HC Deb 12 March 1998 vol 308 cc796-811
Mr. Clappison

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 1, line 15, after '(4)', insert 'Subject to subsection (4A) below,'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 20, at end insert— '(4A) As soon as possible after 16th February in each pre-election year the Boundary Commission shall—

  1. (a) ascertain whether the ratio of registered electors to MEPs is as nearly as possible the same for England, Scotland and Wales, and
  2. (b) make by order such modifications to any of the number of MEPs specified in subsection (4)(a), (b) or (c) as may be necessary to ensure that result.'.

Mr. Clappison

The amendments are designed to explore the future distribution of seats between England, Scotland and Wales. The Bill contains a mechanism for redistributing seats between the 11 regions in England, but there is no such mechanism for redistributing seats between England, Scotland and Wales. That feature of the Bill has attracted some comment and led to questions in some quarters about whether it was an oversight by the Government. If it is not an oversight, and if there is a reason for the difference, perhaps the Minister will tell us what it is.

Many people who have examined the Bill have wondered why the Government have chosen to deal with the distribution of seats in the way they have. We want to hear about the Government's approach, against the background of fairness and equity, in the Bill and in all such legislation affecting the redistribution of seats. We look forward to hearing the Government's explanation.

Mr. George Howarth

The amendments would require the boundary commission to perform a calculation to determine whether the division of seats between England, Scotland and Wales ensured that the ratio of MEPs to electors across Britain was, as nearly as possible, the same, and, if not, to make an order to make the necessary adjustment. Clause 1 sets out the number of MEPs that each part of the UK will return: England has 71, Scotland eight, Wales five, and Northern Ireland three.

I listened carefully to the brief speech that the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) made in support of the amendments, but he has not made much of a case for them. They would require the boundary commission to perform the calculation to which I have referred. There is nothing to be added to what has already been said on that subject.

For some reason, the hon. Gentleman has left out Northern Ireland. I do not know whether that was an oversight or whether there was a specific reason for his doing so. In any event, that would create difficulties, because Northern Ireland forms part of the whole.

I know that there has been some concern about the division of MEPs between the component parts of the UK. Indeed, that point was debated in different ways at earlier stages of our deliberations. Let me put the record straight on one very important fact: the Bill does not change the allocation of MEPs between the constituent parts of the UK. The European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, in its current form, has on its face exactly the division of MEPs for which clause 1 of this Bill provides. Let me enlighten the House about how that division came about.

In the early 1990s, as a consequence of German reunification, the number of MEPs to which the UK was entitled was increased from 81 to 87. The then Conservative Government brought forward a Bill to provide for an allocation of 71 MEPs for England, eight for Scotland and five for Wales. That Bill became the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1993, and it is those numbers that this Bill replicates.

It is worth noting that since the very first direct elections to the European Parliament, the number of MEPs that each part of the United Kingdom will return has always been set out on the face of the statute. We see no reason to depart from this tradition. Dividing up Members between the parts of the United Kingdom is Parliament's prerogative, and we believe that it should remain so. Indeed, the importance of that was demonstrated in the discussion following a contribution earlier in the Bill's proceedings by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) who tried to persuade us that Scotland should have an extra MEP.

In the light of what I have said, and because the Bill follows the precedent, I invite the hon. Member for Hertsmere—

Mr. Sayeed

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

I will give way, but only briefly as I want the hon. Member for Hertsmere to respond to my comments.

Mr. Sayeed

Can the Minister tell the House the highest and lowest ratios of electors per MEP that currently appertain?

Mr. Howarth

No, not without spending five minutes looking it up. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that, under the current system, the ratio is about 500,000 electors per MEP. There is some variation, in the tens of thousands, each side of that figure. Clearly, as we are having a regional list system, that will vary considerably.

I return to my earlier point. In the light of what I have said, I hope that the hon. Member for Hertsmere will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Mr. Syms

This is an important issue. Apportionment between countries goes back partly to the 1944 Speaker's conference, when certain guidance was given on the distribution of seats between Scotland, Wales and England. Under the first-past-the-post system, account can be taken of some degree of sparsity of population and geographic conditions. That is, in effect, the basis of the present system.

I have been present for most stages of the Bill's consideration and I have heard words such as "proportional", "fair" and "inclusive". However, we end up with a Bill where England has 83.3 per cent. of the electorate of the United Kingdom but only 81.6 per cent. of the UK's MEPs. The reality is that England is 1.7 MEPs under quota. If there were ever an opportunity to equalise the electorate across the United Kingdom, or certainly Great Britain, as the amendment would, it is before us. No one has yet explained to me why England does not have fair representation.

I accept that when we subdivide 87 seats, we do not end up with a perfect quota. The figures do not emerge perfectly. However, there is certainly a claim for one additional seat in England, and possibly two. It is odd that a Bill that is built on fair votes, proportionality, inclusiveness and fairness to everybody succeeds in producing arrangements based on 83.3 per cent. of the electorate having only 81.6 per cent. of the votes.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

My hon. Friend is making an important point. In an attempt to try to find some middle ground between the two Front Benches, the Opposition, have not challenged the number of seats in the 1999 election, although a case could be made for England to have another seat, as my hon. Friend is showing with great eloquence. We are seeking to put in place a fair and impartial mechanism for the future so that, when there are transitions of people, it will be possible for an independent organisation to make representations and give advice to the House about future numbers, rather than our challenging the numbers for next year.

Mr. Syms

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. However, there is concern that if we do not have fair distribution now, precedents might be set, with the result that future redistributions, future votes and future allocations of seats may be based on an unfair formula between England, Scotland and Wales—the main countries of Great Britain. That would be our concern.

That is particularly so because we know, given the terms of the Bill, that the redistribution of seats between regions will be decided by the Home Secretary and not by an independent boundary commission. That being so, the issue is very much in the political domain.

As I have said, England has 83.3 per cent. of the UK electorate, but it will have only 81.6 per cent. of the seats. It is worth making it known to the Government that that is of great concern to us.

The Minister talked about Northern Ireland, which is excluded from the amendment. Northern Ireland has a quota of 2.7 per cent., which means that there would be some doubt about a third seat. However, we all appreciate that there is a special circumstance for the Province. From a political perspective, three seats would, in effect, allow two Protestant seats and one Catholic to have representation within the European Parliament. That is a somewhat crude division, but the withdrawal of one seat, even in the absence of qualification for quota, might lead to political problems in Northern Ireland. In the context of what is good for the United Kingdom, we all might agree that there could be a persuasive argument for a third seat for Northern Ireland.

There is certainly not fair distribution. If the Bill means anything, it is about equality of votes. As a supporter of the first-past-the-post system, I stress that it would not be my overwhelming argument, but I have heard Ministers say that the Bill is about fairness of votes, inclusivity and proportionality. Yet we do not have proportional distribution.

What has gone wrong? As we said earlier, the Government have allocated seats on the basis of an English quota and have then added the seats of Wales and Scotland. No United Kingdom quota has been put forward, so there is not a fair allocation of seats within the countries of the Union.

I do not wish to pursue the point. I wish only to emphasise that there will not be a fair allocation. I stress also that our concerns are for the future. There will come a stage when shifts of population will mean that seats have to be reallocated. When the new system takes effect at the first election, we do not want proportionality for everyone except the English.

6.45 pm
Mr. Sayeed

When debating the Scottish Parliament, many of us have complained about over-representation by Scottish Members in this Parliament. We asked the Government to reduce that representation so that there would be a balance with English Members. The Government refused to do that. They said, "You will have to wait for the regular report of the boundary commission." They did not explain why we would have to wait for it. Equally, they did not explain why a report could not be produced earlier. We shall have to wait, and we all know that that could mean that there will not be even representation between English and Scottish Members for about 12 or 15 years.

Why should we be asked to trust the Government on this issue? The amendment is fairly simple; it is asking only for equity. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) said. I recognise that we did not over-press our position and that perhaps we started off from the wrong position, which means that England is almost two seats under-represented. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will explain to me later why we did not push the matter a bit harder. However, the decision has been made.

The two simple amendments before us are designed to try to produce a system of equity. That is all. They are designed to increase representation so that it is up to date, and to keep it up to date. We all know that demographic changes take place in the United Kingdom or Great Britain. People move from one area to another. Given the enormous areas that have been suggested by the Government—regions—the problems of depopulated areas no longer apply. Therefore, there is no reason for there not to be an even balance with an equal number of electors per MEP under the new arrangement.

Earlier, there might have been a reason, because of depopulated areas, to have slight imbalance and favouritism towards, for example, depopulated areas in Wales and Scotland. However, under the enormous regional areas for electing MEPs, there is no reason for that approach. In equity and fairness, the Government should accept the amendments, because they are fair. They say, "Let us have the same number of electors per MEP throughout Great Britain."

Mr. Clappison

I have listened carefully to the debate, including the response from the Under-Secretary of State. Well-informed contributions have been made by my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed).

The Opposition wanted to know why the redistributive mechanism should be different in England, Scotland and Wales. The question has been raised by many others who have considered the proposed legislation. We wanted an answer. We wanted to know how the Government proposed to deal, as the Bill stands, with future population changes, in whatever direction, between Scotland, Wales and England.

I was not entirely satisfied with the Minister's response. We were justified in asking whether the Government were responsible for an oversight. We are still pondering why they have chosen to make a distinction within the redistributive mechanism for future population changes.

We are still concerned, but, bearing in mind the lateness of the hour and the need to make progress, I do not intend to press the amendment to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 3, line 41, after 'State', insert ', save that the day appointed by the Secretary of State shall not be a day of the week or a date of special religious significance on which the holding of an election would be incompatible with the historic teaching and practices of any Christian or other principal religious tradition represented in Great Britain'. I welcome the assurance given by the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), in an earlier debate, that there was no prospect of the 1999 election being held on a Sunday. That was a positive comment. She accused me of being churlish—or some synonym—in my response, so let me start by welcoming unequivocally the fact that there will be no election on a Sunday next year. Having said that, we want to come back to this issue, for it raises longer-term issues.

There is no legal requirement for elections in this country to be held on a Thursday. No doubt somebody, on behalf of the Minister, has looked at history to see when elections started to be held on that day. It seems that it became the practice in the 1930s, and it has served us well for 60 to 65 years. I can only speculate that it might have had something to do with early closing day, or some other matter, in the 1930s and 1940s. Whatever the reason, it has become established.

One can approach the issue another way and say that it is clear why elections were not held on other days. It is a matter of regret to many—but we are not here to make moral judgments—that the influence of religious belief in society 50 or 60 years ago was unquestionably stronger than it is today, so the idea of holding an election on a Sunday would never have crossed the minds of my grandfather's generation. Similarly, there was at that time a strong Jewish community in this country, so it would not have crossed the minds of many that it would be a good idea to hold an election on a Saturday.

The truth is that we live in a different world, up to a point. We live much more flexible and mobile lives than people lived then. People now are as busy at weekends as during the week. Members of Parliament are not the only ones affected in that regard. Indeed, as a result of the nation's increased prosperity, far more people are able to enjoy the weekends in a variety of ways, with various activities, and to enjoy them further from home than my grandfather's, or, indeed, my father's, generation could have.

The prima facie assumptions that turnout would be higher if we voted on a weekend, that it would be more convenient for people to vote then or that people would have more time to walk to the local school to vote seemed perfectly fair ones for the Government to make, but those are aspirations. They are a reflection of political will, rather than of real life.

I return to the sensitivity of people's religious beliefs, as it is at the heart of the issue. I am grateful to the Minister for not calling into question my sincerity, even if we did not have a meeting of minds on this issue.

I think that the Minister without Portfolio said that there are six major religions in this country and that the beliefs of all of them will be reflected in the millennium dome. I shall choose three of those religions. I went to the "Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions", because, if I can convince the Government that this is not some personal quirk and that I am reflecting a well established tradition among three of the six major religions, that might be a more persuasive argument than my oratory.

I looked up Islam. Under the heading "Friday Prayer In Islam"—those are not my words, and I am not attributing Friday to that great religion—the dictionary says: Taking part in prayer…five times daily is a fundamental responsibility for Muslims. The five daily prayers take place at sunrise, noon, late afternoon, sunset, and after dark. The Friday noon prayer is of special significance. It is performed in a large mosque in the presence of a congregation of 40 or more. During the Friday Prayer an Imam or other competent preacher delivers an address lasting about 15 to 30 minutes. Attendance at the Friday Prayer is considered a duty for Muslim believers if they are free at that time, and business during this hour is forbidden, although it may be conducted at other times during the day. Friday is the Muslim day of assembly".

There has never been an argument that those who have strong religious beliefs and convictions spend all day, from morning to evening, in prayer, worship and contemplation, so that, by definition, they are not free to do anything else. The argument has always been that beliefs and religious convictions for all the major religions are focused on one day a week that is special. Friday is clearly that day for Muslims.

I then looked up the Jewish faith, and the heading "Sabbath". The dictionary says: The seventh day of the week, which in Jewish belief is designated a day of rest and cessation from labour, beginning just before sunset on Fridays and lasting until nightfall on Saturday, when candles are lit to signify the end of a holy time. The laws of Sabbath observance derive from a short ban found in the Pentateuch"— Exodus 20 and 31 for those want to check my source of reference— and from God's own rest in the Genesis creation account. Even in more liberal Reform Judaism the Sabbath is mainly a day of worship. Therefore, the Jewish religious day starts on Friday evening and goes through to Saturday evening, and it is considered to be a holy time.

I then turned to the paragraph headed "Sunday". It states: The day of the week set aside by the Christian religion for divine worship mainly in commemoration of Christ's resurrection. As early as New Testament times it replaced the Jewish Sabbath, when Paul and the Christians of Troas gathered on the first day of the week to `break bread' (Acts 20), and it is called 'the Lord's day' (Rev 1).

This is not meant to be, nor will it become, a sermon or a theological treatise.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

It could become a bore.

7 pm

Sir Brian Mawhinney

Only for hon. Members with minds like the hon. Gentleman's. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will not take quite so kindly to his insensitivity to their religious beliefs as others in the House.

Britain has a tradition which has stood us in good stead for 60 odd years in that major elections are held on a Thursday. Britain has an even more important tradition, which is that people have freedom of religion and freedom to practise their religion, and around that has grown a sensitivity to the religious beliefs of others even when we may not ourselves share those beliefs. I am at a loss to understand why a Government who rightly—I have no difficulty with the Government's position—talk about acting appropriately in a multicultural society, which is also a multi-faith society, have so much difficulty in recognising the sensitivities of millions of people on this issue.

Mr. Allan

Can the right hon. Gentleman advise us—I ask that in a genuine spirit of inquiry, because Liberal Democrats hope for a free vote on the matter—on the meaning, in amendment No. 3, of the phrase a date of special religious significance"? I understand the points that he has made about Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but what does that phrase encompass?

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I have tried to set the matter out not in my words but in those of a more independent and scholarly framework, to remove from the debate any element of partisanship. The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) thought that I had been less than generous and gracious in my response to the Minister on the last occasion. Her comments came as something of a surprise, so I have made a determined effort this time not to create any sense of partisanship. We are talking about the need to be sensitive to one of the most fundamental rights and privileges that the House is established to preserve.

Mr. Maclennan

It was in a genuine spirit of inquiry that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) put his question. The right hon. Gentleman has used in the amendment, not a term of art but a form of words that covers a wide range of possibilities, and its lack of precision is one of the difficulties that we face. To take a brief example, the Roman Catholic Church has a number of holy days of obligation, which are undoubtedly days of religious significance, and special. They do not happen necessarily to fall on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. Is it the right hon. Gentleman's submission that such a day would be ruled out, and would he wish it to be ruled out? If so, we will have to consider with great care the practices and beliefs of many other religions. The matter is much more complex than the right hon. Gentleman may have acknowledged.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I think that I can help the right hon. Gentleman. When the elections fall is not for the House to decide. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, as part of our membership of the EU, the week in which elections are to be held is uniform throughout the EU. I shall not use the technical word, but flexibility was given so that countries could choose the appropriate days within—I think that I am right in saying—the second part of the designated week.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Had the House had flexibility to decide when an election should be held, we would have had to be more precise in the wording of our amendment to take account of the right hon. Gentleman's legitimate points. We do not have that freedom. The week is set, and 15 countries have to decide whether to have elections on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. A number, including us, have them on a Thursday, and a number have them on a Sunday. I say that openly, because it is a matter of record which everyone understands.

Some may ask whether I am suggesting that there is less sensitivity to religious beliefs in other European countries. I am happy to say that that is not an issue for which we have any responsibility. People have their different traditions, and those traditions have built up. I am not being critical of anyone else: we are talking about Britain, our traditions and practices and our sensitivities to the religious beliefs of others.

Therefore, I want to try one last time to persuade the Minister to accept that this is a genuine issue. I am perfectly happy to concede that the world will not stop and the country will not necessarily go any faster to heaven or hell as a result of what the Government ultimately decide should be the election day in Britain. However, I want to impress on the Minister the fact that, in shifting from a Thursday, which affects none of the major sensitivities that the other three days do, he is running the risk of causing genuine offence to people whose religious beliefs will be held to account by that change. It is in that spirit that I ask him one last time to consider stating in the Bill that elections will be on Thursdays.

Mr. George Howarth

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) raised two points which are slightly off the main point but are of significance. I appreciate the thoughtful and non-partisan way in which he introduced this potentially sensitive subject. He mentioned the tradition of Thursday voting. To my knowledge, it is pre-war. I would not like to say when it started, but I can remember some local government elections as late as the 1960s being held on different weekdays. In Huyton, where I lived, voting was on a Thursday, but in Liverpool it was on a Wednesday. I am not sure what the origins of that were, but certainly there were some variations at local government level as late as the 1960s.

The amendment would bar elections from being held on a day of the week or date of religious significance, although it does not define which religions it would cover. It would in effect guarantee that European parliamentary elections continue to be held on a Thursday, and I shall explain why in a minute.

We discussed the appropriate day of the week earlier in our proceedings, and the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire referred to the debate that he had with the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin). Many of the arguments have therefore been fully covered. The amendment is unnecessary, because it is almost impossible to find a better day than Thursday, and I shall repeat some of the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman gave.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) said that the wording of the amendment lacked precision. I suspect that the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire deliberately worded the amendment in that way because of his sensitivity to various faiths. If we take his argument to its logical conclusion, we must point out that certain religious festivals fall on a Thursday. If we are too precise, we might end up in difficulty. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, in his recent journey through the faiths, is aware that the feast of Corpus Christi falls on a Thursday generally in the first half of June. I suspect that that would not be considered to bar Roman Catholics from voting, but it could be construed to be sensitive, because it is an important religious festival.

In addition to the significance of Fridays and Saturdays for Muslims and Jews, and Sundays for Christians, there is the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which can also fall in the first half of June. For all I know, there may be other such festivals that are significant to other faiths, so we may find it difficult to pursue the argument to the nth degree.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I am encouraged, at least thus far, by the Minister's tone. If all that prevents him from accepting the amendment is its drafting, as the Bill will have to return to another place so that the Government amendments are dealt with, the Government could obviate that problem by helping with the redrafting of this amendment.

Mr. Howarth

I hope to convince the right hon. Gentleman that the amendment is unnecessary. If it were passed, we could find ourselves unable to hold an election at any time within the period agreed by the Council. Whatever position the right hon. Gentleman takes on Europe, I am sure that he would not want us to end up in that difficulty.

I repeat a commitment that my hon. Friend the Minister of State made earlier in our proceedings. She said that there was no way in which the 1999 European elections would not be held on a Thursday. The right hon. Gentleman may rest assured that, for the purposes of the next European elections, we shall not consider an alternative day of the week.

Mr. Sayeed

Before the Minister finally confirms that he has no intention of introducing an alternative amendment in the other place at some future date to deal with the problem that my right hon. Friend has outlined, will he consider the fact that, in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, some sects are not allowed to work or travel at any time during a holy day? All three of those major religions are well represented in this country. The definition of "work" includes voting, so unless the three holy days are excluded, which leaves only Thursday, a sect of a major religion will automatically be disfranchised.

7.15 pm
Mr. Howarth

I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and, by referring to the scriptures of many faiths, the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire made that point effectively. I agree that that would create difficulties. The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) discussed the problems that some of her constituents would face if we had Sunday voting. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman made that point, because it is important, but my hon. Friend the Minister of State has guaranteed that we have no intention—

Sir Brian Mawhinney

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

If the right hon. Gentleman will let me proceed for a moment—

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I wish to be helpful.

Mr. Howarth

The right hon. Gentleman is always helpful.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I am grateful to the Minister. I wanted to intervene now because what I am about to ask may take a moment or two to consider, or the Minister may just rule it out. The Home Secretary is in the Chamber listening to this debate. If the Minister, with the Home Secretary's agreement, were to assure the House that, during this Government's term in office—he will understand that it will last for only one Parliament—they will not shift from a Thursday, I would be happy to settle for that and not push the amendment to a vote.

Mr. Howarth

The right hon. Gentleman made an aside that this Government would be in power for only one Parliament. I am sure that he is right, because my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is bound to have a reshuffle in the next Parliament. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members are left long enough, they find anything amusing.

I cannot, give the right hon. Gentleman that absolute guarantee, because I do not know what discussions we shall have or what pressures will come along. The right hon. Gentleman has been in government and knows that it is not always possible to give such guarantees on the hoof. However, I shall offer him an option, which is better than guaranteeing what will happen in another place or in the lifetime of this Parliament.

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that I chair a working party on electoral procedures. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are represented on that working party, which also consists of a wide range of experts who take advice from many sources. When the working party's findings are published, they will be the subject of wider consultation. We are looking at the possibility of Sunday voting. As part of our serious review of electoral procedures—there is no partisan slant to our work—I undertake to ensure that the right hon. Gentleman's arguments are given the fullest possible consideration and that they form a part of our considerations, so that, before we come up with our final recommendations, all those points are considered. The legitimate concerns about the days of the week that are important to those major faiths will thus be fully taken into account.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman finds that helpful, because it is intended in a helpful spirit to deal with his point.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I have been unable to contribute to the debate, because I have almost lost my voice.

Will the review consider phasing elections over several days, perhaps from Thursday to Sunday, or has that been ruled out? We must take account of various groups' views, about which hon. Members have spoken with great respect.

Mr. Howarth

Nothing has been ruled in or out at this stage. The working party's terms of reference are wide enough to enable us to consider almost anything, but I am sensitive to the anxieties expressed by the hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. I hope that my assurance that the working party will give due weight to the arguments will enable him to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Maclennan

This has been a good, comprehensive debate. I welcome the Minister's open-mindedness on these sensitive issues, which are matters of conscience for some hon. Members. However, when the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) remarked that changing to weekend voting would not produce a higher turnout, I thought of the university lecturer who objected to lecturing on Wednesdays because that interfered with two weekends. I hope that we will not be too sensitive to speculation that the British weekend might rule out voting for some people.

My guess is that weekend voting would help turnout, and that it is better not to hold the election on a working day. The Government should consider weekend voting in their review, but I would not advocate change without the fullest consultation with the Churches. People will take different views about the nature of religious obligation: for some people, attending a church or a place of worship may be sufficient to discharge their obligation and recognise the specialness of the Sabbath or of a particular religious day, whereas for others, voting may be incompatible with observing a particular holy day.

However, citizens have civic obligations, and they should be rendered, in this case by exercising their vote. We should make that as easy as possible. The Christian religion's injunction Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's allows many Christians to discharge their civic and religious duties without conflict, but that is not a universal view, even within the Christian faiths.

I hope that the Minister will solicit information from people who may be touched adversely in their spiritual devotions by a change in the law, and will keep an open mind until the evidence is before him.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I listened carefully to the Minister. I am anxious that, although he said that he would listen to people's views, he did not go a step further and say that people's religious sensitivities could raise insuperable barriers to changing the day of voting to Sunday.

Elections are held on Sundays in many other countries in the European Union, and they are no less or more religious than this country. But such countries have a tradition of voting on Sunday: people may go to mass in the morning and have a cup of coffee before they vote. The traditions here are different, and many Protestant communities in this country, especially the evangelical communities, think that the specialness of Sunday is slipping away following the passing of the Sunday Trading Act 1994. They are sensitive about the issue, which the Minister understands, and I am sure that the Government will take those sensitivities into account in the review.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

We have had a good debate, and I am grateful to the Minister for the tone of his response to my points. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) is right about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's. But that is not a prima facie case for making it as difficult as possible for people to fulfil both those obligations. I was slightly surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, given the tradition from which he comes and which he represents in the House, was open to making that more difficult. Maintaining the status quo would make it less difficult.

I genuinely tried to help the Minister. I sat on the Government Front Bench for several years, and understand that he may be loth to enshrine a proposal in statute at this stage because arguments are being put to him and the review is under way. With that in mind, I thought that an interim non-statutory agreement could have been reached. An assurance from the Minister, backed by the Home Secretary, on such an agreement would, in the tradition of the House, have been accepted as binding. That would have seen us through the next few years, and created space for him to conduct his review without presumptions being made about it.

However, the Minister did not find that acceptable. Of course I am grateful for his willingness to reflect on the views that have been expressed, and to ensure that they are taken into account in any preliminary consultation document. However, his unwillingness to reach a statutory or non-statutory agreement will make many people, rightly or wrongly, assume that the Government have an alternative agenda.

I face a dilemma. When I highlighted disagreements between the Front Benches in a previous debate on this matter, I was accused of being ungracious, so I say as graciously as I can that we do not agree with the Minister, because this is a matter of principle. I seldom use those words in my political life, because they tend to get people into trouble. One of the most fundamental tasks of this House is the defence of the rights of minorities. If this House does not defend their rights, who will?

Mrs. Ewing

I accused the right hon. Gentleman of being ungracious. Does he accept that the 1999 European elections will be held on a Thursday, and that thereafter the matter should be discussed and decided on by the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh assembly and Westminster?

Sir Brian Mawhinney

The answer to the first part of the hon. Lady's question is yes, because that is how I started my speech when I moved the amendment. It is tempting, but I will not go down the road of the interrelationships between the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and this place, not least because I do not wish to embarrass the Minister, who I am sure has no idea what those interrelationships will be.

This issue is easy to dismiss. It may be that an overwhelming majority of right hon. and hon. Members have religious convictions and beliefs but would not find a change in the voting day to be of religious offence. It is probably true of most of us, but it is not true of some in the Muslim faith, some in the Jewish faith or some in the Christian faith. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said, it is a cause of particular concern to those in the Christian faith from the evangelical tradition, from which my hon. Friend knows I spring.

It is with regret and as much grace as I can muster that I say to the Minister that this is a matter of genuine significance. It is a matter of sensitivity and of this House defending the rights of minorities. For all those reasons, and given the Minister's response, I fear that we will press the amendment to a Division.

7.30 pm
Mr. George Howarth

We have been treated to the great conviction of the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney). I am not trying to belittle it, and I accept that he considers this a matter of principle. However, I am a little concerned that, during the past 18 years of Conservative Government, in which the right hon. Gentleman served in various capacities, I cannot remember this great matter of principle ever being raised or legislated upon.

Leaving that aside, from his reading the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the difficulties that different days of the week cause for different faiths, and he knows that there is no simple solution. The irony is that the logic of his amendment would lead us right back to Thursday voting. I accept that that is the case. However, if we take that logic further and take into account various religious feast days and so on, it might make it impossible to hold elections on a Thursday.

The right hon. Gentleman said that, because of the way in which some people want to celebrate the day they consider to be the day of rest or the holy day, voting on such days would be impossible for them. That is why we have ended up with Thursdays. The difficulty is that not everybody feels the same way. I voted against Sunday shopping, but, being honest, although I go to services at my local parish church most Sundays, I sometimes then go shopping with my wife, because that may be the only opportunity I get to go shopping with her.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire described the life-style differences very well. He said that society has changed and that there is greater flexibility in the way that people live their lives. Those facts have to be taken into account when we consider this matter. I will consider this in the working party on electoral procedures, but I believe that, in pursuing the amendment, the right hon. Gentleman is making a gesture. It would not have any effect even if it were passed. For that reason, I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 96, Noes 222.

Division No. 203] [7.33 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Faber, David
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Fallon, Michael
Arbuthnot, James Flight, Howard
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Garnier, Edward
Beggs, Roy Gibb, Nick
Boswell, Tim Gill, Christopher
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Gray, James
Brady, Graham Greenway, John
Brazier, Julian Grieve, Dominic
Burns, Simon Gummer, Rt Hon John
Cash, William Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Hammond, Philip
Clappison, James Hawkins, Nick
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Heald, Oliver
Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David
Colvin, Michael Horam, John
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Day, Stephen Hunter, Andrew
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Duncan, Alan Jenkin, Bernard
Duncan Smith, Iain Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Evans, Nigel Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Leigh, Edward Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Soames, Nicholas
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Luff, Peter Spicer, Sir Michael
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Spring, Richard
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Streeter, Gary
McIntosh, Miss Anne Swayne, Desmond
MacKay, Andrew Syms, Robert
Maclean, Rt Hon David Tapsell, Sir Peter
McLoughlin, Patrick Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Madel, Sir David Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Maginnis, Ken Taylor, Sir Teddy
Matins, Humfrey Trend, Michael
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Tyrie, Andrew
Moss, Malcolm Viggers, Peter
Nicholls, Patrick Wardle, Charles
Norman, Archie Wells, Bowen
Ottaway, Richard Whittingdale, John
Page, Richard Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Paterson, Owen Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Pickles, Eric Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Prior, David Woodward, Shaun
Randall, John Yeo, Tim
Robathan, Andrew Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Tellers for the Ayes:
Ruffley, David Mr. James Cran and
Sayeed, Jonathan Mr. Nigel Waterson.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Cohen, Harry
Ainger, Nick Coleman, Iain
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Colman, Tony
Allan, Richard Corbett, Robin
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Corston, Ms Jean
Atkins, Charlotte Cotter, Brian
Austin, John Cranston, Ross
Baker, Norman Cummings, John
Ballard, Mrs Jackie Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Banks, Tony Darvill, Keith
Beard, Nigel Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Begg, Miss Anne Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Dawson, Hilton
Benton, Joe Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Bermingham, Gerald Dowd, Jim
Berry, Roger Drew, David
Betts, Clive Drown, Ms Julia
Blizzard, Bob Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Boateng, Paul Fitzpatrick, Jim
Borrow, David Flint, Caroline
Breed, Colin Flynn, Paul
Brinton, Mrs Helen Foster, Don (Bath)
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Burden, Richard Fyfe, Maria
Burnett, John Gapes, Mike
Burstow, Paul Gardiner, Barry
Butler, Mrs Christine George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Byers, Stephen Gerrard, Neil
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Gibson, Dr Ian
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Godsiff, Roger
Caplin, Ivor Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Casale, Roger Gorrie, Donald
Cawsey, Ian Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Chidgey, David Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Church, Ms Judith Hancock, Mike
Clapham, Michael Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Hepburn, Stephen
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Heppell, John
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hill, Keith
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hoey, Kate
Coaker, Vernon Home Robertson, John
Coffey, Ms Ann Hope, Phil
Hopkins, Kelvin
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Organ, Mrs Diana
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Palmer, Dr Nick
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Pearson, Ian
Hutton, John Pickthall, Colin
Iddon, Dr Brian Pike, Peter L
Ingram, Adam Plaskitt, James
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Pollard, Kerry
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Pond, Chris
Jamieson, David Pound, Stephen
Jenkins, Brian Primarolo, Dawn
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Purchase, Ken
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Quin, Ms Joyce
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) Quinn, Lawrie
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Radice, Giles
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Rammell, Bill
Jowell, Ms Tessa Rapson, Syd
Keeble, Ms Sally Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Rendel, David
Kelly, Ms Ruth Rooker, Jeff
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye) Rooney, Terry
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Ruane, Chris
Khabra, Piara S Russell, Bob (Colchester)
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Ryan, Ms Joan
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Sanders, Adrian
Kingham, Ms Tess Savidge, Malcolm
Laxton, Bob Sawford, Phil
Leslie, Christopher Sedgemore, Brian
Levitt, Tom Shaw, Jonathan
Linton, Martin Skinner, Dennis
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Lock, David Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
McAvoy, Thomas Southworth, Ms Helen
McCabe, Steve Spellar, John
McCafferty, Ms Chris Squire, Ms Rachel
McDonagh, Siobhain Starkey, Dr Phyllis
McDonnell, John Stewart, David (Inverness E)
McFall, John Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
McIsaac, Shona Stinchcombe, Paul
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Stoate, Dr Howard
McNamara, Kevin Straw, Rt Hon Jack
MacShane, Denis Stuart, Ms Gisela
Mactaggart, Fiona Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
McWalter, Tony Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
McWilliam, John Temple-Morris, Peter
Mallaber, Judy Timms, Stephen
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Tipping, Paddy
Marshall—Andrews, Robert Todd, Mark
Martlew, Eric Tonge, Dr Jenny
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Merron, Gillian Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Michael, Alun Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Vaz, Keith
Milburn, Alan Vis, Dr Rudi
Miller, Andrew Walley, Ms Joan
Moffatt, Laura Wareing, Robert N
Moore, Michael Watts, David
Moran, Ms Margaret White, Brian
Morley, Elliot Wicks, Malcolm
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Wills, Michael
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Winnick, David
Mountford, Kali Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Mudie, George Worthington, Tony
Norris, Dan Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
O'Hara, Eddie Tellers for the Noes:
Olner, Bill Ms Bridget Prentice and
Öpik, Lembit Janet Anderson.

Question accordingly negatived.

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