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'3E.--(1) The Secretary of State shall by regulations prescribe the form of the ballot paper to be used at the poll for the election of representatives to the European Parliament.
(2) Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, the ballot paper shall include, separately from the list of candidates, a brief explanatory statement describing the method of election and the procedure to be followed by each elector in casting his vote or votes.'.

I do not think that I should be courting too much controversy if I said that the simplicity which has been alleged on behalf of the new electoral system for the European elections is not invincibly self-evident to everyone. If the Committee has at times struggled with divisors, proportionality and so on, the electors will have even more of a struggle when confronted with the system.

We owe it to the electors to explain to them what is happening. We should not just present to them the choices that they are offered, but explain how the system works and what will happen after they have cast their votes. That is a fairly simple proposition which ought to be adhered to in a democracy.

We hope that the Government will welcome the amendment. It requires the ballot paper to include, separately from the list of candidates,


That would be helpful to electors.

There are grounds for suspecting that the Government themselves feel that the system needs more explanation. There has been talk of expensive advertising campaigns. Apparently, there is an internal debate in the Government

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about how best to explain the system to the public. The amendment provides one way of doing just that. Perhaps the Government should think carefully about providing reading rooms or something similar where electors could go to study the new system and see how to go about casting their vote.

The amendment is intended to be constructive. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments on how the Government intend to explain the new system to the electorate and whether the names of the candidates will appear separately on the ballot as the amendment suggests.

Mr. Hogg: I agree with the spirit of the amendment, but not with the precise form. The real issue is the complexity that flows from the changes that the Committee is considering. I do not think that the problem can be addressed by an explanatory statement attached to the ballot paper--if only because people going to a polling station do not expect to have to sit around for a long time reading an explanatory statement--but that we need an explanatory statement to be sent to the electorate is self-evident.

My suggestion is that the Minister agree to the principle set out in the amendment and agree further that an explanatory statement should be sent to all electors in good time for the relevant election. That would be most desirable and helpful.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): The amendment provides the opportunity to raise the question of access to voting stations for blind and partially sighted people, a matter which I am sure concerns many hon. Members. I have raised this issue in debates on other Bills that will change our voting system. I should be interested to hear what plans the Government have to ensure that, when the new system of voting is introduced for the European elections, the maximum opportunity is provided to blind and partially sighted people to enable them to exercise their right to vote unaided and in person at the polling station.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I had not intended to speak to this amendment, but I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman says and would like to extend the discussion to include access for people with a range of disabilities, not just those that he mentioned. It is a matter I have raised in the all-party disablement group. The European elections provide us with an opportunity to consider the question of access. I could not miss the chance to say that, because it is such an important matter.

Mr. Burstow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He and I have attended meetings of the all-party disablement group at which "Polls Apart 2", the report published by Scope, has been discussed. That report highlights concern about access to polling stations during the most recent general election. Several of Scope's recommendations should be considered so that we increase the turnout at the next European parliamentary elections.

I want to find out how the Government will ensure that blind and partially sighted people can vote unaided and in person at the polling station. They are often expected to

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use a postal vote instead, but I want to disabuse people of the idea that that is acceptable. Blind and partially sighted people have a fundamental right to exercise their vote on the same day as everyone else. Will the Government experiment with braille templates and larger print formats, so that more people can exercise their vote in person in future European elections?

Miss McIntosh: The arguments for the amendment are self-evident and have been sufficiently rehearsed. My concern is that the local elections will be held on one system, but, within a month, the electors will be asked to vote under a novel and rather complicated system. If the Government are not minded to accept the amendment, what efforts will they make to explain the new procedures before electors enter the polling booth?

Ms Quin: I have listened carefully to hon. Members' comments in this brief debate. I shall respond in the spirit of the concerns that have been expressed, although I do not believe that the amendment is necessary or entirely helpful. On the aim and spirit of what has been said, there is little between the Opposition and the Government--I particularly endorse the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).

I assure the Committee that the form of the ballot paper will be set out in regulations which will be made by the Secretary of State and subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. The Government firmly intend that the names of all the people included on party lists should appear on the ballot paper. The Committee will know that we arranged for four sample ballot papers to be placed in the Library. Those hon. Members--including, I presume, Opposition Front Benchers--who have examined the sample will have seen clearly that candidates' names appear. I hope that there are no doubts about the Government's intentions on that.

Obviously, as happens currently, a ballot paper will contain straightforward instructions to the elector about how to fill it in. The new system will continue to be simple--the instruction will be "Place one cross on the ballot paper". No doubt we can consider whether that wording could be improved or amplified, but there will certainly be something of that nature on the ballot paper.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) suggested that the ballot paper should contain a description of how the electoral system works. Such a move would be unprecedented; it is a surprising proposal from a party that has argued against electoral reform. We do not believe, for the reasons given by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion is particularly helpful.

We do not have a description of the method of election on the ballot paper. I do not accept that there is less need to do so for elections conducted by the first-past-the-post system, as everyone, including first-time voters, is assumed to understand how it works.

Plenty of first-time voters may be unclear about the mechanics of the existing system. Equally, EU citizens can vote in local elections here, although they may not be familiar with the system. However, we do not provide them with explanations on the ballot paper, and with good reason. As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, the design of a ballot paper

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should be as simple and clear as possible, with no information that might confuse voters or cause unnecessary delay in the voting process. It is significant that in Northern Ireland, where the more complicated STV system is used for all elections other than parliamentary ones, the ballot paper merely gives directions on how to vote, without further explanation of the system.

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) raised an important point. Other hon. Members also referred to the importance of explaining to the electorate in the immediate run-up to the election how the system works. I am sure that there will be great interest in and discussion about the new voting system. The media, too, will play a part in explaining how the new system works. The Government will explore ways of explaining the new system to the electorate and everything will be done to ensure that there is no shortage of information detailing the mechanics of the new electoral system.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) made some interesting points with which I have great sympathy although they were not directly relevant to the amendment. As he knows, because he has raised the issue in Adjournment debates, a working party under the chairmanship of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), is examining the issues, which are important, as I know from my own constituency. I am sure that all hon. Members are aware of the difficulties faced by blind, partially sighted and disabled people in gaining access to polling booths and participating properly in elections.

In the light of what I have said, I hope that the hon. Member for Hertsmere will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.


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