Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner Elections, Recall Petitions and Referendums (Ballot Secrecy, Candidates and Undue Influence) Regulations 2023 Debate

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Lord Jones

Main Page: Lord Jones (Labour - Life peer)

Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner Elections, Recall Petitions and Referendums (Ballot Secrecy, Candidates and Undue Influence) Regulations 2023

Lord Jones Excerpts
Wednesday 18th October 2023

(7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Jones Portrait Lord Jones (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mott, for his helpful and detailed introduction. Paragraph 2.1 on page 1 of the Explanatory Memorandum reflects the complexities of modern democratic citizenship. Its last sentence must be welcomed; it is a definite no to undue influence. Likewise, it is interesting to note in the Explanatory Note

“the amended candidacy rights for EU citizens introduced by section 15 of the Act”—

for example, form 2A on page 14.

Concerning the police and crime commissioner elections, I draw attention most positively to Schedule 5. There are four pages in the language of heaven—the Welsh language from the lovely land of Wales, which is my homeland. You rarely see Welsh on official Whitehall and Westminster papers, and pages 47 to 50 are distinctive; this is good. Were these pages prepared by the department, was it subcontracted to the Senedd or was it entirely the work of the translation service?

Our North Wales Police force is well regarded. It has major challenges and overcomes them. Its terrain is mountainous, coastal and estuarial and exhibits the great earthworks of the early medieval warlords Offa and Wat. They were not specifically dug to keep us warrior Welsh out of Saxon territory, and today they are notable for the Welsh place names on the western side of the earthworks and for the Saxon on the eastern—the Saxon -tons, for example, Commissioner Dunbobbin is excellent, and for ever amidst the far-flung citizenry. I had the honour of teaching his mother, and observe and know him well. Our recently appointed chief constable is on the Welsh speakers course, and I suggest that the noble Lord visits our constabulary; he would be warmly welcomed by a hospitable chief constable and by our diligent commissioner.

I note that Regulation 11 applies to Wales only. The mayoralty of London is fast becoming a great office of state and sometimes appears to rival our premiership: the City, money, influence, Heathrow’s runways and the Met—it is quite a list. The mayoralty of Manchester has been made a great success; a former Cabinet Minister just knows how.

Has former Cottonopolis, now the home of magical graphene, edged ahead of Chamberlain’s second city, Birmingham? For certain, the mayor, the former head of the ubiquitous John Lewis, has brought further fame to Birmingham and—intentionally or otherwise—allied his HS2 thinking to that of Manchester’s mayor. That is quite a local government alliance. The mayoralty of Teesside appears talismanic to His Majesty’s Government, and its noble presence is in your Lordships’ House. Is it appropriate to describe a group of elected mayors as a “clutch” or a “gathering”? Perhaps the pressured PM of the day would deploy the description of a “gang”. Concerning mayoralties, there do seem to be constant, strong, hitherto unforeseen challenges to Downing Street. However, they are all constitutional, democratic and buttressed by the secret ballot of regional citizens.

Lastly, referendums have edged big time into British parliamentary life. Some 53 years ago, when one entered Westminster, they were not there; now, the unforeseen consequences of devolved Governments in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh have manifested themselves over nearly a quarter of a century. For example, in the Covid emergency, central government was occasionally embarrassed by First Ministers who knew how to deploy well-timed televised press conferences. It really can be a challenge when central government is of one political complexion and the other Governments of Britain are of the opposite—so very obviously critical, angry and ambitious, yet legitimate and constitutional.

I am very proud of the Wales Assembly, now the Senedd. It powers on some 25 years; it is but an eye-blink in the great history of Wales, a sort of infinitesimal timeline. Government is messy and always challenging. Constitutional change is often a step in the dark. A referendum on a British scale is truly an “historic midwife”, but it is constitutional of course. I end again by thanking the noble Lord for his helpful introduction.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jones, who I think entered the other place at a point when my role in elections was counting the posters as I walked to my primary school, wondering what on earth this was all about.

After our extensive debates on the Elections Act, I do not think we need to spend a lot of time dwelling on these various measures which are necessary following the changes made by that Act, and by the Ballot Secrecy Act that was steered through so skilfully by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, who I am pleased to see in his place. I will not dwell on any of these measures, except to say that I think they again really illustrate the need to properly codify all of our electoral legislation, as recommended by the Law Commission some years ago. I would be grateful if the Minister, who I can see is nodding, might confirm that the Government are interested in this idea in principle.

I will, however, say today that the Ballot Secrecy Act was necessary, as shown by the legal advice obtained by the Electoral Commission, and that it provides greater clarity for presiding officers. It is clearly right, therefore, that the provisions of the Ballot Secrecy Act apply to all other elections, to referendums and to recall petitions.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for his kind comments. As he knows, and as I think many others in the Chamber also know, he played a prime role in progressing the idea that we should seek counsel’s opinion from the Electoral Commission to establish clarity in relation to the law, to which I shall return in a moment.

In relation to the noble Lord, Lord Jones, I am reminded that in fact, the first time I ever cast a vote in person—I can say it in Welsh, but I am not sure I could spell it if Hansard asked me to check it—I voted in favour of Sunday opening. This was a referendum in Pembrokeshire at the time that I lived there. I will not go down the Welsh language route.

Lord Jones Portrait Lord Jones (Lab)
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The first referendum was lost; the second was won. In the Marcher area on Sundays, you would see thirsty men queuing for a bus from Wales to Chester.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for that intervention—it saved me from my attempt to speak Welsh.

Before I move on to one or two aspects of this, I seek clarification on what my noble friend the Minister said as he opened the debate: that is, that on page 51, the note refers to a series of different elections with regard to the application of the Ballot Secrecy Act. There is no reference to parliamentary elections but, as I understood it, he was confirming that the Ballot Secrecy Act would be included when it comes to the general parliamentary elections—I note that he is nodding in response to that, and I appreciate it.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, the Ballot Secrecy Act was intended to establish free and fair elections, cover aspects of equality and give power to presiding officers to intervene where actions were inappropriate. In my time of progressing what was the first Private Member’s Bill from this House in four years to complete its passage and only the third in 15 years, I learned a lot about the processes that Private Members’ Bills go through in the House. It is tortuous, unnecessarily long and in some cases distinctly disadvantageous to the proposer of the legislation as regards the manner in which amendments from government are considered and the like. I suggest that either the effective second Chamber group of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, should look at the way we operate, or some committee should do so. Even having navigated the way through the difficulties in the House, Bills from this House go to the bottom of the queue in the House of Commons, whereas Bills from the House of Commons go to the top of the queue in the House of Lords. It seems an unacceptable variation in the process; therefore there are several needs for change in relation to this.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, touched on the question of whether the Bill was necessary. As I indicated in the debate on 15 July last year, in which others here participated, it was unclear whether the officials’ advice that it was not necessary to pass my Bill or the Electoral Commission’s broad advice that it was necessary at that stage was a matter for question. Counsel’s opinion came down quite clearly in favour of a need to change the law. However, out of curiosity I would just like to know whether the Minister can say, now or at a later stage, at which point the officials in the department received the Electoral Commission’s guidance. It is relevant to the process of the Bill and the views expressed to Ministers, to officials and to others on the ministerial write-round. I will not go into great detail at this point about my concerns about the handling of that; I put them in writing to the Minister and have received a reply. I have been offered a meeting, which, as yet, has not been taken up. I understand, given the ill health of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the circumstances of these SIs and so on, that things are necessarily delayed. However, I am concerned about the aspect not of the decision-making process but of the accuracy and consistency of the advice that has been given to Ministers on the ministerial write-round.