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Schedule 2 — Rules for conduct of the referendum

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 18th October 2010.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 9:15 pm, 18th October 2010

The amendments are in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Leader of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. Historically, legislation has always provided that the returning officer is able to use polling stations in state-provided schools. For many people up and down the land, when they go to vote, they expect to turn up to a school. Normally it is their local primary school, but provision may be made in their local secondary school. Sometimes, where schools have disappeared, there is a problem with the local returning officer finding a suitable venue. Of course, there is an impact on local state schools: sometimes they have to be closed because there is no other means of providing that the returning officer can use the entrance and make sure that there is security for the children in the school.

These are three simple amendments, the first of which-amendment 354-would insert in schedule 2, page 27, line 37, the words

"a school which enjoys charitable status", so that the provisions applied not just to schools provided by the state. We have used that term in relation to the law in England and Wales, because in those areas, independent schools with good facilities that might be made available could be so termed. To provide a similar provision for Scotland, we have tabled amendment 355, which would insert, in schedule 2, page 27, line 38, the phrase

"any school other than those which are run as profit-making enterprises", because the independent sector in Scotland works slightly differently.

I see that none of our Northern Irish colleagues is with us, but amendment 356 relates to Northern Ireland. We would not want to conflict with the provisions relating to Roman Catholic schools run by nunneries and convents, so we have not provided the exact same measure as for England and Wales, where "charitable status" covers the situation. We therefore suggest in the amendment that in schedule 2, page 27, line 41, after "Assembly", we should insert

"or a school which enjoys charitable status".

I recognise that there are those who would say, "Why on earth should independent sector schools be forced to act as polling stations?" I suspect that more independent schools are likely to say that they would quite like the income that might accrue. More importantly, I do not see why state-provided schools should be regularly used and should therefore undergo the upheaval that polling stations cause, but the independent sector which, in the main, enjoys charitable status and is therefore able to have tax benefits, should not be required to provide the same facilities.

The Minister may say, "We think this is an unnecessary piece of legislation." Our point is that it should be a matter of fairness. The provision should apply across the board. It should not be state schools alone that are inconvenienced. The inconvenience should be shared by all. In addition, some preparatory schools or public schools would be able to provide the necessary facilities relatively easily, without any major inconvenience to them.

In recent years we have seen a considerable attempt by schools in the independent sector to open their doors so that they are far more engaged in the local community. This is an opportunity for them to be engaged in the political process. I hope the amendments will be acceptable to the Government. I am sure they would not want to defend the present injustice.