Lords amendment: No. 7, in page 5, line 32, at end insert—
("() Subsection (3) above shall apply in relation to a person's absence by reason of his attendance on a course provided by an educational institution as it applies in relation to a person's absence in the performance of any duty such as is mentioned in that subsection.")
Yet again, the thrust of the amendment is to encourage more people to vote. I hope that the Minister will correct me if my interpretation of what the amendments seek to do is wrong. In my estimation, they would encourage more young people at universities and colleges to register to vote, perhaps even registering in two places. They would give them the opportunity to use a proxy or a postal vote, whereas in the past they may have found that difficult or impossible to do.
I totally support the idea of students having postal votes. There is a burgeoning student population. We have a problem getting young voters to register, and once they have, getting them to vote is another problem. Anything that we can do to encourage that must be good.
I have more of a problem with the proxy aspect of the amendments. I think that the Government were concerned about making it easier for people to have proxy votes as opposed to postal votes. Will the Minister explain why they have adopted this approach? In the other place, Lord MacKay made a suggestion that will go a long way towards dealing with the problem of personation where proxy votes are concerned. Personation can happen when it is known that someone who intended to vote has moved away, or that he never intended to vote. The suggestion is that, if electors ask for a proxy vote, they are notified three days later that a proxy has been awarded in their name.
The Government said that they would consider this idea, but nothing seems to have happened. I should be grateful if the Minister would say something about it. If he thinks that it is still worth considering, perhaps he could look at it again.
The amendments correct an omission that was spotted when we were considering the Bill. They would allow those who are away on educational courses to be registered at their normal place of residence. They are sensible amendments.
I should like to flag up the question of dual registration. It is not before us for consideration, I understand, because there was no agreement in the working party. However, concern was expressed, and I should like to use this opportunity to express the hope that, as soon as this measure reaches the statute book, we will reconvene a working party with cross-party representation. In that way, we will not be rushing to catch up with necessary electoral concerns, but can immediately pick up concerns that are more difficult or need more time or that people have raised since the working party began.
The working party was a very useful institution. Rather than having it constituted on an ad hoc basis, it would be better to have it as a more permanent institution, and one slightly less formal than the Speaker's Conference suggested by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). Not only would we then have a rolling register; we would have a rolling review of electoral law, and that would be useful.
I shall deal first with the point raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). He proposes having an on-going working party or similar group because there are always relevant issues to be raised. I can see merits in that for dealing with dual registration, and I will certainly consider his point. However, he knows of the difficulty of getting parliamentary time to legislate and, given the difficulties with this Bill, I would not at the moment encourage my colleagues to support the idea of an annual electoral procedures Bill.
Amendments Nos. 7 and 77 and part of amendment No. 85 owe their origin to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). He asked that the provisions be introduced, and we have considered the issues and introduced them. They are designed to rectify an anomaly to which my hon. Friend drew our attention when the Bill was first brought before the House. Students now routinely obtain absent votes, even though, strictly speaking, the law does not include attendance at an educational establishment as one of the grounds on which absent votes may be granted.
We should, of course, be doing everything that we can to enable that group of electors to vote and one way to do so is to allow students who are studying at an establishment some distance from their parental home to vote by proxy. Normally, we know where the student's home is, so some of the dangers of proxy votes that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) identified, which we continue to be concerned about, are not present in this case.
The amendments clarify the point that students are entitled to apply for absent votes and do not in any way relax the proxy vote regime. We agreed to the amendment tabled by Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish, and we can consider the issues raised by him when we make regulations.
Amendments Nos. 43, 82 to 85 and 87 are in many ways technical, and, as points were not made about them, I will not describe their effect.