Clause 2 - Pilot order

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 30th October 2003.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 3:45 pm, 30th October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in

clause 2, page 2, leave out lines 12 and 13.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendment:

No. 50, in

clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—

'(3B) If the pilot order makes provision for voting to take place on more than one day under subsection (3)(a), the Secretary of State must also make an order requiring a register to be available to candidates in the election and their agents at the end of each day showing those electors who have at that time voted in the election.'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I shall be brief, which I am sure you will appreciate, Mr. Cook, as will the Minister and members of the Committee, as we have already had an extensive debate on other matters.

Amendment No. 2 seeks to delete subsection (3)(a), which says:

''on more than one day (whether or not each of the days is a day appointed as a day of the poll)''.

I hope that the Minister will give us a detailed explanation of the paragraph, as there is a danger that it could be interpreted to mean that we will have not only postal ballots but multiple-day voting. I do not know whether the paragraph is intended to lead to e-voting, which we are strongly against, as the Minister will know, but it could be clearer. This could be considered to be one of my Plain English Campaign amendments. Rather than trying to re-draft the paragraph, I have tabled a probing amendment, similar to the one that I tabled to clause 1, to see whether the Minister can explain the paragraph satisfactorily. If he cannot, will he undertake to seek advice from his officials to see whether there is a clearer way of expressing what he means to do?

We do not want multiple-day voting, as I said in an earlier debate. Our main concern is the one that was forcefully expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster on Second Reading. If there is a postal pilot in any region, it is crucial that it should still be possible for any person who wishes to do so, despite its being a postal pilot area, to bring a ballot paper in person on what is regarded by the media and everyone involved in the conduct of the election as the main voting day for the election—European or any other. If the Minister can reassure me, and through me my hon. Friend and others, that that will happen in every area and that he will so instruct the Electoral Commission, we shall be a great deal happier. This is an appropriate moment for him to give that indication if he is prepared to do so.

I should like to see words to that effect in the Bill, because a number of my hon. Friends feel strongly that there should be a guarantee that on what is regarded by the media and everyone else as the day of the election, even if it is an all-postal pilot, people should still be able to vote. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, who cannot be with us today, has expressed a strong view, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Woking, who, like me, has a Home Office brief on the shadow Front Bench, but who is not a member of the Committee.

We gathered, particularly from the discussions on Second Reading between the hon. Member for Chorley and my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, that in Chorley, even though its MP on the Labour Back Benches was very keen on postal pilots, it was still possible for people to cast their votes in person on polling day, whereas in the London borough of Havering, of which the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster forms about one third, that was not possible. Obviously the Electoral Commission had decided different things about different small-scale pilots. It is the clear view on the Conservative Benches that there should always be that opportunity, so I am probing that by means of amendment No. 2.

I shall refer briefly to Liberal Democrat amendment No. 50. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has probably already divined from what I said this morning and one of the things that I said this afternoon, we are very keen indeed on a rolling marked register. We agree with his amendment. I had originally intended to add our names to it, but because it was tabled at the end of last week I did not have time. To be honest, when we had the delay because of the Government's defeat, I forgot. I wish I had added our names on Tuesday, but I hope that I can make it clear from the Conservative Benches that we agree absolutely with him and his colleagues. As I mentioned when we debated Scotland, we think that a rolling marked register should be available to the candidates and their agents on a daily basis, and I would have put our names to that had I had the chance. I hope that is helpful. We agree with amendment No. 50 and I can tell the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that if it goes to a vote, we will support him.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for expressing his support for amendment No. 50, which is a crucial amendment for all parties. It was clear from the Second Reading debate that the rolling register was a crucial element in an all-postal ballot. We have had a rolling marked register in some pilot areas but not in others. The experience is that it is better to have one—better for the electorate because it reduces the amount of badgering that they suffer from the political parties and better for the parties because they can more sensibly deploy the people they have to badger people who need badgering rather than those who do not. It is a better way to run an election that takes place over more than one day.

We owe the hon. Member for Chorley a huge debt of gratitude for his contributions to the debate. He mentioned that he had some sort of thermometer device attached to the side of Chorley town hall, which indicated the turnout at any particular moment, rather in the way that churches very often have thermometers to show the progress of their appeal for the church roof. I do not know whether that is a necessary adjunct to a rolling marked register, but it would certainly be a graphic way of illustrating the success or otherwise of the process.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we have been hugely helped by the entertaining contributions that the hon. Member for Chorley has so far made to the Committee, and I agree with the suggestion on that graphic way of doing things. That might not happen everywhere, but it is an interesting idea.

Does the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome share my recollection that a number of Labour Back Benchers called for the Government to introduce a rolling marked register? I do not know whether those who serve on the Committee will repeat that call. It is fair to say, as the hon. Gentleman did, that it is not just the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who hold that view; there is a strong view on the Labour Back Benches that that should happen. Does he share my hope that the Minister will ultimately accept a variant of amendment No. 50, if not its exact wording?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:00 pm, 30th October 2003

That was precisely why I said earlier that I thought that that view was shared by all parties. There were clear expressions of support from the Government side on Second Reading, and I think from the hon. Member for North Tayside as well.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Does the hon. Gentleman not share my great expectation that we will be joined by our Labour colleagues in a Division on this, given what they said on Second Reading? It would be almost inexplicable to suggest that we could go ahead with an all-postal vote without a rolling marked-up register. I hope that the Labour Members who spoke so strongly on that on Second Reading support us in this Division.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am not going to presume at this stage, Mr. Cook, that you will allow a Division; but if there were to be one, it would be helpful if those who believe that there should be a marked register expressed that view clearly.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland

As one who voiced his support for a rolling register, I shall wait with bated breath to hear what the Minister has to say before I make a final decision on that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a rolling register in paper form would be somewhat difficult for people to gain access to, particularly on a regional basis? It would be better to do it electronically. My great fear is that it may be difficult to put something of that scale in place in time.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Of course the hon. Gentleman must listen to the Minister's reply, as shall I. If he gives me confidence that the Government will table an appropriate amendment, I have no reason to suppose that my wording is necessarily superior. We must wait to see what the Minister has to say.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland makes an important point. Obviously some form of electronic marked register is an option. I do not necessarily think that that will be more cumbersome because we are talking about regional elections. The responsibility for the elections will still be at the level of the individual returning officer in the council that is administering the election. I hope that a marked register will be available at that level. We do not want a national marked register, which would be of limited value to any party. We want to know who has voted at local level so that appropriate action can be taken. That seems to be the sensible way forward.

We should not protract the argument, because we are all clear that there are strong grounds for an amendment in favour of a rolling marked register of one form or another. I hope that the Minister can satisfy us on that.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

Given the problems that we all now have in accessing the electoral register because of the Data Protection Act 1998, has the hon. Gentleman done any work to find out whether it is right to have a register that can be made accessible in that way? He may wish to question the Minister on that.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is right in that I cannot answer his question; the Minister can. Certainly, I have not done further work on that. We had a rolling marked register in South Somerset district council when we fought the district council elections this year. There is no problem in the perception of some returning officers, but some feel that there is a difficulty, so we need leadership from the Government to make the position absolutely clear.

I am keen to make further progress with the Bill, so I shall not detain the Committee much longer. I agree with the point that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath made on amendment No. 2 about the need for a place where people can personally put their ballot paper into the safe keeping of the returning officer. That is a good safeguard. I cannot relate that to his amendment No. 2 in any way, which is my difficulty. It seems to me that amendment No. 2 would prevent a postal ballot from taking place. I accept that the hon. Gentleman said that it was a probing amendment, but it seems to probe in the wrong place. Perhaps he can explain it.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Perhaps it is my fault that I did not make myself clear. I made two points. One was that I felt that the wording of subsection 3(a) was not clear. I thought that the Minister could explain it, but that it needed help from the Plain English Campaign. Separately, I said that one of my concerns is the need for people to be able to vote in person if they wish. Perhaps that could be included when the Minister clarifies what I do not understand in subsection (3)(a). Those are two separate points; I am not suggesting that one leads to the other.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has succeeded in smuggling his point past your watchful eyes, Mr. Cook. I hope that the Minister will have the opportunity to reply, and the sooner the better, so I shall sit down.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

With respect to amendment No. 50, I am grateful to have permission from my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath to agree with the Liberal Democrats. I apologise to him for the previous occasion. I believe that that amendment is right, and on this occasion I might be voting with him.

It makes sense to me to provide that information. I am sure that there will not be any insurmountable difficulty as far as electoral law and data protection are concerned. At the moment it is possible to make marked registers available for a one-day election, so I do not see why that should not be possible for a two-day election. Presumably, modern technology makes it possible to do that within the time scale, rather than having a boring paper-and-pencil exercise, which is what seems to happen at the moment. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on amendment No. 50. If Labour Members on the Floor of the House expressed support for that and they are here today, I hope that they will have the courage of their convictions and vote for what they believe to be right, irrespective of what the usual channels might do to people who get up to such antics.

Nevertheless, I am very supportive of amendment No. 2 and I would like to take the matter one stage further. There are some issues beyond those that have been spoken about by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath. It is more than a question of plain English or legal gobbledegook. Subsection 3(a) states that polling may take place on more than one day. I am assuming that that is not meant to cover the point that one can post a postal ballot on any day one likes and it will turn up at the town hall a day or so later—we do that at the moment. We do not need that provision for postal voting as we understand it.

During a general or local election, there is a specified day that is polling day, but people have no difficulty in posting their ballots ahead of that without any such provision. I am left to conclude that the purpose of subsection 3(a) is to provide for two polling days. The Government must justify that. During my 17 years in the House, it is been my good fortune—or misfortune, depending on how one looks at it—to do more than my fair share of electoral observation in other countries. Most of the places to which I have been sent were chosen by the Whips Office. If they send me to dangerous places with a one-way ticket they may get rid of me, but unfortunately for them and the Committee I have always come back.

My experience of places such as Cambodia, Angola and Bangladesh tells me that there are powerful reasons why it is necessary to have voting on more than one day. Those reasons relate to access to villages, transport and the difficulties of moving around in countries that are physically or politically dangerous, or where terrorism is a worry. However, in my experience, the reasons given elsewhere in the world for allowing voting on more than one day do not apply here. Are we being told that we need to have polling on more than one day because it is dangerous or difficult to get to the polling station, or that public or private transport is such that some people can manage one day but not the other?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman allows me to respond, I will be happy to clarify his concerns.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Yes, I am happy to give way. However, if he thinks that that is a way to short-circuit what I have to say, he will be disappointed. When he does try to clarify that point, I am sure that he will give way if what I hear does not meet my concern.

My other concern is again more than a pedantic matter of wording. Subsection (3) states:

''the pilot order may make provision for voting to take place . . . on more than one day (whether or not each of the days is a day appointed as a day of the poll)''.

That is extraordinary. Either it is a day when one can vote or it is not. Sensible people will think that the day on which one votes is a polling day. That is what it means: a polling day is the day to vote. How on earth can we have a provision that says that we can vote on more than one day—I need to be persuaded about that—but that one of those days might not be the polling day? That is extraordinary. How can anyone vote on a day that is not a polling day? By definition, a day on which one is allowed to vote is a polling day.

The Minister needs to explain what on earth that bit of legal jargon means, and why it is necessary. If he is going to designate various days as days on which one can vote, surely to goodness he must say that they are polling days? I would be interested in the answer.

A third point concerns me. If the Minister cannot satisfy me, I hope to persuade my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath to return to the matter on Report. We have no control over our polling organisations, and on balance, I do not want to have control. However, if we are going to go down this route, I think that we should have control.

On a number of occasions, when standing as a candidate in a general election, one of the opinion poll companies has chosen what I would describe as the most untypical little polling station in my constituency to do an exit poll. It turns up in the morning at a polling station that has a relatively small electorate and where people do not usually turn out in big numbers until the evening. Whenever I go there to thank the staff, I bump into the people from the polling organisation. They are always able to tell me before lunch what the result will be—not only the result in that polling station, but in my constituency and in the country. They get it spot on each time. I was delighted to see them when I was getting 20,000 majorities, but when they starting telling me that my majority was down to about 3,000, I wished that I had not gone there. They were always right.

If we are to have voting on more than one day, and the pollsters set to work on those who vote on the first day, they can say at the end of the first day what has happened—

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Order. I have been worried for some time that the hon. Member is becoming repetitive. There is no doubt in my mind now. I remind the Committee that we are discussing elections, not exit polls. Is that clear?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Yes. The only relevance of exit polls to the election is that, if the Government wish to persist with subsection (3)(a), they will need to introduce some means of ensuring that the information that pollsters obtain on day one is not published at the end of that day. Otherwise, that knowledge could influence those voting on the second day; it may even cause them to decide that there was no point in bothering to vote. That would be counterproductive. It is a genuine problem, and I would be interested to know whether the Minister has addressed it and, if so, what he suggests we do to ensure that over two days we do not undermine the very things that we want to encourage—better turnout and better democracy.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North 4:15 pm, 30th October 2003

Order. The hon. Member has made his point.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I will be very brief and not repetitive.

I want to comment on the need to include in the Bill the requirement for a marked register. There are compelling arguments for it, but I am concerned that it is to be left to the discretion of regional returning officers. We would see different practices in different regions, or even different practices between sub-regional electoral officers in which case we would see different practices within the same region. Given that there are strong arguments for a marked register, the only way to make that clear would be to include such a provision in the Bill.

We did not have a pilot in my constituency, but the electoral officer decided to innovate by sending out applications for postal votes with polling cards. The result was a very high turnout. In one polling district, it was 70 per cent. Obviously, there was no marked register, so it was incredibly difficult to manage the election and people had a surfeit of paper. If we move to all-postal voting, it is essential to make it clear to those involved in the running of the election that a rolling marked register must be available.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

These are separate issues. I will deal with amendment No. 2 first. All-postal voting changes the conventions of ordinary polling at polling stations. It changes their fixed hours in one day and how returning officers prevent double voting by keeping a marked register. Postal voting requires the dispatch of ballot papers in time for voters to receive, consider and return them, which is a process that takes more than one day. That is why we have made provision in clause 2(3)(a) to allow the latitude and scope for voting to take place on more than one day. If the whole process of dispatching and returning ballot papers were to take place on one day, it would not allow postal voting to take place. That is the long and the short of it.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked for reassurance that, on the main polling day, voters could cast or drop off their ballot papers. Where we have all-postal voting, that will be the case. There will be staffed delivery points rather than polling stations and there will obviously be fewer of them. We intend to combine local and European elections on 10 June, which is a Thursday and in line with the British tradition of polling on a Thursday. We cannot be absolutely certain about that date because a European order is required for a window in which to hold the European parliamentary elections. Once we are certain of the date, we will announce it formally.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am grateful to the Minister. As usual, he has addressed the point very seriously. Between now and Report, will he and his advisers at least consider an amendment to the Bill that includes the guarantee that he has just made? Will he consider whether that might be done in order to reinforce what he has just said?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My understanding is that such matters are normally put into the legislative framework through the order-making process. Provision is therefore likely to be in that secondary legislation, but I shall certainly go back and see at which level it might be put in place. However, I understand the concern to create an opportunity, although not necessarily as easy as going to the polling station at the end of the street that some people have been used to in conventional polling. Keeping the same number of polling stations would not only be a little expensive, but would negate slightly the purpose of all-postal voting.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

May I raise with the Minister another serious point for him to consider? Last year, the elections to Guildford district council area, which covers about 35,000 electors in part of my constituency, were an all-postal pilot. When that happened, retired voters and pensioners in particular said, ''But we like going down to the polling station.'' It is partly for that reason that I wanted the reassurance that the Minister has now given me. However, does he recognise that we will not wholly reassure some of those retired voters by just saying, ''There will be a place.''? They want the opportunity of voting in the traditional polling station. The danger is that the Minister might increase the turnout from a section of the population that has not previously voted at all, but deter some of the elderly from voting. That is the risk that the Government run.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

In my experience, the elderly have a propensity to appreciate postal voting more than conventional voting, because there is less need to travel, and so forth.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) seemed to be under the misapprehension that the subsection on voting on more than one day might somehow lead to polling organisations exploiting an opportunity. I assure him that polling companies are already prevented from publishing exit poll results in advance of the closure of polling by section 66 of Representation of the People Act 1983. That has been the legislation for some time, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at it again if he should be approached with early results the next time he visits the polling station that he mentioned.

In respect of amendment No. 50, we now know that it echoes the view of many across the House, including the three main parties and the Scottish National party, that making a marked register available on a rolling day-to-day basis would be preferable, particularly in an all-postal election. I can certainly appreciate and sympathise with the sentiments expressed. Marked registers are a helpful tool, not only for the returning officer, but for campaigning political parties, because they help to prevent voters who have perhaps already voted from being contacted. Marked registers are an ecological measure, in that they prevent wasted paper from going where it should not, and there are many other potential advantages to making them available. They can also prevent double counting and fraud, but there are points on both sides of the argument that need further consideration.

In February 2002, the Government published a consultation paper on recording a return of postal ballot papers, and the responses were evenly split. The Electoral Commission has subsequently considered the question and has yet to draw its own conclusion on both the wider issue of the existing provision of marked registers and the emerging question of whether they could be issued for postal voting.

I have an open mind on the issue. It has been helpful to hear the enthusiasm of all the parties represented in the Committee for making an all-postal marked register available. Nevertheless, amendment No. 50 slightly pre-empts both the Government's consideration of the issue and the Electoral Commission's conclusions, and further issues need to be investigated. Some people have concerns about human rights implications in relation to voter privacy, but I do not say whether I agree or disagree with them. However it would be interesting to hear whether other parties view such issues as substantive. I am sure that other hon. Members would like an opportunity to revisit the debate in future stages of the Bill, but it is helpful to hear the opinions of other parties.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am most grateful to the Minister for the positive response, in broad terms, that he has given to my suggestion. The difficulty is the compressed time scale of the consideration of the Bill. That is extremely important for many of us in the elected House. It would be wrong for the Bill to leave the elected House without a provision of the kind in the amendment. I therefore urge the Minister to conclude the consultation process and any other investigations that the Electoral Commission is undertaking so that an amendment can be tabled, ideally by the Government, on Report. Otherwise, an amendment must come from us, and we will divide on it.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He is pressing fairly strongly for the matter to be addressed. I urge my hon. Friends to resist this particular amendment at this time. I have no doubt that we will return to the matter and I will undertake to talk with officials and see what progress might be made. There are detailed issues on either side of the argument, but it is helpful to hear the views of all parties. I hope that hon. Members will not press their amendments.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Clearly, we need to debate this matter on Report, and we will probably need to divide on it if there is a difference of opinion, which I hope that there will not be. I would not press amendment No. 50 to a vote today, even if I were given an opportunity to do so, because of what the Minister said. However, we will return to the matter on Report.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I echo entirely what the hon. Gentleman has said. The Conservatives are grateful to the Minister for his comments, but I stress that I agree that the Government need to table an amendment, in whatever form, on Report in the elected House. We will certainly confer with the hon. Gentleman to come up with mutually agreed wording—it might be slightly different from that proposed in amendment No. 50, but it will be to the same effect—unless the Government pretty swiftly notify us, the Scottish nationalists and their own Back Benchers, who obviously feel strongly about the matter, of their own proposals. I know that the Minister has got the point, so I shall not labour it.

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation in relation to our amendment No. 2. There is certainly an issue, particularly in relation to the exit poll to which my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne referred. We might want to return to that. I will go away and look at section 66 of the 1983 Act, to which the Minister helpfully referred. We have seen some of the problems in other countries—albeit countries bigger than the UK. In American elections, polling organisations sometimes start reporting on the way in which people have voted on one side of the country even before the polls have opened on the other side, because of the vast differences in the time zones. That has been thought to influence people's voting behaviour.

My hon. Friend is on to a good point, but we need to consider the current legislation and then reconsider the Minister's explanation of subsection (3)(a) and how it will affect matters, and whether the provision might need amending. I will reserve our position while we go away and do that research, with the help of the Library and others. Perhaps we can return to the issue on Report.

When the Minister considers whether paragraph (a) needs further clarification, will he write to me and other members of the Committee with his conclusions as early as possible? He has helpfully undertaken to consider whether the provision needs clarification, as he did in relation to an earlier provision when we were talking about ''Yes, Minister'' drafting this morning, so I encourage him to get back to me at the earliest opportunity with his thoughts. I would be grateful for that. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in

clause 2, page 2, line 13, leave out from 'poll)' to end of line 14.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 4, in

clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—

'(3A) Before including in a pilot order provisions for voting at places other than polling stations, the Secretary of State must consult all affected local authorities, and must not make such an order about a place in a local authority area if the local authority affected objects to it.'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 4:30 pm, 30th October 2003

We have tabled two alternative amendments. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. He and I came up with alternate variants and frankly we would not mind which of the two appeals to the Government—I hope that one of them will. Amendment No. 3 would delete the provision relating to voting

''at places other than polling stations.''

The Minister referred obliquely to having collection centres, or something of that ilk, rather than polling stations, when he responded to my interventions in the previous debate. Perhaps he can expand on his explanation. We are concerned because, as I said on Second Reading, Conservative Members always want to ensure that an element of dignity and solemnity is retained in elections. They are important. All schoolchildren are taught, as we were, about their importance, and there are, tragically, still many places in the world in which people are fighting and dying for the right to vote. There are too many places with appalling dictatorships, where people do not have the right to vote. We are lucky in this country; people often take the right for granted, and I worry that the Government's obsession with so-called modernisation sometimes demeans it.

We shall come back to some of the Government's proposals—such as e-voting—that are strongly opposed by the Electoral Reform Society, by us and by others. This is not the point at which to debate them. I worry that the Government's proposed measures might damage people's respect for elections. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart, who is not with us at this moment but who has made a number of very constructive contributions, shares my concern about the way that, in particular, the media have demeaned the standing of politics, politicians, Parliament and elections in the eyes of ordinary voters. I am sure that that has played a significant part in the much lower turnout at the last general election and the increasingly small turnouts in local elections.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East that there are different reasons why people do not bother to turn out and vote in significant numbers in European elections. He and I might differ over Scotland, although I speak as somebody who is a quarter Scot, but I have no doubt that we are in complete agreement about the European Union and many matters connected with it.

I hope that the Government will provide clarification on that issue, but I now turn to the alternative—amendment No. 4. I made it clear that we are proposing two alternatives. If the Government insist, for reasons that the Minister will no doubt explain, that there should be places other than polling stations—the collection centres, perhaps—which will not be as numerous as polling stations, the local authorities must be consulted and must approve all the other places. Surely that is sensible. Some buildings would not be suitable or consistent with the idea of an election. I am reminded of some of the problems that I have encountered when other buildings have been considered for official purposes.

I hope that I shall not be out of order if I give a quick example of another kind of building proposed by a Government for official use, albeit nothing to do with an election. I remember vividly when, at the time of the Conservative Government, it was proposed that quite a substantial building should be used as a probation hostel. The problem was that it was right next to a kindergarten and the probation service proposed to put sex offenders into the hostel. The proposal had to be withdrawn.

Sometimes decisions are made nationally because the bureaucrats in Whitehall do not understand local sensitivities and do not grasp why a particular building would not be suitable. The people who understand the significance of particular buildings in a town or village are the local authority officials and the councillors. That is why we tabled our alternative, amendment No. 4, which says that if another building is going to be used, there should be consultation with local councillors and council officers who will know what is appropriate.

Even if amendment No. 3 does not appeal to the Government, amendment No. 4 might. I am looking to the Minister for an assurance that he will, at least, consider it as a serious alternative. It might be a genuine improvement to the Bill. I hope that he will consider it in the constructive spirit in which it is intended and that he will at least assure us that he will talk to his officials and advisers and, perhaps, propose a revised version. I do not have huge faith in my precise wording—there might be some defect in the drafting—but if the Minister is prepared to undertake to consider the problem for the reasons that I have indicated, I shall be very grateful. This is a genuine attempt to improve the Bill, as Committees are supposed to do.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am genuinely puzzled by the amendments. I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said, but his first amendment seems to undermine an earlier argument, which he advanced quite properly, that there should be places for the collection of postal votes other than the postbox, so that people who want to deliver their vote in person to the town hall or wherever, or who have missed the boat for postal delivery, or who are experiencing difficulties with postal collections, have a place to go to that is not a polling station by definition but is a point of collection for the postal vote in the context of an all-postal vote. It is entirely proper and sensible for the pilot order to provide for such places. If there were not, I would complain that there should be.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The hon. Gentleman did not quite understand the point that I made on my intervention. I used the example of the Guildford part of my constituency. When the ballot was all-postal, some of my elderly constituents wanted to go to their traditional polling station. I am not undermining my argument, but suggesting that we should consider having polling stations, as we have traditionally had, as well as having postal votes. I entirely agree that there should always be somewhere to go to, but it might be better to have polling stations rather than just collection points. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that our probing amendment undermines what I said earlier.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It simply does not make sense to have polling stations as well in an all-postal ballot.

On the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about amendment No. 4, surely we do not expect the Government to prescribe in an order every point of collection throughout all three regions and to determine that from on high. If the Government propose that, we really will be a long time reading the orders. It is a matter for local returning officers to determine the appropriate sites. They are the borough council officials and the district council officials of whom he speaks. They do not need a veto because they will propose the places that satisfy the conditions that the Government will set out in the pilot order.

I cannot support the hon. Gentleman's amendments, which would have a retrograde effect on the Bill.

Debate adjourned.—[Ms Prentice.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Five o'clock till Tuesday 4 November at Nine o'clock.