HC Deb 13 January 2000 vol 342 cc508-11
Mr. Mike O'Brien

I beg to move amendment No. 66, in page 14, line 3, leave out (including the New Northern Ireland Assembly)". This is a drafting amendment, essentially to remove the word "new" from the description of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Amendment agreed to.

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

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I shall try to be brief. I did not attempt to catch the eye of Mr. Lord on amendment No. 24 as I understood it to refer only to England and Wales. Clause 11 allows me to say something about voting in Scotland as it deals with rolling out innovations that have been successfully piloted. Perhaps the Minister will let me know whether there will be pilot schemes in Scotland as well as in England and Wales.

Let me state again my reservations about weekend voting, particularly on Sundays. As the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has now left the Chamber, said, I raised the matter on Second Reading. The Home Secretary acknowledged that if weekend voting ever became part of the national arrangements, we would have to ensure that it took place on both days. That would be absolutely essential, although I am not sure about voting taking place over several days.

I am particularly concerned about Sunday voting, which would not be welcomed by many in my constituency.

Mr. O'Brien

I think that I can deal with the hon. Lady's concerns very briefly by telling her that local election procedures are a devolved matter and are therefore a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Mrs. Michie

Indeed, but under clause 11, if pilot schemes are accepted, the House can roll out the mechanism across the entire United Kingdom, including Scotland.

Mr. O'Brien

For general elections.

Mrs. Michie

Yes. The clause refers to elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So, particularly in respect of general elections, Sunday voting would not be welcomed in my constituency and other parts of the highlands and islands of Scotland which still have many Gaelic speaking populations and a tradition of Sunday observance. We try to keep Sunday not just as a day of religious observance, but as a day for the family; a day that is different, a day for a rest and a little bit of peace and quiet in what has become a life of frenetic activity and, for many poor souls, of great stress.

The fourth report of the Home Affairs Committee refers to this and states at paragraph 63: There are potential problems arising from the fact that both Saturdays and (more significantly numerically) Sundays are days of religious observance for many people. The Home Office paper noted objections on this count from both churches and individuals and the Scottish and Northern Ireland Offices referred to similar problems. It also acknowledges that polls would have to be open on both Saturday and Sunday to accommodate the objections, and that would make the exercise more expensive. It is argued that the objections could be met by using a postal vote. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is not in his place, but I agree with him that people often do not apply for a postal vote in time.

A significant number of people would not vote on a Sunday. The report also suggests that people might be away at weekends. People are used to going to vote before they go to work or after they get home during the week. When the previous Government were in power, a concerted effort appeared to be made to undermine Sundays. I recall opposition to Sunday trading, and I endorse the comments my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made earlier on that subject. I also recall a debate in this Chamber that forced Scotland to allow off-licence sales and to open betting shops on a Sunday. That was rammed through in the face of the opposition of a majority of Scottish Members of Parliament, which was regrettable.

I ask the Government to safeguard the preferences of voters and not to put more pressure on Sundays, for the sake of families, those who would have to officiate at the polling stations, and everyone else who craves a day of rest in an increasingly hectic way of life.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I endorse the pleas of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) and I wish to add two points. Community views need to be respected, and the Bill will permit that.

The first point is that it is clear to me from inquiring of people that the promise that we were given that people would not be expected to work on Sundays is being ignored. In many places, the reality is that people have no choice. If they want their jobs, they must work on Sundays. People's rights are not being respected.

The second point relates to differences between constituencies. My constituency is very different from that of my hon. Friend—there are probably not two more different constituencies in the whole of the United Kingdom. I have many constituents who live in London during the week, but who are not here at weekends. Increasing numbers of people have weekday homes and holiday or weekend homes. We must address that issue, because if we introduce weekend voting—and I do not oppose that if people want it in certain parts of the country—we must recognise that the electorate will be different.

If we introduced Sunday voting, we would have to enter an entire debate about second homes. Significant additional people would be able to vote in places in which they were not customary, working, resident members of the community. The consultation must take that into account; otherwise we would have a worse situation than the Vale of Glamorgan's, with not just 32 extra voters registered from overseas but hundreds or thousands of extra voters who had only a partial link with a constituency. That is an additional reason to take account of local and broader national considerations before we invade traditional patterns of life and community living.

6.30 pm
Mr. William Ross

It is not often that I agree with Liberal Democrat Members, but I do on this matter, as I did whenever Sunday trading was discussed.

Clause 11(1) gives the Secretary of State very great powers. I hope that no Secretary of State would exercise them without full consultation with, and the agreement of, all the major political parties. Our electoral system must be free from taint. The possibility offered by the provision is that a Secretary of State could introduce schemes that were politically favourable to his party in any one of a number of places in the United Kingdom, but not in all. That would whip the rug from under the concept of democratic accountability and democratic elections. I hope that the Minister will give an unbreakable commitment that real consultation will be held and real agreement secured before any such schemes are introduced, even where they appear to be reasonable.

Subsection (3) states that an order made under subsection (1) could apply to local elections in Northern Ireland. That seems to fly in the face of the assurance that I was given a few moments ago in relation to clause 10. What are the Government's intentions with regard to that provision? In Northern Ireland, pressure can be exerted in elections other than general elections. I recall that the nationalist community on one estate were not too anxious to vote in an election. After a gentleman who had served a long sentence for multiple murder visited houses there in the last hour or two of the poll, it was amazing how many people came out to vote. I hope that Ministers will consider that point carefully and remember the undertaking that has already been given.

Subsection (6) states that any order that in other circumstances could be treated as a hybrid instrument will not be so treated under the Bill. That is a serious step. I hope that the Minister will explain why the power is needed in the Bill.

Mr. Evans

We, too, are unhappy about the sweeping powers given to the Secretary of State in clause 11(1). Unless we are satisfied with the assurances given to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), we will revisit clause 11 at a later stage.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The Government have no plans to oblige people to vote on a Sunday. The Bill provides for ample debate about the benefits or otherwise of any pilot scheme. The Government have said repeatedly that it is our intention to consult fully on such matters. I know that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has been told by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that he would be happy to discuss any proposals with him. Once we see how the pilot schemes work we can consult on their outcomes and find whether we can achieve a broad consensus on which to move forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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