HC Deb 13 January 2000 vol 342 cc477-508
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 11, line 37, at end insert— (1A) No local authority shall submit a scheme to the Secretary of State unless it has consulted with electors and other interested persons in its area on the scheme for a period of at least 28 days prior to the submission of the scheme, and the authority shall submit to the Secretary of State any responses received during the consultation period. (1B) No local authority shall submit a scheme to the Secretary of State unless the scheme has been approved by a meeting of the authority, with at least two—thirds of the members present and voting being in favour of the submission of the scheme to the Secretary of State.".

The clause could lead to the most fundamental change for many years in the way in which we vote. We join the Minister in his desire, about which he spoke yesterday, to preserve the integrity of the voting system. The provision deals with the way in which local authorities will submit plans for pilot projects for new forms of voting or counting votes—or both—in their areas or parts of their areas at local elections in England and Wales.

Turnouts at local elections are derisory in parts of this country. There is a crisis of democracy in local elections. However, I suspect that the changes that we are considering today will only partially correct the decline. More needs to be done to tackle the real reasons for voter apathy. Statistics show that, in metropolitan boroughs, the turnout declined from 33 per cent. in 1973 to 26 per cent. last year, and from 40 per cent. to 37 per cent. in the English districts during the same period. In only three years, the English unitary authorities have seen a decline in voting to less than one third of the electorate.

4.15 pm
Mr. Forth

I hope that, as my hon. Friend develops his argument, he will elaborate on whether he believes that people do not vote at the moment because it is inconvenient or difficult for them to get to the polling station, because they are positively abstaining, or because they simply cannot be bothered. The analysis of the reasons for differing turnouts is crucial to deciding whether the clause is valid.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful for that intervention. As I said earlier, the decline in voting is due to several reasons. The changes that we make today may alter the turnout at local elections only slightly. The Government are examining why people do not vote in local government elections. I believe that people get frustrated when they vote for their local councillors who vote against planning applications only for the local authority's decision to be overturned by an inspector from Bristol, against the democratic wishes of the people who voted for the councillors. At the last local elections, at least one elector told me that that was the specific reason for her decision not to vote. There are several reasons for abstaining, including positive abstention and apathy. The Bill will at least remove one of the obstacles that prevents people from voting at local elections.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

While we are considering pilot schemes and consultation, is not it a good idea for the Committee to embolden itself to demand a proper restoration of the powers of self-government, even if only as a pilot scheme, to maximise participation—

The Temporary Chairman

Order. I am sure that the Committee has no difficulty in emboldening itself. However, we might astonish ourselves by sticking to the amendment.

Mr. Evans

Yesterday, I treated the Committee to a resume of my dismal results at parliamentary elections. Today, I can correct that by relating some of my local government election results, which are slightly better than my parliamentary results—a 50 per cent. success rate. I do not blame electoral procedures for my derisory results. In the United Kingdom, we are all used to voting in local elections on Thursdays between 8 am and 9 pm, and using a pencil on a piece of paper at a prescribed polling station, which is usually a school. The ballot papers are pooled in a given place and counted manually. A winner—increasingly, a Conservative—is announced, and thus elected as a councillor.

The clause provides for changes to the system that are potentially wide ranging. Amendment No. 26 would ensure that the pilot schemes not only had the consent of the Home Secretary but that they had been fully considered and that local people had been fully consulted. We are in favour of the pilot schemes, but we have reservations about some of the suggestions for them. We support sensible suggestions for making voting easier. However, I stress that we must be careful not to facilitate fraudulent voting.

The changes could lead to ballot boxes being taken to places of work—completely outside polling stations. They could also be taken to remote areas where only a few people live and a polling station would not usually be manned. When I was in Australia more than a year ago, we stopped at a small place called Paralchino, where only 11 people live. The ballot box is taken to them, they vote and the ballot box is taken away. One of the pilot schemes may be run along those lines.

Ballot boxes could be taken from polling stations to residential or nursing homes, where we know there are specific problems in enabling elderly people to vote. It has been suggested that polling booths might be placed in supermarkets so that people are able to vote while shopping. Voting hours could also be further extended from those I have mentioned, or the number of days over which a poll takes place could be increased to two or perhaps even three or more. One suggestion is that all-postal ballots might, in certain places, replace the traditional polling booth. The pencil could be replaced by electronic voting—

The Temporary Chairman

Order. That is all very interesting, but the amendment is specific and relates to pilot schemes.

Mr. Evans

Yes, Mrs. Dunwoody. I am discussing the variety of pilot schemes and the fundamental changes that they will achieve. The Secretary of State will be given powers and, once schemes have taken place, will be able to introduce those changes throughout the country at general, European and a number of other elections. Those fundamental changes will be tested in the pilots and we want to make absolutely certain that they are tested properly within the local authority areas, that local authorities consult fully with the people in their areas over 28 days and that, as proposed new subsection (1B) states, a scheme has "at least two-thirds" support in the authority.

The White Paper "Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People" states: The Government must safeguard the integrity of elections and ensure that any experiments do not lead to an increase in electoral fraud. That is what we are concerned about. It continues: Experiments would therefore have to be sanctioned by the Government. In some cases it would work directly with chosen councils to develop the rules for an experiment. I am sure that the Minister will want to address the anxieties of, for example, the Local Government Association about ensuring that sufficient pilots take place and that he will take on board the concern that they should have local popular support. Speed is of the essence and I believe that the Government are keen to get the pilots up and running for the local elections.

Mr. Bercow


The Temporary Chairman

Order. The amendment concerns consultation and I hope that we shall have a general debate on that, not the pilot schemes.

Mr. Evans

Thank you, Mrs. Dunwoody. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mr. Bercow

On consultation and popular opinion, to which my hon. Friend has alluded, would he be kind enough to tell me and the Committee how many representations he has received from constituents in Ribble Valley in support of the principle or practice of such pilot schemes? It is important to demonstrate the degree of public interest.

Mr. Evans

There are elections in Ribble Valley every four years and the next ones will not take place for some time. The pilot schemes will take place this year and next so Ribble Valley will not be involved. Hon. Members will make their own decisions about the popular support for the schemes, but I support the Government's intention to widen the franchise, which is why we need to ensure that voting is made easier. At the same time, fraudulent voting must not be made easier, which is why we are asking the Secretary of State, through the amendment, to ensure that proper consultation takes place with local people.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

May I help the hon. Gentleman? Was he suggesting no representations—a nil return? Is that what he was trying to say?

Mr. Evans

Yes, that is right. A pilot scheme is unlikely to take place in my area because there will not be elections for at least another two years, which is why I would not expect the people of Ribble Valley to write to me asking for one. None the less, elections will take place in May in more than 150 local authority areas and may be taking place in the hon. Gentleman's area.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that I have not received a single inquiry along those lines, and I rather doubt that any other Member of the House has.

The Temporary Chairman

Order. Those are important points that can be made on clause stand part. We are talking about consultation and I am sure that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is about to return to it.

Mr. Evans

The points that have been drawn out by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) reinforce our amendment. We are asking that the local authorities consult positively with people in their areas. When we discussed amendments concerning reducing the voting age from 18 to 16 I said that I had received no letters from constituents on that matter, but I was told that that did not really matter and that what was right was important. Making it easier for people to vote is right, but we must achieve that in such a way that we are not making it easier for people to vote fraudulently.

I hope that the Minister takes on board the fact that we are seeking a consensus on the pilots. We can achieve that by ensuring that the local authorities, at least 28 days before the pilots are submitted to the Secretary of State, positively seek the opinions of the people and organisations in their areas on the suggestions that they are making. In respect of proposed new subsection (1B), we are seeking the same sort of consensus that there is on the changes. Local authorities would have to hold a vote. We are seeking two-thirds approval for a pilot submitted by an authority to the Secretary of State, which would clearly show that there was a consensus in that authority.

We appreciate that the changes that could result from the pilot schemes might be fundamental. Indeed, the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) himself talked about the "wide-ranging powers" that would be conferred on the Secretary of State, saying that we have become rather used to those with this rather autocratic Government".—[Official Report, 4 November 1999; Vol. 337, c. 553.] We ought to be more concerned about that. I hope that the Minister can reassure the Committee that, although he may not be able to accept our amendment, he will at least look at it again to ensure that we achieve proper consensus on the pilots.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I am most grateful to be called to speak on this matter and I hope to be brief. I know that you, Mrs. Dunwoody, will put me in my place immediately if I stray too far into general principles.

I understand fully that one of the evils to be remedied is fraudulent voting, but the other matter about which one has to be cautious is the politically motivated stationing of polling booths or mechanisms for attracting voters that will favour one party or faction as opposed to another. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) mentioned the possibility of siting a polling station by a factory, but local people would know very well that siting a polling station by factory A may produce a different result from siting one outside stockbroker office B. Placing a polling booth by a certain railway station would produce a different equation from placing it by another station. I hope, therefore, that local authorities will consult not 28 days before submitting a scheme, but way before. I should have thought that any responsible local authority would take soundings well in advance of publishing a scheme.

There is a second aspect to the amendment, which concerns a two-thirds majority being obtained at the local district council meeting. Surely such a provision would virtually block any progress on a pilot scheme, except in authorities where there was an overwhelming majority. Even the events that are occurring now are leading to different political consequences in polling stations; it would be very surprising if a two-thirds majority on councils that were controlled overwhelmingly by one party led to a consensus.

I cannot support the amendment in its present form, but I hope that the spirit of consultation, and of soundings before the implementation of the scheme, will be adopted by all responsible local authorities.

4.30 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I support the amendment in general terms, but I think it important for us to ensure that proper consultation takes place before pilot schemes are adopted. If we are to engage people in the democratic process and ensure that those people think that our measures are not gimmicks but are for real, we must be certain that the water has been tested.

Let me share with the Committee an experience that I still have far too often, and find very frustrating. I hear of proposals from local authority officers which, before any consultation has taken place, have been presented to the public. Although the proposals have come from their own officers, councils often are not told the details, and Members of Parliament frequently are not consulted.

There ought to be a process to deal with that. I welcome the idea of a pilot scheme, and I know that the Minister is aware that I have a positive approach to the Bill as a whole; but I think it important for enough people to have been consulted to give the idea some credibility and credence. It should not be seen as the whim of someone who has had a wheeze of an idea. If we are to modernise and update the system, we do not want to experience lots of failures. When the pilots have happened, we shall not want to hear that no one voted and that it was not a good idea.

The general purpose of the amendment is that ideas should be presented on the basis of popular support, that those ideas should be tested and that they should then be validated.

Mr. Grieve

Consultation with local authorities is highly variable. It can range from what could be described as full consultation to consultation in circumstances that have often led me to believe that the consultation has been stage-managed with the aim of achieving the desired results. Is not that an argument for also introducing a mechanism to ensure that, at council level, such changes cannot be implemented without more than a 50:50 consensus?

Mr. Hughes

I am sympathetic to that point. The genesis of the Bill lay in a working party in which the Government tried, entirely reasonably, to achieve consensus. The Bill resulted from the consensus that was achieved; proposals that did not achieve consensus are not in the Bill, because they merit a different process.

I am sympathetic to the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). Specifically, I want all local councils and parties to be consulted as a matter of course. The hon. Gentleman's constituency contains a district authority and a county authority. I believe that, in areas where that is the case, both tiers should be consulted. In fact, I think that there should be only one authority, and that Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament should be involved automatically.

Guarantees should be included in the Bill. There should be certainty about the process: for instance, a minimum time should be specified for consultation. The other day, a consultation in London began on 15 December, with a closing date of 4 January. The consultation dealt with a Government proposal about expenses for the mayor of London. It was hardly geared to maximise public participation and response; indeed, some of us were sceptical about the idea that the aim had been maximum public participation.

Guarantees are needed. We have all been victims of consultations that have started on 31 July when the deadline has been 6 September. I do not want to labour the point, but I think that the general view is that the Minister should reassure us that either the law or secondary legislation—regulations—will deliver what we want.

Mr. Forth

I do not agree with the thrust of this part of the Bill, and I regret to say that I do not share the enthusiasm expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans).

I am slightly reassured by the fact that the wording of the clause that the amendment is intended to alter provides a safeguard before we rush headlong into unnecessary change, but I will keep most of what I want to say in reserve for the stand part debate, which an earlier occupant of the Chair suggested would be appropriate for wider discussion.

As I understand it, nothing can happen unless or until the relevant local authorities have submitted proposals to the Secretary of State. That is useful from my point of view, because I suspect that it will mean that nothing will happen at all in many parts of the country, which I think is a very good thing—I see no reason for these changes. The proposals would then have to be approved by the Secretary of State. I suppose that they might be defective, and the Secretary of State might see fit not to approve them, so there is another possible safeguard there. The Secretary of State would then make an order, and so on.

There is a certain safeguard against what I regard as unnecessary change in any case. I believe that voting is entirely practicable now for citizens who wish to cast their votes, and that there is no need for extraordinary or even bizarre measures to induce people to vote.

I consider the amendment to be defective in a number of ways. I am very unhappy about new section (1A). As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has pointed out, it makes a vague reference to consultation with electors. I consider the changes envisaged in the Bill and, indeed, in the amendment to be so fundamental and so radical as to require much more support and reassurance than is provided by consultation with electors, in the loose sense in which it is proposed in the amendment. Surely it should be demonstrated that a significant proportion of voters in an area are enthusiastic about the idea of pilot schemes that will begin to change something as fundamental to our democratic process as our electoral system, rather than mere consultation.

We all know—those of us who were in government until two and a half years ago, and those of us who are now in government—how variable the consultation process can be. We know how meaningful and, indeed, how meaningless it can be. I am sorry to say this to my colleagues who have signed the amendment, but I do not believe that the proposed approach to consultation provides anything like the reassurance that should enable us to embark on changes as radical as those proposed in the Bill.

I am, however, more reassured by what is proposed in the proposed new subsection (1B). I am reassured by the higher hurdle involved. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) suggested that the hurdle was too high; I consider it to be appropriately high. I think that our electorate will be reassured if we require visible, palpable, substantial support before taking these steps towards change. I think that the proposed subsection (1B) gives that, but that subsection (1A) falls short of what is required.

I am in a dilemma about the amendment. I do not support clause 10 but I shall return to that later. I would like to support subsection (1B), but I am very unhappy about subsection (1A). I suppose the only conclusion I can draw is that, as it goes further in the direction that I would like from the original wording, I am prepared to support it on that basis. I believe, however, that we need far more safeguards and reassurances before plunging headlong down the path proposed in clause 10.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I support the amendment merely because it makes a bad clause slightly better. I am genuinely concerned about clause 10, which has the potential to create a right shambles throughout the country as different authorities produce different ideas on voting and present different schemes to the Secretary of State.

With the best will in the world, how will the Home Office know whether a proposal by X authority in some part of the country is properly thought out, properly workable, fair and will not lead to a polling booth being situated outside a factory that employs, say, 500 people? It may sound eminently sensible, but it may stack the voting in the ward one way. If the mobile polling station were put outside a school where mothers pick up children in a different part of the ward, there might be a totally different result.

Therefore, there are grave dangers in allowing local authorities to come up with their own ideas and schemes on how to increase votes in their area. They may not be widening the franchise generally, but be planning to stack votes in favour of a particular party in a local authority area.

It is not good enough for the Bill to say that the scheme must be approved by the Secretary of State. If local authorities have written the scheme cleverly and put in all the correct buzz words and phrases about fair and impartial voting, the Home Office will not spot it, unless it gets a big staff increase and can go around every local authority area to check in detail its proposals for mobile voting, or for whatever local quirk that they wish to introduce. That is my worry about the Bill.

If the Government want to increase voting opportunities by putting polling stations in shops, supermarkets and, in that case, rural post offices—

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is talking about various pilot schemes and new systems. The amendment deals with consultation and approval. I should be grateful if he would stick to that.

Mr. Maclean

I am grateful for the reminder, Mr. Lord. I was trying to set the scene and to say why, if the Government were to create a hotchpotch of systems throughout the country, consultation before local authorities sent a scheme to the Home Office would be vital.

There is only one safeguard in the Bill: after a local authority comes up with a scheme, the rest of the electorate have to depend on the Home Office and the Secretary of State to say, "No, that is a bit dodgy. We do not like it. The proposals are faulty. We will send them back and reject it." The amendment suggests that there must be widespread consultation locally. It could identify difficult, bogus, fraudulent schemes, and schemes that have not been properly thought out, or may be politically biased.

I do not think that any hon. Member would trust every local authority to come up with foolproof schemes without some bias. There are about 400 local authorities. With the best will in the world, some of them, somewhere, will make mistakes. The schemes of some may be politically motivated. The amendment proposes consultation. That may identify to local people what the authority is up to and prevent some dodgy schemes being presented to the Secretary of State as if they were all legitimate and above board.

I support the proposal for two-thirds majority votes, although I am not generally in favour of them; I believe that, on most occasions, a simple majority is sufficient. However, in view of the way in which the Government are, in some ways, putting the cart before the horse with their proposals, I favour subsection (1B) and two-thirds majority voting.

I would have preferred it if the Government, in going down the route of having lots of different schemes throughout the country for different systems of voting, had put into the Bill clear principles and guidelines on how it should be done, a list and schedule of appropriate places and the safeguards to be built in. They could then have invited local authorities to produce proposals that met those guidelines and criteria. In those circumstances, I would have been happier, but, as the Government have gone down the route of inviting local authorities to invent any scheme that they wish, with the Home Office then arbitrating, it is vital both to have widespread consultation locally and to ensure that there is a public vote in the local authority, with a two-thirds majority. In that way, we can be assured that the majority of elected representatives locally are happy with the proposals that are sent to the Home Office.

4.45 pm
Mr. Grieve

When the scheme first came before the House on Second Reading, I broadly supported it. It was one of the clauses that I thought was fairly creative. I thought that because I accept that there are ways in which our voting methods may be improved, but, picking up the points that have already been made—I do not want to repeat, or to labour, them too much—the merit of the present system is that it is essentially completely depoliticised.

Looking back over what is now, I suppose, 20 years of involvement in local politics before even becoming a Member of Parliament, I can think of no occasion when the siting of polling stations, for example, was a contentious issue. The whole thing is so enshrined in the tradition that it is handled simply by the chief executive's department in the local authority. In my experience, it has not been questioned.

There must be some anxiety that, if we embark on an action that encourages local authorities, at what is essentially a political level, to come up with pilot schemes on how voting may be improved, there will be ulterior motives, as was touched on by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst). That causes me concern. I leave aside whether moving the polling station to a new location that appears to favour one party or another will lead to a different result. The provision may mean that what has never been questioned will suddenly be questioned. I can foresee that, on the Floor of the House, Members will say to Home Office Ministers that there is gerrymandering of polling station sitings, for example. When I considered the matter on Second Reading, that did not hit me in the face. It was only when I reflected on it afterwards that I could see the dangers inherent in such a change.

I do not want to pull the rug from under any change because I accept, as I said on Second Reading, that innovatory ideas may be beneficial, but we need to be careful because, as we know, there are local authorities throughout the country, not necessarily represented by one political party, whose motives are often questioned. Those will precisely be the places where most questions will be asked about any changes. It is vital, therefore, that some local consensus should be achieved.

As I told the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), local authority consultations are variable things, and some of them are scandalous. It is not unusual to have a local authority consultation in which, notwithstanding the fact that a majority of individuals have expressed view A, the local authority—by use of some extraordinary, creative statistics—nevertheless decides that its idea, which was in favour of view B, should still be given a go. The Home Secretary will then have to make various difficult decisions, and politicise what had previously been a non-political process.

I should be interested to hear from any other hon. Member in the debate whether, hitherto, the siting of polling stations in their constituencies—which tends to be long-established in local schools—has caused major political problems. I cannot think of any examples of that happening, but I should be interested to hear whether it has.

The proposal might open Pandora's box.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman and I are far apart in our general views on the issue. However, proper consultation on the fairly limited issue of polling stations is necessary when one is told categorically, "We must have a polling station for each polling district," although the logical and cost-effective place for those people—in district A—to vote is just across the road, in district B, where most of them live. There are important issues to address.

I therefore agree with the hon. Gentleman that general ground rules on minimum consultation time and on informing people should be established and not left entirely—with no checking or authorisation—to local authority discretion.

Mr. Grieve

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I also support amendment No. 26. It is not perfect—various flaws have been identified—but perfection in the matter cannot be achieved.

Clause 10, as drafted, worries me. The last thing that I want is, in four or five years, the House being dominated at Question Time or at other times by arguments over alleged gerrymandering as a consequence of changes to something that had previously been accepted, without question and without anxiety, as a matter of routine. It is not a matter simply of improving, but of public perception.

The issue is non-contentious, but we are possibly about to make it contentious, and that does not seem to be particularly desirable. Let us ensure that the benefits that may come out of the proposal—possibly, for example, different voting hours or ways of casting a vote—are not clouded by the politicisation of a process that has hitherto been non-political.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)

I am pleased to tell the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) that I have some sympathy with the first half of amendment No. 26. My support for the amendment is probably—and appropriately—in direct proportion to the opposition to it expressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Clearly, it would be undesirable if local authorities were to operate pilot schemes that were contrary to, or out of tune with, the wishes of the local electorate. However, for reasons that I shall explain in a moment, including in the legislation an explicit requirement to consult seems unnecessary. When any pilot scheme is being considered or designed, and given certain guarantees and conditions, we have to trust local elected representatives to be aware of, and to represent—that is why they are elected—the interests of those who elect them.

My colleagues at the Home Office recently issued one of their regular circulars to local authorities, part of which dealt with the operation of the Bill and the application process for authorities that are interested in operating schemes. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)—who not only spoke in the debate, but served at the Home Office in the previous Government—will know that such circulars are issued fairly regularly.

The circular makes it clear that only applications that are well thought out and planned will be approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. In deciding which schemes meet those criteria, he will be looking for evidence that the application commands the confidence and support of local people. If he feels that a scheme is inappropriate and would not command the local population's sympathy, he would automatically rule it to be inappropriate. An application to run a pilot scheme that obviously does not have the support of local people would, in those circumstances, have little or no chance of being successful.

We should leave it to local authorities to decide how to meet the requirement. They might want to engage in formal consultation over 28 days or some other period; they might want to send people knocking on doors; or they might want to place articles in local papers and invite comments on them. It is for each local authority to consider the best way of advertising and receiving views on their proposals. I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley accepts that consultation will be integral to any pilot scheme, so there should be no need for the first part of his amendment, although the principle behind it is good.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) touched on issues relating to the location of polling stations and the effect that it could have on the outcome of an election. Local authorities already have the power to designate polling stations, and an appeals mechanism can be invoked by electors who believe that the local authority has failed to exercise that duty properly. The Bill does not change that. If there are suspicions of mischief or gerrymandering—a word that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield used, perhaps in the heat of the moment—it is open to any elector, including members of political parties who feel that the situation is disadvantaging a section of the electorate, to appeal against the siting of a polling station.

Mr. Grieve

How often are such complaints made or upheld under the existing rules? My experience is that the process is wholly depoliticised and I am anxious that it should remain so.

Mr. Howarth

I have no global statistics on the number of appeals, but I have experience of it happening. My local party once felt that a mobile polling station was inappropriately sited. On one occasion, we protested about its inaccessibility for people with disabilities. I understand from the global statistics that are available that such appeals are rare, which leads me to believe that the system is probably run fairly.

I stand to be corrected, but I think that it was Winston Churchill who said that a majority of one was enough. That principle has applied at every level of government. I clearly remember the previous Government often surviving perilous situations by one vote. On one occasion, they did not even survive by one vote, but overnight they were able to reverse that. We accept the principle that a simple majority is all that is required for even the most momentous legislation to pass through this House. The same is true in local government. I see no reason to depart from that principle for pilot schemes.

Arguably the most important decision that a local authority takes each year is to set its budget. I speak as a former local authority finance committee chairman. Fortunately, on Knowsley council the majority in the vote on the budget was never likely to be as small as one. That is in the nature of the psephology of the situation. If I had ever had to get the budget through by one vote, that would have been enough. Why should we treat pilot schemes any differently?

5 pm

I want to draw attention to the criteria that local authorities might be expected to consider when proposing schemes as they might be relevant in respect of consultation. It might be for the convenience of the Committee if I refer hon. Members to Home Office RPA circular 430. I am assured that a copy was sent to the Opposition parties, although I do not know whether it has filtered down to the relevant spokesmen. Paragraph 31 of the document states: An application to run a pilot scheme must be made to the Home Secretary and must include the following information". It then lists 11 pieces of information. I shall read out the last two.

Sub-paragraph 10 states: Details of the arrangements that will be made to evaluate the pilot scheme". It will be the responsibility of the local authority operating each individual pilot scheme to submit an evaluation of the effect of the scheme. It will obviously include such factors as turnout. If a pilot scheme operated in a way that was unexpected or unfair, that should feature in the evaluation. So those who are concerned about any mischief being made should accept the professionalism of electoral registration officers and others involved in elections in submitting an objective and honest evaluation of the pilot schemes.

Sub-paragraph 11 states: An assurance that no voter will be put at a disadvantage by the proposed innovation, that the opportunities for fraud will not be enhanced and that the secrecy of the poll will be maintained. There are other requirements involving such details as the name and the minutes of the council approving the scheme, so I shall not go through them exhaustively.

I hope that the circular, the process in which it involves local authorities and the fact that they need to evaluate any pilot scheme objectively and inform the Home Office of its outcome will assure the Committee that, although the amendments provided the opportunity for a useful debate, they are not necessary. I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley will feel it in his power to withdraw them.

Mr. Evans

This has been a useful debate on two major issues: consultation and the pilot schemes. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out, consultation can be defined in many ways. That is why the amendment is prescriptive and proposes that consultation should continue for at least 28 days.

I was a local councillor in opposition in West Glamorgan. The local authority had to consult widely before setting its budget. It seemed to be a matter of getting the businesses in and letting them have their say before jacking up the rates to tremendous levels. At least the authority could argue that local businesses had been consulted. We are looking for meaningful consultation on these changes. The pilot schemes represent a major constitutional change affecting voting. Local authorities are not the only ones who are guilty of poor consultation; so were the present Government and past Government in various respects.

The second part of the amendment, concerning thresholds, relates to clause 11, which transfers enormous powers to the Home Secretary. Once clause 10 has been implemented and the pilots have been approved, the Secretary of State can introduce those changes throughout the country. General election results could change on the basis of what might happen in the pilots described in clause 10. We therefore want to make certain that the pilots are subject to proper consultation and that consensus is achieved in the local authority area, to be demonstrated by a vote in favour by two thirds of the local authority councillors present and voting.

I also hope that the Home Secretary will feel able to publish the results of the pilot schemes, so that we have an opportunity to see exactly what is intended and where, and can make our own judgments.

Mr. George Howarth

I can confirm that the Home Secretary intends to publish the results.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful for that assurance, because we will all take a keen interest in the progress of the pilot schemes and how they are evaluated in different areas. I understand that local authorities are already consulting on pilot schemes to be put forward to the Home Secretary for the May 2000 elections. The time scale will be very tight, even though consideration of the Bill is proceeding apace here and in the other place. We want to be sure that the consultation will be thorough, so we will wish to ensure before proceedings are concluded that all local authorities will be well aware that the Home Secretary will examine all pilot projects to see what consultation took place before the proposals were submitted. However, I know that the Minister is not keen to see that requirement included in the Bill. With the assurances he has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Evans

I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 12, line 2, at end insert— '(2A) Where a scheme under this section makes provision for voting in a particular election to take place on more than one day, it shall be an offence for any person to make public, at any time before all voting in the election concerned has been completed, information which indicates or purports to indicate the way in which two or more persons have cast their votes in that election. (2B) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (2A) of this section is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding Level 5 on the Standard Scale, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both.'. We aim to ensure the integrity of the ballot, and our amendment would prevent the publication of any exit poll that could affect the outcome of an election. Let us suppose that an election were to be held over two days, as the pilot schemes could allow. On the first day, exit polls could be conducted by various organisations for their own purposes, including media of all types, and the results could be published at the end of the day. If those polls indicated a trend in the voting, they could influence the final result.

We have all experienced the way in which the Liberal Democrats conduct their own polls during elections and publish the results in leaflets that claim that they are closing the gap on the party in first place. They do that to try to influence the outcome of the vote. We do not seek to prevent such skulduggery, but we do wish to prevent exit polls that arise from actual voting. We have information from the Library about other countries that have banned polling for various periods before elections take place. France is one of the best examples, because it has banned polling for two weeks while elections take place over two Sundays.

Polls can be suspect at the best of times and I am sure that we all remember warmly the uselessness of the exit polling in the 1992 general election. If the exit poll had been released before the voting had finished, people might have been induced to vote differently because of what they perceived the possible result to be. The amendment would ensure that bogus exit polls—and even accurate ones—would play no part in the election process. We want people to vote on the issues of the campaign, not on inside information.

Mr. Maclean

This is another amendment that attempts to tighten up a piece of nonsense in the Bill. The idea that we need to allow more than one day for voting in local authority elections is preposterous. Polling stations are open for a minimum of 14 hours for local government elections. A 30 per cent. turnout is achieved, at the expense of great disruption to schools, especially primary schools, which lose a day of lessons because they are open for electoral purposes.

Mr. George Howarth

The right hon. Gentleman may know that the Home Office often receives representations from people who are called away on urgent business on the day of an election. There is no opportunity for them to cast a vote, as they do not have time to apply for postal votes or proxy votes. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that reasonable?

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. We are not debating whether there should be voting on one or more days. We are debating whether, if there is voting on one or more days, there should be exit polls.

Mr. Maclean

That is it exactly, Mr. Lord. To answer the Minister, I shall have to return to the matter in the clause stand part debate. It is very easy for people to get a postal vote these days if they anticipate that they may be called away. People can get a postal vote automatically for lots of reasons these days, whether or not they intend to be away on the day of an election.

The amendment would improve slightly what is a nonsense in the Bill. I do not believe that exit polls, or opinion polls in general, should be banned. In countries where that has been tried, secret party polls and other information are still available days in advance and can influence voters. The Government propose that polling stations should be open for two days in a bid to raise turnout from 30 per cent. to 31 per cent. That is nonsense: it is dead easy to vote, but 70 per cent. of the public cannot be bothered. However, if the aim is to get those idle people out to vote, we need to adopt the proposal in the amendment.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I do not have share the strident opinion of the electorate expressed by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). I believe that anything that might increase election turnout is worth experimenting with.

I support the idea that the process should be regulated. In America, polls close on one coast long before they do on the other coast. The influence exerted by Vermont on California—if I have got that the right way around—is always an issue.

Mr. Forth

What about Hawaii?

Mr. Hughes

We must not forget Hawaii, of course. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will answer a question about postal votes. They are often counted earlier than those cast in the ballot box, although they can be submitted right up until the polls close. However, if we are to regulate as proposed in the amendment, we must cover the relatively small number of votes counted and attested before the main count.

Perhaps the answer should be that, regardless of how early votes are cast, no counting is begun until all votes are in. Before the count starts, we would need to ensure that only a verification exercise was undertaken, not a counting exercise. It would not be helpful if a survey of those who voted in the first two days of an election showed that one party was 50 per cent. ahead. That would influence the result, and I hope that the Committee would not support that proposition.

Mr. Forth

I echo the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), but in a slightly different way. The mere fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has tabled the amendment and that we have had this debate illustrates the difficulties inherent in this section of the Bill. If we were not having to debate the nonsense of spreading voting over a period of time or, as we shall come to, a number of different places, we would not have to consider safeguards.

5.15 pm

One of the beauties—the elegance, the simplicity—of our long-established electoral arrangements is that they are familiar. That in itself undermines the argument that somehow it is difficult to vote and that we should make it easier. However, what is perhaps even more important in the context of this amendment is that the simplicity, elegance and transparency of our existing arrangements makes them, if not foolproof, then proof against the kind of dangers that previous speakers have described. That should act as yet another warning signal that we are treading a dangerous path. We are proposing tinkering and experimenting with long-standing established arrangements in something as fundamental and crucial as our electoral process and voting procedures. That should give us pause for thought and, perhaps, should discourage us from proceeding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley has identified this danger, for which I praise him. However, I believe that a measure such as this is essential to prevent abuse of the new processes on which we may now be embarking. If local authorities, having jumped the hurdles that we discussed, go down this route, it will be incumbent on us to anticipate any difficulties that may arise and eliminate or reduce them as far as possible. However, the mere fact that we are worrying about safeguards illustrates the dangers of what is being proposed.

I support my hon. Friend's amendment, and will come back to the other matters on clause stand part.

Mr. George Howarth

I shall be brief, and hope that I can satisfy the Committee. When he moved the amendment, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) referred to bogus polls.

Mr. Evans

Some bogus polls.

Mr. Howarth

Indeed. I draw the Committee's attention to a poll that was published by the Liberal Democrats in my constituency prior to the 1997 general election.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Your friends.

Mr. Howarth

My friends indeed. The poll told the electors, who I think had more sense than to take any notice, that my majority was on a knife edge, and that the Liberal Democrat candidate would be likely to displace me come polling day. I am glad to say that they were wrong—I had a majority of more than 26,000 votes.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I always warn my colleagues about the dangers of exaggeration.

Mr. Howarth

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman gives that advice, but I note that he does not always take it himself.

I am attracted by the arguments of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley. My colleagues at the Home Office are minded, given his agreement to withdraw the amendment, to take the issue away and look at it. There is some potential for distorting the outcome of an election in these circumstances. The amendment contains a sensible principle, and we need to address it. I also give an undertaking to address the point that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) raised about postal votes.

Mr. Evans

I am encouraged by what the Minister said. I am not persuaded by double-day voting, but the reality of the pilot is that some may be introduced. In that case, we need to ensure that there are safeguards. I am more persuaded by the proposal of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), which we shall debate later, to make the cut-off dates in respect of matters such as postal voting far shorter, therefore obviating the need for the expensive double-voting procedures.

In the light of the Minister's assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Evans

I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 12, line 2, at end insert— (2C) Where a scheme under this section makes provision for voting in a particular election to take place on more than one day or to take place at places other than polling stations, any person voting in the election concerned shall be required, as a condition of voting, to produce at the place of voting at least one item of documentary evidence of that person's identity. (2D) The items of documentary evidence required for the purposes of subsection (2C) of this section shall be any of—

  1. (a) a valid United Kingdom passport;
  2. (b) a valid United Kingdom driving licence;
  3. (c) a printed statement from a bank or building society authorised to do business in the United Kingdom dated not more than 28 days before the day on which voting in the election commences;
  4. (d) a copy of any of the foregoing certified by a commissioner for oaths,
or such other document as may in the reasonable opinion of the registration officer concerned constitute sufficient evidence of the identity of the person referred to in subsection (2C) of this section.". The amendment is consequential on voting taking place over more than one day or in more than one polling station. It is a common-sense measure that will help to reduce the incidence of fraudulent voting, at a time when we want to simplify the voting system.

Yesterday, we held a good debate on proofs of identity when making declarations of locality. The amendment builds on that. We heard that personation is a reality, although we do not know the exact rate at which it occurs. I hope that the Government will carry out a study of that matter as soon as possible. In evaluating the pilots, local authorities could compare personation before and during the pilots. In any event, some work must be undertaken.

In making voting easier, we want to ensure that the integrity of the vote is preserved. Currently, anyone can stroll up to a polling station and state who they are. They need no proof; they do not need to show documentation or a polling card. Amendment No. 19 provides that voters should give some proof of identification when the vote is stretched over several days or when they are not voting in their normal polling station. We have not asked for especially onerous proofs; they would be required only at elections that are different from the norm. The amendment would allow electoral registration officers great flexibility; they could accept many different proofs of identity before giving out the ballot paper.

I hope that when the Minister responds to this simple, common-sense measure, he will be able to tell the Committee that in those pilots that deviate from the norm, the rest of the electorate will be assured that there will be safeguards to ensure that personation will not increase.

Mr. Hurst

First, I should declare an interest, because the purport of the amendment—at least in part—is to enrich those of us commissioned to administer oaths. I so make that declaration. Notwithstanding that enticement, I oppose the amendment on the following grounds.

I am uncertain whether the Bill contains a definition of the words "polling station". I take it that, if one voted in a booth or a box in a supermarket, for the purpose of the election, that would be a polling station. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), there may be some defects in the drafting of the amendment, if the evil that he seeks to remedy is to be addressed.

The substance of the amendment deals with the production of documentation. In other debates on other amendments, the question of identity cards has been raised. I am a great supporter of identity cards—among a growing number of such supporters—but we do not have them at present. People with some experience of elections will know that it is not always possible for voters to find their polling cards, especially as local authorities now take it upon themselves to send out polling cards weeks ahead of an election. We might consider the effect on local government turnout if the only official notification of the election is a polling card sent out six weeks before.

At present, people can vote without any proof of identity at all. I suspect that no one in this place has not told a voter, "Don't worry, you don't need anything to vote. Just tell them who you are and where you live." All of a sudden, it will become much more difficult; one will have to produce a passport—many people do not have passports. One will have to produce a driving licence— that discriminates against those who do not drive. One will have to produce a printed statement from a bank or building society. By golly, that would be quite a task.

When collecting electors in a car, we will have to say, "You can't possibly come yet, Mrs. Jones, because you do not have all the documentation to satisfy them that you are who we know you are." If the amendment were accepted, we should place a great burden on the registration officer or the polling clerk at the polling station. Many arguments would ensue about whether a particular document was good enough evidence, or whether the written statement of the car driver who picked up electors from a certain address was a document sufficient to justify them being able to vote at that polling station.

Most pernicious of all, the documentary addition to voting is discriminatory against the poor, almost certainly discriminatory against the elderly and certainly discriminatory against those who live some distance from a polling station, in that if they leave the documents behind, they are unlikely to go back and get them.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman is making more of this than it is worth. We are asking for only one piece of documentation, and the amendment does provide for a lot of examples. There can be few people who would not be able to produce something with their name and address on it to show to the person giving out the ballot papers that they were who they said they were and lived where they said they lived.

Mr. Hurst

At present, that is not the position. I understood that the purpose of the Bill was to increase voting. If we are going to introduce documentary hurdles that people must jump over to poll, damage will ensue.

I understand the point that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley is trying to address. He wants to avoid people voting at their own polling station, and then traipsing down to Tesco, Sainsbury or wherever the hordes of democracy will hereafter reside and casting a second vote. However, with the wonders of the computer age and the amounts of money that public bodies spend on computerised systems, I would have thought it possible for computers in the polling stations or booths to be able to cross-check within the system who has already voted. If so, the need for documentary evidence is superfluous, and should be strongly resisted.

Mr. Forth

I am somewhat torn on the amendment, and I am puzzled by the implications of the options to vote at different places. If I, as a voter, am able to go to any one of a number of local places to vote—and I can choose from among them—presumably, if I have already voted at one, there must be a mechanism to communicate that fact to all the others to make sure that I do not do it again. In theory, I could go to each one, providing proof of identity, and vote several times over. I am sure that the Minister will reassure me that that has been considered.

I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) that it is unreasonable to ask someone who is to cast their vote for their representative to be able to provide some demonstration of their identity. That is asked for in many other daily transactions, and the amendment would make it as easy as possible. However, I am not sure that the list would fulfil the function that is intended for it. The passport has a picture, but no address. The current driving licence has an address, but no picture. I am not sure what a printed statement from a bank would tell anyone about the person presenting it at a multiple polling station. Also, I share the hon. Gentleman's suspicions in respect of commissioners of oaths.

The amendment raises yet another question—a different example of the phenomenon that we examined in our discussions on the previous amendment. It is becoming ever more apparent that the possibility of loopholes and failures arising increases every time we consider variable times and places of election.

My hon. Friend has diligently moved the amendment and the Minister has equally diligently sought to answer questions and to reassure us about the circulars and so on. I hope that he will tell us, as he said he would, that my worries about multiple voting will be catered for, if not in the way that the amendment suggests. However, the mere fact that we have had to go through that process merely reinforces my suspicion that we are embarking on a dangerous route.

5.30 pm

In spite of the doubts that I have expressed about the amendment, something of its kind will be necessary to reassure us if we start to alter the electoral system. I agree with my hon. Friend about the words in the amendment that refer to such other document as may in the reasonable opinion of the registration officer constitute sufficient evidence". That is the good old British solution of deciding what is "reasonable". Surely those words cover most of the objections raised by the hon. Member for Braintree. The reasonable and proper approach is to allow someone wanting and intending to vote to produce reasonable proof of his identity, whatever that proof might be. For Members of Parliament, it could be their parliamentary pass—I do not know, but it would be something like that.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that he and his officials have thought the issue through carefully and that he believes that there will and should be mechanisms in place properly to answer the doubts that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) raised.

Mr. George Howarth

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on raising the issue. It is the type of issue that the Committee should consider in its examination of the Bill. When local authorities plan their pilot schemes, it is important that they consider all the issues so that opportunities for personation do not arise.

I understand and sympathise with the concerns about electoral fraud. However, provided that the schemes are properly thought out, I fail to see why early voting or mobile polling stations should give rise to it. I shall explain the reasons for that view, because they are directly relevant to the comments of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

If there is more than one place at which an elector can vote, there must obviously be some link between them to ensure that, once someone has voted in one place, he cannot vote elsewhere. That is precisely the type of issue that we expect to see dealt with in the applications that are made for pilot schemes. Indeed, fraud was covered in the circular to which I drew attention earlier. If there is no provision for such linkage, it simply would not be feasible to approve a pilot scheme.

The computer technology that is available to many local authorities, although by no means all of them, is sufficient, through modems and a central database on to which the register would be downloaded, to make it possible for someone's vote at a supermarket to be registered on the central database. Therefore, any other opportunity that that person would have to vote would be closed. That is the simple truth of the matter, and we will look for such assurances in the pilot schemes.

With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley will feel able not to press the amendment.

Mr. Evans

This has been another useful debate, and I am grateful for the Minister's response.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) mentioned the fact that we, as canvassers and candidates, often tell people not to worry that they do not have their polling cards because they can still vote without them. We stress that point and we do not want to remove that option. However, the amendment deals with a specific pilot project that could be extended. If people are able to vote in more than one polling station—at present, we are allowed to vote only in the one designated for our address—a new problem will be created. We want to deal with that problem by ensuring that more people are able to vote, but not that the same people vote more often at the same election.

From what the Minister said, the schemes that local authorities introduce may require proofs of identity. That may be why he does not want such a provision in the Bill.

Mr. Maclean

My hon. Friend is a computer expert, but does he agree that if one has, for example, the opportunity to vote at three places in a district—at the primary school, at B&Q and at the supermarket—and all those places have to be linked by modem to a central database or to each other, that would require them to be online continuously for 15 hours, which would involve enormous cost?

Mr. Evans

I totally agree. Perhaps only one polling station would be made available to people other than the one in which they would normally vote. That depends on the pilot schemes.

Mr. George Howarth

To satisfy the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), I can say that the eighth point that needs to be considered in any application under the terms of the circular is an indication of the likely additional cost or savings arising from the running of a pilot scheme. That is one of the factors that the Home Secretary will take into account.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful to the Minister.

On proof of identity, in other countries something is done to voters when they vote, such as dyeing their finger or thumb, so that they are unable to vote again. We do not want to do that, and I am sure that the Home Secretary would look askance at any pilot projects that proposed to dye people's fingers after they had voted.

New technology, however, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) suggested, should at least provide the opportunity for local authorities to come up with pilot schemes, perhaps in alliance with new technology companies which will want to advance a particular technology and demonstrate to the rest of the country that it works. That technology would have to be proven.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I am rather sorry that I missed the beginning of the debate because I am intrigued as to why the Conservative party, in tabling an amendment, did not look at the list of identification documents that it imposed on all electors in Northern Ireland at single polling stations.

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the problems that will arise for political parties that might want to have a presence at every polling point, as is the case with us in Northern Ireland for very good reasons? There are many problems with the idea of a multiplicity of polling points which need to be carefully thought through before we pursue that policy. That system would be wide open to abuse, especially organised abuse such as we experience in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority and experience of the problems that will arise when people are able to vote in more than one place and on more than one day. We shall therefore watch the Bill's progress carefully and note any amendments made in another place or in this place at later stages.

I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the concerns of hon. Members generally that when we move away from single voting days and single polling stations, new problems will arise which need to be solved before elections take place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Evans

I beg to move amendment No. 24, in page 12, line 2, at end insert— (2A) No scheme under this section that makes provision for voting on more than one day shall make provision for voting to take place on any Friday, Saturday or Sunday.".

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 25, in page 12, line 2, at end insert— (2A) No scheme under this section that makes provision for voting on more than one day shall make provision for voting to take place on more than three days before the day of the poll.".

Mr. Evans

We aim yet again to ensure that voting is made easier, but that due regard is paid to the sensitivities of large groups of people who would feel offended if voting were to take place on key religious days. Amendment No. 24 would rule out voting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I need not go into further detail on that.

It would be ironic if a measure aimed at increasing voting participation had the reverse effect. The working group considered the matter and, in paragraph 3.18, said: Pilot schemes would need to take account of the implications for strict religious observation of most faiths of any move from Thursday voting. I know that the Minister is well aware of that problem.

Amendment No. 25 aims to restrict voting to four days, by stating that voting should occur for no more than three days before the day of the poll. Like colleagues who have already spoken, I am extremely sceptical about extending single-day voting. That is why I shall be listening carefully to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) when he speaks to his amendment No. 86, on postal voting.

I think that we can address most of the problems that will result given the inability of people to get to polling stations because of mobility difficulties and because of the way in which jobs have changed. We know that, all of a sudden, people may be called away in the course of their employment. More readily available postal votes will meet most of these problems. However, if there is a pilot project for voting on more than one day, there must be certain safeguards. To have polling taking place for a few days in one week and a few days in another would be inoperable and unrealistic.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has spoken about the problems of political parties being able to monitor what is taking place. Once we move to polling taking place on more than one day, and perhaps on more than one day in one week, we shall face real problems in allowing political parties to monitor the fair operation of elections. Amendment No. 25 would restrict the number of voting days before polling day.

Mr. Maclean

I do not support amendment No. 24. I believe that extending voting for local government elections beyond more than one day is nonsensical. However, if that is the way in which the Government wish to go, so that there can be voting for two or three days, and they want pilot schemes to that effect, I see no good reason to bar certain days of the week.

If we are to have genuine consultation, as the Minister has suggested, I assume that local authorities in certain areas will not come forward with proposals to have voting on the day of the Jewish sabbath or on a day of any other strict religious observance. Even if there is a second day of voting that falls on a holy day, there is no problem provided that there is one day on either side of it that is not a holy day.

I would be strongly opposed to a proposition that there should be only one day of voting, which could be moved to a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Such a proposal would understandably cause great offence to those who still have some—

Mr. Hurst

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman recalls that Saturday was commonly the polling day in urban district and rural district elections.

Mr. Maclean

I am perhaps slightly younger than the hon. Gentleman. I have no personal experience of what he says, but I believe that, historically, he is correct.

We have a fairly well-established precedent of Thursday being polling day. That is well known and well understood, but we still have a miserable turnout. That is not because it is difficult to vote. Those who do not vote in local government elections will turn out and vote in general elections, where the poll will be more than double that in other elections. It is not impossible for people to get to polling stations, and there are not awful difficulties that require two or three days for elections.

It seems that people have taken a different view about the merits of voting in local elections as opposed to general elections. Similarly, they have taken a view about the merits of voting in European elections. That is a route that I do not wish to go down. I merely suggest that, if the Government are minded to proceed with their proposition that there should be two or three days of polling for local government elections—I oppose that—local authorities must surely have the freedom to come up with any two or three days that they like, after proper consultation with local people. I would not rule out Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

I have participated in Sunday shopping debates in this place. We must admit, whether we like it or not, that millions more people go shopping on Sunday than to church. If it is the Government's intention to stick a voting box in every supermarket and every B&Q, it would make sense to have polling stations in the shops while they are open, and that would include a Sunday, with the limited shopping hours of between 10 and 4 o'clock. I am opposed to the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and I do not support his amendment, but that does not mean that I support the Government's view on increasing the amount of time during which polling may take place.

5.45 pm

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) pointed out to me that it is difficult to see what amendment No. 25 means. I do not want to steal his speech, but he said that the amendment was nonsensical. It refers to multiple voting days, and specifies that voting should not take place more than three days before the day of the poll. If voting takes place on two or three days, which is the day of the poll? I assume that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley means the last day of the poll—presumably the Thursday, or perhaps the Sunday.

Nevertheless, there is some sense in saying that, if the Government choose to go down the route of multiple voting days, there must be a cut-off. I think that one day is sufficient. I would grudgingly go to two days at most. Voting over three or four days would be nonsensical in local government elections or any other election. I support the thrust of amendment No. 25, but I would tighten it up.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Let me take the amendments in reverse order. On amendment No. 25, it seems sensible that a limit on the number of days should be built in to the legislation. Reference has been made to a drafting issue. There is also a practical issue for the political parties and those who administer elections. Spreading the elections over more than one day may bring in marginally more voters, but it entails greater expense and more work on the part of the officials, polling station staff, police and political parties. We must draw a line.

Amendment No. 24 refers to pilot schemes. It is right that bids for pilot schemes should come up from the grass roots. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Lord, on clause 11 and to speak about the position in her part of Scotland, reflecting the fact that there are different views in different parts of the country.

If voting takes place on a Friday, which may make it difficult for members of the Jewish community to vote, a range of dates must be provided to allow everyone with a strict religious view the opportunity to vote. It may be Sunday for some, Saturday for some and Friday for some. If there is to be non-Thursday voting, and voting is to take place over the long weekend, it must take place over the whole period, otherwise difficulties arise. We understand the issue, but I do not take the view that there should be an absolute bar in the legislation to voting on Sundays, Saturdays or Fridays.

Incidentally, I remember the participation of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) as a Minister in the debates on Sunday trading. We are now in the world of Sunday shopping. I am not persuaded that we are the better for it.

Mr. George Howarth

May I express sympathy for the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)? I am glad that I have the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) facing me, rather than behind me.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for moving the amendments, so that we can debate an issue that will be important to a large number of people. We must make sure that we do nothing to harm the interests of those with strong religious faith, especially anything that would prevent them from voting on a particular day of the week.

It is up to local authorities to decide which innovations they want to pilot. As we have already discussed, they are required to submit applications and, in so doing, they will have to consider the needs of all their electors. The guidance to local authorities on how to apply for a pilot scheme, to which I referred earlier, makes that clear. Among the material that a local authority will have to include in its application is an assurance that no voter will be put at a disadvantage by the proposed innovation". That is unambiguous.

Clearly, any local authority that wants to try voting on a day other than Thursday will have to consider seriously the religious views of its population. Specific days will be more significant in some areas than in others. I assure the House that the Home Office is conscious of those issues. It is perhaps significant that, on Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie): If weekend voting ever became part of the national arrangements, we would have to ensure that it took place on both days. There are members of the Jewish community who would not wish to vote on a Saturday and there are members of other communities … who have strong feelings about the observance of the Sabbath. Sunday voting would not be acceptable to them."—[Official Report, 30 November 1999; Vol. 340, c. 172.] For that reason, which the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border expressed clearly, we must provide options. I hope therefore that I have reassured the House—

Mr. William Ross

Party workers may also have severe difficulties in working on Saturdays or Sundays.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which applies to workers of all parties.

Let us consider amendment No. 25. I am somewhat puzzled by the thinking behind it because it would impose unnecessary restrictions on local authorities that wished to run pilot schemes to allow voting to take place on more than one day. There is no valid reason for that. The working party on electoral procedures recommended that local authorities should be given the chance to try out innovative electoral procedures. Clause 10 provides for that. The aim of the provision is to allow local authorities the freedom to try out new procedures, which, we hope, may make it easier for people to vote. Imposing restrictions such as those that the amendment proposes would do the opposite. For example, why should voting not take place at the weekend immediately before the Thursday and in the intervening days? What is the objection to offering an early voting facility for more than three days? If a local authority believes that it can run such a scheme successfully, and that it will boost turnout, we should not prohibit such innovation.

I have already said that local authorities will need to give an assurance that no voter is put at a disadvantage. They will also need to provide an assurance that the opportunities for fraud will not be enhanced and the secrecy of the poll will be maintained.

Mr. Ross

The Government and everyone who has spoken seem to ignore the implications of multiple day voting for those who apply for postal votes. What difference will multiple day voting make to a time scale that is already tight?

Mr. Howarth

If the hon. Gentleman exercises a little patience, he will find that that subject will be debated later.

The debate has been useful. The amendment was not tabled as a probing amendment, but it has enabled us to consider serious issues, which could lead to disfranchisement for some people if the provisions are not implemented sensitively and properly. Nobody supports that. We now have a clearer picture of the way in which the scheme will work. I hope that it is sufficiently clear to persuade the hon. Member for Ribble Valley not to press the amendment.

Mr. Evans

The Minister has given assurances that those of strong religious beliefs will not be disadvantaged by changes in the pilot schemes or anything that follows them. I am reassured by that. Voting on multiple days will be expensive and none of us envisages polling stations being open throughout a local authority area for more than one day. However, it is possible that one polling station—perhaps at the town hall—will be open for early voting for a period of days.

As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, we are trying to provide some structure. For example, a polling booth might open for a couple of days, close for some strange reason and then re-open, but I am sure that the Home Secretary will take that into account in any submission on a pilot scheme made by any local authority. With those assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Forth

Our short series of debates has illustrated beyond all doubt the incredible difficulties that would be caused, were we to proceed with the clause. My difficulty with it is that it apparently stems from the proposition that people have huge problems casting their vote under our present electoral arrangements and that something should be done to ease those difficulties. I do not even accept that as an analysis or a proposition. There is no evidence that people experience enormous difficulties in voting. I doubt whether many Members of the House could come forward with evidence that their constituents have informed them, either verbally or in writing, that they have had great difficulty in voting and want them to make changes. I have received no such representations and doubt whether many other Members have.

We are therefore starting from the fanciful proposition that a large number of frustrated people in this country would dearly love to vote, but find it difficult to do so under the present arrangements. The clause is completely unnecessary, but it is worse than that. Our debates have teased out not only that, but the fact that the clause would give rise to considerable dangers and difficulties in the process of voting and holding elections, requiring increasingly elaborate and costly measures and safeguards that would, in themselves, endanger that very process.

We have to weigh up whatever advantages are being claimed for the clause that would induce people who do not vote to do so, as against the real dangers and difficulties that the measures would pose. As has already been suggested, it is rather odd that, with the same electoral arrangements, we get enormous variations in turnout in different elections—local, national, European Parliament or whatever they may be. It would appear that the difference in turnout has little or nothing to do with the arrangements that are in place, but everything to do with voter interest in the different levels of government or representation. That seems to be the variable, not the location of polling booths or the number of days available for voting.

The case has not been made to support proceeding with the clause, but I am somewhat reassured that at least a series of mechanisms are available or in place to make sure that we do not rush headlong into that. The onus is initially on the relevant local authorities. Should the clause be agreed to and should the Bill proceed—I hope that it will not—it will be interesting to see how many local authorities suggest well-thought-out schemes that will satisfy the Secretary of State in the way that the Minister helpfully described. That will show us whether we should proceed with such proposals.

Ministers have assured the Committee today that those schemes will have to be examined very closely to make sure that none of the weaknesses that have been exposed in our debates would affect our voting procedures. There is another worry, but we have received a reassurance and I am glad that we have: cost has to be a consideration in respect of the draft criteria, which already exist. I wonder whether at this stage anyone has made even a rough estimate of the difference in cost between the current system and providing new procedures, voting across two or three days, a number of different polling stations and polling opportunities—as we should call them in modern parlance—and all the security and computer systems that will be required.

6 pm

I suspect that, if we are to provide a viable, secure alternative to our existing procedures, the cost could prove prohibitive. I hope that that will be taken into consideration. This will not be a cost-free exercise. I hope that when consultation—or the equivalent that the Minister mentioned—takes place, people will be told about the possible cost increase that would be involved if they expressed enthusiasm for the different voting procedures offered to them.

This would not be a cost-free option; indeed, it might well be a very costly option. People should be asked whether they would like to be able to vote on different days, and in supermarkets—oh, and by the way, they would have to pay the following costs, through either their local taxes or national taxes. It should be made clear to them that this is not a cost-free option, but one to which a price tag is attached.

I am not a computer expert—I am quite the opposite—but I ask the techno-freaks among us how they think security can be guaranteed if we are to involve computers in the voting process. As I have said, I am a layman with no interest in computers, but every day I read in the newspapers about people breaking into computer systems and corrupting them. That is bad enough when our personal finances are involved; it would be disastrous if it posed any risk of tampering with material relating to voting.

It must be obvious by now that clause 10 not only has a very flimsy basis—indeed, no basis at all—but involves real dangers and risks for our electoral process. I wonder whether that has been taken into account sufficiently. The mere fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) had to table so many amendments, with the genuine aim of not only identifying the difficulties but dealing with them and providing appropriate safeguards, and the mere fact that the Minister has had to give repeated assurances about the measures that will have to be introduced locally and nationally, give some indication of the fragility of the process being proposed. That, surely, must be a great worry.

I am not inclined to support a clause that, in my view, leads us down a path that is not only unnecessary but dangerous. If we accepted it at this stage we would, at the very least, need much more reassurance later. We would need to be certain that what we were doing did not constitute an unnecessary folly and, above all, that we would not endanger the integrity of our voting system, which, as far as I know, has never been questioned so far.

Mr. Maclean

I was interested to note that, when the amendments to clause 10 were discussed—Conservative Members either supported them or distanced themselves from them, for various reasons—the Minister, with the kindness and courtesy for which he is famous, said that he was minded to accept an amendment, or accepted the spirit of it, and that we could look forward to either a revised Government amendment in due course, a Home Office circular or guidance to tidy up the problems identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans).

That, I think, proves the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). If we try these radical new electoral procedures, there will be many dangerous loose ends to tie up. I am not convinced that the Government have thought all that through, nor am I convinced that local authorities have the ability to do so.

I am not minded to support clause 10, because I consider it unnecessary to do so. If we look at voting patterns around the world, we see the position of countries that have just emerged from dictatorships and are experiencing democracy for the first time. In some African countries, voters may have to travel 100 miles to polling stations, but there is a 100 per cent. turnout—or very near that—because people are desperate to vote. They have not had that right before, and they treasure it.

We all say off pat that we must make it easier for people to vote at general and local elections in this country, but our history shows that the easier we make it, the more we take it for granted and the less we vote. If we shove a mobile polling station into every supermarket, outside the door of every school as the mums are picking up the kids, and at every other location where we think that it will be convenient for people to vote, we may find that fewer and fewer people do so.

I confess that I am one of those who has, on occasion, forgotten to vote at local government elections, or to organise my postal vote. I have made that mistake. I am not happy to admit it, but I must. I suspect that, for one reason or another, other hon. Members have neglected to vote at a local government election.

That is not because the system is too difficult, we do not qualify for a postal vote, or we are suddenly called away on urgent business. These days, we can easily get a postal vote for almost any reason under the sun. If we legitimately think that, at some time in the future, we might not be in the area to vote, whatever the reason, we can get a postal vote. It is very easy, yet some of us fail or forget to do so. Seventy per cent. of the electorate at every local government election do not do so, yet voting has never been easier.

The Government's solution is to increase the number of days. They propose two, three or more days. I was worried by the Minister's reply on amendment No. 25. If I heard him correctly, he did not want any bar on the number of days that polling stations could be open for voting, or a voting system could be available for people to use; it could be three, four, five or even more days. Therefore, I am not convinced on principle that we need clause 10. The Government are making it easier for people to vote in the vain hope that it will encourage more people to do so.

One of the benefits of our present system is that, for 20 or 30 years, voting has regularly been on a Thursday. Every hon. Member has experience of going around at general elections. Probably half the people to whom we speak know that the election is on a Thursday some time soon. Other electors will not be sure what day it is on, but probably about half know without prompting from us that the general election and elections generally take place on a Thursday. I expect that that results in a reasonable number of people getting to the polling station on the right day.

If we remove that certainty, so that, in local authority areas throughout the country, voting can be on any day of the week, a greater number of the electorate than ever before will be confused about which day the poll will take place. If my experience is anything to go by, everyone to whom I speak denies that they have ever had a polling card through the letter box. We all know that they deny even that they have had the party leaflet—the one we delivered five minutes earlier. They say, "No, I have never seen it."

That is not treating the electorate with contempt. We are the same. We deny having received letters, cards or circulars—[Interruption.] We do not deny it deliberately, but one cannot remember, with that mass of mail, some of the individual correspondence that one gets. Our electorate are the same. They get so much bumf through the letter box that they do not identify certain correspondence. If they receive polling cards two or three weeks before an election saying that they can vote on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, and that they can do it in various places, we will have a shambles. We will have confusion. I do not think that it will increase the number of people who vote.

The Minister said that the Government do not want to include in the Bill a provision that the Home Secretary shall not approve schemes unless he is satisfied that the schemes have adequate local support, and I assume that the extent of the consultation conducted on the schemes will be one of the yardsticks that the Home Secretary uses in judging local support. I should be alarmed, therefore, if the Government are planning to put pilot schemes into operation in May 2000.

I do not see how—even if the Bill were to proceed apace through both this place and the other place—there could be adequate notification and proper local consultation on such schemes, or how such schemes could legitimately be put into operation, before May 2000. Before we could have proper consultation in a local authority area, we would come up against a very tight deadline.

I appeal to Ministers: if they are going down that route, for goodness sake, publicise it in detail; and do not urge local authorities to submit rushed schemes, which hard-pressed Home Office Ministers will have to study not at leisure, but in a great rush, so that mistakes are made. As the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) suggested, such an attempt would also increase the danger of gerrymandering.

Mr. Haselhurst, if I wanted to be political—

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman seems to be quite adrift as to the form of address that should be used when we are in Committee of the whole House and for this particular occupant of the Chair.

Mr. Maclean

Sir Alan, my apologies to you.

The hon. Member for Braintree made the key point on the dangers of gerrymandering. If I were to be political, and if I were a politically minded local authority, I could invent a schemr—ehich I am certain would pass Home Office scrutiny—in which, for example, I have the choice of positioning polling stations outside either Safeway supermarket in Penrith, or the Co-operative supermarket, depending on which one might suit my political purposes and provide me with the most votes.

We are also blessed in our town with two large schools—a grammar school and an excellent comprehensive school—that are 200 yds apart. I could devise a scheme, which could be open to challenge, in which a mobile polling station would be positioned outside one school rather than another, so that I may favour people of one political persuasion over another.

The hon. Member for Braintree dealt with the effects of positioning a polling station outside one factory rather than a different factory or an office complex, where voters' political views might be slightly different.

The scheme is open to abuse, and I am not certain that the Home Office, with the best will in the world, will be able to spot some of the potential abuses that local authorities could build into it. We shall have to give very careful consideration before approving any such scheme. Although I realise that there is a Home Office circular on the matter, I should have much preferred for a schedule to be included in the Bill, building in cast-iron safeguards. Subsequently, we could invite local authorities to submit proposals that satisfy all the criteria in those safeguards, and then approve those proposals.

I do not intend to force a vote on clause 10 stand part, because I would have the support of many hon. Members, but I do not think that the clause should stand part, and I may wish to return to it.

6.15 pm
Mr. William Ross

Following on briefly from what the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has just said, in the course of an election there is severe pressure on time. That makes it difficult for legitimate political parties that are trying to get their electorate out, but it also makes it difficult for those who are trying to manipulate the system, because the compressed time scale gives them no slack. The Minister has experience in Northern Ireland and knows what I am driving at and whom I am pointing the finger at.

The concept of allowing voting over a period of days is fraught with very great dangers. Those dangers do not currently exist on this side of the Irish sea, but we have no way of knowing what the future may bring. I ask the Minister in all sincerity never to allow multiple days for voting in Northern Ireland under any circumstances and to think very carefully before going down that road in Great Britain.

The concept of voting in a supermarket is daft. When a young mother is coming out of the supermarket in the evening with her shopping and two or three children in tow, worrying about getting the tea made, the last thing that she wants is to be confronted with a polling station. I see that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), who is the only hon. Lady present, is nodding. I know what my wife would have said if that had happened to her at that period in her life. We can have a fair idea of what most young mothers would say.

I was in New Zealand once when an election was being held. There were polling stations in garages along the street because the law there says that nobody in an urban area should have to walk more than a quarter of a mile to a polling station. I am not certain that it has improved the turnout. The turnout at an election has very little to do with the number of days, the period of time—although a long period on one day is probably all to the good—or the distance that people have to travel to the polling station. That may have a minor effect, but the main factor that drives people to vote is whether they want rid of the lot that they have in office. If it is really important to them, whether the election is local, national or at some intermediate level, people will vote.

My advice to the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Government is a lesson that my party has taken on board: if a party makes it worth people's while to vote for it, it has nought to fear.

Mr. George Howarth

I shall be brief. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has some general concerns and some that are specific to Northern Ireland. I am not as well briefed as he is on some of the difficulties there, but I am well aware that there are difficulties. I offered yesterday to meet him and I asked my office this morning to arrange discussions with him. I am anxious to address his concerns. I assure him that it is most unlikely—I think that it is not even possible—that any of the pilots would be set up in Northern Ireland because of the difficulties that he described.

Throughout my chairmanship of the working party that produced the proposals I tried to create a consensus. There was a consensus among the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and my party. All the other parties were copied in to the papers and information that the working party received. There was no lack of effort on our part to create a consensus. I am pleased that, although there have been various debates on the details of the clause, there is a consensus between the main parties that there should be pilots and that those pilots should be properly evaluated and considered with due regard paid to the potential for fraud and gerrymandering—that word has been bandied about. There is a consensus that the clause is worth a try.

The modern expression for building consensus is "big tent politics". I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is at least under the awning and that the Liberal Democrats have taken a tentative step into the tent. I regret that the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) are in a bivouac in another field.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill

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