I am aware that the Government are looking at ways to improve that, but it strikes me that as the Electoral Commission also recommends that the Government explore new approaches to improve access to voting and draws on evidence from other countries, there is an opportunity here, which is why I tabled the amendment. I hope that this will encourage the Government to consider more research into digital technologies and look at what is happening in other countries in order to drive inclusion and enable a quicker and more efficient system for those voters who live outside the UK.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, these amendments both seek to improve and expedite means of voting for British citizens living overseas. My noble friend mentioned Estonia and although Estonia has e-voting, it still uses paper ballots and less than half of Estonian voters use the e-voting system, which relies on the national ID card as a credential to vote. The blockchain technology which supports its system, although advanced in security, is not foolproof and hackers are becoming more and more sophisticated.

That leads me to Amendments 144 and 209, which would require the Government to conduct research on electronic voting and technological solutions to increase the security of the electoral register. I fully understand that electronic voting and further technological solutions supporting our processes may sound attractive in the light of ongoing digital advances. However, all electronic changes are large-scale programmes and we are currently not persuaded of the need for them and are wary of the risks that they may usher. In particular, electronic voting is a double-edged sword.

The selection of elected representatives for Parliament and other public offices is regarded as requiring the highest possible level of integrity, and the introduction of electronic voting would raise a number of issues. We know that electronic voting is not seen to be suitably rigorous and secure and could be vulnerable to attack or fraud by unscrupulous hackers and hostile foreign states.

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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If that is the case, can the noble Baroness then say why we are allowed to register to vote electronically and why the Government encourage us to do that?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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Security is not as necessary for that as it would be for voting.

Amendment 150 from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, would require the Government to ask the Electoral Commission to make proposals on how to facilitate the participation of overseas electors in parliamentary and local government elections while maintaining the security of the election process. I highlight the fact that British citizens resident abroad who are registered as overseas electors are not currently permitted to vote in local elections, though they may participate in parliamentary elections. Overseas electors are, by definition, more likely to be directly affected by decisions made in the UK Parliament than by decisions made by local government. For example, decisions on foreign policy, defence, immigration, or pensions may have a direct impact on British citizens abroad. The Government have no intention to change the franchise for local elections in this way.

In a similar vein, Amendment 151, tabled by the noble Baroness, would require the Government to consult on the possibility of introducing digital ballots for overseas electors within six months of the Bill passing. Ballot papers are printed on specific papers with security markings on them as a measure to prevent fraud. This cannot be replicated when printing on home printers and it would raise concerns as to the secrecy and security of the ballot if such measures were removed. Furthermore, the votes of overseas electors could then be easily distinguishable at a count if, for example, they were printed on different paper. That cannot be appropriate. As such, the Government cannot support the introduction of a “print and return” system for ballot papers.

On a wider interpretation of “digital ballots”, the Government hold the position that, at present, there are concerns that electronic voting by any means is not suitably rigorous and secure and could be vulnerable to attack or fraud. Due to these concerns, the Government could not support any alternative online voting option for overseas electors. This consultation, therefore, would be a poor use of time and resources.

The provisions in the Bill will enable overseas electors to remain registered for longer with an absent vote arrangement in place ahead of elections. The registration period for overseas electors will be extended from one year to three years. Additionally, electors will be able to reapply or refresh their absent vote arrangements as appropriate at the same time as renewing their registration. We are also introducing an online absent vote application service allowing electors registered in Great Britain, including overseas electors, to apply for a postal or proxy vote online. It is anticipated that an online service will alleviate some of the pre-existing challenges for electors and electoral administrators, by reducing the need to rely on manual processes. In addition to benefiting citizens, these changes will benefit electoral administrators by reducing workloads during busy electoral periods.

Additionally, the Government have already improved the postal voting process for overseas electors registered in Great Britain by working with Royal Mail and the British Forces Post Office to expedite dispatch abroad and funding the use of the international business response licence which expedites the return of ballot packs from overseas in a large number of countries, as well as covering any postage costs that might otherwise be incurred.

In summary, the Government have already taken steps to improve voting methods for overseas electors, without risking the integrity of the ballot, and will not consider these amendments. I urge that the amendment is withdrawn.

Lord Holmes of Richmond Portrait Lord Holmes of Richmond (Con)
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My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but that was an extraordinarily disappointing response. The amendments merely asked the Government to consider these areas, but the response was, “We will not”. From the Minister’s response, we would take it that the current electoral system is without difficulties or problems. The intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, was germane, because one could register online with whatever means one chose, with no real checks. It probably boils down to still messing around with gas bills as some kind of proof of identity, but where is the quality of that? Nowhere. At this stage, I will withdraw the amendment, but I have to say that that was an extraordinarily poor response.

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Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I shall speak briefly to this amendment, which would protect the rights of people in temporary housing to stand for election where the local authority provides temporary housing outside the local authority area. At any given point, close to 100,000 households live in temporary accommodation, according to quarterly statistics published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, is right to draw attention to their right to participate in the democratic process, and I fully support the intention behind her amendment. We on these Benches fully support the points she made. Those who live in temporary accommodation are often most in need of their voice being heard, especially at local authority level. The suggestion that they would be prevented from standing for the relevant local authority due to the fact that their temporary accommodation is located outside the boundary is absurd. I hope the Minister will accept the case behind the amendment and work with the noble Baroness to find a solution to the problem.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the amendment. Although admirable in its intent, it introduces an unwelcome subjective element into the current objective criteria that specify qualifications for election as a member of a local authority. It presupposes that an individual, if moved by their local authority into temporary accommodation out of the area where they are standing for election, would otherwise satisfy the qualification criteria had they not been moved by their local authority.

The qualification criteria for local elected office must be beyond doubt. The amendment as drafted would remove the demonstration of consistent connection with an area that the current criteria rightly demand. The amendment would introduce a subjective qualification that the individual believes that they would otherwise categorically have remained eligible within the existing criteria, but this is not objective; it could be neither proved nor disproved. It would be unreasonable for the local electorate to be asked to consider voting for someone who may no longer have a strong connection with the local area nor any demonstrable proof that they would otherwise have maintained that contact.

There are other criteria for standing in local elections, and I think it is important that anyone in this situation looks at those—specifically, that they have been a local government elector for the last 12 months and that they have during the last 12 months preceding that day occupied as owner or tenant any land or other premises in that area. If they work in that area then they can stand for local election, or if they have resided there for the whole of those 12 months before they were moved just before the election. Also, there is the case that they are a member of a parish or community council. There are other points for people to consider.

We have looked at this and will give it further thought, because it is an interesting concept that has not come up before. We do not make any promises, but we will look at it. At this moment, though, the Government cannot accept the amendment and I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw it. Maybe we can have further conversations.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, that was a very short but productive group. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, for his offer of support.

I note that, with 100,000 households affected, we are not just talking about a few people; there is a significant group here. To respond to the Minister, we often think about people being moved long distances from an area, but it could literally be to the other side of the road—that would still technically be out of the area. However, I very much thank the Minister for her constructive response. I will not go through it line by line now, but I would very much like to work with her to see how we can address this issue.

I just make the point that, if you had resided there for the whole 12 months—maybe you were moved into temporary accommodation the day before—there are obviously areas there that do not help. With regard to working, again, people may volunteer in the area but maybe what they spend much of their time doing is not work in terms of that qualification. However, I very much take encouragement and I hope to work with the Minister in future to see what we can do with this. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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My Lords, I want to ask some technical questions, without necessarily knowing what the correct answer is myself. I hope that the Minister, if he is not able to answer today, would be prepared to write to provide a further explanation.

I start by referring to some of the text of Clause 12. On page 14, line 13, under the new section “Extension of parliamentary franchise”, there are various conditions that a person has to satisfy. They have to be,

“not subject to any legal incapacity to vote (age apart)”

et cetera. I take it—perhaps the Minister can consult the Box to get an answer to this—that that is to make sure that nobody overseas registers who is under age. I assume that is the meaning of that. If I am wrong about that, then there might be a whole set of questions arising, but that seems to be the common-sense explanation for those two words in brackets.

I want to move on to the next page of the same clause. New Section 1B is headed,

“British citizens overseas: entitlement to be registered”.

The proposed new section sets out that, essentially, there are two ways in which one can qualify to be registered. The first is as a former elector in a United Kingdom constituency. There will be discussions about that, I am sure, but the second is what I want to focus on at the moment. The second condition is that you were a former resident in a UK constituency. We already know that there is quite a large number of people who are not registered, because we discussed earlier on that the Electoral Commission’s estimate is that in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there are somewhere between 8.6 million and 9.8 million people who are currently resident but not on the electoral roll. There is, therefore, quite a large pool of people who, presumably in approximately equal proportion, will be overseas now. There is no special preference for people who have registered being the people who have migrated.

So my question is: does this legislation grant voting rights to someone who left the UK with their parents as a baby and moved to Switzerland, say, to claim their vote alongside their parents, once they reach the age of 18 overseas? If it does, I note that there does not seem to be any requirement for that baby to have been born in the United Kingdom; they need to establish only that they were resident here. As far as I can tell, there is no specified minimum period for that residence.

I will take a case that is not entirely hypothetical. Parents who came to the United Kingdom, having been working in Ghana, with a baby who was born in England, move to Switzerland six months later. It seems that nothing is set out in the legislation to prevent that baby from claiming their vote on reaching 18 while still living overseas. I want to check that I have not misunderstood what the legislation is saying there and that, by virtue of that brief period of residence, they would be eligible to vote and—I suppose I could add—to make a donation. If that is true, I know of two British nationals now in their 50s who will be very happy to take up the offer.

But I want to know whether that really is the extension to the franchise that the Government want or whether I have actually missed something and, in some other part of the RPA—or Schedule 9 or goodness knows where else—there is something that would prevent that absurd outcome.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I will first answer the noble Lord, Lord Stunell: it is late and I do not have all the answers, but we will get a letter to him as soon as we can to answer his questions.

Amendment 146 seeks to place a time limit on overseas electors’ connections with the UK. Imposing a new time limit, albeit a longer one, does not deliver on our manifesto commitment to introduce votes for life. The Government’s view is that any time limit is arbitrary in an increasingly global and connected world. Length of time outside the UK is not a certain indicator of how a person feels about their British identity or a measure of the interest that they take in this country’s future. The Bill sets a sensible boundary for the overseas franchise. Previous registration or residence denotes a strong degree of connection to the UK.

Amendments 145, 147 and 148 seek to prevent people who have committed offences or been sanctioned under the described Acts, or those who are subject to an Interpol red notice, from registering as overseas electors. Domestic electors are not required to declare whether they have ever committed offences under the Acts described, and the Government will not impose these requirements on overseas electors. Overseas electors would be subject to the same restrictions as domestic electors in respect of offences relating to personation and postal vote fraud that result in a temporary bar from voting upon a person being convicted or named as personally guilty of that offence.

In a situation where a domestic elector would not be permanently barred from voting, we would wish to treat an overseas elector equally—

Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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The Minister has just said that exactly the same restrictions would apply to overseas voters as to voters in the UK. If an overseas voter had been sent to prison in Switzerland, say, for 18 months, would they be able to vote from prison there, or would we have a mechanism for making sure that they were not competent to vote in that situation?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I think that is a hypothetical question, but I shall certainly get a legal opinion on it.

On Amendment 148, as the noble Baroness said, all those issues on sanctions should be dealt with on Monday, within the group on donations, if she does not mind. I think that is the sensible place to have that debate. Therefore, I urge her not to press the amendments.

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Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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The five-year period in my amendment comes from a briefing from Solace. Could I suggest that further discussion takes place to see whether something has happened since the original discussion?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I shall certainly ask the team to go back and check. I do not know whether it was Solace or another group that has been working with the policy team on this. We will check that out for the noble Lord and see why there is a difference.

Furthermore, the Bill carefully balances the need to ensure that registers are kept accurate and that overseas electors’ contact details are up to date, which is particularly important to ensure that they receive a postal ballot. I hope the noble Lord will consider these points and not press his amendments

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. I will just make a couple of points. One is that there is quite a bit of concern about this part of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, talked about concerns about proper checks, which is what we are very concerned about—making sure that those checks are done so that the people who are asking to come on to the register who have not been in this country for a long time are proper people to come on to the register, and the checks and balances have taken place properly and correctly. Also, if that is going to happen, what about the support for local authorities and election teams? It could be a lot of work in some areas. At some point, it would be good to return to this issue.

I completely take the Minister’s point about looking at sanctions in more detail in the debate on Monday. That is a particularly important thing that we need to spend some time on, even if the broader debate is not one that the Government want to spend time on. We need to look at that. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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I have very little to say other than that it is a very interesting suggestion and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for bringing it forward and giving us food for thought. I had no idea that France had overseas constituencies until he tabled his amendment and I looked into it. It is an interesting suggestion.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I fear that at this late hour, I will disappoint the noble Lord. This amendment would require the Government to prepare a report on proposals for the creation of overseas constituencies. The Bill will allow overseas electors to continue to vote in constituencies to which they have a significant and demonstrable connection. This constituency link has always been and continues to be a cornerstone of our democracy. Creating overseas constituencies is therefore not something the Government are considering. To commission a report on the topic is unnecessary. Overseas electors will continue to register in the constituencies to which they have a significant and demonstrable connection.

As the amendment acknowledges, there are extensive and complex bureaucratic challenges to implementing overseas constituencies. There would, for example, be ongoing complexities regarding how constituency boundaries and their electorate would be determined and maintained with a constituency stretching across multiple countries and being affected by fluctuating migration. Furthermore, electoral administration for overseas constituencies would have to be done in a very different way from the current process, whereby it is undertaken by local authorities. We would need to address matters such as: who would be responsible for maintaining the register of electors and administering the polls for an overseas constituency. Overseas constituencies would not fit in with the existing arrangements for organising constituencies and delivering elections, and establishing them would require the consideration of a range of complex issues. I hope the noble Lord will feel able to reconsider this suggestion and withdraw his amendment.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, that is not at all surprising as an answer. I point out that the extensive and bureaucratic challenges to which the Minister refers are involved in extending the vote to overseas voters in the first place. Those challenges will be met by local registration officers in Britain, but if we are to have a different relationship with our 5 million to 7 million citizens abroad, we need to look at it in a rather more rounded way and consider how we manage it. It is not a question of just extending the vote and leaving it like that.

After all, we have got into some difficulty in recent years with the question of how we relate to overseas citizens, particularly our dual nationals when they are imprisoned in the other countries of their nationality—and these are not particularly friendly countries. That needs to be thought about.

What I hear from the Government throughout the Bill is that they are not interested in anything except their current agenda. They are not interested in thinking through the implications of some of their proposals. I have talked to Canadian Senators about how they cope with these voters. I am aware of the French system; I am surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was not. The Britain, Ireland and Nordic constituency is one of its five overseas constituencies. Many people in London are French and therefore vote in French elections. In the last presidential election campaign, Macron came to address a large meeting in London as part of his campaign. If we were to move in that direction, of course British politicians would need to think about which other countries they would go to campaign in. There are some large implications of this which, if I may say so, the Government appear simply not to have thought through as they push this through.

That is the problem with an awful lot of this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord True, will be responsible for having assisted and enabled a thoroughly badly thought-through Bill to become law. That will be on his conscience and his responsibility. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Elections Bill

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Lord Grocott Portrait Lord Grocott (Lab)
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I absolutely agree. I would add only one point to my noble friend’s observations. If we regard the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust as a reputable research body, it is saying that something like 1.7 million people are without voter ID—I do not have the notes here, but it is a very substantial figure—and they are overwhelmingly people on lower incomes. So there is a lot that we do know, but it would certainly be a lot better to have a pilot study before this kind of change was introduced.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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Before my noble friend Lord Hayward sat down, the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, rose to intervene. Perhaps we could allow the noble Lord’s intervention.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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Thank you very much. I certainly have not come across any evidence to suggest that ID cards are an answer to the problem of voter fraud. I would like to broaden the debate a little and think about the consequences. I grew up in east London, where it was not unusual for people of certain backgrounds to be stopped in the street by the police and asked to show ID, when you are not required to carry any ID. What would happen in this brave new world when the police stopped people and said, “By the way, you now have an official ID. Have you not got it? Can you not bring it from home and report to the police station?” What would be the consequences for the young people who are unwilling or unable to produce those officially sanctioned ID cards? Would that drive a wedge between the police and the community? Would that criminalise people? Would that fuel more dissatisfaction with our parliamentary system? Would that fuel social instability? I would like to hear from the Minister where this ID concern will stop. What would be the broader social consequences? It seems to me that we would be opening up American-type social problems. They would be imported here, because people simply do not have or cannot produce officially sanctioned ID cards.

It is minorities who will be targeted. It is well known and well documented that the police target minorities. They would have a new authority to wield to criminalise minorities. I would love to hear the Minister’s views on that.

Elections Bill

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
We know, as the noble Lord the Minister has indicated, the abuses that have taken place in terms of harvesting postal votes, forced registration in households and those sorts of things that we need to stamp out to ensure the integrity of our electoral system. In doing so, we want to make sure that we are not using a heavy hand and that people who may do something innocently are not criminalised. I hope that the Minister understands why we have tabled this series of amendments: it is to probe and get a better understanding of how we would deal with those sorts of innocent situations that should be dealt with more clearly by guidance. I beg to move.
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, these probing amendments seek to test the defence for political campaigners set out in Clause 4, which bans said campaigners from handling postal votes issued to other persons. Clause 4 is designed to address activities and behaviours that have been a cause for concern at previous elections, such as the practice of postal vote harvesting whereby voters are coerced or tricked into completing their postal voting statement before handing over their papers with the ballot paper unmarked to campaigners to be taken away and filled in elsewhere.

Amendment 93 seeks to provide that a person commits an offence only if they knowingly handled a postal vote issued to another person. The clause currently provides that it is a defence for a political campaigner charged with the offence to show that they did not dishonestly handle the postal voting document for the purpose of promoting a particular outcome at an election. This Government entirely share the concern that no offence should criminalise innocent behaviour. For this reason—

Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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I thank the Minister for her explanation. In preparing for this particular debate, I looked at the defence that is set out on page 2 of the Bill—I thank the Minister for reading that into the record. It further says, in new Section 112A(5), inserted by Clause 4, that

“the court must assume that the defence is satisfied unless the prosecution proves beyond reasonable doubt that it is not.”

The burden of proof there is upon the prosecution. I mention this because, as a political campaigner who quite often gets asked to take a postal vote and hand it in on behalf of an elector, it is clearly of considerable importance to know that we are—if you like—excluded from the purview of this particular offence.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I think that all of us campaigners have been asked the same question many times on the doorstep.

This Government entirely share the concern that no offence should criminalise innocent behaviour. We have been especially careful to target the wording of the new offence to ensure that it is reasonable and proportionate where somebody acts with honest intentions. For these reasons, the Government consider that the offence provisions are appropriately worded and are therefore unable to accept that amendment or the others in this group.

In fact, against the concerns of Amendment 94, new Section 112A(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, inserted by Clause 4, already provides that a person who handles a postal voting document for use in a relevant election does not commit an offence if they are responsible for or assist with the conduct of that election and the handling is consistent with the person’s duties in that capacity.

Amendment 95 seeks to exempt legal guardians from the offence. There is an exemption in the clause for a political campaigner, if they are close family—

“spouse, civil partner, parent, grandparent, brother, sister, child or grandchild”—

of the other person whose postal vote they are handling. Legal guardians are not included, as they do not have the relevant powers when acting for adults, and their powers are primarily to do with decisions about a person’s medical care and their finances.

Amendment 96 also seeks to change the definition of political campaigner for the purposes of postal vote handling offences to include those who have donated to a campaign. The definition in the Bill is comprehensive and includes candidates, electoral agents and members of a registered political party who carry on an activity designed to promote a particular outcome at an election. Donating to a campaign is not the same as actively canvassing. Therefore, I am not persuaded that it should be amended to such a disproportionate extent. For this reason, I beg that the amendment is withdrawn.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for her response and, in light of her comments, beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, I have a question more out of ignorance than expertise. I am old enough to have gone round as a young man in the days when different parties competed in treating the matrons of care homes, and relying on them to collect all the votes up and make sure that everyone voted in the right direction. I am sure that that no longer happens—let us hope that it is something that we left behind in the 1960s. However, this raises questions about care homes. How are people assisted to vote? Who posts their votes for them or holds their proxies? I wish for a little assurance about this.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, in answer to that question from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, keeping the numbers at four and not allowing anybody to have as many proxy votes as they like will help control this sort of behaviour. We all know that it happened in the past.

I will get an answer on why postal votes are to be in guidance and proxy votes are in the Bill, and write to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven.

I turn to the amendments concerning the measure in the Bill designed to strengthen the current arrangements for proxy voting. Currently, somebody can act as a proxy for up to two electors and for an unlimited number of close relatives in any constituency in a parliamentary election, or any electoral area at a local election. This can give rise to situations where somebody could cast an extremely large number of proxy votes, over which they could also exercise undue influence. This is where the issue of care homes and such like comes into play.

The Bill introduces a new limited of four on the total number of electors for whom a person may act as a proxy in UK parliamentary elections or local government elections in England. Within this figure, no more than two may be domestic electors—that is, electors who are not overseas electors or service voters. All four may be overseas electors or service voters. This approach will tighten up the rules on proxy voting, while also providing appropriate support for overseas electors and service voters wishing to appoint a proxy.

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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, as has been said, these amendments are to Clause 7, which concerns the important issue of the secrecy of the ballot for postal and proxy voters. The clause extends the requirements currently in place to protect the secrecy of voting for persons voting in polling stations to postal and proxy voting. These sensible change implementations are an important recommendation from the Pickles report.

First, in bringing forward government Amendments 98, 99 and 101 to 103, we have listened to feedback from political parties about the scope and effect of the provisions as drafted. Currently, the clause includes provisions that make it an offence for a person to obtain, attempt to obtain or communicate to anyone information about whether a postal voter has voted or about the candidate for whom they have voted. As drafted, this applies for the whole period that the elector is in possession of their postal ballot paper, which could be up to three weeks.

We now recognise that this approach goes beyond what is helpful to protect the voter and strays into unnecessarily criminalising not only legitimate political activity to engage electors in campaigns but important public information, such as opinion polling. The amendments would limit the scope of these provisions by providing for it to be an offence for a person to seek information about for whom a postal voter has voted at the time they are completing their ballot paper, or to communicate such information obtained at that time. Campaigners could therefore seek and communicate information that they obtain outside this period. This is in line with the protection for voters in polling stations, who are protected when they are in that polling station.

The amendments would also remove the restriction on asking whether a postal voter has voted so that campaigners can ask a postal voter whether they have voted, to encourage them to do so. Further, under the amendments, the offence would not apply to opinion-polling activity asking how a postal voter has voted, or intends to vote, to avoid criminalising opinion pollsters. The amendments seek to address the unintended consequences that the provisions, as they stand, would have. They would narrow the scope of the provisions so that they do not prevent legitimate campaigning by political parties and candidates outside the time when a person completes their postal ballot paper or legitimate opinion polling at any time.

I reassure noble Lords that the measures will improve the integrity of the postal vote process by reducing the opportunity for individuals to exploit the process and coerce other voters. They will give greater confidence in the integrity of absent voting; I therefore urge the Committee to accept these amendments.

The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness seek to provide that attempting to communicate information about a person’s postal vote as well as actually communicating the information is covered in the secrecy offence. Also, the amendments seek to include in the offence obtaining or attempting to obtain information or communicating information about whether a person voting by postal vote has spoilt their ballot. The Government consider that these amendments are unnecessary, as I have explained. The amendments that the Government have tabled seek to bring the protection for postal voters into line with that for those voting in polling stations.

The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness would mean that there would be inconsistency in the requirements for voters in polling stations and postal voters, which would not favour them. I note that, currently, it is an offence for a person to obtain or attempt to obtain information or communicate information as to the candidate for whom a voter has voted in a polling station, and we are applying this to postal voters.

Spoilt ballot papers are not included in the existing provisions, which relate to the time when a voter is casting their vote. It is for the returning officer to decide if a vote has been spoilt and cannot be counted. That cannot be done before it is cast. To try to include such a provision could lead to uncertainty about the scope of the offence and the role of the statutory independent returning officer in making any such determination. The Government therefore cannot accept these amendments.

I turn to the amendment from my noble friend Lord Hayward, which would provide the Secretary of State with a power to issue guidance on the steps that presiding officers or clerks should take to ensure the secrecy of the ballot in polling stations. I reassure noble Lords that the Government take this and the concerns that have been raised very seriously. The Government’s view is that the secrecy of the ballot is fundamental to the ability of voters to cast their vote freely, without undue pressure to vote in a certain way. The Government fully endorse the principle that someone’s vote must be personal and secret, and that no elector should ever be subject to intimidation or coercion when voting. There are already provisions in place in electoral law to ensure the secrecy of voting in polling stations. The current legislation requires that voters should not be accompanied by another person at a polling booth except in specific circumstances, such as being a child of a voter, a formal companion or a member of staff.

Returning officers and their staff in polling stations are responsible for making sure that these requirements are upheld. In this way, they are supported by the Electoral Commission, which issues guidance to returning officers and polling station staff to help them to undertake their duties.

I note that the Electoral Commission guidance specifically advises polling station staff that they should make sure that voters go to polling booths individually, so that their right to a secret vote is protected. Therefore, I do not consider that it is the role of government to issue such guidance as provided for in the amendment. However, given the important concerns that have been raised on the secrecy of voting, Minister Badenoch will be writing to the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan Police to confirm our common understanding of the position set out in legislation—that the only people who should provide assistance at a polling booth are polling station staff and companions who are doing so only for the purpose of supporting an elector with health and/or accessibility issues that need such support. We are confident that the Electoral Commission will be able to respond promptly, and I reassure the noble Lord and the rest of the House that we will report back on this matter.

For these reasons, I hope that the amendments from the noble Baroness and the noble Lord will not be pressed.

Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response and the noble Lords, Lord Hayward and Lord Scriven, for their contributions. I want to say how impeccable the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was in reading the Ballot Act 1872 in the space of this debate, and I congratulate him on his reading skills. In doing so, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for speaking on behalf of my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond. We did debate his Amendment 118A, and we are in contact with him on the issues he raised, so I am happy with that.

Amendment 122A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, would require that the returning officers consider whether to appoint designated people to assist electors in completing their postal votes at home or at other locations for various reasons. I commend the spirit of this amendment in looking to improve the accessibility of elections for people who may struggle to mark their vote. We know that there are people who, for many reasons, do that, but I contend that it is not necessary, given the existing assistance avenues already in place.

When voting by post, it is important that the postal vote is completed by the person to whom it is given. When someone is unable to sign the postal vote, as is required, they may get a waiver of their signature. If they need help from the returning officer, they may attend a polling station where staff are empowered to assist electors to vote, or a companion can assist them in a supervised environment. If the person cannot attend a polling station, they may appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. This proxy may themselves choose to vote by post. An elector may also appoint an emergency proxy to vote on their behalf up until 5 pm on the day of the poll in certain unforeseen circumstances.

For these reasons, while I understand everything that has been said, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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As the Minister said, we had an extensive debate on this at our previous Committee sitting, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.