HC Deb 30 November 1999 vol 340 cc160-252

[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 1997–98, on Electoral Law and Administration (HC 768), and the Government response published in the Committee's Fourth Special Report, Session 1998–99, (HC 856).]

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Speaker

I should inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.2 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It gives me great pleasure to bring before the House this Bill, which aims to modernise our electoral procedures. Much of our electoral legislation dates from the 19th century. The Bill will help to ensure that the procedures are suitable for the next century.

Let me tell the House something about the genesis of the Bill. Following every general election, the Home Office carries out a review to see what, in terms of electoral processes, went well and what could be improved. Previously, that has been purely an administrative exercise, but, following the 1997 general election, I decided that something more fundamental was needed.

Accordingly, I invited my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), then the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, to chair a working party to review all our electoral arrangements and to produce recommendations which will lead to more open and fairer electoral procedures, command the trust of the electorate and contribute to the democratic renewal of the United Kingdom. The working party on electoral procedures, or the Howarth working party as it came to be known, included representatives of all the principal political parties, electoral administrators and representatives of local government. I am pleased to say that the working party was able to proceed by consensus and that, with a single exception, all its recommendations were agreed unanimously by all the representatives, including those of the three political parties. I hope that a similar spirit of co-operation will characterise our deliberations over the Bill. Electoral law is so fundamental to our democracy that changes to it should, wherever possible, proceed by consensus.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

How can we take the Home Secretary seriously on that point when we warned him that the system of election for the European Parliament that he was introducing would lead to an abysmal turnout? We were right. He ignored that advice, despite the measure being sent back from the Lords on numerous occasions, and we saw the lowest-ever turnout. How can we take the Government seriously about the turnout at local elections?

Mr. Straw

The Bill deals with the procedures for elections, which include the way in which we draw up the register, the way in which people are able to cast their vote, arrangements for absent voting, the positioning of polling stations and matters relating to eligibility for voting. There is a difference between those issues and questions relating to electoral systems, which, as the hon. Gentleman and others will recall, we debated on six occasions. When I woke up this morning and heard reference to the d'Hondt system, I thought that I had gone back to a year ago. I am pleased to learn that d'Hondt's fine work last century has been put to even better effect in the arrangements for Northern Ireland than in the arrangements for the European elections.

It is difficult to argue that the changes to the voting system for the European elections led to an increase in turnout. I do not argue that. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to argue that a first-past-the-post system automatically leads to high turnouts. The by-elections at Leeds, Central and at Kensington and Chelsea—safe seats for Labour and the Conservatives respectively—had turnouts below 30 per cent.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw

I will always, without exception, give way to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am deeply honoured that my right hon. Friend should be so kind, and I am very humble. Why does he not change back to the old first-past-the-post system for European elections to see whether that produces the result that we want?

Mr. Straw

I am not a one-Member Parliament. We live in a democracy. It is for humble Ministers such as me merely to make propositions and for this House and the other place to dispose of them. As I told the House during the passage of last year's Bill, we are reviewing the working of the system used for the European elections, and a report will be produced in due course.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

When the right hon. Gentleman analyses those statistics, it might be useful for him to look back to the European by-election in North-East Scotland, which took place just over six months before the European elections. That was conducted under the first-past-the-post system and the turnout was about the same.

Mr. Straw

I accept that point, which I was trying to make. Some people suggested that the change in the system for the European election would lead to an increase in turnout. I do not think that it is possible to argue that any more. I have never believed that the differences in turnout between us and continental countries are principally to do with the electoral system. They are to do with other factors.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, while it may seem attractive in principle to impose restrictions on the commercial use of the electoral register, the danger of clause 9 as it stands is that individuals who are excluded from that commercially available register, albeit by their choice, might find it difficult to obtain credit, as credit reference searches will be unable to locate them?

Mr. Straw

I shall come to that point. If the hon. Gentleman has more questions when I get to it, I shall give way again.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the system used in the European elections served one useful purpose of which we should take note? It taught us that under no circumstances should such a system be used for elections to this House. We have learned a very good lesson and I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees with it.

Mr. Straw

That is a persuasive point that needs to be borne in mind. The argument in favour of proportional representation for Westminster seems to be pursued with slightly less evangelism than before. I am not clear why that is the case.

The Howarth working party delivered its final report to me in October. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East and to all members of his working party for the thorough, informed and positive report that they have produced.

It may be helpful if I deal with the so-called reasoned amendment, tabled by the Opposition. It states that the House should decline to give a Second Reading to the Bill because the Government has failed to undertake a sufficiently comprehensive public consultation on such important and far-reaching changes to the conduct of elections and the publication of electoral registers". The amendment claims also that.

Members of this House have had no time in which to consult with local authorities and interested parties in their constituencies". This is one of the most disingenuous reasoned amendments that I have seen for a long time.

It may be helpful if I set out the extent to which we have engaged in consultation—not embarked on it—not only with the public, but with the Opposition. The working party, established in 1997, included a representative of the Conservative party, and that representative worked, and co-operated, with the working party.

In July 1998, the working party produced an interim report—which I published—which set out the provisional lines along which it was going and included most, although not all, of the issues raised in the final working party report. These included: rolling registration; disabled access to electoral procedures; electoral forms management; absent voting procedures; registration of parties; returning officers' fees and charges; broadcasting issues; and responses to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions consultation paper "Local Democracy and Community Leadership".

The report went on to explain other changes that the working party was to introduce, including a rolling electoral registration system; polling aides for the disabled; pilot schemes for voting anywhere in an electoral area; mobile voting; early voting; changes to voting hours and days; all-postal ballots and electronic voting.

Almost every issue in the final report was flagged up in the interim report. In addition, I remind the Conservative party that, alongside the Howarth working party, the Select Committee on Home Affairs sat at about the same time and held its own inquiry into electoral procedures. The Select Committee reported in September 1998, and its report has been available for public consultation ever since.

Conservative Front Benchers seem to have the most extraordinarily short memories. That may be because they keep changing—I am now on my fourth shadow Home Secretary in less than two and a half years. Written evidence was put into the Select Committee report, which went through a wide variety of issues—exactly those that are before the House today. In addition, the noble Lord Parkinson, of blessed memory, who was at the time the Conservative party chairman—

Mr. Bercow

A great man.

Mr. Straw

A very great man. Greater love hath no man for his party than to chair the Conservative party in the wake of its historic defeat in 1997 and still keep cheerful.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

And its great victory in 1983.

Mr. Straw

I pay tribute to that historic victory in 1983, from which we learned something. Lord Parkinson gave oral evidence to the Committee. For the fourth-time-around Conservative Front Benchers now to say that we have not entered into public consultation on the issue is simply nonsense.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

On the subject of consultation, and further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), is it not the case that the working party did not include any representatives from the commercial or charitable sectors and that the problems raised by my hon. Friend would probably not have occurred had such representatives been consulted? Is it not the case that all those sectors were allowed to do was to make written representations?

Mr. Straw

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has asked me that question, because I was about to point out that, on the issue of the sale of the register, which is unquestionably one of the more contentious matters—but on which the Conservatives' representative agreed with the recommendations of the working party's report, which were the subject of considerable deliberation—the working party published a consultation paper in summer 1998 and invited representations on it. The working party received representations from the credit companies and other commercial interests, together with 90 letters written in response to a campaign run by the Daily Express against the free sale of the complete electoral register. No one can seriously argue that the possibility that changes would be made in the arrangements for the sale of the register were not fully the subject of public debate more than 15 months ago.

Mr. Bercow

The Home Secretary is not universally renowned for his competence, but he is known for his unfailing charm and courtesy. Therefore, within the privacy of the Chamber, I wish to ask him a simple question. Will he agree to a request from the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, which comprises 300 member companies and a spend of more than £3 billion on media advertising, to a meeting at which it can air its concerns and release him from his state of ignorance on this important issue?

Mr. Straw

I take the half-compliment that the hon. Gentleman paid me in the spirit in which it was made. He is under a misapprehension, because it is not that I am in a state of ignorance but simply that I take a position with which he disagrees. The two are different, but it is the error of mistaking disagreement for ignorance that led the Conservatives to the historic defeat of which we spoke a moment ago.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the influence of Professor Bernard Crick's advisory group on education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy, which shows the importance of consultation. The group's report showed the need for change to re-engage young people, and there is no better example of the need for the changes proposed in the Bill.

Mr. Straw

Before I deal with my hon. Friend's point, I wish to answer the direct question put by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I cannot give an undertaking to the organisation to which he referred that I will be able to meet its representatives, but my hon. Friend the Minister has already met representatives of several commercial groups and will be available to meet those of that organisation, should we receive a request from it.

I shall now summarise for the House what the Bill contains but, before I do so, I shall just mention what is not in it. Hon. Members will be aware that there will be another piece of electoral legislation this Session—the political parties, elections and referendums Bill. That Bill will give effect to the Neill committee recommendations on party funding and, very importantly, create an electoral commission. A draft Bill for that was published in July.

The working party recommended legislative changes in three main areas—electoral registration, absent voting and pilot schemes—that are covered in the Bill before us today, and I will deal with them in turn. Much of our legislation governing electoral registration dates from the end of the first world war and while, in general, it has served us well, it no longer reflects the needs of modern society. The rules were drawn up when only a minority of the adult population were eligible to be registered and when, for the most part, people lived in one place for most, if not the whole, of their lives.

We now have a very mobile population with up to a tenth of people moving house in any one year. It is plainly absurd that someone who moves to a new address just after the 10 October qualifying date has to wait 16 months—until February of the year after the next year—before being able to vote in respect of their new address. That can only have a harmful effect on turnout. People are prevented from voting for the local authority in the area where they live and have little interest in voting for the local authority in the place where they no longer live.

That is why, on the working party's recommendation, we are introducing a system of rolling electoral registration. This will allow the register to be updated constantly, so that people can be added to the register and deleted from it as soon as they move. The aim is to ensure that not more than about six weeks elapse between the date when people move and inform the electoral registration officer of their move and their inclusion on the register.

There will still need to be an annual canvass and safeguards to ensure that nobody is disfranchised by being left off the register. That change should ensure that every future election is conducted using a much more up-to-date register. I hope that the whole House will welcome this measure.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

We certainly welcome it, and pay tribute to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who has, rightly, pressed this case for many years.

Will the Home Secretary consider a proposition that relates specifically to the proposed annual registration period? There is a good biblical precedent for the date of the census being one that people are reminded of publicly. A census is taken every 10 years; will the right hon. Gentleman consider having a co-ordinated national strategy for advertising annually the desirability and opportunity of registration? This happens locally, and there is some advertising, but as it is a bit piecemeal and half cocked, it does not often achieve its objective.

Mr. Straw

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). If he had not talked about the need for a rolling register for so long, and with such cogency, this proposal might not now be before the House.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point that publicity arrangements have not been particularly well co-ordinated. It is not passing the buck to say that we will look at the matter before the electoral commission is established but, once it is established, one of its important functions will be to upgrade the way in which the opportunities to vote, and therefore to register, are drawn to people's attention.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Will the Home Secretary take this opportunity to apologise to those hereditary peers who were thrown out in the other place and disfranchised in the recent by-election in Kensington and Chelsea, given that the right hon. Gentleman gave an assurance in the House that they would have the right to vote?

Mr. Straw

I am not going to apologise for that. We are trying to have a serious discussion about electoral registration. It did not seem to make a huge amount of difference to the result.

Mr. Fraser

That is not the point.

Mr. Straw

It would have been the point if it had done—the hon. Gentleman can rest assured of that. We considered very carefully whether it was possible to introduce the arrangements in time, and it was not. That was the only reason.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Straw

I wish to make some progress, and I will give way later.

The Bill will also make it easier for the homeless, remand prisoners, mental patients—other than those detained as a consequence of criminal activity—and service personnel to register. All such people are entitled to vote, but our rigid and cumbersome registration rules can make it difficult for them to register. That is an important point to bear in mind.

Partly to overcome that, the Bill introduces a new concept, a "declaration of local connection", which will enable people to register in respect of an address with which they have a connection. Remand prisoners and mental patients will also be permitted to register in respect of the address where they would otherwise be living.

I know that the Conservative representative on the working party had reservations about the proposals for the homeless. That was the only one of the working party's representations that did not secure unanimous support. I do not believe that our approach will lead to electoral fraud or to improper registration. I am sure that we will discuss this in greater detail in Committee, and hope that we can find a solution that will be acceptable to all parties. I did note that, in the Conservative party's written evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the idea of allowing homeless people to register was not ruled out altogether. Instead, the suggestion was that, to ensure that homeless people were not deprived of their right to vote, pilot schemes should be tested in a number of areas.

From that, I take it that no huge issue of principle exists between the Conservative party and other parties about whether homeless people should be entitled to vote, and that the issue is one of practicality and the avoidance of fraud. I hope that that matter can be considered in Committee.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Does the Home Secretary accept the working party's view that the proposal could be open to abuse? Is he satisfied that the Bill is strong enough to deal with potential abuse, or is he saying that he will welcome amendments to strengthen the likelihood that there will be no abuse of the provision?

Mr. Straw

I have never come to the House to say that a proposal in a Bill is the last word and is not capable of being improved. I do not do so now. As I said, no issue of principle exists between the parties. The question is whether the safeguards will work. Parliament would not be doing its job if such questions were not examined in great detail. If the Opposition table amendments to strengthen the Bill, we will be happy to consider them.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I am sure that the Home Secretary will agree that the principle of trying to extend the franchise and of ensuring that it reaches homeless people unites both sides of the House. However, evidence that is more than anecdotal suggests that personation takes place with regard to people who, for example, are temporarily resident in hostels. We are worried about the difficulty that might arise if the franchise were extended to the homeless, not about the principle behind the Government's desire to ensure that everyone entitled to a vote has one. I am sure that all parties share that aim.

Mr. Straw

I understand that. There is a separate problem of personation in respect of people residing in hostels, and of some other people. The working party made no recommendation that proxy voting be facilitated, but the Bill proposes to facilitate postal voting, which offers fewer opportunities for fraud.

Mr. Fabricant

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his generosity in giving way to me a second time. He mentioned earlier that 10 per cent. of the voting population is in the process of moving home at any one time. By a rough calculation, I estimate that that proportion amounts to about 4 million voters. How would the right hon. Gentleman convince the House that multiple voting or personation would not take place as a result of so many registrations being made over such a short period?

Mr. Straw

There is every opportunity for multiple voting at present.

Mr. Fabricant

Will not the Bill make that worse?

Mr. Straw

I do not think so. Multiple voting is a dangerous practice, as the chances of being caught are fairly high.

Mr. Fabricant

Two areas are involved.

Mr. Straw

I am aware of that, but the same person has to be on the register in both areas. Moreover, that person—or someone personating him or her—then has to go and vote. A further criminal offence would be committed if that person voted on behalf of someone else.

Many people are registered in two places at once, including most Members of Parliament. I know that we are honourable, but I want to answer the question seriously. I am not aware of any serious suggestion—or evidence—that the fact that people can be registered in two places at once has led them to commit the abuse of voting in two places at once.

I do not believe that the rolling register changes will produce the abuse that has been suggested by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). If he wants to make suggestions to improve the process, he should table amendments in Committee.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

The Home Secretary is right to say that various people are able to register in two places, including Members of Parliament and students. What sort of cross-checking is done after an election to determine whether a person has voted in two different places?

Mr. Straw

I personally have not entered into any such cross-checking. Like all hon. Members, I am aware of concerns about personation in respect of proxy votes in certain constituencies and council wards. Generally, if there is some abuse, we become aware of it. I am not aware of problems with people being registered at two different addresses and voting twice.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the recommendation of the working party, which was agreed unanimously—including by the Conservative representative—that the full electoral register should no longer be made available for general sale and use.

As the law stands, anyone may buy a copy of the electoral register for any purpose. The Home Office and electoral administrators receive more complaints about that than any other subject. People are unhappy about the large amount of unsolicited mail—junk mail—from companies that have obtained their details from the electoral register.

Perhaps more worryingly, the advent of powerful CD-Roms compiled from the electoral register, which allow for searching by name, means for example that abusive spouses can trace their former partners with considerable ease using a single CD-Rom. People who feel threatened in that way may simply not dare to register.

All of that, together with the requirements of the European Union data protection directive, which was signed and agreed by the previous Administration and, generally, of the right to privacy, led the working party to conclude that it was wrong that people should be under a statutory obligation to provide their details for electoral registration purposes and then have no say about whether that information could be used for other unrelated purposes.

The working party recommended that there should be a box on the electoral registration form and people should be given the right to opt out of having their names included in the register that is for sale. In effect, there would be two versions of the register: a full one, which could be used for electoral purposes and would also be available for law enforcement purposes; and, an edited version, which would be for sale and would contain only the names of those who had not opted to be excluded from it. Clause 9 allows for regulations for that purpose to be made.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)


Mr. Straw

I will continue if I may, as I have given way a great deal.

At the same time, we are conscious that the banking and finance industries make extensive use of the electoral register for money laundering and identity checks and that it is also an important factor in deciding who should be granted credit. In drawing up the regulations, we shall clearly need to balance the needs of those industries with privacy and data protection concerns.

I can, of course, assure the House that a full regulatory impact assessment will be made to accompany those regulations. We will also be able to discuss that in more detail in Committee.

Mr. Robathan

There is also the question of security. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned abusive spouses, but many people do not want their names on the register for other reasons. Indeed, as he will be aware, some hon. Members do not want to be on it because of terrorism. Under the proposed arrangement, will it be possible for anyone to gain access to the register without buying it? I see that there is some mention of people being able to study the register, so will they be able to study it at the town hall if they so wish?

Mr. Straw

Yes, that would be possible. There is no perfect balance in these matters. The full register, which is published for electoral purposes, would be available in town halls. Moreover, as would be expected, we plan to make the full register available to political parties—we are bound to. Therefore, the full text will be available. At the same time, our proposal—subject to the House agreeing the Bill and, later, the regulations—is that the full register should not be commercially available for sale, and that is right and proper.

We are seeking to square the circle, by ensuring that full copies of the register are available to banks to check on money laundering and to credit rating agencies so that they can check whether people are living at the address that they claim.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

I will make progress, as many hon. Members wish to speak.

On absent vote arrangements, again much of the thinking that underpins our procedures dates back to a different age, when it was reasonable to assume that every registered voter would be in the constituency on polling day and, apart from the physically infirm, would be able to get to the polling station in person. That may have been possible before the war, but in the busy, mobile society of today, that clearly is not the case. We have all noted, when on the doorstep, the fact that a high proportion of people are away on the day of an election, and have not been able to make arrangements for an absent vote. Our absent vote arrangements should reflect modern reality—currently, they do not do so.

Following the recommendations of the working party, the Bill offers proposals for the modernisation of absent vote arrangements. It makes it possible for people to apply for an absent vote for a defined period; that should be of use to someone who, for example, takes up a three-year posting involving much travel.

The working party made several recommendations in relation to postal votes that we intend to adopt. As I pointed out earlier, I refer only to postal votes—not to proxy votes, where we are concerned about the potential for malpractice. The Bill will allow for postal votes on demand. Anyone who wants a postal vote will be able to receive one, without having to satisfy any particular criteria.

We intend to simplify the rules governing the issue and return of postal ballot papers. As someone who has a postal ballot, even I sometimes find it a challenge to decide into which envelope I should put which bit of paper. Some of my hon. Friends may find that task easier—[Interruption.] However, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) —the intelligence and perspicacity of Whips goes before them—tells me that the matter is complicated. It should not be complicated, but it is—the forms look as though they have not been redesigned for 60 or 70 years. If the process is irritating—the modern phrase is challenging—for Members of the House, we should realise how much more difficult it is for someone who is not used to such form filling or whose eyesight is not good. People become muddled and confused. At every general election, some postal votes are disqualified because the forms have been put into the wrong envelopes, or because some other minor error has been made. We intend to simplify the rules for the physical process of the postal ballot.

This is a good opportunity to mention one group of absent voters—those registered as overseas electors. Schedule 2 replaces the existing provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1985 that provide for the registration of overseas electors. However, the only changes to be made are those required to reflect the fact that, with the introduction of rolling electoral registration, there will no longer be a single annual qualifying date. Accordingly, the new measures retain the existing provision that a person may be registered as an overseas elector for up to 20 years after leaving the United Kingdom.

I am well aware of the fact that some people think that the period should be reduced—not least the members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The Committee's fourth report on electoral law and administration contained the unanimous recommendation that we take the view that the twenty year maximum period within which a British citizen overseas may retain the right to vote is excessive and that the earlier limit—five years—should be restored. However, the Bill is intended to implement the recommendations of the Howarth working party and, as I pointed out earlier, the working party was agreed on all particulars except the practical issue of the registration of homeless people.

I want the Bill to go through the House with as great a consensus as possible, and as quickly and smoothly as possible. I point out to those of my hon. Friends who may want to table amendments on registration that there will be much more vigorous discussion of that matter when we introduce the political parties, elections and referendums Bill—parts of which will be more contentious than this Bill, not least because the issue of how long a person may remain on the register is obviously closely tied to that of who may make a donation to a political party. Amendments on that matter can be tabled to the political parties Bill. Meanwhile, as the 20-year arrangement was introduced in 1989 with all-party consensus, I hope that discussions can be held between the parties to determine whether there is a consensus for change. I do not say that the Government would proceed only if there were consensus, but I do say that, obviously, it would be better if there were.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when the overseas vote was first introduced, when I was shadow Home Secretary, it was not done at all on the basis of consensus? The Conservative Government imposed it on us. It was opposed—

Mr. Greenway

We have the Hansard report—the right hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Mr. Kaufman

I was shadow Home Secretary at the time. The hon. Gentleman does not need to tell me what I lived through. It was imposed, and the five-year period was incorporated only because I protested against the seven years.

The introduction of the 20-year period did not take place on the basis of consensus, either. The Conservatives wanted 25 years, and the Opposition managed to whittle them down. What we had was salami tactics in reverse. I simply do not understand why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not accept the amendments that I shall certainly move and, if necessary, press to a Division.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that.

Mr. Greenway

That will be helpful.

Mr. Straw

My right hon. Friend is always helpful—on this. I certainly do not think that the Bill is the appropriate vehicle for that change, because we want to get the Bill through as quickly as possible, and the Bill has the discrete purpose of giving effect to the proposals of the Howarth working party.

On the other changes that were made, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) mentioned, I have before me the report of the proceedings in July 1989, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling)—now Secretary of State for Social Security—moved an amendment to reduce the period from 25 years to 20 years. That was at a time when, I believe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton was not shadow Home Secretary but shadow Foreign Secretary. Those changes were made. As I said, if we can proceed by consensus, we will. If we cannot, the Government will consider the matter further.

I shall now discuss the working party's recommendations for pilot schemes. We all have pet theories as to what might improve turnouts, such as weekend voting, all-postal ballots, mobile polling stations, electronic voting and other wheezes. The simple truth is that none of us knows what, if anything, will make a difference. Therefore, the working party set great store by pilot schemes.

Under clause 10, local authorities will be able to apply to run pilot schemes of innovative electoral procedures.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

The Home Secretary is no doubt aware that one idea that does not increase voter turnout is mobile polling stations. He will be aware that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions conducted an experiment in my constituency in the London borough elections in 1998. It placed a mobile polling station in a polling district in Purley ward. In that polling district, turnout dropped from the highest to the lowest in the ward. [Interruption.]

Mr. Straw

I did not hear that quip, but it may have been on account of the candidates.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the innovative ideas require a national approach and significant investment in technology, and that local authorities, which would be required to cover the costs of pilot schemes, may not feel that they are a priority, given that they have to cover so many other areas—generous though the Government have been to local government on these issues? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue is so important that the Government must take a lead, by saying what they can do nationwide, and perhaps even by considering the use of national lottery terminals? That would benefit my constituency, where Camelot and GTech are based.

Mr. Straw

GTech also owns an important company in my constituency, so we have a joint interest in that matter.

A great many of these changes would not involve any great cost. Weekend voting would involve some additional overtime. All-postal ballots would not incur a huge cost. Mobile polling stations might work. There was great concern in my constituency when a mobile polling station was removed, because that left the area without a polling station, so turnout certainly decreased there.

On electronic voting, it is probable that the commercial firms that are interested in selling equipment and software to local authorities may wish to loan them as part of the pilots. As ever, resources are limited, and I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward) that we shall have to make hard choices. I dare say that, in the event, local authorities will not find that lack of resources is a huge impediment to running pilots if they decide to do so.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

The Home Secretary mentioned weekend voting. Will he elaborate on where the pilot schemes will take place? Will they be run by local authorities? He should be aware that, in many areas, especially in my constituency and in the highlands and islands, Sunday voting would not be welcomed. We must be careful of going down that road.

Mr. Straw

I am very conscious of that point. Piloting weekend voting will be a matter for local authorities. 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, including the one that the hon. Lady represents, who have strong feelings about the observance of the Sabbath. Sunday voting would not be acceptable to them. I understand the point that she makes.

I wish to make progress and to draw my remarks to a close. I have mentioned some of the ideas that could form the basis of pilot schemes. However, let me make it clear that there is not a prescribed list. Local authorities are free to suggest any innovation that they want and all well-thought-out proposals will be considered.

Local authorities will need to demonstrate that they have made proper plans to run the pilots and that the integrity of the poll is properly preserved. They will also have to show that they have in place plans for a full evaluation of the pilot scheme. Such evaluations will need to assess the turnout in the authority where the pilot is running as compared with previous elections and with similar authorities where pilot schemes are not running. They will also need to seek views on the success or otherwise of the scheme from candidates, parties and, most importantly, the electorate.

Clause 11 provides for any scheme that has been successfully piloted to be rolled out nationally. Any such changes will be made by orders, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedures in both Houses. It is, as I have made clear, the Government's hope that the Bill will receive a fair wind in its passage through Parliament. If it does, it should be possible to run the first pilot schemes at next May's local authority elections.

The Howarth working party was rightly much concerned with the problems faced by disabled voters. It made a number of recommendations on that subject, several of which do not require legislation. However, the Bill makes three important innovations. The first is that returning officers should be required to display a large print version of the ballot paper in the polling station. Secondly, blind and partially sighted electors should be able to vote using a template. Thirdly, in addition to blind voters having the right to be assisted in voting by a companion, we shall extend the facility to cover all voters with physical disabilities that are such that they cannot vote unaided and to aid those who are unable to read.

Finally, I should mention the one provision in the Bill that does not arise from a recommendation of the Howarth working party. However, I do not anticipate it to be controversial across the Chamber. It relates to the problems that arose in the European parliamentary elections earlier this year when allegations were made that some candidates deliberately gave false addresses on their nomination papers. I cannot comment on the substance of those allegations, but the legal advice that I have received is that people who provide false particulars are not, as the law stands, committing a criminal offence. That seems to me to be plainly wrong, so we propose to close that loophole.

I do not believe, and I am sure that no Member of the House believes, that the Bill will arrest and reverse the decline in turnout at all levels of election. Whatever the electoral procedures are, people will vote only if they are interested in the body being elected and feel that it is worth while to vote. So long as we do not have compulsory voting, people in our democracy have the right not to vote as much as they have the right to vote. Nevertheless, this is an important Bill. We need to ensure that it is as easy as possible for the public to vote and that our electoral procedures are compatible with modern life styles.

We were elected with a clear mandate to modernise our constitution and the Bill forms an important part of that programme. The Bill may not appear to be as exciting as devolution, human rights or freedom of information, but I suggest that it is just as important. Fair and free elections are the centrepiece of our democratic structures, from which everything else flows.

The Bill will help to achieve modern, effective electoral procedures, and I commend it to the House.

4.50 pm
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Representation of the People Bill because the Government has failed to undertake a sufficiently comprehensive public consultation on such important and far-reaching changes to the conduct of elections and the publication of electoral registers, because Members of this House have had no time in which to consult with local authorities and interested parties in their constituencies, because only one month has elapsed since the publication of the report of the Home Office Working Party on Electoral Procedures whose recommendations the Bill is designed to implement, and because more careful consideration of the costs and long-term implications of the measures contained in the Bill is required. The Bill is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Its principles may seem benign and unobjectionable, but the devil is in the detail. The Bill could have far-reaching consequences beyond those intended by the working party whose recommendations the Bill seeks to implement. Indeed, the Government propose that the House should write the Home Secretary a blank cheque to amend the rules not only for local elections but for future parliamentary elections. The Bill could therefore pave the way for changes to the conduct of a general election about which there has been no discussion on the Floor of the House or in the wider community, which would be affected.

I should point out to the Home Secretary that the recommendations published by the working party on electoral procedures in July referred only to pilot schemes at local elections. The word "parliamentary" arises nowhere in those recommendations. It was only when we received the final report, which was published only a month ago, that the question of rolling out the changes to parliamentary elections first arose.

On top of that, the way in which the Government seek to implement some of the working party's recommendations increases the prospect of electoral fraud, impersonation and undue influence on the outcome of an election where it is conducted over several days.

There appears to have been no discussion with religious communities about voting on days of religious significance—a point raised by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) in an intervention on the Home Secretary a moment ago. Yet the Home Secretary will recall the debate a year or so ago, during proceedings on the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, in which many Members on both sides of the House said that they regarded with great distaste the prospect of voting on a Sunday in the European parliamentary elections.

Furthermore, although well intentioned, the proposals to restrict the legitimate use of the electoral register by businesses and others, including charities, political parties and, on occasion, Departments, will lead to increased social exclusion from financial services and increased cost to British business and commerce. The Government have completely failed to address that cost by neglecting to produce a regulatory impact assessment.

Only a few minutes ago, I was handed a copy of a written answer, received today, to a question tabled to the Prime Minister by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). He asked the Prime Minister if the Home Office had been given an exemption from his instruction to all Departments to undertake and publish a regulatory impact study of the financial and other effects of all proposed Government legislation, with particular reference to the Representation of the People Bill. With characteristic clarity, the Prime Minister replied that he will reply to the hon. Member shortly. So, on Second Reading, the Government cannot even tell us when they even gave thought to the need for a regulatory impact assessment.

For those reasons, and others, we believe that, before asking Parliament to approve the measures, the Government should have initiated a comprehensive public consultation on the working party's recommendations; that, in turn, would have allowed right hon. and hon. Members the fullest possible opportunity to discuss the implications of such far-reaching proposals with the people they represent: local government, local electors and businesses in their constituency. Over the past 10 days or so, since the Bill was published, I have asked colleagues on both sides of the House whether they realise what the Bill contains. It is fascinating to hear their short, sharp, clear answer: no. When they discover the Bill's contents, they will realise that its effects are more far-reaching than the Home Secretary has implied.

The Conservatives are not opposed in principle to the concept of ensuring that more people have the opportunity to vote and electors are encouraged to vote, whether by making changes to the technicalities of registration or by introducing more flexible voting arrangements. In that respect, the intention underlying the working party's report was well directed. Our problem is with the Government's decision to transpose those ideas, in only a few short weeks, into detailed legislation. In his intervention, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) implied that, by tradition, such proposals have required detailed negotiation between parties, so as to achieve consensus before proceeding with a Bill.

I am slightly surprised that the Home Secretary did not mention the matter I am about to raise—perhaps it is to his credit that he did not. He has said that he wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) in September—in fact, he referred to that matter during a recent Opposition day debate—but he has accepted that my right hon. Friend did not receive the letter. We received a faxed copy of the letter late last night, but the date on it is 20 September, not "months and months" previously, as the Home Secretary claimed on 23 November.

Mr. Straw

Of course I accept the right hon. Lady's assertion that she had not seen the letter—plenty of letters sent to me are received by the Home Office but not seen by me. However, the right hon. Lady might not know that my office phoned her office more than once to ask for a reply, only to be told that a reply would be forthcoming in due course. It was not that we wrote and simply left the matter at that; I was genuinely interested in the response.

Mr. Greenway

I do not want to labour the point. The purpose of mentioning the letter will become clear shortly.

Mr. Straw

What is it?

Mr. Greenway

I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman in a moment—he must be patient. However, in response to his explanation, I should point out that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald says that her office asked the Home Secretary's office for a copy of the letter, but copy came there none, until the faxed copy was received last night. Overnight, we have examined the letter with some interest.

The letter merely restates the objectives and conclusions of the working party; it does not mention the detail of the Bill. Therefore, even had we received the letter, it would hardly have constituted a thorough consultation. The importance of the letter is that we can deduce precisely from it the Government's intention of making changes to the conduct of general elections. That is clear where in the letter the Home Secretary states that he would like the first pilot schemes … to be run in the May 2000 local elections. This would make it possible for any innovations which prove to be particularly successful to be in place nationally in time for the next general election. The timetable for the next general election is clear. If we did not already know that the Prime Minister had already pencilled in the election for 2001 from his behaviour—standing down many aspects of Government policy that are proving unpopular with voters, from speed limits to the number of houses to be built in the south-east—the Home Secretary's letter certainly lets the cat out of the bag. He wants to have pilot schemes in place for May 2000.

Mr. Straw

That is stretching it.

Mr. Greenway

We are not stretching it at all.

Applications from local authorities will have to be lodged by 17 January. The measures contained in the pilots will then be extended to the general election in the following year. We do not need to pose the question why the Government are proceeding with such unseemly haste; their mind is already made up.

Ms Ward

It is bizarre that the hon. Gentleman is objecting to sensible measures to move forward quickly. People are entitled to have every opportunity to vote as soon as possible. Only a Government who were not interested in increasing voter turnout and increasing opportunities for voters would delay any longer on those matters. If the hon. Gentleman had any sense of purpose as a member of the Conservative party, the previous Conservative Government would have introduced such measures a long time ago.

Mr. Greenway

The hon. Lady has walked straight into the trap that my comments had set. At this juncture I intended to ask the Home Secretary whether he agrees with the letter that was sent to all hon. Members today by the Local Government Association, with a briefing. I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members will have studied it with great interest. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the association that there should be proper independent evaluations before experiments are rolled out to all authorities"? That recommendation relates only to local elections, not to parliamentary elections.

If we have misunderstood, perhaps the Home Secretary will tell us what time scale he has in mind for the implementation of some of the proposals at a general election. His letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald makes it abundantly clear that we are talking about giving him the power in clause 11 to extend to parliamentary elections within the next 18 months or so arrangements which were first proposed by a working party as being effectively for local elections, with no proper evaluation of what is required. In her earlier intervention on the Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) said that local authorities have no money to carry out the pilots in any event, which adds to our concern about what the Government have in mind. That explains why we are sceptical about the Government's unseemly haste. There needs to be more informed consideration.

Mr. Fabricant

As for the evaluation of the pilot schemes, was my hon. Friend as surprised as I was to learn from the Home Secretary that no audit is carried out after a general election to ascertain whether there has been multiple voting in different areas? If no such work is done after general elections, given the importance of those elections, what can we expect from the pilot schemes?

Mr. Greenway

I am delighted that my hon. Friend intervened because he makes a telling point. In a way, he has anticipated my next point. A much more important development to which the Home Secretary referred, which in our view should inform the attitude to the Bill, is the proposed creation of an electoral commission. In his belated response to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the right hon. Gentleman said that that would be the body to highlight any deficiencies in electoral law and administration"— my hon. Friend's point is valid— and to make recommendations for improvements. Surely it would have been sensible to wait for the electoral commission to be established and allow it the opportunity to undertake a comprehensive review of all electoral arrangements, and not take the piecemeal approach that the right hon. Gentleman has adopted. As it is, if the Bill is enacted in its present form, many changes will have been made by the time that the commission is in business and the door will be closed after the horse has bolted.

Another matter that we want to raise with the Home Secretary is his attitude to the Home Affairs Committee, which he mentioned in respect of overseas voters. He knows that the Bill is not entirely on all fours with the recommendations of that Committee. For example, the Committee recommended that electors with dual registration should be required to specify where they intended to vote. That could well be relevant to the proposal for a local declaration.

It does not need much imagination to work out that somebody could be on an electoral register with a fixed address in one part of the country, and subsequently end up on the electoral register in another part because of a local declaration, yet the Government remain to be convinced.

The Home Affairs Committee thinks that a rolling register needs improved information technology. We know that IT systems are not the Home Office's strongest point or its top-drawer performance. The Government's response, none the less, is typically woolly.

Because the Home Secretary has decided to adopt a piecemeal approach, and because the Bill pre-empts any work on those topics by the electoral commission, the process is wide open to hon. Members on all sides to advance amendments in respect of their own pet ideas.

The Home Secretary referred to the report that his hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) had one such amendment in mind, and he prayed in aid support from the Home Affairs Committee in that respect. However, the Home Secretary must explain why he agrees with the Select Committee only when it suits him.

The Home Secretary was referring to the time limit for overseas voting. He stated in a letter, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald did receive, that he was considering reducing the time limit for overseas registration to just five years, which is what the hon. Member for Battersea has in mind. The Home Secretary said that if he was persuaded of the merit of such a measure—which still leaves the question open—he would introduce it in the forthcoming Bill on party funding.

We welcome the strong hint that the right hon. Gentleman gave at the Dispatch Box during his speech that he does not believe that this Bill is the right vehicle for such a measure. We urge him to make a firm pledge to that effect. I am sure that he would accept that including such a reduction in this Bill would undermine the attempts on both sides to reach a consensus on the proposed changes. I am delighted that we have that on the record.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. When he and his hon. Friends received the letter about the possible reduction for overseas registration from 20 years to five years, did they express an opinion? Did they oppose the proposal at that stage, or have they simply decided in the past few days to oppose it?

Mr. Greenway

I shall come on to that. It is remarkable how the interventions anticipate my next point.

Before the Home Secretary finally makes up his mind, may I ask him to reconsider the attitude of his party when the 20-year rule was agreed in 1989? The Official Report clearly shows that the 20-year proposal was introduced not by Conservative Ministers, but by his right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), who was then a shadow Home Office spokesman and is now a senior Cabinet Minister. He was supported, in the vote as well, by the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar), then shadow spokesman for Scotland and now its First Minister.

The right hon. Member for Gorton was shadow Home Secretary at the time. His recollection seems to be that the measure was forced upon the Opposition and was the best that they could do, but that is not how the Hansard report reads. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central said: We believe that a period of five years was unduly restrictive, especially as it is now clear that a number of people will leave this country perhaps to take up work in Europe or in other parts of the world but will still maintain a lively interest in the affairs of this country. He went on to say:.

I believe that 20 years is a sensible compromise".—[Official Report, 5 July 1989; Vol. 156, c. 411.] I could not have put it better myself.

Mr. Kaufman

I was not shadow Home Secretary at the time; that post was held by my noble Friend Lord Hattersley. I opposed even a five-year period; my noble Friend accepted a 20-year period before he rediscovered socialism.

Mr. Greenway

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for ascribing the wrong job and the wrong views to him in opposition. The effect of returning to the Back Benches is amazing; hon. Members can make up their own minds there. I am sure that his views will not find favour with his Front Benchers; they certainly do not find favour with Conservative Members.

The views of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central, which I have just quoted, were right. What was true in 1989 remains true. I heard the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) being interviewed on the "Today" programme at the end of last week. He said that Baroness Thatcher, who was Prime Minister in 1989, had not forced the decision on the House, and there had been all-party consensus about it.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway

In a moment.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey should reflect on the words of the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), who was in favour of no limit, not even 25 years. That view has some merit. Many British people work here all their lives and have families here, but retire abroad for health reasons. They draw their pensions from Britain and maintain a keen interest in the politics of this country.

Mrs. Golding


Ms Ward


Mr. Greenway

I shall give way in a second.

The case that was made 10 years ago remains valid. No case has been made for a reduction, which was not a working party recommendation.

Mrs. Golding

I was the Opposition Whip when the issue was debated in 1989. I told Labour Members that the choice was between 20 years or 25 years, which the Tories wanted. That is why Labour Members went into the Lobby when many, including me, did not want to vote for the 20-year rule.

Mr. Greenway

It is amazing—we are hearing about all the jobs that hon. Members held in the past. The Government of the day would not have proceeded with the Bill without all-party agreement on all the issues. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central said in 1989 that 20 years was a sensible compromise. He and the right hon. Member for Anniesland voted for it, but the majority of Labour Members abstained.

Mr. Robathan

Does not my hon. Friend find it strange that Labour Members, who are extremely principled, were persuaded into the Lobby by the weak argument that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) advanced?

Mr. Greenway

My hon. Friend makes a telling point.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway

I am enjoying this, but I gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman is correct that, at a time when I had a job that I do not even remember—

Mr. Evans

It was the same one!

Mr. Hughes

No, it was a different job. The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) is right that my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) argued for no limit in 1989. Liberal Democrat Members agree with the hon. Gentleman that, whatever our view—and there are good arguments for different views—the House should not be bounced into making a decision. We should consider the matter properly before we legislate.

Mr. Greenway

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

I now want to move on to other matters because we have given all that a good airing.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)


Mr. Greenway

I shall gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I shared a happy week in Ghana in August.

Mr. Barnes

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that some opposition was expressed in the House when the Bill extending the right to an overseas vote to 20 years was discussed? Six votes took place and two Members—Dave Nellist and myself—voted against anything to do with that extension on each occasion. A number of other Members joined the rebellion and expressed their views. I have consistently adhered to that position and do so now.

Mr. Greenway

That is the most honest intervention I have heard in the House for a long time and the hon. Gentleman has given a good reason why I so enjoyed his company when we were members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Ghana.

Before we move on, I want to ask the Home Secretary whether he has given any thought to how many people will be disfranchised if the time limit on overseas votes is cut. Does he agree with the then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, now Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who chaired the working party and told the Home Affairs Committee, which the Home Secretary has prayed in aid, that 3 million British citizens live overseas? As I pointed out in response to an intervention, it is significant that the working party, whose report we are asked to implement through the Bill, made no recommendation on that or the franchise in general.

We think that the lesson from all that is clear: the Home Secretary picks and chooses which bits of the Select Committee recommendations he wants to adopt, but Ministers who have to rely on Select Committee recommendations to endorse controversial measures that were not proposed by working parties established by their own Department or in a White Paper are skating on thin ice.

Ms Ward

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway

No. I have given way to the hon. Lady once.

Although we welcome the Home Secretary's reassurance that he does not intend to introduce the measure on overseas voters in the Bill—that is vital for progress—I hope that what we have said today will influence his judgment on whether he wants to seek the same degree of consensus on the party funding Bill and the implementation of the Neill recommendations, which he knows Conservative Members are willing to endorse and incorporate in full in a Bill. I remember saying precisely that from the Dispatch Box when we debated the Neill report.

We shall look with interest—

Mr. Linton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway

I shall give way once more, then I must make some progress.

Mr. Linton

I asked the hon. Gentleman whether he would kindly enlighten the House about the stage at which he and his colleagues changed their view on overseas voters. His colleagues on the Select Committee supported the reduction from 20 years to five. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wrote to the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues asking them for their views and I asked what they replied and when, but he has not answered. Can he enlighten us? Did his colleagues come out against that reduction only when it suddenly dawned on them that it might cut off their access to funds from Mr. Michael Ashcroft?

Mr. Greenway

The hon. Gentleman is flogging a dead horse, but let me deal with his point and that made by the Home Secretary. In the spirit of unanimity, three Conservative Members agreed to a detailed report and accepted the five-year recommendation, but that in no way binds the remainder of the Conservative party. Those events tell us that when Conservative Members attend Select Committee meetings to consider reports they are free to make up their own minds about what they believe to be the right policy to recommend to the Government. They do not look to their pagers to be told when to put their hands up and to which bits of reports to agree. Our argument is that if the Home Secretary wants to rely on the Home Affairs Committee report, he should implement its recommendations—three of which I have outlined and all of which would strengthen the Bill—in full.

While we are at it, on Tuesday of next week the Home Secretary will hear similar comments from Conservative Members about Select Committee recommendations on the Freedom of Information Bill. I suspect that one or two Labour Members will be in agreement with us on that occasion. In fact, I underestimate how many: I think that there will be quite a few.

We shall examine with interest the proposals for a rolling electoral register, the details of which need careful consideration. We shall support measures to improve facilities for voters with disabilities. As the Home Secretary knows, we have serious concerns about the proposals for the declaration of local connection. That is an important issue. Those concerns were expressed at the time of the working party, and he graciously acknowledged that the Conservative representative on the working party communicated that concern.

To remind the House, the working party said: We recognise that this could be thought to open the system to abuse if a candidate or political party sought to use such declarations to falsely register supporters in the electoral areas immediately before an election. From my reading of the Bill, I do not believe that those concerns have been addressed in the legislation. That makes our point. We are not arguing that there was not a working party and that there were no recommendations. Our argument is that putting those proposals into legislation leaves open the door to abuse.

When the Under-Secretary winds up the debate, will he please tell the House whether the arrangements for a declaration of local connection operate anywhere else in the world? He might like to tell us that now, because I am not aware of any other example. What estimate have the Government made of the number of persons who are eligible to make declarations of local connection? Does the Home Secretary intend that individuals should not be permitted to have more than one declaration of local connection at any one time? If that is the intention, we could easily produce an amendment that would provide for the Bill to say that.

We are surprised—I say this with a heavy heart—that the Government think that a sufficiently large number of people will be living indefinitely on our streets to justify the measure. We are not opposed to a mechanism enabling displaced and homeless people to vote, but that must not be used for electoral fraud or for people to pick and choose where they vote, such as in marginal constituencies and at by-elections. We believe that the Bill needs significant strengthening in that respect, and we shall table constructive amendments to achieve that.

We are also concerned about the Government's proposals on the commercial use of the electoral register. The opt-out box, although well-intentioned in principle, is fatally flawed in practice. Does the Home Secretary agree that the denial of access to the full register by credit referencing agencies would increase social exclusion from financial services? That has been the subject not only of a report commissioned by the Treasury from the Director General of Fair Trading, but of comment from the Economic Secretary. The all-party insurance and financial services group, which I chair—some members of that group are present—has expressed grave concern about low-income households and young people not being able to get a bank account or access to competitive lending and credit facilities.

Does not the CBI strongly oppose the proposals? Submissions to the working party argued that any limiting of access to the register would lead to job losses, increased costs, reduced competition and reduced access to financial services by voters. We believe that the Government should think again about the provision, but if they insist on an opt-out box, we will address those concerns by tabling amendments that would provide a workable solution.

On the question of security for people in public life, it is fair to say that the dreadful murder of Jill Dando is a lesson to all of us that if people can find out where those whom they wish to stalk live, the consequences can be tragic. We are willing to work with the Government to find a solution enabling those who feel that they are potentially exposed to such violence, or to stalking and the like, not to be on the electoral register, because we consider that important.

As for the proposals for pilot schemes, we have no objection to experiments involving innovative forms of voting, including, in principle, early voting. We are, however, concerned by the Government's failure to propose safeguards against the exit polling of early voters, which itself could influence voting on polling day. The Home Secretary should address himself to that. If people are allowed to vote on the Monday and the Tuesday when the majority are voting on the Thursday, and they are polled as they leave, there is a danger that the result could be influenced.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Greenway

I will, just once more.

Mr. Brady

As the Home Secretary has specifically mentioned the possibility of voting on Saturdays and Sundays, he should clearly address himself to what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Greenway

That is true. We think that it is one of the factors that should have been clarified much more fully during consultation.

We are also concerned about the absence of a specified limit to the number of days on which early voting can take place. That would add to the problem.

All those points were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) during the passage of the Bill that became the Greater London Authority Act 1999, but so far the Government have chosen to ignore them. We will press them again in Committee.

The remaining question for the House to consider is what form the Committee should take. On 20 November 1995, when his party was in opposition, the Home Secretary told the House that "careful scrutiny" was one of the best guarantors of good legislation".—[Official Report, 20 November 1995; Vol. 267, c. 339.] We agree with that. As we speak, however, the Government remain to be convinced that the Bill should be considered by a Committee of the whole House. We believe that it should: precedent dictates that constitutional Bills of this nature should be taken on the Floor of the House, so that Members have an opportunity to contribute. The Representation of the People Bills that became the 1985 and 1989 Acts were so considered; why should the Government seek to deny the same opportunity now, unless they wish to deny effective scrutiny of this Bill?

The Opposition's reasoned amendment gives members of all parties a chance to ask the Government to reconsider all these matters. A Representation of the People Bill reforming electoral procedures should be uncontroversial, and supported with unanimity and consensus throughout the House; the Government, however, are attempting to push the measure through Parliament with unseemly haste, with inadequate scrutiny, and with no attempt to organise serious public consultation. That is the mark of a Government who see clinging to power as their overriding priority. We have grown used to the Government's treating the House and the country with contempt, but in the case of this most important issue we should tell them to think again. I commend the amendment.

5.28 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

It is a novel concept that a Government with a 30 per cent. lead in the opinion polls should be clinging to power, but the speech of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) contained a number of novel concepts. One was the interesting notion that consensus consists of the Government's accepting all the views of the Opposition but none of the views of their own Back Benchers. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is far too sensible to accept such a definition of consensus from a party which, after all, will show its respect for consensus by voting against the Bill at 10 pm.

I am entirely satisfied that my right hon. Friend is taking measures—swift measures—to make it easier for people to vote and to give them greater opportunities to vote. I certainly agree with one observation made by the hon. Member for Ryedale: the ability to vote in elections is indeed the most precious attribute that any citizen of a democracy can have. The difficulty that we still have is that it is not a right to vote. It is not easy to vote. Obstacles are thrown up in front of people who wish to exercise the right to elect a Member of Parliament or a councillor. If the Bill can make it easier to vote and increase the turnout at elections, it will have been worth while.

My misgivings about the Bill are not about what it proposes, but what it does not; I hope that by the time it has reached the statute book, it will propose those things. Everything in the Bill relating to enhancing the opportunities for the franchise has my support, but let us consider, for example, the references to postal votes and absent votes for sickness and to late applications. In this electronic age, I can see no reason whatever why there cannot be applications for such votes right through to the eve of poll.

A constituent of mine discovered that he was ill only two or three days before the last general election. He was heartbroken that he was not able to vote. I hope that the use of electronic means for voting will encourage the Home Secretary to place the deadline for applying for absent voting much nearer polling day. I go further—I hope that, in considering means of advancing votes and making it easier to vote, he will look at different ways of absent voting.

Last night, I was discussing with the people who organise telephone voting for the Labour party's national executive committee the way in which that can be used as an alternative to postal voting. In NEC votes, people can vote either by post or telephone. There are secure ways of ensuring that there is no fraud on the telephone. It will make it much easier for people who have applied for a postal vote if they can vote by telephone. They could even do that on polling day itself.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I ask the right hon. Gentleman a practical question. If a vote were cast by telephone, would not that negate the privacy of the ballot box because someone at the end of the telephone would know how the vote was cast?

Mr. Kaufman

No. I assure the hon. Lady that the way in which the vote is cast in NEC votes can preserve privacy. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) would prefer voting for the London mayoralty candidate to be by telephone because it might preserve privacy, of which he is a new-found adherent.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we can ascertain who the pensioners on the electoral register are, one way to enfranchise them—for example, if they are ill just before the election—is to send them all a postal vote, which they can either send in, or relinquish at the ballot box?

Mr. Kaufman

There are safeguards against duplicate voting. Indeed, they are referred to in the explanatory notes to the Bill. It may be that what my hon. Friend proposes can be followed through. In examining voting, we need to find out how to make it easier. I am encouraged by the way in which the Home Secretary has suggested that the school, the public building or the library, which are the repositories of polling stations, are not necessarily the only places. Places such as supermarkets, citizens advice bureaux, clinics and many others can be available.

Mr. Bercow


Mr. Kaufman

I should like to pursue my argument a moment or two longer. Such places can be available because electronic means of voting are possible. I have referred to voting by phone. My right hon. Friend wishes to make provision for applications for postal votes by fax. That is well and good. I very much hope that he will consider the possibility of voting by fax or e-mail. I could go further.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)


Mr. Kaufman

My hon. Friend is one of the few people in the House who, I accept, can cap any attempted witticism of mine.

In this computer age, there is no reason why it should not be possible for those who are on holiday to go into a polling location wherever they are and register their vote by computer rather than having to apply for a postal vote beforehand.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Kaufman

I now have two people to give way to, but knowing my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's attitude of self-abasement to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I shall give way to her first.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Where does this tremendous faith in computers come from? As the new House of Commons system is busy eating my e-mails as of this week, I do not have the same faith in electronic equipment.

Mr. Kaufman

There can be few locations in this country with as much disruptive building work going on as the House of Commons. Other places are likely to be a good deal safer. There is no reason why someone on holiday in Cornwall could not go to a polling station there and be logged through to a polling centre in their own constituency to vote. The point about democracy is giving people the chance. I agree that the security of the ballot must be maintained and hacking must be prevented. Problems have been noted in the United States in that respect.

It is right that my right hon. Friend should consider pilot schemes, but I hope that when we get to the next election, whenever that may be—sooner or later, it makes no difference to the Opposition—we shall have brought pilot schemes into national use. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward) in hoping that my right hon. Friend will not limit himself to local authority pilot schemes, but will institute such schemes himself so that we can have the widest possible participation in elections by the time of the next general election.

Mr. Bercow

I offer an heretical thought. Should not an able-bodied person be expected sufficiently to value our democracy as to be prepared to take the modest trek to the polling station to cast their vote in person?

Mr. Kaufman

That is highly desirable. A great many people set great store by going to the polling station, which is one reason why I applaud my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's provisions on access for people with disabilities. I have constituents with disabilities who do not want to vote by post. They regard it as their right and privilege to be able to go to a polling station and put their cross next to my name—which is an almost universal desire in my constituency. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not make one of his references to my modesty. I am ready to talk about my modesty myself without any support from my right hon. Friend.

Ms Ward

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the increased use by the public of telephone banking systems means that they are used to gaining information, inputting personal identification numbers and dealing with computerised telephones? Therefore, it would be easy to open up our electoral system through this form of voting—among others, as my right hon. Friend has mentioned.

Mr. Kaufman

My hon. Friend is, as always, accurate.

I must tell the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that it is certainly desirable and part of the social aspect of this country that people should make their way to a polling station. However, sometimes they do not have the opportunity. A mum with three kids who is waiting for her husband to come home from a late shift can miss her vote. Someone working on shift duty can miss her or his vote. There are many reasons why people are unable to vote when they want to. I am simply saying that it does not matter how one votes so long as one votes. That is the participation in democracy that I seek.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

Does the right hon. Gentleman share my view that electronic means can enhance the security of the voting procedures, as the current procedure of walking into a polling station and simply saying who one is and where one lives is insecure, and is protected only by the fact that people do not seem to want to cheat? Is he encouraged by the fact that we have a system with more than 20,000 access points which manages to register preferences in a lottery within half an hour of the closing point twice a week, and that that seems to work with almost universal reliability?

Mr. Kaufman

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Although this is a remarkably incorrupt society, we have no knowledge of the amount of personation that goes on at elections. I remember early in my candidature in Manchester, a constituent of mine—from which group of electors I will not say—stopped my car and said, "Mr. Kaufman, we have 21 names on the register in our house. They have all gone home. Can 21 others vote for them?" With deep regret, I had to say no. That does not mean that such things do not happen.

Mr. Evans

May I bring the right hon. Gentleman back from cyberspace to earth for a moment? There are certain aspects of absent voting where we could use technology with which everyone is confident to make progress. I was disappointed to see that the number of days necessary for the issuing of absent ballot papers is to remain the same, although there will be greater flexibility in terms of when they can be given. Surely there could be consensus on reducing the number of days to five working days, or perhaps four. The Royal Mail is very good, so why should we stick to eleven working days?

Mr. Kaufman

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I ask him not to deride cyberspace. Some 10 million people are surfing the internet now, and there will be more by the time of the election. We should not be carried away by the idea, but there are many ways in which we can increase the level of polling, and I hope we will. There is one area in which I do not wish to increase the level of polling, and where I wish to reduce it. Indeed, there is one area in which I wish to eliminate polling.

Before I explain that, I wish to refer to a matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) about an election a few days ago in a north Staffordshire parish council. Despite the fact that some votes were lost, the matter has to go to the High Court for resolution. I put it to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that while it may be right to apply to the High Court for a new election in the case of a contested parliamentary election, some less burdensome way should be found of resolving a dispute over a parish council election. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, when he winds up the debate, will refer to that issue.

I deal finally with the question of the overseas vote. I had the dubious privilege of having to negotiate with Leon Brittan over that matter. Anyone who has ever negotiated with Leon Brittan over anything will know that it is something that one wishes to draw to an end as quickly as possible. On that occasion, I was involved in hectic negotiation with him on the question of earlier representation of the people legislation, during which he advanced many preposterous proposals, including ending polling in general elections at 9 pm. I had to reach a compromise with him in order to stop some of his wilder feats of imagination.

Leon Brittan wanted a seven-year rule to apply to the overseas vote, which was an innovation at that time. I was totally opposed to any overseas vote of any kind, because I believe in the simple dictum of no representation without taxation. I was opposed to it entirely but, as part of the compromise over the Bill, I accepted a reduction to five years. I did not like that and I made it clear that I wanted it reversed as quickly as possible. I simply do not know what was going on in the head of my noble Friend Lord Hattersley when he agreed to 20 years as a compromise.

It is clear from the statistics that there is no great enthusiasm for that form of voting. At present, some 13,677 people are on the register of overseas voters, compared with 34,454 in 1991. It is not a privilege whose mass aspiration would be trampled down if my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary decided to get rid of it. On the other hand, small as the number is who take it up, the effect on the potential Government can be significant. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) was defeated in the 1992 election by 19 votes, with the number of overseas votes being considerably larger than the majority against him. If the election had been tight nationally, the composition of the Government could have been affected by the votes of people who had no stake in it.

Small as the number of people with the overseas vote is, it contains a distinct bias in its distribution around the country. Although the representation of the Conservative party in the House is one quarter, one half of the constituencies with 50 or more overseas votes have Conservative Members of Parliament. In so far as the overseas vote benefits anyone, it benefits the Conservative party.

When the Conservatives introduced the overseas vote, to their credit all they were hoping for was a straightforward political fiddle. Now, however, they are using it for a further political fiddle to justify considerable donations to their party from people who have no stake in this country. The overseas vote is undemocratic and unrepresentative and it should be abolished. We now have a situation in which the sole justification for political donations from people such as Michael Ashcroft, who wants to represent some other country at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and who is an ambassador of that country—but who nevertheless is the treasurer of the Conservative party and without whom it would fall into financial as well as intellectual bankruptcy—is his presence on an overseas voters register. Although that was not my original reason for opposing that fancy franchise, it is a conclusive reason for getting rid of it.

If the Conservatives do not vote against the Government tonight, their claims to want a consensus can be taken as having some veracity. The moment Conservative Members walk through the Division Lobby to vote against the Bill, even on a reasoned amendment, they are breaking any kind of consensus. That being so, my right hon. Friend should take the road of clean, pure democracy, which I know appeals to his heart and has done in the very many years that I have known and loved him, and accept what his hon. Friends want. I therefore support the Bill as it stands, but hope that I will be able to give it even more support on Third Reading.

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

The argument advanced by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) for restricting the vote of absentee voters still does not rid my mind of the idea that electronic voting will enable him to phone in his vote from Ibiza at the next local government elections, when he happens to be away on a Select Committee visit. The picture of the right hon. Gentleman on the beach, participating in democracy, can be imagined by us all.

Let me say to the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) that I am not sure that the best argument for the Bill is that we should seek uncontroversial and agreed legislation. Legislation on the representation of the people has not, in the history of Parliament, been uncontroversial. Some of the best has also been the most controversial. I did not learn until a couple of years ago that the Reform Act 1832 was passed by a majority of only one. Seeking consensus is wonderful, and my party tries to do so more often than some, but we must get the legislation right.

The key question that the Government are rightly asking is how British people are best represented. How can they vote most easily, how can they participate most fully, and—the Government's unasked question—how can their wishes be reflected most accurately? Although my hon. Friends and I have deliberately not tabled a reasoned amendment on the third issue, hon. Members will not be surprised if I spend a moment on the element of representation that is noticeably absent from the Bill.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), who was here earlier but is now in his constituency. He has done a great deal of work on these issues, and the hon. Member for Ryedale said that he had made a case for the right to vote to be linked to citizenship, not length of absenteeism. I am glad that the Bill will set up an electoral commission. An independent body should consider these matters regularly and make proposals in a non-partisan way. I hope that the commission will have the power to make recommendations not only on elections but on referendums too. Sooner rather than later, we need a structure for holding referendums as well as elections. Whatever our views about the single currency or electoral reform, it will be far better to get the rules about referendums established independently rather than tying them to the subject of the referendum. The rules should apply to all referendums, whatever the subject; separating the subject from the structure will be to everyone's advantage.

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Gentleman may know that I take a particular interest in the matter, having introduced the Referendums Bill in the last Session. The Government's new referendums Bill, or whatever it will be called, provides for an allowance of £5 million to be spent in a particular campaign. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is rather bizarre, and may be linked to a particular campaign?

Mr. Hughes

I agree that it is rather bizarre, and the hon. Gentleman knows that in general I support some of his initiatives. I hope that when we come to that debate, we will try to reach a settlement about holding referendums that is in the interests of people, not parties, and in the interests of the best system, not a particular result.

I welcome the working party on electoral processes, which was chaired by the then Home Office Minister, now the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). I thank him for his work and pay tribute to the work of my colleagues, Chris Rennard—now Lord Rennard—who gave evidence to the Select Committee on behalf of our party, and David Loxton, who was our member of the working party and participated in trying to achieve the best consensus.

We welcome the rolling register proposal. I repeat my tribute to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who rightly pressed us on the matter. I hope that there will be a greater effort to introduce an annual reminder for people to get on to the list. A summons once a year to go somewhere, fill in a form and register to vote would be far better. In my constituency, the forms normally get delivered in August, for a date of registration in October, to make sure that they are in on time. But a huge spread of time focuses the mind less, not more. People are less likely to vote without an incentive to register or a reminder to do so.

Secondly, we welcome the proposals for increased residential qualification. Mental patients who have not been convicted should of course have the right to vote; it has been a scandal that so far they have not. Remand prisoners who have not been convicted should of course have the right to vote; it has been a scandal that so far they have not. People who are homeless should of course have the right to vote, and it has been a scandal that so far they too have not. It is also right that service personnel should be able to name their place of residence.

I was once canvassing in a by-election and found three names on the register. The person who answered the door was not on the register. I said, "Excuse me, sir, why aren't you on the register?" He said, "Well, I'm a service voter." I said, "May I ask which service?" He said, "It's not far from Portsmouth. You will probably guess that I mean the Navy." So I said, "I'm sorry to be inquisitive, but what job do you do?" After a pause, he said, "Well, I run the Navy." People in the services—whether in the most humble or the most senior post—may want their vote where they live, and they should be allowed that right.

There are several arguments for revisiting the proposal in clause 9. Many people are clearly perturbed about it—indeed, I have received more representations on this proposal than on any other. Secondly—and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) knows more about this than I do—it is a fallacy to suppose that the proposal is the best way of trying to protect people from direct mail. There are other ways of doing that. If we do not want to receive unwanted post, the remedy should be applied generally, not particularly to the electoral register.

Thirdly, there is the serious issue of how such a proposal will affect people for whom the electoral register is used to determine creditworthiness. In constituencies such as mine, many people are out of work. Their appearance on the register confirms that they have an established residence; it gives them the right to receive services that they would not otherwise receive. We must ensure that accepting new proposals will not advance social exclusion rather than social inclusion.

Mr. Allan

The concern is that people will ask to be excluded because they think that they will no longer receive junk mail, but they will subsequently encounter problems regarding creditworthiness, as my hon. Friend mentioned. The question is how to balance the two important data protection principles: not using data collected for one purpose for something else, and ensuring that such data are accurate. Bodies will be able to find data in another way but it will not have the state authorisation of the electoral register, which is believed to be trustworthy, especially when it comes to credit scoring.

Mr. Hughes

I hope that we heed that sort of argument and take a proper, rational, considered view. It is not just the Confederation of British Industry that has made representations. I have had letters from the Stroke Association and Marie Curie Cancer Care. Cancer organisations, I gather, stand to lose about £2 million if we change the rules and make them pay the full commercial price. So I say to the Minister, not in a strident way, that I hope that we can try to reach consensus on this matter.

Mr. Bercow

All the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised are cogent, but does he agree that the threat in clause 9 to impose an additional cost on business should be averted, if at all possible?

Mr. Hughes

I do agree, and think that the matter would be suitable for consideration of the type undertaken in a Special Standing Committee. However, I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the idea that we try—behind the scenes and in the Committee Corridor—to work together to get the matter right.

I wish to raise two other points in this section of my speech. Of course it is right that people in general public life, or private people who are threatened—by domestic violence, for instance—should be able to vote without being made more vulnerable. Such people are usually female, but occasionally men come into that category. I shall not elaborate, but the House will be aware that I have some knowledge of these matters.

I do not believe, however, that such privacy should be available to people who are candidates or elected public representatives. I consider that the electorate should know where their councillors and Members of Parliament live, and that those people's addresses should appear on the register and ballot paper. Where electoral candidates live in the community—or whether they live there—is an important and relevant piece of information for electors. The hon. Member for Ryedale rightly cited the case of Jill Dando, but matters are different for people such as Members of Parliament.

I turn now to the issues surrounding the conduct of elections. We support the pilot scheme idea of looking at different ways of extending opportunities for elections. We want to make sure that the pilot schemes are evaluated, and I underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), the leader of our party in Scotland, is sitting beside her just now. Many of us want to make sure that voting at a time that is against the wishes of the community could take place only if the community agreed to it.

I remind the Minister that, in Wales, there used to be local voting—a referendum—on Sunday opening every 10 years. I have not consulted in detail on the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute, but the way forward might be to combine district or local authority area votes in the area for a referendum. By that means people could decide when they wanted to vote. I hope that my hon. Friend's point will be heeded.

As for absent voting, the right hon. Member for Gorton made the self-evident point that people must be allowed to vote wherever they are, as modern technology allows them to plug into the electoral system from all over the world. In addition, people living in the United Kingdom should be able to vote by post on a permanent basis. The evidence that I have seen shows that electoral turnouts are considerably higher in countries where people vote only by post than in those where people vote mainly in person. We must reflect on that, even though it may cause the electoral process and campaigning to change, as votes may be cast two weeks before the final date.

A whole set of considerations affect people living abroad, and they have been mentioned already. Clearly, the considerations affecting UK citizens will be different from those affecting people who can vote here because they are Irish, Commonwealth or European Union citizens. It is important to realise that these distinctions exist. Another issue is the need to decide whether the link should be defined according to citizenship, or citizenship and tax liability—a perfectly proper combination—or something else.

I now think that 20 years is probably too long, although I voted against limiting the period to that length of time when it was proposed some 10 years ago. I also think that five years is too short a period. For example, my brother lived in Cyprus, having been sent there by his employer. The posting was not permanent, and although he was there for more than five years he retained strong links with this country and has come back here to live. My point is that we must be careful about people who live abroad only because they are obliged to. We must not act in haste and repent at leisure. That is what the worst legislation leads to, and it still happens far too often.

I understand the temptation to react to the Michael Ashcroft affair and to conflate party funding issues with the provenance of votes. I hope that Ministers resist that temptation. There are legitimate questions about who funds political parties, and it will be quite proper to have that debate. However, like the Home Secretary, I hope that we discuss that matter in a measured and considered way and come to an agreed view about how parties should be funded and about how much people should be allowed to spend in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hallam made the point that our methods of checking whether the person who presents the polling card is really the person on the electoral register leave much to be desired. No one knows how much fraud is committed. The injunction "vote early, vote often" is probably followed sometimes—although no hon. Member in this House would know anything about that, of course.

People are thoroughly confused about the use of polling cards. Many do not vote because they think that they need a polling card. Disabusing people of that misapprehension would help, as the delivery of polling cards is often even less efficient than the organisation of the register.

Mr. Kaufman

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that replacing the polling card with a personalised swipe card would render fraud much more difficult to commit and would permit votes to be cast from any part of the country, or from abroad?

Mr. Hughes

I support working towards a system that allows people to vote electronically. As has been noted, people increasingly make use of personalised, 24-hour banking services, have their own personal identification numbers for telephone use and employ swipe cards in other contexts. We must be positive about the appurtenances of the modern age, but we must not devise a system that is easy for the clued-up 21-year-old but difficult for the 91-year-old. Some people late in life are not going to take up the use of swipe cards and complicated PIN numbers on their telephones.

I turn now to people with disabilities. I welcome the proposed changes to allow people to have help when they vote. However, I hope that the Government will consider going further, by regulation if not by legislation. There is merit in offering, to all who are registered disabled or who are in sheltered and residential accommodation, help that is independent of the people among whom they live.

It is always a worry that a residential home may deliver a block vote because its frail, elderly and confused residents have been organised by someone in the home. Ensuring that such residents were independent would allow us all to relax and trust the system more.

In very many polling stations, the ballot box is still kept about half a mile from the street entrance. That is often the case when schools are used. People with disabilities are often deterred from voting because the journey through the building is longer than the journey to the building. That is clearly a nonsense.

The Home Secretary spoke of the challenge that we face of revitalising democracy. I do not think that there is a crisis in democracy. Electoral turnouts were often very low in the past, but things can only get better. Sometimes turnouts are abysmal, as happened at last Thursday's election in Kensington and Chelsea. Another dire turnout was recorded in the earlier election at Leeds, Central which, given its many and historic problems, has at least as great a need for proper representation as any area in the country.

Any Representation of the People Bill must pass certain tests. We should seek to produce maximum turnouts at elections, but Liberal Democrat Members are not persuaded that compulsory voting is the answer and consider that other avenues should be explored before we even think of introducing compulsion. Making people vote in a free society appears to be a contradiction in terms.

We must also accept that the result of an election has to reflect the views of the electorate as expressed through their votes. All parties can benefit from the distorted way in which results are determined at present. For example, in the 1998 Newham council elections, Labour won 57 per cent. of the vote and secured all 60 of the available seats. Again, in the 1995 vote in Cheltenham, the Liberal Democrats won 49 per cent. of the vote and secured 93 per cent. of the seats. Hon. Members will know that, in the House and in local councils, one party will often get a majority of votes but another will get a majority of seats.

We will not persuade people that voting matters unless outcomes reflect what they want when they go to the ballot box. We made a bad mistake in June this year. By not linking the voter with an individual candidate in the European elections, we took away the incentive for many people to vote. Those of us who argue for a different and proportional voting system want a system that links to individuals, not merely to a party list.

Whatever we may think of the genesis of the Jenkins report, it makes the best proposal, which is linking constituencies and fairness. I hope that the House remembers that, whatever we think about it, the Government are committed to putting that question to the country. There must be a decision by the country—not by us—as to whether to keep the present first-past-the-post system or to implement the Jenkins report. That was the Government's pledge. It was in the manifesto and it should be honoured.

The reality is that people will vote most if they think that they have a chance of influencing something most. If Parliament is more powerful, people will vote more often in parliamentary elections. If local government has its chains taken away, people will vote more often in local elections. If those institutions are restricted, cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd, bound in", people will ask, "Why bother? It won't change anything." That is why in so many parts of Britain the voting culture reflects that of the one-party state. We have all heard people say, "It doesn't matter whom you put up. Nothing will change." That culture has to be changed and the one-party state mentality has to go.

Young people are the test. They often say that they will not go on the register or vote. We must support all who have been working with the British Youth Council, Operation Black Vote and others to encourage young people to think that they are the people in whose interest it most is to vote. The more they vote, the more this place will reflect their interests and aspirations. Civic education, mock Parliaments and Hansard Society initiatives must all take place too.

This Bill is a beginning. It will do some of the technical things and it is welcome, but it is not the end of the story. Building up communities and making voting easier are important, but—to vary a phrase used this weekend—we need not just reform, but the whole reform and nothing but the reform. If we are to have electoral change, we need, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), not only the Monty but the full Monty and nothing but the full Monty. That means reforming the system of voting as well as the procedure. The sooner it happens, the sooner people will vote.

6.12 pm
Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

I speak with some trepidation, on a number of grounds. First, many right hon. and hon. Members have shared with the House their experience of the high office that they held when this matter was last debated. At that time, I was the second substitute on the London borough of Ealing nuclear disarmament working party, which was sadly not conspicuously successful, but would certainly have been taken into consideration were the Ilyushins ever to have approached us.

I am also loth to criticise any aspect of what is an excellent Bill. For example, this is not a case of opening the Christmas present to discover with a cold feeling of horror that one has been given a Jeffrey Archer novel. It is rather that, within the vast body of the Bill—the detail is excellent—there is one small area that gives me ground for concern. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench will allow me to deal with clause 9 and the access to credit for people in my constituency, who have a great deal in common with the constituents of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

I am concerned that commercial and charitable organisations will not be allowed access to the electoral roll for credit purposes. As has been said, that could easily be costly and counter-productive. Certainly, there are problems, but it is not beyond the will of this House or the Standing Committee for those to be dealt with, and resolved, without causing severe difficulties for many of our constituents.

The role of businesses and charitable organisations has been mentioned. The credit industry is a particular concern. There is only one national database of this type. The electoral register is, as we all know, utterly unique, as has been recognised by the Office of Fair Trading. I will pray in aid some esoteric sources later to confirm the validity of that statement. The point about the register's uniqueness is that there is no substitute. It is not a question of this mechanism or another. It is all well and good to say that credit checking companies could discover alternative mechanisms. We do not yet have a national identity card or any comparable national database.

When the working party considered the matter—it has been said that a possible weakness of the working party is the lack of representation on it of the commercial or charitable sectors, although they certainly submitted views in writing—it stated that there was anecdotal evidence that people were concerned about receiving junk mail. Far be it for me as a member of the London Labour party to comment on unsolicited mail at the present time, but is the problem really the fact that we might get a few of those appalling letter from the Reader's Digest stating that, if we buy dozens of copies of some book, we may be entered in some spurious grand draw that at some stage may solve all our problems? Is that such an awful difficulty? Is it so terrible that the honest postal worker delivers that junk mail and the householder looks at it and throws it away—or, in the case of the correspondence to which I referred, reads it, appreciates it and takes the action suggested?

Ms Ward

Does my hon. Friend accept that, while junk mail is frustrating for those of us who receive it, a more important issue is the security of individuals who are, for example, escaping domestic violence and who want the right to vote and register, but who do not believe that that information should be put in the hands of the public at large and of commercial companies in general, as their pursuers might be able to trace them through it?

Mr. Pound

I thank my hon. Friend for another cogent and telling intervention. I entirely agree—obviously, I would not dare to disagree. I was not suggesting that we should go for what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey described as the full electoral Monty by forcing everyone to reveal themselves on the register. At present, electoral registers contain classifications of people—not merely those who are not entitled to vote in a local government election or who are entitled only to vote in a European election. Additional electors are listed at the end of each category. They appear now. Their names appear on the register, but their addresses do not. Every electoral register in the country has such names. It is not a problem. In many ways, by concentrating on those issues, we could produce a far better clause 9, although my natural obsequiousness prevents me from saying that as overtly as I would do otherwise.

Earlier this year, an NOP survey, which was almost certainly funded by the credit companies, asked whether people would tick the proposed opt-out box when registering to vote and 64 per cent. said that they would. However, when the follow-up question was asked about their credit status, the figures changed dramatically. The problem is that people will tick the box without realising how it will affect their credit status.

Mr. Allan

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the junk mail issue is a distraction and a red herring when we are discussing the electoral register? Junk mail is dealt with by the mailing preference service, whereby people say that they do not want such mail and if anyone mails them, they can be prosecuted. Junk mailing services can find names from 100 different sources.

Mr. Pound

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We should consider the mailing preference service; that is certainly a possibility. However, my concern—like that of several other Members—is about access to credit for those who could not otherwise achieve it. Banks and other financial bodies tend to be cautious lenders. If people's credit standing is reduced by their opting out of the version of the register that is available to credit agencies, those people will be added to the socially excluded.

At present, there is a mechanism for lending money to people on the boundaries—on desolation row—and we all know what it is. We all know about the loan sharks who prey on our constituents—the people who take child benefit books and accompany mothers to the post office on a Monday morning, cash the benefit, give half the money to the mother and keep the rest. We know about their interest rates, which double, triple and quadruple. Yes, there are possible alternatives, such as credit banks and credit unions—by all means, let us have more of them. However, the immediate, practical alternative to the loan shark is a line of legitimate credit, attested to by one's presence on the electoral roll. If people are council tenants, have just moved to a council property or do not have a job, they do not have any other credit guarantee to offer. I wholly acknowledge the understandable and laudable concerns of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government, but we must revisit that matter.

Of course the problems of money laundering, fraud and other abuses of the electoral register must be dealt with; I hope to outline a way of doing so later in my speech. However, I want to draw the attention of the House to the newsletter of the Hampstead and Highgate Conservatives, advertising their autumn bazaar, which, sadly, took place last Saturday. From the perspective of Ealing, we are awed by the Hampstead and Highgate Conservatives, who offer as raffle prizes cars, 25 televisions and videos and a £5,000 ocean cruise—the newsletter does not tell us whether we can nominate a member of the Conservative party to take that cruise. There is a free champagne draw.

In the corner of the document is the headline, "Not a Conservative supporter?"—oddly enough, there is a question mark—under which is the statement: We work off the electoral role". Hon. Members should note that spelling. Doubtless, it is a tribute to the thespian ambience created by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson)—long may she continue. The newsletter states: If you do not want to receive further mailings from your local Conservatives please let us know … by E Mail, agent@ham-high.tory. The Conservatives realise that there are occasions on which one can make a principled decision as to whether to be included on a database. I have deleted my name from the database.

In January 1999, the Office of Fair Trading produced the report of the director general's inquiry into vulnerable consumers and financial services—an important document.

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Gentleman told us a most amusing story. Will he confirm that he lives in Hampstead and Highgate and not in Ealing?

Mr. Pound

Although it is possible to register overseas, I live in my constituency; my name appears on the electoral roll there—sadly, only once, but not through lack of trying. None of my domestic pets appears on the electoral roll in my constituency—again, not through lack of trying. However, on the principle of inclusion, I occasionally try to add myself to the lists of Conservative associations—just to see what they are up to. Of course, the possibility of a £5,000 sea cruise may also have influenced me slightly.

Paragraph 302 of the OFT report states: there are four financial services that stand out as those which most of today's consumers are likely to regard as essential: money transmission, home contents insurance, short-term consumer credit, and long-term savings. I repeat, "short-term consumer credit" because that is exactly what we are talking about.

In September 1998, the Prime Minister presented to the House "Bringing Britain together: a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal", Command 4045. Under the heading "Action Team 14: Financial services", the document states: people living in poor neighbourhoods often have to depend on very expensive forms of credit, including 'loan sharks'. Action Team 14—with whom I am not personally acquainted—point out that its goal is to develop a strategy to increase access to financial services for people living in poor neighbourhoods. Sadly, the measure that we are discussing would not help.

Coming to the end of the information that I pray in aid, I draw the attention of the House to a letter from Islington council. Before Conservative Members leap to their feet, I point out that I have never lived in Islington, although I should be quite happy to do so. The council's electoral registration document, sent to all residents and dated November-December 1999—the council wisely allowed two months for delivery—states Dear Resident Final Reminder to Register to Vote—Mayor and Assembly Election. The letter does not suggest for whom one should vote—sadly. It contains the statement that to avoid difficulties with banks, credit companies, building societies, and libraries, who often check the register before providing services, it may be useful to provide this information. In November-December 1999, a London council is telling its electors that, in order to receive credit, to open a bank or building society account, or even to borrow a library book, they need to be on the electoral register.

Many of us will remember Sheila McKechnie, who used to run Shelter; she is now the director of the Consumers Association. She asked the House to focus on the potential increase in social exclusion caused by a restriction on access to this data … This proposal could create further barriers to obtaining credit for vulnerable consumers. Namely, those who do not have passports, driving licences or utility bills … for whom the present system works well. I had not given this matter much thought until one of my constituents, Pauline Jones, spoke to me about it. She works for Equifax—one of the two major data-collection companies. Ms Jones told me of her concerns, not just as a loyal member of that company, but as someone who is genuinely worried about the law of unintended consequences. I cannot believe that anyone—save, possibly, a few Conservative Members—could object to the main thrust of the Bill. However, one of the unintended consequences—I am sure that it is unintended—of the restriction of commercial availability of the electoral register is that the sort of people with whom my constituent works and whom I represent will suffer.

There are alternative proposals. The Direct Marketing Association has already suggested an additional form of restriction on availability of the roll. There are other ways of dealing with the matter. Sadly, the current baby-and-the-bath-water system will not serve the inclusive, joined-up governmental aims of the Administration in relation to social exclusion.

I thank the House for its tolerance and indulgence; the subject is one of great importance. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department sums up the debate, I hope that he will tell us that it will be possible to reconsider the matter. I thank him and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for being so courteous and so generous with their time as to talk about the matter with me before the debate. I hope that we can discuss it further in Committee and deal with it. The rest of the Bill is Christmas come early; it is wonderful. I have no problem with it.

6.29 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), and I am fascinated to know of his connections with Conservative associations. I am afraid that the Epping Forest Conservatives' Christmas bazaar is already past, but I should like to check that the hon. Gentleman has received his invitation to the Epping Forest Conservatives' Christmas party. I hope that he will let me know if he has not, as it is obviously an oversight on the part of my computer. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I did not hear the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Pound

I am sorry; I merely said that I would be reluctant to attend the soirée at Epping Forest with my wife if the previous Member was present.

Mrs. Laing

I do not know whether that is a compliment. I shall be more careful in giving way in future.

Mr. Bercow

What does the hon. Gentleman's wife think?

Mr. Pound

She is keen to go.

Mrs. Laing

The Bill contains much that is good. Any measure that improves the democratic process is to be welcomed, and should be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Some measures in the Bill would make the ballot box more accessible to people who are in some way disadvantaged, which can only be good. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, voting is a very precious right—the most precious right in the defence of a free society—so he is absolutely right to welcome most parts of the Bill.

I wish to draw attention to some aspects of the Bill. First, I am worried about the idea of a declaration of local connection. It is hard to understand how that could work well, and how it could improve the democratic process. Would it mean, for example, that the gypsies—it may be more politically correct to say travellers, because I know that some genuine gypsies do not like to be confused with travellers—who have recently moved into my constituency for an unknown length of time would, in some circumstances, have the chance to be registered and to vote? If they could do so in my constituency at present, could they do so again, in a few weeks, in another constituency? Would they be able to declare a local connection in more than one place at once? If one need not be permanently resident in one place, surely it is theoretically possible to have a local connection with more than one place at a time.

I appreciate that many of us can be registered to vote in more than one place; indeed, many Members of the House are because of our respective residences in our constituency and, during the week, in London. However, we exercise our adherence to the law in voting only once. Not everyone in the country can be trusted to be quite as scrupulous in their adherence to the law. I am very uneasy about that.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend has just conjured up an extremely worrying scenario. Does she agree that if people were free simply to hop, skip, jump or traverse by other means all over the country at short notice and be entitled to vote, we would be faced with the electoral equivalent of flying pickets?

Mrs. Laing

As ever, my hon. Friend eloquently illustrates a difficult point. He is absolutely right; we could indeed have flying local connection voters. We could certainly have itinerant local connection voters, and modern technology makes it possible to move quickly around the country and vote very many times.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

It is probably true that the largest single group of people who appear on two electoral registers is university students, of whom there are probably 500,000 or more in the United Kingdom. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that, as a group, they are not worthy of trust?

Mrs. Laing

Certainly not. I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question. I was a student, and I was registered in more than one place, but I do not believe that university students or other students who have a home address and a temporary term-time address, or those who have a temporary work address—such as nurses—fall into that category. As I understand the Bill, they would not be required to declare a local connection. They have a permanent, although not always occupied, position in a student hall of residence or a hospital, for example, so there is no problem. The problem would occur with people who deliberately wanted to vote more than once. That could happen. It is our duty, in passing laws, to make electoral rules as watertight as possible, but I can see gaping holes in the legislation. It is not watertight and its provisions must be more closely addressed.

Secondly, I welcome the rolling register. It is a good idea, and modern technology will allow the register to be updated more than once a year. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) drew attention to the fact that peers who were formerly Members of another place lost their right to a voice in Parliament, and the next day were not given a right to vote. Many of them lived in a constituency where there was an imminent by-election, in which they were not allowed to vote. They were disfranchised. The Minister will say that that was only temporary, but a temporary departure from an important principle is as bad as any other departure from an important principle.

A Labour Member said that, even if those peers had been able to vote, it would not have made a difference to the by-election result. It might have. All those peers might have voted for Miss Whiplash; she might not have lost her deposit. We do not know, and it is not up to us to know, but it is up to us to defend their right to cast their vote. That is what counts.

Thirdly, the introduction of new technology worries me. I share, of course, the Home Secretary's wish to give greater access to the polls to people who are disabled. The very last thing that my mother did before she died, a few weeks ago, was to go out to vote. It was very difficult for her to do so because she could not walk up the front steps of the polling station—a back door of the building had to be opened for her. It took a whole day's organisation to enable her to get into that polling station to cast her vote. She was determined to do so. It would have been much better if she could have retained her right to vote without having to be practically carried to the ballot box.

I am well aware that, in that situation, most people who were not of the character and determination of my late mother would not bother to vote. Therefore, anything that we can do to improve accessibility, especially by developing new technology, must be welcomed. However, let us not go too far. The right hon. Member for Gorton painted a picture of voting systems that entirely depend on pressing electronic buttons. So much can be done by telephone, by e-mail—if one can work out how to get into the e-mail—by computer or by other electronic means. However, as a society, we should be careful about that. If everything is done by electronic means, we shall soon lose all social connection. People will never meet each other. They will not go shopping; they will log on to the internet and click on the Tesco website, although I find that that takes longer than going to the supermarket.

Ms Ward

I fully understand the hon. Lady's point about social connection, but does she not agree that the chances of meeting someone in a voting station and having a decent conversation are very small unless one is a politician looking for votes?

Mrs. Laing

I often agree with the hon. Lady, but I disagree on this occasion. On a sunny morning in my constituency, people like to go out to vote and they meet each other. Groups of people who have not seen each other for ages are able to talk because they have all gone to the same place at the same time on the same day. It is a social function to go to the polling station to vote. I do not suggest that people enjoy voting as a recreation in the same way that they would enjoy going to a coffee morning. However, we must be careful that we do not do everything electronically and lose all social connection.

My fourth point is about compulsory voting, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) mentioned briefly. In Australia, voting is compulsory, but the system of proportional representation used there is complex. I visited Australia two years ago and was shown the ballot paper. It was bigger than me or the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward). It would be hard to deal with such a ballot paper and it would take ages to fill in.

Mrs. Dunwoody

The hon. Lady should not undervalue the advantages of proportional representation. In New Zealand, the system is so complicated that it has guaranteed no real Government for some years.

Mrs. Laing

I am delighted that the hon. Lady has made that point. I was broken hearted at the result of the New Zealand election last weekend. I am afraid that my first reaction was, "Well, there we go again—the wrong result under proportional representation."

Mr. Pound

No, Labour won.

Mrs. Laing

Some Labour Members might consider it to be the right result under PR. Whether one thinks the result in New Zealand was the right one or the wrong one, it is the wrong system.

In Australia, it is not surprising that the Government had to make voting compulsory. As many people in the House know—I think that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will agree—the best way to encourage voting is to keep it simple and to make it meaningful. We do not want people to go to the polling station to spend an hour in there reading the ballot paper. It should be simple for people to cast their votes and to know that the way in which they cast their vote will have an effect on the result of the election.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey seemed to agree about the complexity of the system in Australia and about the undesirability of introducing compulsory voting. I hope that he will also come round to the sensible view that changing the voting system in this country will be bad for democracy and will discourage people from voting. We saw that happen in the turnout for the European elections a few months ago.

The central issue in the Bill is how one is qualified to vote for this Parliament and other democratic institutions in our country. The Home Secretary said that he hoped that there would be a consensus on the measures for overseas voters. However, I listened to the right hon. Member for Gorton and I am certain that such a consensus is unlikely. I would find it difficult to agree with the right hon. Gentleman on this point. He was dangerously close to suggesting that we, as Parliament, should adopt a clause that would give electoral advantage to one party or the other. I hope that no Member would ever vote for party advantage rather than for a point of principle. The right hon. Gentleman said that only 13,000 people from overseas voted and that the vast majority of them voted in what are currently Conservative constituencies, but so what? That does not matter.

I am aware that the right hon. Member for Gorton is not present to respond to my points, but I would gladly give way to him if he were. However, it does not matter how those overseas voters vote; we are discussing a matter of principle.

Mr. Greenway

Someone said—I think that it was the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)—that there should be no representation without taxation. Is it not a fact that many of the 13,000 people who voted pay income tax in this country on their pensions and their investments?

Mrs. Laing

Yes, it certainly is a fact; I agree with my hon. Friend. Those voters also pay national insurance in this country, because they intend one day to return to live here and they want to benefit from their national insurance contributions in later years. They have not severed their connections with the United Kingdom; they are merely absent for some time. Five years' absence is a short time in most people's careers.

Mr. Bercow

As usual, the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) have prompted a thought in my mind. Would my hon. Friend not agree that the principle applies the other way round as well? Perhaps there should be no taxation without representation. Does she not agree that the people in Kensington and Chelsea who were wrongly and monstrously disfranchised by the administrative incompetence of this Government have reason to feel aggrieved? They paid their taxes, but they did not get their representation.

Mrs. Laing

Once again, my hon. Friend eloquently makes an extremely good point. I am always aware of the problems of the Exchequer, so I would not venture to suggest that the people to whom he referred should be exempt from taxation. That would leave a large hole in the Exchequer's receipts.

I was discussing qualifications to vote, and there are two inconsistencies in the Bill. The first inconsistency relates to new section 4(1)(c) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 proposed in clause 1, which states that a resident who is a Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland has a right to vote. I do not object to that; it has been the case for some time. However, that provision is inconsistent with schedule 2, which refers to the right of United Kingdom citizens resident abroad to vote in UK elections for 20 years—an issue to which the right hon. Member for Gorton referred.

The Bill will allow people who live in this country, however temporarily and who are not citizens, the right to vote. However, the right hon. Member for Gorton expressed his intention to table an amendment to shorten from 20 to five years the period in which UK residents overseas are allowed to vote and the Home Secretary said that he would turn his mind to that subject later during the Bill's passage through the House. If such an amendment were accepted, there would be ridiculous imbalance. A citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland who is resident in this country, however temporarily, would be able to vote, but British citizens, who are temporarily not resident in this country and who may have a far greater stake in the future government of the United Kingdom, would not be able to vote. That would simply be unfair.

The second inconsistency concerns the matter that I mentioned a few moments ago—the possibility of someone who does not have a permanent base in a constituency in this country making a declaration of local connection. Could a British citizen who resides overseas temporarily, but for more than five years, make a declaration of local connection in, for example, my constituency, and have a vote? If the Minister wants to answer that question, I will gladly give way to him.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Laing

No, he does not.

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Lady knows that I will, in closing, deal with many of the points raised in the debate.

Mrs. Laing

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his assurance that he will do so. I appreciate that I am springing on him a matter that may not previously have been raised. However, it will be inconsistent if people who do not have a permanent home have a right to vote but people who are temporarily away from Britain do not. It is very worrying that another huge loophole in the system will be created by introducing a declaration of local connection.

Mr. Robathan

When my hon. Friend was speaking, she may not have heard the calls of "Belize" from Members on the Benches opposite. Does she think that those who want to change the 20-year rule may have a specific motivation, and that it may be a petty-minded, vindictive motivation against one person, pursued in a rather pathetic partisan and political manner?

Mrs. Laing

My hon. Friend makes an outrageous suggestion. Who could believe that the Government would want to change a point of principle in a Bill of such constitutional importance as one concerned with representation of the people for the sake of one individual? No, my hon. Friend must be wrong because his suggestion is utterly preposterous; nevertheless, I thank him for making it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I shall take the hon. Lady away from the dangerous shoals of Belize for a moment. Is she really saying that if citizens do not have a fixed abode in this country, they should lose their right of citizenship in this country, and that they should not have a vote if they do not have a household? Are we to return to the householder vote?

Mrs. Laing

Not at all, and if I have given that impression, I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to correct it. I certainly do not believe that. In my constituency there is a hostel for homeless people which often houses a large number of people who are waiting for council accommodation. I would not suggest for one moment that those people should lose their right to vote. I utterly defend their right to vote. The intention to give people who do not have a permanent home the right to vote is correct, but I question whether the mechanism set out in the Bill is the right way to do so.

Mr. Barnes


Mrs. Laing

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, although I appreciate that I have been speaking for some time because I have taken many interventions.

Mr. Barnes

Is the hon. Lady not aware that homeless people in hostels often do not qualify to vote because to do so one must have a residence? That is the problem with the existing law. The declaration of location would allow those people to be put on the register, as well as those who are sleeping on park benches.

Mrs. Laing

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. The matter requires, and will no doubt receive, greater consideration when we examine the Bill in more detail.

I shall give two examples of people who live outside the United Kingdom but have substantial connections with this country. If the period of overseas residence after which absent citizens can no longer vote is changed from 20 years to five years, the people in those two examples will lose their right to vote.

The first example is a gentleman aged over 80, who until recently spent his whole life in this country. He worked for over half a century, paid tax and made great contributions to the community and society in which he lived. He fought during the whole of world war two and was wounded in action, commissioned on the field and awarded the distinguished conduct medal. You will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the person whom I am describing has devoted his entire life to this country, and he did a lot of good work—including charitable and political work—for well over half a century.

The gentleman now lives in Spain, because of ill health and to be close to his family since the death of his wife. He has lived in Spain for almost five years. I told him yesterday that there is a danger that he might not be able to vote at the next general election and, not surprisingly, he was appalled. He considers, naturally enough, that having devoted his entire life to this country and its good, he should have every right to be involved in the country's future and in decisions about who should be its future Government. One day, he will probably come back to the United Kingdom. Why should he lose his right to a say in the government of this country?

When I pointed out the situation to the gentleman, he said, "I don't understand that. I'm living in the European Union, so my vote at the next election will determine the Government of the United Kingdom. That Government will have considerable determination in the running of the European Union, and that is how I shall be able to influence, in my small way as a voter taking part in the democratic process, the future of the European Union in which I live.".

For those two reasons, I ask why that gentleman should lose his vote. That is a very serious matter, and I hope that the Minister will address it in his remarks.

My second example concerns employees of British companies who are posted abroad. They may well still be paying tax and national insurance in this country, but one way or another they will be contributing to the success of companies that are British-based. At the very least, their efforts on behalf of those companies will contribute to the companies' profits and therefore to the tax that the companies pay in this country.

My example is more precise: I have in mind someone who lives in Gibraltar. At best, the Government ignore Gibraltar, and at worst, they victimise it. They seem to wish that it simply did not exist. Gibraltar is British. Its people voted quite recently, and they have shown again and again that they want to remain British. They do not have a vote in European Union elections, even though they are part of the European Union. In that sense, Gibraltarians are already disfranchised.

In the debate on the Bill, however, I want to address the problems not of Gibraltarians but of British people who live in Gibraltar. The particular person whom I have in mind works for a British company and therefore contributes, in the way that I have just described, to the British economy, the welfare of the United Kingdom, the welfare of Gibraltar and the way in which Britain supports Gibraltar.

If the Government want to support Gibraltar, they should be aware that, if the Bill is amended to limit entitlement to an overseas vote to those who have been absent from this country for less than five years, rather than 20 years, it will be yet another insult to Gibraltarians and other people who live in Gibraltar. The Government will have once again disfranchised the very people who support British interests in a place where those interests ought to be supported. I hope that the Minister will take that matter seriously.

When making laws, we in this Chamber should focus not on individual cases or on party advantage, but on principles. I appreciate that the general intention behind the Bill is good—to make it easier for people to vote and so improve the democratic process. I wholeheartedly agree with that intention. However, certain parts of the Bill will not achieve their intended result. I am pleased that, the Bill being an important constitutional measure, its Committee stage is to take place on the Floor of the House, and I look forward to more detailed consideration of its provisions in days to come.

7.1 pm

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, both in support of the Committee's report on electoral law, which is listed among the documents relevant to the debate, and in support of the Bill itself. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), now Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on his work. Having seen some of the many reports he commissioned when he was a Home Office Minister, I commend not only his thoroughness but, more important, his timing.

A Bill such as this has to come in the third Session of a Parliament, for that is late enough for the lessons of the last election to have been learned but early enough for changes to be made before the next election. Of course, the purpose behind the Bill must be to make changes that can be applied by the time of the next election. In addition, the third Session of a Parliament is early enough to avoid the pre-election period when hon. Members on both sides are more concerned about party advantage than about taking a constructive, cross-party approach to the shortcomings of our electoral system.

In its report on electoral law and administration, the Committee noted that.

the current electoral arrangements by and large work well". I must confess that that statement strays into hyperbole, for there are many failings in the operation of our electoral arrangements. The system can be impossibly bureaucratic: there are at least seven different forms with which one can apply for a postal vote. In addition, the system can hardly be described as efficient when there are, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) pointed out in his evidence to the Committee, an estimated 4 million people who should be on the register but are not, and about 7 million who, by the end of the electoral year, are on the register where they should not be. I hope my hon. Friend will elaborate on that point if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

That is why I welcome the Bill's three main provisions: the rolling register, continually updated throughout the year; postal voting on demand; and pilots of early voting, electronic voting, out-of-area voting, weekend voting—you name it, there will be a pilot of it. Those are all measures that the Home Affairs Committee asked for and that the Bill delivers. In fact, the Bill delivers some reforms for which the Committee did not ask: giving the vote to remand prisoners—a matter the Committee overlooked; piloting electronic counting and voting, of which the Committee was, not without reason, somewhat wary; piloting postal-only elections, which have worked extremely well in other countries, dramatically affecting turnout; and offering electors an opt-out from the electoral register sold commercially, which is opposed by the Confederation of British Industry but popular with many voters.

However, there is a far longer list of reforms for which the Committee asked but the Bill does not deliver, and I owe it to the Committee and the House to mention those matters, the first of which relates to dual registration for parliamentary elections. The Committee accepts that people should be able to register in a second seat as a local elector, and peers and European nationals can already do so. However, people should be able to register as parliamentary electors in only one seat. Under a system whereby votes are likely to make more of a difference in some seats than in others, giving people a choice of constituency gives an unfair advantage. Once postal voting is given on demand, those who genuinely split their time between two constituencies, such as students, should have no problem voting, wherever they are when the election happens.

That is the view not only of all three parties represented on the Committee, but of the representatives of all three major parties—Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat—who gave evidence to the Committee. It is also the view of many of the smaller parties. However, it was opposed by the Home Office with the comment that there was "no enthusiasm" for such a change among members of the working party. To be frank, if we acted only when the Home Office was enthusiastic, we would never get anything done.

The second point of difference relates to anonymous registration. The Committee proposed to allow a few people to register anonymously—that is, without their name appearing in any public version of the electoral register—in exceptional circumstances, such as vulnerability to domestic violence. The working party decided that that required further study, but the Committee does not agree: we think it could be granted now. The working party has proposed an opt-out from the commercial version of the register, but that will not satisfy the requirements of, say, a woman who is vulnerable to domestic violence.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that several more enlightened councils have introduced a procedure whereby people can register under a nom de plume, so that no one can discover where an at-risk person lives but that person does not lose his or her vote?

Mr. Linton

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. There is currently little latitude for electoral registration officers to exercise such discretion, and it is good that some feel confident that they can do so. However, it is important for the Government clearly to set out in legislation the parameters for all electoral registration officers.

On the question of early voting, the Bill's provisions are rather tentative. A pilot scheme is proposed, but my view of early voting is that it should enable people to vote not only in a different part of their local authority area but in different parts of the country. Early voting is supposed to help those who might suddenly be called away on business or for a family emergency but who still want to vote.

While the Home Affairs Committee report was being written, I was on holiday in Sweden, where an election was going on, and I asked the electoral authorities there how they dealt with early voting. I was amazed to learn that, in Sweden, on producing one's polling card and some other form of identification, one can cast one's vote at any post office anywhere in the country throughout the two weeks preceding polling day and up to 5 pm on polling day itself; the post office then conveys the vote to one's own polling station by 8 pm on the day the polls close. More than one third of Swedish voters exercise their vote in that way, perhaps because they are away from home or because it is simply more convenient than going to the polling station.

I also learned of the Swedish arrangements in the event of an elector changing his or her address. In this country, if a person who has changed address rings up the town hall to ask whether his or her electoral address can be altered, the response is, "I'm sorry, but no. Phone back on 10 October next year and we'll think about it." In Sweden, such a person simply goes into a tax office and types the new address into a keyboard; the following morning, the address is valid as that person's electoral address and for all other public services.

In many ways, we are not beginning to use the advantages that the computer age gives us to change electoral registration. We are still insisting that it should take two weeks as a minimum. Early voting pilot schemes in a single local authority area will not test the real purpose of early voting. However, I hope that they will be rolled out quickly before the next general election so that we can use early voting for what it is really intended, which is to replace much of what is postal or proxy voting.

Thirdly, we have to apply for postal votes 11 working days before polling. The Committee believes that that deadline could be much later. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) suggested that it should be up to the eve of the poll. In Sweden, as I have recounted, it is up to three hours before the close of the poll. It is rather disappointing to read in the working party's report that the advice received from electoral administrators was that there should be no change from 11 days. I think that we can do better than that.

The franking of ballot papers is a ridiculous and outdated requirement. Its only practical effect was to disqualify 2,500 voters at the 1997 election because the official mark had been left off the papers by mistake. However, the working party's response is that franking still "requires reconsideration". I think that we could get rid of franking straight away.

The Bill could afford to be much more decisive on the qualification of candidates.

Mr. Grieve

If the franking of ballot papers is to be dispensed with, how will an identifying mark be provided to prevent the stuffing of ballot boxes if non-electronic methods continue to be used?

Mr. Linton

The Select Committee suggested that there should be a security device, but not one that relies on the memory of the election agent in stamping each ballot paper before it is given to the voter. Security needs to be maintained.

The Select Committee suggested an increase in candidates' deposits from £500 to £700, which thereafter would be index linked, and an increase in the number of assentors from 10 to 50. The response was that there is a serious case for increasing the deposit. Who could doubt that after the Kensington and Chelsea by-election, in which Lisa Lovebucket received fewer than 100 votes. She was one of about 15 candidates who received fewer votes than the deposit level. The working party's report suggested that increasing the number of assentors would place a significant additional burden on electoral administrators. I do not believe that counting up to 50 assentors places a serious burden on administrators. However, it might be a serious burden on no-hope, joke candidates, who would have to find 50 people prepared to sign their nomination papers.

There are no proposals in the Bill to lift the disqualification of ministers of religion, a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) has introduced a ten-minute Bill. One would think that the Bill provided an opportunity to clear up that legal mess.

The same is true of the Select Committee's proposal that candidates should be nominated only under names by which they have been known for some time, and usually the name by which they are registered on the electoral register. Given the experience of all parties in this place, surely that would be a self-evident reform. Another consideration is the name of the party—we have had the literal democrats and the conversatives—although that is taken care of in the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998. However, someone with the name Roy Harold Jenkins stood in Glasgow, Hillhead; and someone renamed himself Sir Nicholas Lyell in an attempt to stand against the Member of that name. That attempt failed only after an expensive court case.

The Select Committee's proposal that 100 per cent. grants should be available to local authorities to make polling booths more accessible to the disabled was turned down on the ground that it might lead to a substantial increase in the level of claims against the Consolidated Fund. This is hardly an issue of resources; it should be a matter of principle that the costs of the changes that need to be made to polling stations to make them accessible to the disabled should be refunded.

The proposal in the report that may have caused most publicity is that the 20-year maximum period within which a British citizen overseas may retain the right to vote is excessive and that the earlier limit of five years should be restored. That was agreed unanimously by the representatives of all parties on the Committee, as was the entire report. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said soon afterwards in his response that he would consider the proposal sympathetically and consult other parties. It may be that the issue is better dealt with next month or whenever the political parties, elections and referendums Bill is published. I do not think that anyone has an interest in rushing the issue. I heard my right hon. Friend's assurance that amendments can be moved to exactly that effect when we consider that Bill. I raise the issue now because the recommendation could be implemented most logically by an amendment to the Bill before us.

It was first provided in the Representation of the People Act 1985 that overseas voters should be allowed to vote in elections for up to five years after they had left the country. In the Representation of the People Act 1989, that was extended to 20 years. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) might like to know that before those Acts the rules for registration in parliamentary elections were very similar to the rules of residence applied by the Inland Revenue. There was almost an exact correlation between being a resident taxpayer and having the vote. That is an important principle which is still relevant.

Representation of the People Acts have been something of a disappointment. The overseas vote could have been claimed by up to 3 million people and was expected to be claimed by about 200,000. The highest figure was 34,000 in 1991, and it has now dwindled to 13,000, an average of 21 votes per constituency. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton is right when he says that overseas voters are biased towards the Conservative party. I know that there are many Labour voters among them who are members of the Labour International branch or the Labour New York branch. However, the concession goes to some people who have only a tenuous connection with Britain. Indeed, they may have the vote under a different nationality in their home countries. The vote goes also to many tax exiles who have deliberately left the country to avoid paying our taxes.

Mr. Brady

On a point of information, I wonder whether the Select Committee took evidence to ascertain what proportion of the 13,000 people overseas who voted had been overseas for more than five years, and what proportion would still be eligible to vote under the five-year limit.

Mr. Linton

That is an interesting point. I am seeking the answer to it. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire knows the answer. However, I know that the great majority of overseas voters come within the five-year rule; there are very few such voters between five and 20 years. I think that it is wrong in principle for someone who does not pay tax in this country to have a hand in deciding how much tax the rest of us should pay.

Mr. Grieve

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. He seemed to suggest that there was something wrong if someone had the right to vote in two different states at once. I am sure that he is thinking through the implications of that, because there are millions of people in this country in that category, who happen to reside here and also have a vote in, for instance, the Republic of Ireland. Many people have the right to vote here who also have the right to vote in other European states. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on that. It seems to be the weakest part of the argument that he is advancing.

Mr. Linton

If that forms the subject of an amendment to the political parties Bill, there will clearly be an opportunity to debate the matter further. The position of voters from the Republic of Ireland is recognised as anomalous, and springs from the historical relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The position of European nationals is different. They can vote in the United Kingdom in local elections and in European elections, but not in parliamentary elections. Commonwealth citizens can vote in this country if they are resident in this country, and many of them exercise that right, but they usually lose their right to vote in their country of origin, depending on the laws of that country.

Different countries have different approaches to the matter, and we must decide what our approach should be. I am suggesting that an important principle in our approach should be that those who do not pay tax should not have a hand in deciding the tax that the rest of us pay. That applies particularly to tax exiles, because by moving abroad to escape our taxes, they have forfeited the right to interfere in UK elections and, in my view, to bankroll UK parties.

Mrs. Laing

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is advancing a dangerous principle. There are many hundreds of thousands of people in this country who do not pay tax, for a variety of reasons. Almost every single one of them has, and should have, the right to vote. Was not that the reason for all the fuss about what I call the community charge, and the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends call the poll tax?

Mr. Linton

I thank the hon. Lady for that point, but does she really believe that there are many people in this country who do not pay tax? Will she not reflect on that? Does she not realise that the poorest people in the country pay the highest level of tax proportionate to their income because they pay value added tax on most of what they buy? She forgets the levels of tax paid by poor people in the UK.

However, the point would be just as well made if I had said "eligible to pay tax." That is the test—not the amount of tax that has been paid, but the liability to pay tax. The House is not yet in a position to take a final decision on that, because it raises many difficult issues about the relationship between citizenship, liability to tax and residence, which require reflection. I am happy to have that debate in the context of the political parties, elections and referendums Bill when it comes in the new year. I am happy to concede that if the Government believe that it would be the best way to proceed.

I hope that the Government, in turn, will be helpful and flexible on some of the points that I have raised—fairly small proposals from the Committee, which have not yet found their way into the Representation of the People Bill but could be inserted before the Bill receives Royal Assent.

7.23 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I was impressed by the detailed knowledge of the electoral system displayed by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), which taught me a little. I was less impressed by the hon. Gentleman's prescience. I note that four years before the 1992 election—on the result of which I won some money—the hon. Gentleman wrote a pamphlet entitled "Labour can still win." Of course, Labour did win in 1997, but I should not like to wait nine years before the hon. Gentleman got everything right.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on the same point as did my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). He said that people who do not pay taxes should not have the right to vote, but that even the poorest people pay VAT. If I have a property in the UK, I pay property taxes, although I may not be resident. Many people who may have been abroad for 20 years still pay income tax on their pensions, and tax on the property and investments that they have in the UK. The hon. Gentleman's argument does not hang together. He may be able to develop it in other ways, but not now.

I do not intend to reiterate all the excellent points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and for Epping Forest, so I shall not detain the House as long as I might otherwise have done.

The Home Secretary said that he hoped that the so-called reforms would command the trust of the electorate. Having studied the Bill closely, I am more worried that it may debase the entire process of voting. The Bill makes me uneasy. It contains some good points on which the House can agree—points about access for the disabled, and proposals for making postal voting and other methods easier. I am all for that.

My first taste of the electoral system after being a candidate was in 1990 in Hammersmith and Fulham. I tell the story because it brings out the potential for fraud that exists throughout the system. In 1990, some of the counters in Hammersmith and Fulham were wearing T-shirts bearing the words "Stuff the poll tax," which suggests that they gave their political allegiance to one particular department.

That was more noticeable when I saw two bundles of votes being counted. I noticed the two bundles of votes going under two red stickers indicating Labour party votes. Underneath, too, were 48 Conservative votes. I do not suggest that the only people who might defraud the system are Labour party supporters, but that is what happened, and it was critical in two council seats which would otherwise have gone the other way. We should be wary of the possibility of fraud in our present system.

What is the purpose of the Bill? As I understand it, it is designed to increase participation. The problem is that people are not especially interested, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said. How do we interest them? It is a failure of current politics that people are not interested. We should analyse that.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides tell their constituents, as I do, that it is important to vote. We have all met people on the doorstep who say, "I'm not voting in the election. Don't believe in it." I tell them, as I hope others do, that people around the world are still dying for the vote, many have died in this country in the past, and they should vote. Needless to say, I hope that they vote Conservative. I believe that everybody should exercise his right to vote if he can, and I say that in schools as well. I trust that we would all agree.

I find that in the Bill we have abandoned the KISS principle—keep it simple, stupid. Some of the provisions make the process more complicated. Thirty-two years ago, I did British Constitution A/O-level, and I remember that lunatics, criminals and peers were not entitled to vote. That has now changed.

In reverse order, I shall deal first with peers. After the by-election in Kensington and Chelsea, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein said: During the passage of the Lords Reform Bill, assurances were given that departing peers would be re-enfranchised immediately. To add insult to injury, this has not happened. Once again we see an overpowering Government which talks about democracy but does not practise it. He was on the electoral register, but was turned away from the polling booth because it had not filtered down that he was, indeed, allowed to vote as he had been disfranchised in the House of Peers.

On criminals, I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). It is a bizarre suggestion that people currently residing at Her Majesty's pleasure in a remand centre should be allowed to vote. If someone is locked up because it is considered that he should not be on the streets, he should not be allowed to vote.

We no longer speak about lunatics, but people with impaired mental health should surely not determine who governs the country. An article in The Times on Monday 22 November stated: The extraordinary proposal to grant the vote to people who are, in common parlance, mad, undermines the foundations of representative democracy. That system, for all its imperfections, is based upon the idea that adults are rational individuals capable of making conscious choices. By suggesting that mental patients are as well qualified as those of sound mind to participate in the political process, Mr. Straw's proposal degrades the entire electorate and democracy itself. That is about right.

The homeless have been disfranchised, often through no fault of their own. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale made the serious point that great care must be taken when enfranchising the homeless—to which I do not object—to avoid increasing the possibility of fraud. Those who have more knowledge of such matters than me, including members of the all-party group on homelessness, of which I am a member, say that many people who are on the streets have been discharged from mental hospitals. Again, we must be careful whom we enfranchise. I am sure that the Minister has taken that into account.

I want to reiterate a point that several of my hon. Friends made. Before we make changes that can facilitate fraud, we should establish a system that can check on multiple voting. If students vote twice, we should know that; if Members of Parliament vote twice, we should also know that. Such a system should be practised before we make it easier to commit fraud.

I want to draw attention to another possibility of abuse that relates to fraud and postal voting. I am sure that many hon. Members have visited residential homes for the elderly during election campaigns. I do not intend to do that again under the same circumstances as my previous visit. I was encouraged to go to such a home, where there were some fine people. However, I am not sure whether they knew who I was.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

That is because the hon. Gentleman is never in Blaby.

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Gentleman claims that I am never in Blaby. I must tell my neighbour that I spend a great deal of time there. I know that candidates from other parties visit residential homes and I am sure that they have had the same experience as me. Postal or proxy votes can be abused, and the system should be more stringent. Someone who cannot make a decision should not continue to be enfranchised. Postal votes are not a panacea. The Minister should consider that.

Unlike most Members of Parliament, I have voted as a service man. While I welcome changes that make voting easier for the services, the system is currently fairly easy. It was a problem to persuade service men to make a service declaration and register to vote. Service men are usually young men—and women nowadays—who are between 18 and 23 and they have other matters on their minds. Traditionally, few in that age group vote. However, it is easy to do so. In 1979 and 1983, I helped to return a Conservative Government by voting in person; in 1987, I was able to vote by proxy because I was abroad. It was easy.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) made good points about clause 9 and the electoral register. I want to approach the matter from the point of view of security. Some individuals, including Members of Parliament and former Ministers in both Houses, have a serious problem with security against terrorism. Many of my hon. Friends have said that they do not wish to be found through the electoral roll—I am sure that that also applies to other hon. Members. For that reason, I have registered in Westminster only recently, although I have lived there for eight years. It should be possible to register anonymously. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale said that he was willing to discuss providing for special cases with the Government. The Select Committee on Home Affairs envisages making very special cases.

The anxiety about Irish terrorism continues; I hope it will disappear soon. A bomb was placed under Airey Neave's car outside his flat in Westminster; Ian Gow was blown up outside his constituency home. Both were traced through the electoral roll or publications such as "Who's Who". A famous case occurred in Bristol in 1985, when a university lecturer went through an electoral roll and identified various members of the services, and others, whom an IRA active service unit wanted to target. I hope that the Minister will address that important issue.

Linked with my previous point is the need to register one's address on a ballot paper. I know from his contribution that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will disagree with me. I have lived in or on the borders of my constituency since I was selected as a candidate. I confess that I live 100 yd outside my constituency, but I can throw a stone across the border—[Interruption.] My neighbours would take a dim view of my throwing stones, but there are no neighbours between me and the river Avon, which marks the border. Many Labour Members would be embarrassed because they do not live in their constituencies. I am not sure whether the Home Secretary spends much time in Blackburn, but he is not here to defend himself, so I shall not ask. The Minister for the Environment has three houses, and I do not know which one he counts as home. However, I make a serious point about security. There may be a security problem on account of terrorism, lunatics or stalkers.

We should examine carefully the proposal in clause 10 for pilot schemes under which voting can take place on more than one day. It is worth considering the history of electoral reform. Various electoral reforms took place in 1918 after the great war. The Representation of the People Act 1918 increased the electorate from its pre-war figure of 8 million to 21 million, granted the vote to men over 21 and women over 30—a discrepancy that would be considered ill judged on both sides of the House nowadays. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 allowed women to become Members of Parliament. Countess Markiewicz was the first woman Member of Parliament. She was elected in Dublin for Sinn Fein, but never took her seat. The Redistribution Act 1918 increased the size of the House of Commons and adopted the principle, with which we all agree, of equal constituency sizes. The first general election that was held on only one day took place in 1918—elections had previously been held over several days. If we intend to change that, we should study history and ascertain whether it has served us better to hold elections on only one day. There is no advantage to voting on more than one day.

Lack of interest is a genuine problem. As politicians, we are all interested in politics. However, it does not grab the attention of others in the same way. I am sorry about that, and we should consider how we can interest others. We care, others do not. That has nothing to do with the difficulties of voting; it is not difficult to vote in this country. I accept that some people are disfranchised. However, although hereditary peers were disfranchised for one day last week, I admit that I do not believe that that was the end of the world. It is generally easy to vote and easy to register.

Abstention is a respectable political act. The Bill's attempts to persuade people to vote in supermarkets or mobile voting stations are patronising and nannying. Everyone knows that they can vote if they want to do that. If the Government made politics and Parliament more important, people would vote in local elections. The previous Government reduced the importance of local authorities over several years; that was not necessarily a good thing.

Mr. David Taylor

The hon. Gentleman voted for it.

Mr. Robathan

I believe that it was before my time. However, the Government reduce the importance of Parliament by making announcements outside Parliament; by appointing the first Attorney-General from outside the House of Commons for many years; by appointing unelected cronies such as people who shared a flat with the Prime Minister; and by appointing a Lord Chancellor who was the Prime Minister's pupil master. That cannot be right or good for democratic politics.

There are also unelected regional development agencies—in my case, the East Midlands development agency.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

The hon. Gentleman says that certain things are not good for democracy. Does he accept that a third of the electorate not participating in the previous general election was not good for democracy and that anything we can do—including the implementation of the measures in the Bill—is bound to improve that situation?

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Gentleman is not quite right: 71.5 per cent. of the electorate voted in the previous general election.

Mr. Love

The figure that the hon. Gentleman produces relates to those who are registered to vote. It is estimated that about 91 or 92 per cent. of the population are registered, so a third did not turn out.

Mr. Robathan

Nevertheless, that does not change the point. People may make a genuine decision to abstain or, for all sorts of reasons—the hon. Gentleman will know what they are—determine that they do not want to be registered; some may relate to criminal activities. It is easy to register and vote in this country; it just requires a bit of effort. Whatever Labour Members may think, the British public are not that stupid—they are quite capable of registering and voting—and Members of Parliament are living examples of how easy it is to vote, because we manage to do so weekly.

To return to the east midlands and regional development agencies, the East Midlands development agency is unelected—as is the regional assembly—and such organisations do not bolster Parliament. Conservative Members believe, and many Labour Members know in their hearts, that the Government are undermining and ignoring Parliament and taking power from the representatives of the people, which is why people may think it not worth voting. I would like politics to be made more relevant to people, both locally and nationally, and the importance of Parliament and county and other councils should be stressed. To answer the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), that is the way to rebuild confidence and to increase participation. Allowing people to vote at supermarket checkouts is not the way to increase participation and make Parliament and other elected Assemblies more relevant.

7.43 pm
Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I am rather saddened by the contribution of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), because we have heard plenty of examples of why people, through no fault of their own, do not vote. Although our system—compared with many others world wide—offers people many opportunities to vote, major obstacles still prevent them from taking up their democratic right. I agree with him that merely modernising the way we vote will not increase the turnout at elections. The way in which we all carry out and talk about our politics and communicate to our electors what we are doing as constituency Members of Parliament, as well as the way in which they represent their views and attempt to influence us, are all part and parcel of giving politics in this country a good name. We must encourage people to think that voting in elections is worth while.

I was disappointed in the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who is unfortunately no longer in his seat, because he talked about delaying the progress of many of the radical ideas and modernising ways forward presented to us in the Bill. That is no surprise, because Conservative forces have not been at the forefront of extending suffrage or the reform of our electoral system; they have been dragged to it by the prospect of turmoil in the country caused by the majority being disallowed to take part in a system that they were entitled to use. Conservative forces also have no credit to their name in respect of women being given the vote.

On a more positive note, I welcome the cross-party collaboration on the working party, which was chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). I made a submission to it and have also written to Home Office Ministers on issues surrounding election campaigning and representation. Despite the Bill being somewhat technical, it holds a seed of a revolution in British political participation. As we prepare to enter the new century, it is apt that we are reviewing a system that has remained fundamentally unchanged for years and years. That review, along with consideration of the way in which we present politics and the plans for citizenship lessons in our schools, will go some way to increasing participation in elections.

At present, the register disfranchises people through no fault of their own. I have to admit that this year is my 20th in the Labour party and I have been a campaigner all those years. [Interruption.] It is true.

Mr. David Taylor

My hon. Friend must have joined the party when she was in playschool.

Caroline Flint

If my hon. Friends want to make interventions they should stand up and do so; I should be happy to take them.

Hon. Members, whatever political party they represent, will all have met constituents who had moved into their area but could not vote because they had missed the magic point at which the register was drawn up. Furthermore, how difficult do we make voting for people who were registered within a borough, constituency, ward or European boundary, but moved house in the period between registration and polling day? They have to go back to a polling station in the area in which they were living when they went on the register. Such things happen not because people do not want to vote—I hope that the hon. Member for Blaby is taking note of this—but because they are prevented from voting or obstacles are put in their way.

According to Home Office studies, there are huge inaccuracies in our electoral registers, with up to 7 per cent. of names wrongly allocated to particular addresses, duplication of electors and registers being out of date before they are even in force. The provision of a rolling register is a very welcome innovation and I look forward to the day when a family can move into my constituency and register to vote as easily as it can sign up to pay council tax or set up direct debits to pay electricity, gas and water bills.

On pensioners, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) gave a most poignant illustration—I send my condolences to her on the loss of her mother—and there could be no more vivid illustration of the situation. Many pensioners rightly say that they do not want a postal vote because they want to vote at the polling station. I understand that, but regardless of pensioners' desire to vote in person, we are locked into a system that does not take account of circumstances—caused by infirmity, increasing age or sudden illness—that can prevent them from taking up that choice.

We should give every pensioner two options on postal votes: they should all be sent a postal voting form that they could either send in or relinquish at the polling station. That would ensure that those who cannot rely on having good health from one year to the next could vote. It would be quite simple to put such a provision in place: those over a certain age could tick a box on the registration form and it would automatically come into force. There is no reason why that should not happen. I have met many pensioners who want to vote at the polling station, and if they were given those two options they would not feel that they had to make a concession to advancing age by having to apply for a postal vote. Considering any measure that would make the postal vote application system simpler—not only for pensioners, but for the many people who do shift work or take holidays at election time—would be very worth while indeed.

I am particularly attracted to the opportunity provided by the Bill for establishing different pilot schemes for helping to increase participation in voting. It is right to establish such schemes because there is as yet no evidence to suggest that holding elections on Saturdays or Sundays or using different ways of voting will make a difference. That is why I am pleased that each of the pilot schemes will have to report back to the Secretary of State. Not only that, they will have to publish in their locality, so that the public have access to it, clear data and information on turnout, problems that came up and how any innovation was received by the general public.

My submission to the working party proposed an extension of the polling period from one day to a week. I shall explain that in more detail. In each ward, the returning officer could designate a popular site that is accessible to the whole community in the week running up to polling day. It may be a supermarket, a post office or a library. On polling day itself, people would be able to vote in the normal polling stations in every district. That would enable people to vote in the traditional way on polling day at polling stations in their residential area, but would also give them the chance to vote during the rest of the week at their supermarket, library or wherever is easily accessible.

It is extraordinary that it is easier for people to buy a weekly lottery ticket than to vote in an election. Technology offers a host of ideas that are worth considering. For example, people could vote electronically at the polling station, and when the polls close it would be easy to take the information from the electronic booths and get a result within a short time, instead of having countless council officers counting papers at the town hall.

During my own count at the general election, we used a computer to ascertain the result to within a couple of votes at least four hours before the tellers did so, at 4.30 in the morning. It may be more cost effective to use such technology than it is to use tired people who have served at polling stations all day and go on to work at the count throughout the night.

Mr. Grieve

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady in mid-flow, but I am concerned that she may move on to something else. She has made many interesting points, which will need to be investigated. The pilot schemes will be very important. She said that one of the merits of those schemes is that a report will have to be given to the Home Secretary, and I fully endorse that. As it is ultimately for the House to safeguard democratic rights in this country, does she think it a good thing for the Home Secretary to decide that a particular pilot scheme appeals to him and for it to be implemented by resolution of the House, without its being the subject of a Bill?

Caroline Flint

The Committee will have to give that point further consideration. I am sure that there will be extensive discussion as the pilot schemes publish their reports. There will be plenty of opportunity inside and outside Parliament to discuss the relative merits of the schemes. We must make progress on these issues, and I hope that the Home Secretary will ensure that any directions he gives will be based on a proper evaluation of what has been shown to work in the pilot schemes.

Low turnouts in elections are not just the fault of the system: political parties carry a large measure of responsibility. We must all take responsibility for the decline in interest in politics over the past 20 years. The political system must be open, transparent and confer genuine power on the public. To that end, I support discussion and technological innovation. My only proviso would be that we should ensure that the means of using new technology provides equality, so that the technology is available to a majority of people. We could make a case for the telephone, but only a small, though significant, number of people feel confident about using the internet and computers, even for games, and most homes do not have access to a computer. We should ensure that there is equality of access to the technology before we decide on a particular route.

I should like the Minister to consider a case in my constituency. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) gave a similar example. The count for the Rossington parish council in my constituency was held on the Friday after the local elections. I have no doubt that the candidates who attended were, like the local authority staff and the returning officer, a bit jaded after the previous late night. Unfortunately, a mistake was made in the result.

There were 22 candidates seeking one of the 12 places available, and by a simple error a candidate was awarded the 12th place, which a Labour candidate, Barry Johnson, should have won by 11 votes. When the error came to light after the result was confirmed, the returning officer conceded the error. The other candidate could raise no argument, because it was a pure error and the count had been conducted properly. There was no question of the count being improper.

Mr. Johnson, however, had to go through the whole palaver of drawing up a petition to the High Court, retaining solicitors, sending notices to all other candidates and coming to London for a costly High Court petition that was uncontested. He won the petition, and he is now duly serving on the Rossington parish council.

We should examine how we can modify the law to allow returning officers to issue a correction to results within a fixed period in the event of an error. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider my request carefully and see whether it is possible to accommodate it in the Bill.

7.56 pm
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I want to avoid repeating some of the comments that have already been made. Broadly speaking, there is much to welcome in the Government's proposals. There is much we can do to improve the way in which voting is carried out in this country. I am all in favour of experiments and pilot schemes, and I welcome those aspects of the Bill.

My reluctance to give the Bill approval on Second Reading stems from one issue alone, although I have other reservations. We are passing what is, in effect, a Henry VIII clause entitling the Home Secretary, after having considered the results of the pilot schemes, to implement or make such changes as he sees fit subject to approval by the House on a short resolution. I have had occasion in the past to express my deepest reservations about the use of Henry VIII clauses in such circumstances. Whether it is the Human Rights Act 1998, which the Minister knows I broadly supported, or legislation such as this, it is uniquely a matter for Parliament to determine what method it thinks is best. If that takes a little of Parliament's time, it does not matter.

Doubtless the pilot schemes, if they are successful, will present a wide variety of possibilities and choices. Listening to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), I was immediately struck by the fact that she was coming up with ideas that may not be floated through the pilot schemes. [Interruption.] I detect that the hon. Lady wants me to give way, and I am happy to do so.

Caroline Flint


Mr. Grieve

I apologise; I thought for one moment that the hon. Lady wanted me to give way.

The House should be able to consider the options, table amendments and discuss the matter in Committee in the ordinary way. My reluctance to support this measure is not because I think that it is ill-intended; I think that it is well-intended—however, I shall not give my support to a measure that will make potentially major changes to our system of elections after only a three-hour debate in the House. I am sorry, but I am just not willing to do that. I hope that the Government will reconsider. I dare say that the Committee stage will be taken upstairs: I am not sure whether the Bill will be treated as a constitutional measure. If I have the opportunity to intervene in Committee, it will be to make the point that the Henry VIII clause is a bad part of the Bill.

Now that I have got that off my chest, there are a number of details—

Mr. Mike O'Brien

For the sake of clarification, as the question has been raised by a number of Members, I can confirm that we intend the Committee stage to take place on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Grieve

I am obliged to the Minister. I also apologise for having had to leave the Chamber for about an hour, possibly when that was being explained, to attend a meeting of the Church and nation committee of the Church of Scotland.

I am concerned about one or two matters, although I hope for reassurance. Clause 13 deals with persons with disabilities. I am all in favour of giving such people the opportunity to vote, and I would certainly be worried if someone who had decided that he wished to vote was prevented from doing so because of his physical disabilities. I welcome clause 13 for that reason, and hope that it will work in the way in which it is intended to work.

However, I must express a slight worry, born of an event that I witnessed with my own eyes when I fought a Lambeth seat in 1987. A substantial number of persons with quite severe physical, but also learning, disabilities—about a dozen—were brought to the polling station by their carers, who wished to persuade the returning officer that they had expressed an intention on how they wished to vote, and that he should record their vote accordingly. It was apparent to me, a spectator standing beside them, that they had formed no view whatever about the election, that they might well be ignorant of the fact that a vote was taking place at all, and that they were probably incapable of making up their minds about how to vote.

I trust that the measure, as drafted, will be accompanied by regulatory procedures or guidelines sufficient to enable the necessary distinctions to be made by the officer dealing with the polling station involved. I considered what I saw on that occasion to be scandalous: it was simply a piece of exploitation. It was said earlier—by, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)—that such practices were not unknown in old people's homes and nursing homes.

These may be matters of detail, and of course there is always a balance to be struck. We must ensure that people are not wrongly denied the opportunity to vote, although there may be a risk that people will cast votes when they had no intention or desire to do so. However, the issue merits consideration; otherwise, we risk bringing the system of election into disrepute. As I have said, I was shocked by what I saw on the occasion to which I have referred. It was a travesty of what an election should be about.

I was slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) should raise the issue—which, I accept, does not feature in the Bill—of the length of time for which someone might be out of the country before being deprived of the right to vote. I was staggered by what I heard. This country has always prided itself on the fact that, unlike other countries, it does not apply rules that deprive people of the right to British citizenship because they happen to be citizens of another state. I have always considered that to be rather important.

My late mother regularly voted in both French and United Kingdom elections because she had dual nationality, and at one time had residence in both countries at the same time. It never struck me that the one was incompatible with the other, and I am sure that the Minister will feel able to agree with that principle. We know that many citizens of the Irish Republic effectively exercise citizenship rights in both countries with no difficulty, and, indeed, without formal dual nationality.

I hope that the Government will put all such thoughts aside when considering the appropriate length of time for which a person should be allowed the vote. It has been suggested that 20 years is too long for someone who has previously been resident. I am prepared to consider a shortening of that period, but, if the issue is to be raised in the future, we should bear in mind that increasingly, in the mobile society in which we live and given its international dimension, individuals leave the country for long periods, but continue to take an active interest in its affairs and have a desire to return. There is no evidence that the system has been abused. It has been suggested that, because few people take up the opportunity, it is worthless, but the number who take up the opportunity may reflect the number who feel sufficiently concerned to do so. That is no reason for us to deprive people of that opportunity if they have a contribution to make.

Clause 6 deals with: Notional residence: declarations of local connection". I welcome any measure that extends the franchise to those who are clearly eligible to vote in this country, but may not be able to exercise their right. I am all in favour of homeless people being able to have a point of contact enabling them to exercise a specific right to which they are plainly entitled. That causes me no concern, and I shall be happy to help to devise any system to facilitate it.

I share the fear of some of my hon. Friends—a fear that may be shared by Members on both sides of the House—that personation of voters and abuse of the system are taking place. We have little idea of the extent to which that occurs, but most of us have ample anecdotal evidence that the registering of people who are likely to occupy very temporary addresses has been exploited in order to lay hands on voting cards so that other people can, effectively, vote without their consent. The Home Secretary said that such action was a serious criminal offence, and I wholly accept that, but I venture to suggest that this is one of the criminal offences for which the offender stands a limited chance of being caught, unless he is unlucky enough to be recognised at the polling station as someone who has voted before, or as someone known not to be the person whose voting card he is handing in.

Having made those preliminary comments, I hope to participate actively in later discussion on the Floor of the House. I am grateful to the Government for saying that the Committee stage will be taken on the Floor. I am sorry that I cannot support the Bill tonight. In many respects, I should have liked to do so, but I return to my original criticism: it is bad practice simply to say that pilot schemes can be turned into a complete change in our electoral roll system as a result of rubber stamping by the House after a short debate. That is not what I understand parliamentary democracy to be about, and it is certainly not what my electors would wish me to vote for.

8.9 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I was feeling upbeat because I thought this Bill to be, in many respects, not very controversial, but rather one that could genuinely improve representation. I am a little less happy after listening to the speeches of Opposition Members, who have made rather a meal of a number of the clauses and issues involved. I understand their right to oppose and to draw various conclusions from some of the changes that are being introduced, but I am not sure whether this is the right time to do some of the things that they have been doing. It would have been much more appropriate to allow the Bill to go through Second Reading and then to raise detailed objections and make significant improvements in Committee.

The Bill is the first stage of looking for improvements. It is likely to be followed by the political parties funding Bill later in the Session. The two together mean that the Government have put their foot firmly in the water to improve this country's electoral processes. They come on the back of what I see as a major series of constitutional changes. The Government are certainly reforming when it comes to the constitution. We have to look only at their policies on devolution, the House of Lords, modernising local government—which is partly referred to in the Bill, but will come in train later—and modernising the House of Commons.

As a member of the Modernisation Committee—a quick plug there—I was pleased to see the start of the Westminster Hall experiment today. It showed the best of Parliament, as the reform slipped in seamlessly and was welcomed by all sides, including those who, perhaps, had some doubts whether it was the right way to go. In view of today's turnout and the quality of debate, we can feel proud—it is an opportunity whose time has come and we should make the most of it.

The Bill contains four key principles, which are important in their own right. First, it provides another stage in the development of the modernisation agenda; secondly, it is about increasing participation; thirdly, it is about fairness and justice; and last but not least it is about, I hope, getting better representation, if not better representatives.

I tread gently here because the Jenkins report is not mentioned in any way in the Bill, even though it examines the electoral system. Indeed, the report is yet to be voted on. As someone who tends to favour electoral reform, I think that we cannot just pass over the report—the debate will have to happen. Perhaps the Bill will lead us towards that debate, although it will not happen quite yet.

We need to look at how the key principles that I have identified take us forward. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a good defence when he was accused of not consulting widely on the matter. It was unfair and unrealistic for the Opposition to make such an accusation. My right hon. Friend listed a number of ways in which he had gone out of his way to consult, either directly through Government action, or, more particularly, by making representations to the Home Affairs Committee. The way in which the Government responded was laudable and interesting.

I shall concentrate on two issues that have not been widely covered in the debate so far—there is no point in going over old ground. The first is the impact on local government. Again, that is part and parcel of the agenda to modernise local government. I should like the measure to kick start some of the other changes that local government should be encouraged to introduce. The Green Paper "Modernising local government: local democracy and community leadership" showed only too clearly how the turnout in local government elections has declined, the repercussions of that decline and why we need, if nothing else, to refurbish our local government system, so that people genuinely get back to participating in that form of government. It is worth while aiming towards that, even if we also want to look at the wider parliamentary stage.

I am not sure whether my intervention on the Home Secretary came at the right time because he did not quite answer it, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary could refer to it when he replies to the debate. It dealt with the link to citizenship in general. I made the point about the importance—although perhaps it has not had as much debate as it could have—of the Crick report on education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy.

Let no one misunderstand that the changes will be embedded for some considerable time. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) went through some of the history of reform; I could do so, too. Reform tends to come in 100-year bites, or not much less than that. What we do today will be in place for a considerable time. Some of us would like much more rapid change and more radical opportunities, but what we do will stay in place for some time. Therefore, today we are legislating for the next generation and possibly the generation after that.

Those generations will be interested in having different access. They will be the children of the internet; we cannot fool ourselves and think that they will be anything else. They will have grown up in the electronic world, yet we may try to foist on them old-fashioned methods. At the very least, we should listen to what young people have to say. They are not put off by politics. They are only too aware of and interested in green issues, for example, let alone world debt and so on. Unfortunately, when I go to schools they tell me that they find the political system somewhat difficult to take. They do not understand all its implications and do not find it very accessible. We should do all we can to make it more accessible to them. It should not be our only or main consideration, but it should be a consideration.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way to increase voter participation is to introduce teaching about government and politics in schools—not at 16 for A-levels, but at the age of 11?

Mr. Drew

I could not agree more. One of the things that I banged on about before coming to this place was the sad decline in citizenship education. The last Conservative Government did not help—they had a policy of discouraging, in all sorts of ways, the politicisation of the curriculum, as some people saw it. As always with such things, it can be done badly, but if it is done well, it can yield many benefits.

I am saddened that a Bill which, in the main, hon. Members agree to across the Chamber has not achieved the consensus that it should have done. I want to examine some of its detail. I was out of the Chamber for a short time to attend an unavoidable meeting, but otherwise I have not heard any hon. Member say that he or she is opposed in principle to the idea of a rolling register. All hon. Members could quote examples of people who have claimed to have been disfranchised through no fault of their own. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Henschel of Whitminster moved in before the local election, prior to the general election. They were staggered that, although they moved in well in time for that election, they could not get on to the register. The simple fact is that we have utterly failed to keep up to date with the technology that permits us to maximise people's participation in the electoral system.

Mr. Evans

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many Conservative Members accept great chunks of the Bill, but have reservations about the sweeping powers that the Home Secretary would have after the pilots to introduce the systems wholesale over the country, with just an affirmative resolution of the House?

Mr. Drew

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Many of those issues could be considered in Committee, where there would be considerable consensus. We are having a debate on the principle of the Bill. The Opposition, for reasons best known to themselves, are opposing it in principle, which I find somewhat strange and difficult to understand.

I shall refer briefly to some of the other issues. I am aware that other hon. Members are waiting to speak and I do not want to take up their time. We have argued effectively about the need to bring in groups who have been disfranchised through no fault of their own, including the homeless and temporary residents of mental institutions—they are often there voluntarily, which makes it unfair to exclude them. It will still be possible to prevent some people from voting, but those who have made a decision to go to such places should have the right to use their vote.

I am particularly interested in the declaration of local connection. It sounds a bit new Labourish, but I think that I know what it means. We are trying to overcome the problem of someone having to have a residency to allow them to vote.

It is a shame that the hon. Member for Blaby is not in his place. As a former service man, he said that he had found it easy to cast his vote. I have been on the armed forces parliamentary scheme during the past year and found it interesting to talk to service people. Many of them said that it was not easy to vote, largely because, for various reasons, they were doing back-to-back tours of duty. We have to be more flexible in how we allow people to register. Many service people have moved to Germany and have no particular residency in this country. We should make the maximum effort to allow them to register and vote in this country.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Gentleman put great emphasis on the fact that some patients in mental hospitals are there voluntarily. I welcome the fact that patients who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Acts will also have a right to vote. Does he agree that there is ample evidence that people get sectioned for all sorts of different reasons, which do not disqualify them from exercising a judgment on which party to support at a general election?

Mr. Drew

I agree with that helpful intervention. I apologise if I had misconstrued the Bill. People should not be disfranchised just because they happen to be in a certain place.

Many of the advantages of the Bill are for local government. Parliament is not excluded from the experimentation, but it is aimed principally at reinvigorating local government. We shall then be able to judge whether the improvements yield the greater participation that we all want.

Mr. David Heath

The hon. Gentleman and I both have experience in local government. People's interest in local government will be reinvigorated only if it has the power to change things that people care about. Only when we release the shackles from local councils and allow them to do the job that they are elected to do will people become interested in them again.

Mr. Drew

There is a kernel of truth in what the hon. Gentleman says, but the Bill is also about allowing people access so that they can express their opinion on what their local councils are doing. We need to meet in the middle on that. Many of the proposals will be directly relevant to local government. The Bill is about reinvigorating local government and ensuring transparency in its operation and elections.

The Jenkins commission is not directly related to the Bill, but there is a natural connection. We have to deal with the issue of electoral reform. I support the idea, but there are Members on both sides of the House who do not. We need to have that debate because it is important that people should have a choice about the electoral system for this place as well as for other bodies.

The link with the electoral commission will be largely covered in the Bill on the regulation of the party funding system. Will it be possible to evaluate, review and perhaps educate through the commission, so that we can ensure that the changes are having the desired effect? We also need a process to enable us to tinker further to produce tangible improvements without having to resort to more primary legislation. Has any thought been given to the electoral commission and how the proposals may embed themselves within it?

This is a good Bill that will produce significant improvements and be a stepping stone towards further measures. It is important that it should be passed. I had hoped that the whole House would adopt a consensual approach, but unfortunately that does not seem to be the case. Let us see in Committee how we can take matters forward to improve representation in this place and elsewhere.

8.26 pm
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) criticised the Conservatives for failing to wave the Bill through and give it a fair wind even though we have some serious concerns about it. That was in tune with the comments of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who criticised Her Majesty's Opposition for breaching a consensus or refusing to allow one to be reached. In matters of electoral reform in particular, it is for the Government to bring forward innovation and change to ensure that their proposals enjoy consensus. The fact that we are stating our objections to the proposals cannot be held against us. Like other Conservative Members who have spoken, I endorse many parts of the Bill, but I also have serious concerns about it.

We were drawn down a side alley, which may have been a preview of discussions that we shall have on another Bill in the near future. I want to respond to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton). He was adamant that those who pay no tax should not be able to vote in this country. I am concerned about a large number of British people who habitually reside overseas—pensioners who may have paid tax over their working lives. In that sense, they have contributed financially. Many have contributed in other ways, such as by fighting for this country. They may live overseas for part of the year, or for the whole year. Those people should not be disqualified from voting in elections in a country about which they care so deeply. That is especially true when many of them draw pensions from this country, and they have a right to express views on the way in which their pensions are treated.

We have been reminded recently—not least by some unfortunate behaviour in the Gallery a few days ago—that pensioners feel strongly about the principle of what they have contributed during their working lives while they have been paying taxes, and they have feelings and beliefs about what they deserve in return. They believe that they should be able to represent those views through the democratic process. That is no less so if they happen to be resident in another country—perhaps another European country.

This a typical new Labour Bill, as it spectacularly misses the point. The Bill seeks to address the question of low turnouts without recognising—as the Home Secretary appeared to do in one or two earlier observations—that the key cause of low turnouts is low interest in the political process; in some instances, lack of interest. It is not because it is too hard to vote or—as the Prime Minister appears to believe when he sees low turnouts in by-elections in constituencies held by his own party—because people are universally happy with everything that is going on in the country and with the Government's performance.

It is not because there are insufficient numbers of elections or opportunities for them to cast their votes. One outcome of the Government's actions—which will result inevitably in lower turnouts—is that people are becoming sick of the number of times that they are being asked to go out and vote. They are asked to vote for representative assemblies which have little power and which cannot take independent action. They are asked to vote for new bodies which many people did not want in the first place. In the near future, the people of London will be asked to vote for a London mayor, a post that was not wanted by the majority of people in the first place.

The piling on of new layers of government or—as Labour Members might say—of new opportunities to participate in the electoral process, is not what people really want. People want to be able to register a vote—or perhaps two or three—that will really matter and will return people to institutions with some power to affect their lives. The Government's behaviour in increasing the numbers of elections will not achieve higher participation—quite the reverse.

The experiment in the European elections—with which the hon. Member for Stroud may have agreed, but about which I had grave reservations—provided absolute proof that, by making the electoral system more complex and by breaking the link between a single representative and the elector, the Government achieved a new low in turnouts in the national elections of just over 23 per cent. It increased confusion among the electorate and massively decreased the interest that the electorate had in that part of the process.

The Government have missed the point, and some points of detail are traps in the Bill. The possibility of weekend voting—which may be prejudicial against certain minorities—leads the Home Secretary to give an assurance that, if there is weekend voting, it must be on a Saturday and a Sunday. I welcome that, but if we are to depart from the principle of elections being confined to a single day, it is vital that we have sensible controls on the way in which polling can be conducted during the process. The prospect of a running commentary on the outcome of an election, which could influence the turnout and voting behaviour during an election over two or more days, would be a matter of concern.

The introduction of new voting technology and techniques risks increased confusion—particularly for the elderly, but not exclusively so. Again, if confusion is increased by perhaps unnecessary changes, there is a danger that we will turn people off the whole process and discourage participation.

Electronic vote counting or the electronic registration of votes is seen by some hon. Members as a great way forward to the 21st century, and they believe that it will increase security and prevent electoral fraud. There may be other advantages. However, all hon. Members will have stood in a church hall or a leisure centre when a vote is being counted, and they and their counting agents will have scrutinised what is there on paper. Electronic voting may appear to be much more efficient, to accelerate the counting of votes and to be a great technological and electoral advance, but what happens if the votes that have been cast cannot be verified? What final guarantee is there if there is no tangible evidence of how people have cast their votes?

We all know that scrutiny of votes is not scientific because one cannot be certain of what has happened, but it provides some check and the ability to ascertain where the cross was placed by a particular voter on a particular ballot paper. If we adopt electronic voting, that will not be possible. Computers might be able to generate lists of people on electoral rolls who have voted in a particular way, but it will be difficult to verify that that is how people intended to cast their votes. It might be a computer error, a programming error, or even a deliberate attempt to change the outcome of an election.

We have discussed the development of an edited register of electors. What is there to prevent bogus or single-issue political groups from obtaining a register for political reasons and abusing it? Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby raised the issue of the security of people on the register who may be targets for terrorists or other groups.

What is the logic in allowing declarations of local connections that would allow homeless people to register to vote but not allowing someone who might be at risk from terrorist attack to register only a local connection instead of an address on the electoral register? I listened with interest to the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on that issue, and I have sympathy with them, not least because of his recent experiences. In some instances, the threat to an individual may be so extreme that there may be a better way to proceed.

The declaration of local connections might also lead to abuse, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) suggested. There is a possibility that people might be able to claim a local connection to several places, especially if they are sleeping rough in a city or town centre, and that they might claim a connection to a place with a particular electoral balance. There is room for abuse, although that is not necessarily a reason not to pursue the reform. We must consider the issue very carefully.

Mr. Drew

That point has been made several times before, but I struggle to understand why people in such circumstances would want to make multiple registrations.

Mr. Brady

The hon. Gentleman may have a point. He may also have put his finger on a broader point that people who are sleeping rough have often opted out of community life and may therefore not have the slightest interest in voting for him, or for me or for any other hon. Member. People may indeed choose to abstain or to fail to register, and those are legitimate options.

Mr. Evans

The Bill makes no mention of by-elections, but people might flood into an area to register after an hon. Member dies, so that they can have a vote in the subsequent by-election.

Mr. Brady

My hon. Friend is right, and he raises the spectre of people who are not genuinely homeless or without a permanent address behaving in that way because they are politically motivated. I do not suggest that that is a likely scenario, but we must legislate with a view to the possibilities that could arise.

I come back to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), which shows why there is a principled objection to the Bill. It does not present a schedule of changes that the House is being asked to accept. Instead, it will enable the Home Secretary to experiment with various pilot schemes in different parts of the country, which could have various outcomes. I do not suggest that the Home Secretary would engage in gerrymandering, but if, in future, an unprincipled Home Secretary wished to achieve party political advantage, the Bill would enable him or her to take an a la carte view of the electoral law. The Bill provides a Home Secretary with the opportunity to try any number of different electoral arrangements. It is a question not of the Home Secretary or the House then accepting or rejecting them, but of the Home Secretary's opportunity to pick and choose between different options. That could be done without primary legislation, with relatively little opportunity for House of Commons scrutiny. This measure could be used to affect the political process in the future.

We must look at the turnouts in general elections, European elections and local elections and at the stories that lie behind those figures. Again, I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby and, to do the Home Secretary justice, I think that he gave a nod in this direction at the beginning of his speech. People vote—or not—because they have a pretty good idea of what voting in a particular election will mean and how much difference it will make to their lives. In 1979, 32.7 per cent. of people voted in the European elections. That figure rose dramatically to a high of 33 per cent. in 1984, before plunging to a low of 23.3 per cent. in this year's elections. That shows clearly how important the European Parliament is to people.

I accept that the Conservative party shares with the Government a considerable amount of blame for the fact that the diminution of the rights and responsibilities of local government has had an effect in that 40 per cent. of people—the number is frequently far less—vote in local elections. Again, the public are wondering how important such elections are to them, and what effect the results will have on their lives. For some people, the effect can be significant, but often, they think that voting is not worth the effort.

The turnout in general elections is proof of that. On the whole, people still believe that the House of Commons can make a difference to their lives. There has never been a turnout of less than 70 per cent. since 1970 and, while the turnout was as high as 78.8 per cent. in the first of the 1974 elections, it was as low as 71.5 per cent. in 1997. Again, I suggest that the Government have drawn the wrong conclusion from those figures. The reduced turnout was not because it was more difficult to vote, because participation in the electoral process was less attractive, or because it was harder to register on the electoral roll. It is an indictment of all political parties that people did not believe that how they voted would make much difference to their lives.

The result was not a ringing endorsement for the Labour party, which, historically, did not achieve a very high vote in 1997, nor was it a ringing endorsement of the Conservative party. There was clearly a desire to end a long period of Conservative Government, but no great desire for a Labour Government. People were not persuaded that voting would make a great deal of difference to their lives. That is why so few people voted and why the 1997 general election had the lowest turnout since at least 1970.

The myth is that the Government are greatly loved, that people were so confident that the Government would get elected that they did not bother to vote and that they were so ecstatically happy with the Government's election that they gave up voting. I do not think that that hangs together.

However, two items cropped up in my postbag this week that ought to give the House pause for thought. They illustrate what is going wrong, why people are disaffected with the political process and why they do not participate in elections. They also give a clue about what remedy would really make a difference, as opposed to Government proposals to set up polling booths in supermarkets or prisons.

A constituent wrote to tell me about a neighbour, a 10-year-old boy, who felt strongly about a local planning issue. I shall not name him, as I have not spoken to the constituent about the possibility that I would raise the matter. However, the boy was concerned that a historic local building would be pulled down and replaced with a large number of flats, which would increase traffic congestion and damage the environment.

The letter from my constituent said that the boy attended a meeting on the matter, after which he spent several hours writing to local and national politicians, including the Deputy Prime Minister. The letter stated: The reply he received was not from your office but from the Government Office for the North West in Manchester who stated that it had been passed to them. This reply was a standard letter, identical to those sent out to local residents who had written on this subject. The wording and tone of the letter was totally inappropriate to and completely dismissive of this ten year old boy. He was very disappointed. When he moves to secondary school next year and is taught Citizenship, the Local Democratic Process, Parliament and its workings etc,. in his PSE lesson I can imagine that he will be somewhat questioning of the information that he is given. The letter went on to say that the boy's faith in the democratic process must have been dented both by the experience locally and the response to his letters. In eight years time he will be eligible to vote and these experiences are hardly going to encourage him to do this, whether in local or national elections. That is what happened when a boy of 10 raised real concerns about a matter of direct concern in his locality. He received a brush-off and a standard letter. He did not even get a direct reply from the Deputy Prime Minister's office. That is a cause for concern, as such a response will lead to disaffection and cause people to think that it is not worth voting when they are of an age to do so.

A second example involves letters from constituents worried about live exports of sheep. This week, I received a response from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It pointed out that, regardless of the Government's views on the matter, it was not possible to legislate to ban such exports, as to do so would be contrary to EU law.

Constituents write to their Members of Parliament in the expectation that some action will be taken. When they write to me they want to discover my views and the Government's views on the matter at hand. Letters, such as the one about sheep exports that I have described, which say that the Government, the House of Commons and Members of Parliament are unable to do anything about a problem because they are no longer entitled to a view on it must be a cause of dissatisfaction, disinterest and alienation in the political process.

The Government should focus on what people really think about their politicians and the process of government. Can people, through the democratic process, any longer affect what happens to them? That is more important than voting in supermarkets or the rather flippant matters with which the Bill is largely concerned. It sets out few concrete changes, but it gives the Home Secretary an enormous new power to pick and choose changes in the electoral process—changes that may or may not suit one political party or another, but that will do nothing to restore faith in our democratic process.

8.50 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I thank the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for two comments that he made about my contributions to the debate on this subject, especially those on the rolling register. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), who serves on the Select Committee on Home Affairs and who is no longer present in the Chamber, also referred to my contributions, while my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that there might have been no Bill if it had not been for some of my work in the past, which might be going a bit over the top. Those comments place a great burden on me now—this speech had better be good, or I will come in for considerable criticism.

I became interested in electoral registration in 1987-88 when I served on the Standing Committee that considered the poll tax Bill—the Local Government Finance Act 1988. It was clear that that legislation would help to destroy electoral registration. I was dubious about whether that was in order, given the standing of the constitutional legislation on electoral registers that it was seeking to destroy.

The 1988 Act certainly destroyed electoral registration in many areas, especially among attainers—people who would then never appear on any register. Soon after that, I discovered that electoral registers were hit by many other factors. We have a rootless, mobile society, and there is much political alienation, to which many hon. Members have referred. Registration levels are poor in bed-sitter land, among black communities, among young people and the mobile of all classes—those who get on their bikes to look for jobs and those who can travel in more comfort while doing so—and in inner cities.

There is probably a 10 per cent. shortfall in electoral registration; furthermore, the shortfall is subject to serious maldistribution, so constituency boundaries are distorted. Those matters should concern us a great deal.

I am conscious of the time and that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will concentrate on the rolling register, as hon. Members have stressed my interest in that subject, and express my views on the proposal that is before us. Certainly, such a register is the main technique for tackling under-registration. It is welcome that people can, within a reasonable time, transfer their registration as they move to a new area. However, I do not know whether that represents the full version of the rolling register and whether it will roll as quickly and as fully as I would like.

People who move can certainly transfer their registration, but the current register does not have the benefits of the whiz-bang, computerised, e-mail, e-commerce, technologically advanced methods that some people have said will need to be tried. Certainly, we can look at some of those ideas, but they should basically be applied to the rolling register. Once a person moves, the transfer of registration should take place almost automatically. People should be removed from the old register and transferred to the register in the new area.

We have had monthly lists for a while and when people move to a new area they can get on that. However, they have to register 15 days before the end of the month when the register is published to get on to it. Furthermore, once an election is announced—or once the nominations are in—no new lists will be announced. There is a bit of a blockage to inclusion on the rolling register; depending on when people move, it can be between six and 10 weeks before they are registered. If a system of rolling registration could be used under the evils of the poll tax, I do not see why we cannot have a full and continuous rolling register for electoral registration, which is vastly more important for a democratic system.

If such a register rolled continuously until nominations were made, there would be no need for double registration. Several Members have referred to the difficulties and problems of double registration, but it could be ruled out if people registered at their sole or main place of residence—or, for homeless people, their sole or main location. People could move rapidly from one area to another; for example, university students could be registered at their university constituency while at college, and back at their home constituency during their long summer break. It should not be beyond the technology to achieve that. We have heard what technology can do to produce fancy voting arrangements, such as weekend provision and access for many people—like the current access to the lottery system. If such techniques are possible, they should be used for the rolling register.

Under the Bill, electoral returning officers are permitted access to local and public authority information in order to assist them for registration purposes. I should prefer a stronger measure whereby it would be compulsory for the officers to use such information—or strong pressure would be put on them to do so. Other forms of information could also be included to improve the register. Those ideas were contained in measures that I proposed in 1993, 1994 and 1995. Technically, civil servants and others would be better placed to produce those measures in order to iron out the difficulties.

We should consider the principle of a high-tech, rolling register that represents real modernisation—rather than merely the best that we can do at the moment; otherwise, we shall have only a veneer of modernity instead of an updated register. I welcome the Bill's proposals for the register, but hope that considerable improvements will be made in Committee, so that my vision of a rolling register can be realised.

I very much welcome the provisions for the registration of homeless people; I have introduced private Member's Bills on that subject. Some people may want checks to deal with some of the worries that have been mentioned. However, a declaration of location so that people can register to vote will enable us to get away from the system under which people can register only when they have a residence and which homeless people find it extremely difficult to get round. The system blocks them and the provisions on their registration are to be welcomed.

The measures to extend registration for people on remand and for mental patients who are not detained are also welcome. There are important provisions on access for the blind and the partially blind, but that is all that there is. Another—greater—possibility would be to extend measures for access for disabled people. The Bill may make it easier for disabled people to register, but they want the same right as able-bodied people to exercise their franchise at the ballot box if they want to do so. They thus need access to polling stations. Scope and others have produced evidence in that connection, and we should take notice.

There were provisions in that connection in the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, which dealt with rolling registers, and I included a clause on the subject in my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. The Government might feel that the matter could be dealt with in other ways. For example, legislation might be contemplated to extend civil rights for disabled people, in which case such a provision might be included. Legislation on the electoral commission may make that much more feasible. However, I hope that we may tease things out to ensure that advances are made for the disabled.

It is an achievement to have the measure before us. It creates the possibility of making the improvement that I have described. I am pleased that the measure will be debated by a Committee of the entire House, as is only correct and constitutional. Although it might be a bit high-flown to rank the measure with the great reform Acts of 1832, 1867, 1884 and so on, it is nevertheless about electoral registration and tidies up the process.

It was believed that universal franchise had finally been delivered by legislation passed in 1918 and 1928. In 1928, when women finally got the vote on the same basis as men, based upon residence, that seemed to be it, and to some extent it was; but society has changed. We have become much more mobile, and some aspects of the current system have provoked disillusion. Therefore we must devote attention to them.

The Bill is therefore very important, and it is important that we have full discussions on the Floor of the House to ensure that what is basically the right approach is followed properly. The subject is of vast importance, and we should act as the heirs of the legacy of the chartists and the suffragettes by ensuring that we offer a full franchise.

9.2 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

It is a great pleasure to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), and especially to acknowledge his kindness and consideration in cutting short his remarks on a subject that is, evidently, very close to his heart in order to give other hon. Members a chance to speak. I shall try to follow his example.

In speaking now—unexpectedly, following a constructive and welcome meeting earlier today with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien)—I am appealing to the House for cross-party support to help close a loophole in the Representation of the People Act 1983. That loophole is not yet addressed in the Bill, but I have some reason to hope that, if an amendment is moved in Committee, it may not be met with an entirely unsympathetic response from the Government. It relates to section 106(1) of the 1983 Act, which is concerned with the telling of lies about the character or conduct of candidates in elections by people intending to damage their prospects of being returned to Parliament.

I wish to use as an illustration my own experience, which led to a court case that exposed that loophole in the law in the age of the internet. I have previously, on 18 March 1998, mentioned in the House the problem caused by the publication of a scurrilous magazine called Scallywag, which specialised in telling lies about the private lives of public figures. It first became notorious in 1993, when it falsely alleged that the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), was conducting an adulterous affair with his caterer. A couple of years later, it announced that on a certain date Buckingham palace would be making a formal declaration that a senior member of the royal family was dying from the AIDS virus. Needless to say, that declaration was never made.

Eventually, in late 1994, the magazine turned its attention to me, and the nub of its accusations was that I was a secret promiscuous homosexual who frequented "male dens of iniquity" and that my girl friend was really a tart, hired from an escort agency to accompany me to constituency selection contests.

Recent events show the lethality of such accusations. Because the author and publishers were destitute, I could not sue them without running up irrecoverable costs. However, I managed to uncover the secret network of printers and distributors, and I sued them instead. I gained £39,500 in damages and about £70,000 in costs. The accusations were then transferred to the internet, but, foolishly, to a British-based internet company, Demon, whereupon I sued it and gained several thousand pounds in damages and costs from it as well. However, I still could not go after the actual perpetrator because he was financially destitute. If I had, I would have run up irrecoverable costs, which I would have had to meet when he declared himself bankrupt once again, having been a bankrupt as recently as 1991.

The Representation of the People Act 1983 is relevant, because section 106 makes it a criminal offence to tell lies about the character or conduct of a candidate with a view to affecting his return to Parliament. I was able to confront the editor of the internet site at a public meeting to get him to admit that he was making these statements about my character and conduct to damage my vote, and I then reported him to the police under the terms of section 106.

That led to a trial in December 1998 in a magistrates court. After three days of cross-examination of myself, and a series of smears and lies put forward on behalf of the person on trial by Mr. Paul Bogan, his barrister, Mr. Bogan admitted on the last day of the trial: I accept that there is no evidence of a direct nature that Dr. Lewis was homosexual. In fact, Mr. Bogan produced no shred of evidence of any sort, nor was a single witness produced.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I would be grateful if the hon. Member could help me by demonstrating how his remarks are related to the Bill before us.

Dr. Lewis

I am obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was encouraged by the meeting that I had with the Minister this morning and I was told that it would be germane to talk about this case with a view to tabling an amendment in Committee to close the loophole that I am about to explain. I have almost finished my remarks on the illustration, and, if you bear with me a few moments longer, you will see that it is entirely germane.

In the December trial, this gentleman was convicted on seven criminal counts. However, on appeal in the Crown court in June this year, those convictions were quashed. They were quashed because the material had been uploaded on to the internet before the opening of the election campaign, and thus while I was a prospective parliamentary candidate, not an adopted parliamentary candidate. The Press Association law reporter quoted the judgment as follows: the judge said: 'Failure of the defendant to act to shut down the internet site cannot be properly described as publication in the context of this Act.' He went on"— here is the direct relevance of the case, Mr. Deputy Speaker—.

'We are aware that our decision means that there is a situation which is unsatisfactory if Section 106 (of the Act) is to continue to be effective legislation. We are not entitled to remedy any defect the wording of the section may have in light of more modem conditions."'

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point in the context of this Bill and much other legislation. Will he explain why, given the logic that he is pursuing, he thought it appropriate to vote last night against the Electronic Communications Bill, which contains provisions that will help to address some of the points that he has raised?

Dr. Lewis

I was not aware that that Bill contained such provisions—I wish to be entirely honest with the hon. Gentleman. Had I been aware of them, I would have reconsidered the matter.

Mr. Fabricant

My hon. Friend's memory, which is normally very good, has failed on this occasion. He did not vote against the Bill; he abstained.

Dr. Lewis

Much as I appreciate my hon. Friend's attempt to assist me, I am aware of the passage of time and the importance of letting other Members speak, and we are moving into arcane considerations in which I have no wish to indulge.

The judgment made it clear that section 106 of the 1983 Act is deficient. As a result of the creation of the internet, people can upload lies about a candidate in an election, but, provided that they do so prior to the start of the election campaign, failure to shut down the website in question is not enough to establish that publication occurred during the election campaign itself, and thus to establish guilt under section 106.

I understand from the Minister that he has experienced something slightly similar to my case, although the allegations against him were of a different nature. Our cases show that section 106 of the 1983 Act is now worthless in respect of protecting candidates for election against deliberate lies told about their personal lives and character with the intention of damaging their chances of returning to Parliament.

I therefore hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in seeking to support an amendment that I propose to table in Committee to restore to candidates the protection against lying filth and the disgraceful attempts to pervert the political process which section 106 was originally intended to prevent. Now that we are in the age of the internet, I am sure that such protection will be of value to all candidates of all parties in all future parliamentary elections.

9.12 pm
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

I am aware of the time constraints, so I shall limit my comments to two or, if time allows, three items. Most of the points that I would want to make have been made much more eloquently by previous speakers.

My first point relates to clause 13, which deals with people with disabilities. Obviously, I welcome any measure that will ensure that disabled people have the right to vote and are more easily able to vote than at the moment. However, the Bill makes the process an awful lot more bureaucratic than is necessary, and I hope that we will consider that clause in Committee and try to remove some of the bureaucracy.

Most of us who want to vote can go to the polling station, give our name and address or hand in our polling card, get our ballot paper and cast our vote. Surely we should seek the same provision for disabled people, with the addition only of provision for a helper. We should be able to do without the bureaucratic nonsense of requiring disabled people to identify that helper and have his or her name recorded.

My second point concerns voter apathy and fatigue, which has been mentioned by other hon. Members but which is not dealt with in the Bill. It may not be appropriate for it to be covered, and I look to the Minister to say whether or not that is the case. It seems a shame that we might miss the opportunity to try to overcome the voter apathy and fatigue that occur when there are several elections in quick succession.

In the elections in June this year, one reason people gave us for not voting was that they had just voted in May and were being asked to do so again soon afterwards. We should take this opportunity to give the Home Secretary the right in future years to hold two elections on the same day. Surely that would overcome much of the apathy and fatigue and increase the turnout.

Wigan, unfortunately, has a record of low turnout. In May, the local council carried out a survey among voters. We gave those who were carrying out the survey the marked register, so that they knew who had voted and who had not, and they carried out face-to-face interviews on that basis. We got a far more accurate reflection of people's views in that way.

One of the questions asked was how voting turnout could be improved. It is interesting to note that the three main suggestions were not measures that Parliament or local councils could put into effect, but steps that political parties and candidates could take. They included issues such as doorstep canvassing and greater information about candidates. Of the measures suggested which the Bill addresses, the first was postal voting, so I welcome the introduction of postal votes being granted on demand.

The second suggestion was the introduction of electronic voting, both from home and from other sites such as libraries. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will take account of the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward). Perhaps the organisations that operate the means of electronic voting might be persuaded to cover the cost of pilot schemes. If they do not volunteer to do so, I hope that my right hon. Friend will provide funding to enable the experiments to be carried out. It strikes me that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made a good case for maximising the use of such schemes.

I welcome the Bill, and I look forward to tabling amendments during the Committee stage to address the concerns I have expressed.

9.16 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Like many other right hon. and hon. Members, I welcome the broad thrust of the legislation. However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), I believe that the Bill might well be a wolf in sheep's clothing. Like so many other new Labour Bills, it is a blank cheque, with much detail left out and many powers left in to enable the Home Secretary to make changes through secondary legislation. That is dangerous, not only for the parties concerned but for democracy in this country.

Nevertheless, the debate has highlighted some interesting issues. With his characteristic enthusiasm for high technology, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) spoke of the use of the internet. That might well prove to be an effective means of preventing multiple declarations. Like all of us, the Home Secretary wants people to be able to get on the register far more easily than they currently can. That is especially important in the light of increased mobility of labour and of households, with 10 per cent. of the population moving each year.

As I pointed out, if that mobility means that there might be a need for as many as 4 million changes to the electoral register each year, the register must be accurate. So my first point, which is meant to be constructive, is that, despite what civil libertarians might say, it might be no bad thing to keep a central, national register. I suspect that that accords with the views of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes).

There is a possibility that voting via the internet will be allowed. Given that it would be possible to vote from any site, not only within the UK, but anywhere in the world where there is internet access, steps would have to be taken to prevent personation. That can be achieved: if Amazon.com can ensure that no credit card fraud occurs in its book sales, I am sure that it is not beyond the Government's wit to prevent electoral personation. Certainly, voting off a national register could be arranged to ensure that a second vote could not be made.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) mentioned the difficulties he has encountered with websites. I, too, would like to draw a problem to the Minister's attention. There is no provision in the Bill that would deal with it and the hon. Gentleman might like to think about it. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have websites, which might use "MP" in the target or uniform resource locator address. It is not easy to change the name of a URL. Technically it could be argued that by retaining "MP" during a general election, when Parliament has been dissolved, one is in breach of the Representation of the People Act. It is a problem that needs to be addressed.

If the right hon. Member for Gorton gets his way and ensures that anyone living abroad for more than five years is disfranchised, that would be mean and dishonest. The Government have reduced pension values by up to 20 per cent. by their raid on pension funds. Many people abroad have pensions in the United Kingdom, and while they may not be paying taxes in this country, they have investments here. Being British citizens, they have every right to ensure that they have a vote. Labour Members may feel that those people will vote Conservative, aware as they are that the raid on pension funds is a grave disincentive to their ever voting for new Labour.

9.21 pm
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition on the Second Reading of an important constitutional Bill. I suspect that we have all declared an interest because we are all interested in the increased participation of our electorates—especially when they vote for us.

I thank the Minister for making it clear that consideration of the Bill in Committee will be held on the Floor of the House. That is vital. I am extremely grateful that we shall all have an opportunity to participate in Committee.

I believe that the Bill was born of good intentions, but there are deep flaws in it. Like many of my colleagues, I am deeply concerned at the lack of public consultation following the findings and recommendations of the working group on electoral procedure. I am aware that the Government are keen to get the Bill through Parliament at breakneck speed—never mind the quality, just feel the speed. However, I urge caution on them. It is a far-reaching Bill with sweeping powers for the Home Secretary that could change the way elections are held, with minimal participation of the House once the Bill becomes an Act. The powers are excessive and I believe that they must be trimmed in the name of good government.

The need for a Bill is unquestioned but the need for this Bill is questionable. I shall not damn the entire Bill because it does not deserve that. There is much within it that deserves credit, and I shall refer to some of those features. I hope also that my criticisms will be constructive.

No one doubts the need to increase participation rates at elections, from general to local and, of course, European. There are many reasons why turnouts at elections are declining. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) said that there is a low level of interest at some elections, and that is right. One of my constituents said that she did not vote in a local government election because she felt that when the councillors turned down a planning application, which went to appeal, with an inspector coming from Bristol and overturning the local councillors' decision, that was a denial of democracy. She felt that it was not worth voting in local elections. That is an example of a feeling that we must address.

There are many reasons why the turnout at local elections is pitifully low, at 40 per cent., while in Germany, for example, it is 72 per cent. The turnout at the European elections was absolutely dismal, declining from 36 per cent. to 23.3 per cent., compared with 64 per cent. in Spain. We are definitely at the bottom of the European league table for turnouts at European elections. Indeed, the turnouts at such elections are falling faster than the value of the euro, and that is really saying something. If the turnout declines much further, it will be only the close friends and relatives of the candidates who will be taking part in the elections. I suspect that the registration of the homeless and continuous registration will do nothing to halt the decline of voting in European elections. The system of voting was decrepit, as we told the Government, and the turnout has convinced us that that was the case. There is a crisis of democracy in European elections in Britain which must be addressed forthwith.

In general elections, the decline is smaller but still worrying. It is as though the graffiti generation had said, "Don't vote for the politicians—it only encourages them." We must tackle the problem.

Having accepted the need for considered change, I shall comment on the topics raised in the debate, which in the main has been constructive. Several of the hon. Members present contributed to the debate. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) spoke about the new technology that can be used to promote voting. It cannot be introduced immediately, but perhaps some can be tested in the pilots. I understand that some new technology is being examined in consultation with British Telecom.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) spoke about the rolling register and proposed an annual reminder. I agree that a national campaign is needed to encourage people to register at certain times during the year. He also referred to clause 9, as did several hon. Members, and the sale of the commercial register. I hope that the Government will give careful consideration to the problems that that raises.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) dealt with several aspects of the Bill. All hon. Members welcome the provisions on disability, which ensure that disabled people can go to a polling station and vote in person. It is important for them to be able to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) spoke passionately about the last time her late mother went to vote and almost had to be carried into the polling station. That is wrong. We must review access to our polling stations, and perhaps hold discussions with Scope, the Royal National Institute for the Blind and other charities that act on behalf of disabled people. They can give advice to the Government, and we must take it on board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale spoke about early voting and the fact that the Bill seems to contain no limits on when early voting can take place. He also spoke about exit polls and the possibility that exit polls taken after early voting could influence the outcome of the election.

The reduction of the 20-year period during which people resident overseas can vote in the UK could be called the Ashcroft amendment. Let us be adult about the matter. It has been mentioned in whispers from the Government Benches, but it is important. I remember that during the last general election campaign, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) paraded herself round the beaches of Spain, trying to get people to vote for the Labour party. No doubt we, too, had hon. Members trying to encourage overseas voters to vote for us. We should not penalise the 3 million people who can vote as overseas electors simply because the Government have a vendetta against one person.

Ms Ward

Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that this is not about one individual, although it will have an impact on that individual? Does he not realise that people who live abroad for as long as 20 years are not voting for a future with which they have some connection? They are voting because they have a past with Britain. It is important that people who vote for a Government live under the policies of that Government, not in another country where they are not affected by the consequences of their vote.

Mr. Evans

I wholly disagree with the hon. Lady. Many of those people have a deep interest in the United Kingdom. They have pensions from businesses, and they pay tax on their pensions; they have houses and they may pay property taxes; and they may have intentions of coming back to the UK.

This is not the Bill in which to introduce the change that the Government propose. Like the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, I believe that we should reflect further on the change. It seems to have been introduced in the heat of the moment, while attention is concentrated on one person. I do not believe that that is the Home Secretary's intention. We should therefore reflect further.

The hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) mentioned assistance for local authorities participating in the pilot schemes. That is important so that local authorities are not deterred, especially from going down the more expensive electronic routes.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) made a witty contribution as usual. I was not in the Chamber, but I understand that his speech was funny. The hon. Gentleman is the one pound that the Conservatives are not keen to save at the next election. He was right about clause 9: the Government must think again.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) made many important suggestions, especially the proposal on dual registration. Perhaps we should reconsider that during the Bill's passage, and provide for people who are registered in a couple of places to specify where they intend to vote in a general election.

I cannot believe that residents in old people's homes found it difficult to recognise my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). I am sure that they all know him, and look forward to his frequent visits. My hon. Friend made an important point about security and the electoral register. For many reasons, some people do not want their names published. Jill Dando was mentioned, and we must consider the point seriously. My hon. Friend also asked us to take account of history when we consider changing polling day from Thursday to Saturday and Sunday. Many people go on weekend breaks and perhaps would not be back to vote on Saturday and Sunday. Thus despite holding the election on two days, the turnout could be lower.

The hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) criticised us for intending to delay the Bill. We want to improve, not delay the measure. She talked about the rolling register, which I welcome. We could all give examples of people who just missed registering and find it difficult to vote. The hon. Lady also spoke passionately about the disabled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) mentioned his anxieties about the pilot schemes. I share his worries that, once the pilot schemes have been undertaken, the Bill will give the Home Secretary vast powers. While we accept that the Home Secretary would not abuse them, he may not always be in that position and a Labour Member who is a little more shifty than the current incumbent might take over. We must therefore be careful.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said that he was disappointed by our approach. I hope that he will accept that we are sincere in our desire to improve the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West emphasised that we must encourage the electorate's interest in voting. We must ensure not only that people register but that they want to vote.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who is well known for his work on trying to introduce a rolling register in this country, expressed the hope that it would be a proper rolling register, and not simply covered with a veneer of modernity. We all agree with that. He also spoke passionately about his wish for disabled people to have the opportunity to vote in person at polling stations. We all support that. However, if we are to introduce early voting and one polling station where people can turn up to even out the numbers, we must ensure that the system is secure and that people cannot double vote.

Mr. Barnes

I am pleased that the Opposition are in favour of disabled access to polling stations. When that policy was pursued in the previous Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition helped to block the measure when he was a junior Minister at the Department of Social Security.

Mr. Evans

As ever, we are a listening and caring Opposition on our journey to government. We want to ensure that the changes are secure. We do not want to make it easy for people to double vote and defraud the system. That deep anxiety was reflected in the Select Committee on Home Affairs and in the working party.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) talked about section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and told a personal story. He was brave to speak about the trauma that he went through, and I wish him well in tabling amendments to the Bill that will assist him and others who may suffer.

The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) talked about disabilities and the potential for using new technology to improve access to the vote. He is absolutely right about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) talked about using the internet for voting—I suspect that few Members of the House know more about it than he does—and the problems with using the initials "MP" after our names on the internet. If we do so, we could fall foul of all sorts of difficulties.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

My hon. Friend is giving an excellent summing up. Will he reflect on overseas voting? Does he agree that many people work overseas for perhaps 20, 30 or 40 years and that their numbers are increasing? Although the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) seems to think that such people live abroad permanently, they often return to this country, are part of it, pay taxes in it, have children and grandchildren in it and should be entitled to vote.

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Bill seems to have been born of a vendetta against one person, but 3 million people who live overseas can vote in elections.

For goodness' sake, the Bill is supposed to increase the number of people who participate in elections, but Labour Members are threatening to table an amendment that could decrease that number. [Interruption.] If Labour Members want to be honest about this, they should put Michael Ashcroft's name in the Bill and not deny 3 million others the opportunity to vote.

I believe that the fault lines that run deep through the Bill will have undemocratic consequences, although I do not say that that is intentional. It is intended to increase voter participation, but an amendment may be tabled that could reduce the electorate by 3 million. The upside is that the domestic electorate will be increased, but by only a fraction of that number. The chances of multiple voting will be increased with the introduction of the travelling voter; not the homeless, but the shameless, will abuse the system and they will move their votes not out of necessity, but out of opportunity. Tactical voting will be replaced by tactical registration, which will give a fresh lease of life to the old Irish maxim, "Vote early, vote often." We want the currently enfranchised to vote more often and the disabled to be given the opportunity to play their own full and personal role in all elections.

Ms Ward

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evans

I do not have time.

We want the electorate to be reconnected to the British democratic system, which has been battered and vandalised by the Labour Government during their internal election farces—in Wales over who would lead the Welsh Assembly and in London over the mayoralty— and their external electoral farces, such as those related to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999. We want to achieve a more modern and efficient way of voting that maintains the confidence that people have in the system, and we want to make it easier for people to vote. We do not want to make it easier for people to cheat.

Further careful consideration of all the proposals that we have debated this evening is necessary before the Bill goes any further, which is why we have tabled our amendment. The Home Secretary, Ministers and Labour Members all have the same interest as us in giving more people the opportunity to participate fully and freely in all elections in this country, but the Bill contains fault lines. We want them to be put right before it proceeds and, because of the problems that have led to clause 9 being included, we believe that there should have been more consultation with charities and businesses.

We also believe that more consultation should have taken place once the working group had reported. The Government, however, have decided not to consult further, and we understand that they want to pass the Bill quickly so that they can have pilots up and running by May 2000. I ask them again: please do not push the Bill through the House quickly. Let us improve it so that we can all support it. If the Government listen to the House, there will be proper consensus.

9.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

The Bill is part of a wider programme of constitutional modernisation and democratic renewal undertaken by the new Labour Government. Our electoral procedure plays a fundamental role in our democracy. It is a tribute to the work done by the modernisers of the 19th century that their legacy in electoral law has stood the test of time. At the end of this century, it still carries much legitimacy and respect.

However, some areas need updating, and the Howarth working party recommendations will bring the procedures out of the 19th and into the 21st century. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) as chairman of the working party, and to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) whose work on rolling registers is a source of these proposals. In his contribution to the debate, he set out further ambitious proposals. I am not sure that we can go as far as he wants in all respects, but he will play a substantial part in the consideration of the Bill and will no doubt have more innovative ideas. He made a telling point about the Leader of the Opposition's conversion to helping the disabled to vote. The right hon. Gentleman has now realised that my hon. Friend's ideas were common sense all along.

As I said, there is much in our electoral law of which we can be proud. We were one of the first countries to legislate to provide a free and fair electoral system, secret ballots, limits on election expenditure, a ban on "treating" and much else. None of us would contemplate removing any of those provisions. That said, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) pointed out, our procedures are far from perfect. Indeed, it is arguably the very success and stability of our democracy that has made us slow to update our electoral procedures to take account of changes in modern society. We recognise, as did the working party, that the foundations of our parliamentary procedures are strong, but the legislation that is built on those foundations must be up to date so as to maintain legitimacy in the years ahead.

I hope that the Bill will address the concerns about low turnout that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and I share. The legislative changes to registration and absent voting, and the enabling of local authorities to run pilot schemes to try out innovative electoral procedures, will give all of us a dramatic and long-term opportunity to improve the way in which our elections are run.

I want to deal with some of the specific points raised in the debate, and come first to the extraordinary opening speech of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). It was symbolic of where the Conservative party stands today. The Bill merely implements the recommendations of the Howarth working party, on which members of the Conservative party sat. It broadly agrees with the proposals of Conservative and other members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It is a straightforward Bill, but we are told that it is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Such a comment is symbolic of the Tory party as we know it today—and increasingly over recent weeks—because it shows rampant paranoia.

Talking of savage sheep, the claim made by the hon. Member for Ryedale that this sheep has wolf s teeth rests on a number of arguments. Let us see how sharp these teeth really are. He said that there was no regulatory impact assessment and the Government were therefore trying to sneak the Bill through without one. Did he check with the Library? Did he not know that a regulatory impact assessment has been available in the usual way since 18 November? He did not need to ask the Prime Minister whether it was available, he just needed to check. I am assured that the regulatory impact assessment was hand delivered to the Library, and is there if he wishes to read it. His point did not have much bite to it.

Mr. Greenway

With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, will he explain why, before the debate started, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) received a response from the Prime Minister saying that he would reply to my hon. Friend in due course, but it was only after I had left the Chamber at 6.30 pm that the Minister's written answer to me was available on the letter board?

Mr. O'Brien

If the hon. Gentleman had done the normal thing and checked with the Library, as other Members feel able to do, he would have found that the regulatory impact assessment is there, and that his claim that we are trying to sneak something past the House is entirely illegitimate.

The hon. Gentleman also claimed that the pilot schemes were originally supposed to be only for local elections, but are now intended for parliamentary elections. Let us be clear about this—the pilot schemes will be involved only in local elections, and only after an affirmative resolution of the House can particular procedures be extended to parliamentary elections. That means that there would be further debate and a further vote in the House before that happened.

We do not intend to proceed unilaterally. The legitimacy of our electoral procedures depends on agreement between the major parties that the voting procedure is valid, and we would want broad support before changing it. We certainly would not want to try to push things through in an illegitimate way. We have been clear about that all along. The hon. Gentleman's claim has no teeth.

Mr. Greenway

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman one last time.

Mr. Greenway

I shall not intervene again, but what the Minister is saying appears to be extremely important. Is he saying that, whatever the experience of the pilot schemes, which, if the Bill is passed, will be launched in May, and notwithstanding the powers that the Home Secretary is taking in clause 11—powers which go far beyond anything that the working party proposed, and which certainly were not contained in its recommendations published in July—the Government will extend the pilot schemes to the general election only if there is consensus among all parties in the House?

Mr. O'Brien

We have said that we will act according to consensus wherever possible. We have made it clear that these are powers not for the Home Secretary, but for the House of Commons: they are powers enabling the House of Commons to make a decision to vote on an issue by affirmative resolution. The hon. Gentleman's claims that we are somehow trying to push things through have no legitimacy.

The hon. Gentleman's third argument was that we were trying to legislate to alter the period applying to overseas voters. By the time that the hon. Gentleman began his speech, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had already said that we did not intend to try to do that in the Bill, but the hon. Gentleman had written his speech before the event and proceeded at length to tell us why we should not do something that we were not intending to do in any case.

Mr. Miller

I think that I have discovered why the Conservative party has become so interested in this matter. The draft register relating to my constituency, which was sent to me today, revealed that a lady had said that she would be registering in France next year. She is a Mrs. Lynn Turnbull, who turns out to have been my Conservative opponent at the last election. Are all the Tories going to register abroad? If so, perhaps the Home Secretary will act quickly and sort the matter out for good.

Mr. O'Brien

We wait to see more of the wonders that we have beheld in recent days in the Conservative party.

The next claim made by the hon. Member for Ryedale was that there had been no consultation. I will not go into all the consultation that there has been, such as the consultation over two years with local authorities and electoral registration officers through the working party, and in which the Conservatives were fully involved. I will not go into the details of the interim report and the public response to it, or the details of the 1999 report and the public response to that. I will not go into the fact that all the commercial companies that deal with the registers participated in a consultation document, or the fact that the Home Affairs Select Committee took public evidence in which the Conservative party was involved. All that happened, yet the hon. Gentleman claimed that there was no consultation. I bet he wishes that there was that amount of consultation on every Bill.

The hon. Gentleman commented on how awful it was that the Government did not appear to be considering taking the Committee stage on the Floor of the House. If his hon. Friends had told him, he would have known that it was agreed before the Bill came before us that the Committee stage would be taken on the Floor. I do not want to be paranoid—perhaps his hon. Friends did not tell him. He may have to take that up with them, in today's Conservative party.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, far from being a wolf in sheep's clothing, the Bill is what it appears to be. If he wants to call it a sheep, it is a sheep in sheep's clothing. It is a straightforward Bill, involving no mendacity. I hope mat we can now proceed as we should, by way of debate and agreement.

I want to deal with one important issue that has arisen throughout the debate—the sale of the register. The hon. Members for Ryedale and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) and others all raised that issue. They are concerned about social exclusion as a result of the sale of an edited register.

It is important to point out that the register will still be available to commercial companies, but that it will be edited to allow people the choice not to be on the register. Electoral returning officers have made it clear that they get more complaints about names being sold to commercial companies than anything else.

The working party decided that it was a matter of principle that people should not be under a statutory duty to provide personal information about their names and whereabouts when they had no say in whether that information should be sold or used for purposes that were different from those that they had agreed. It said that they would have no choice in that and that that was wrong.

We have already heard of examples of abused spouses or those who do not want junk mail. People are concerned that a CD-ROM containing all the election registers in the country can be offered free on the front of a computer magazine. If you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, want to find out where anyone lives, it is possible, with some of the new computers, quickly to identify that person's address. Such information can be offered free on the front of a magazine without the consent of those who have given that information under a statutory duty. A fundamental principle is involved—people should not be forced into that situation.

As I have said, social exclusion is a serious issue. The argument that people who are poor may be denied credit because they have opted out of the commercially available register needs to be dealt with. The Bill will make it easier for those who change address frequently to register at a new address. Therefore, in some ways, if they are potentially socially excluded they will have a better chance under the Bill of getting on a register and gaining access to credit. That would be an improvement.

Everyone should be given the right to make a choice, but the important thing is that it should be an informed choice. If they choose to tick the box—it will be their choice; they will have to make the decision—to exclude themselves from the edited register that is sold on, they should do it in an informed way.

We are discussing with the industry funding for a leaflet that would be agreed with us. We should remember that none of it will happen before an affirmative resolution is brought before the House, so there is plenty of opportunity to continue the discussions. The industry has suggested that it may be willing to provide that funding. The leaflet could go out with all electoral application forms, so that people would know what they were doing when they decided to tick that box. They would know that it might affect their credit rating and they would be informed of a number of other issues of which they need to be aware.

If we can reach agreement on that leaflet—I see no reason why we should not—that will give people the opportunity to make an informed choice. Whether people are potentially socially excluded or otherwise, they should have the right to that choice. It should be an informed choice. The ability to opt out of the register, rather than to opt in, should be available to everyone.

We can look at all those issues in detail in Committee. There may be a way in which we can move forward. We do not have to do it during consideration of the Bill; we may be able to do it in later discussions. There may be a way to allow people to put their names on the edited register later. They may choose to make their names available later—having previously thought that they would not need access to credit—if they need access to credit and therefore wish to be included in the edited register. We can consider those issues in the coming months, discuss them with the industry and see how we can take them forward without compromising the fundamental principle.

Mr. Evans

The Minister will be aware that sometimes only the head of the household fills in the form. That person could tick the box on behalf of an entire household without some of them knowing that their credit status had been removed on their behalf.

Mr. O'Brien

That can already happen. We are considering the issues with the industry and looking at how to take them forward. We do not need to compromise the fundamental principle or cause the damage that some in the industry seem to think may be caused.

Many issues have been raised during the debate. I shall not be able to respond to all Members who have spoken, but I hope to write to those with whose points I do not deal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said in his trenchant speech that he wanted more opportunities for telephone voting. We can consider a pilot—it might be possible for some voters, particularly the blind. We shall have an opportunity to consider such options and how to move forward on electronic voting. He also asked for the deadline for absent voters to be reduced. The working party considered that, but concluded, on the strong advice of the electoral administrators, that it was not currently practicable. The proposal to allow postal votes on demand should enable many more people who want to vote by post to do so.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) expressed concern about the affirmative resolution procedure. Perhaps we can discuss that at length in Committee. We are talking only about moving forward on a successful, evaluated, confirmed and broadly supported pilot scheme that would amend, to an extent, the way in which we might vote. We intend to move forward with broad support when possible. An affirmative resolution on the Floor of the House will be needed. If such detailed issues were contained in a Bill, they might end up being dealt with in Committee. It is better that they should be dealt with on the Floor of the House. The extensions of procedural ability to vote are marginal and are not likely to be widely opposed. I should like to have time to deal with other points raised by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), but I am sure that they will forgive me for not doing so.

By modernising electoral procedures, we shall make it easier and more convenient for people to vote and to exercise their rights in a democracy. In renewing our democracy, it is important that we reflect modern life styles and behaviour. That is essential if we are to gain the interest of young people in the democratic process and encourage the participation of everybody in our elections. Democracy is nothing if people do not exercise their ability to vote. The Bill is about ensuring that people get the opportunity to vote.

It is small consolation in many democracies that fewer people are voting. That trend is evident not just here, but across the western world. The Bill will help to give access to the ballot to the disabled, the armed services, the elderly, the young and many others. The Howarth working party on electoral procedures was a non-partisan attempt to address the issues and create greater opportunities for democratic participation. It sought to proceed by consensus and it involved all parties. I want the whole House to be able to support the Bill. I ask the Conservatives not to press their reasoned amendment to a vote and I ask the House to support the Bill.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 143, Noes 332.

Division No. 7] [11.43 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Cotter, Brian
Ainger, Nick Cousins, Jim
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Cran, James
Alexander, Douglas Cranston, Ross
Allen, Graham Crausby, David
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Atkins, Charlotte Cummings, John
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Austin, John
Baker, Norman Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Banks, Tony Curry, Rt Hon David
Barnes, Harry Dalyell, Tarn
Battle, John Darvill, Keith
Bayley, Hugh Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Beard, Nigel Davidson, Ian
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Dawson, Hilton
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Day, Stephen
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Dean, Mrs Janet
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Denham, John
Bennett, Andrew F Dobbin, Jim
Benton, Joe Donohoe, Brian H
Bermingham, Gerald Dowd, Jim
Best, Harold Drew, David
Blackman, Liz Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Blears, Ms Hazel Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Blizzard, Bob Edwards, Huw
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Efford, Clive
Borrow, David Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Ennis, Jeff
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Evans, Nigel
Bradshaw, Ben Fabricant, Michael
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Field, Rt Hon Frank
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Fisher, Mark
Browne, Desmond Fitzpatrick, Jim
Burden, Richard Fitzsimons, Lorna
Burnett, John Flint, Caroline
Butler, Mrs Christine Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Campbell—Savours, Dale Fox, Dr Liam
Cann, Jamie Gapes, Mike
Caplin, Ivor Gardiner, Barry
Caton, Martin Gerrard, Neil
Cawsey, Ian Gibson, Dr Ian
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Godman, Dr Norman A
Clapham, Michael Godsiff, Roger
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Goggins, Paul
Golding, Mrs Llin
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Gray, James
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clelland, David Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Clwyd, Ann Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Coaker, Vernon Hanson, David
Coffey, Ms Ann Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Cohen, Harry Heald, Oliver
Coleman, Iain Healey, John
Connarty, Michael Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Corbett, Robin Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Corbyn, Jeremy Hepburn, Stephen
Heppell, John Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hesford, Stephen Mallaber, Judy
Hill, Keith Mallon, Seamus
Hodge, Ms Margaret Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Hope, Phil Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Hopkins, Kelvin Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Martlew, Eric
Hoyle, Lindsay Mates, Michael
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Maxton, John
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Meale, Alan
Humble, Mrs Joan Merron, Gillian
Hurst, Alan Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hutton, John Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Iddon, Dr Brian Miller, Andrew
Illsley, Eric Mitchell, Austin
Ingram, Rt Hon Adam Moonie, Dr Lewis
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Moran, Ms Margaret
Jenkins, Brian Moriey, Elliot
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Mountford, Kali
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) Mullin, Chris
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Norris, Dan
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Keeble, Ms Sally Olner, Bill
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Öpik, Lembit
Kemp, Fraser Organ, Mrs Diana
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Osborne, Ms Sandra
Khabra, Piara S Palmer, Dr Nick
Kidney, David Pearson, Ian
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Pendry, Tom
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Pickthall, Colin
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Pike, Peter L
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Plaskitt, James
Kumar, Dr Ashok Pollard, Kerry
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Pond, Chris
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Pope, Greg
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Pound, Stephen
Lepper, David Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Leslie, Christopher Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Letwin, Oliver Prescott, Rt Hon John
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Primarolo, Dawn
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Prosser, Gwyn
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Purchase, Ken
Linton, Martin Quinn, Lawrie
Livsey, Richard Radice, Rt Hon Giles
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Rammell, Bill
Lock, David Raynsford, Nick
Love, Andrew Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
McAvoy, Thomas Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield) Rooney, Terry
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
McDonagh, Siobhain Rowlands, Ted
Macdonald, Calum Roy, Frank
McDonnell, John Ruane, Chris
McFall, John Ruddock, Joan
McGuire, Mrs Anne Ruffley, David
McIsaac, Shona Russell, Bob (Colchester)
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Ryan, Ms Joan
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Sanders, Adrian
Mackinlay, Andrew Sedgemore, Brian
McLoughlin, Patrick Sheerman, Barry
McNulty, Tony Shipley, Ms Debra
McWilliam, John Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Singh, Marsha Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Twgg, Stephen (Enfield)
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Tynan, Bill
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Walker, Cecil
Soley, Clive Walley, Ms Joan
Squire, Ms Rachel Ward, Ms Claire
Steinberg, Gerry Wareing, Robert N
Stevenson, George Watts, David
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Webb, Steve
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) White, Brian
Stinchcombe, Paul Whitehead, Dr Alan
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Wicks, Malcolm
Stringer, Graham Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Gerry Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury) Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Wills, Michael
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S) Winnick, David
Taylor, David (NW Leics) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Wood, Mike
Temple-Morris, Peter Woodward, Shaun
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W) Woolas, Phil
Timms, Stephen Worthington, Tony
Tipping, Paddy Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Todd, Mark Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Touhig, Don Tellers for the Ayes:
Trickett, Jon Mr. David Jamieson and
Trimble, Rt Hon David Mr. Clive Betts.
Beggs, Roy Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Donaldson, Jeffrey Swayne, Desmond
Forsythe, Clifford Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Hunter, Andrew
Paterson, Owen Tellers for the Noes:
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Mr. William Thompson and
Ross, William (E Lond'y) Rev. Ian Paisley.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 62 (Amendment on Second or Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time,

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills),

That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Pope.]

Question agreed to.

Committee tomorrow.