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Mr. Evans: Thank you, Mrs. Dunwoody. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mr. Bercow: On consultation and popular opinion, to which my hon. Friend has alluded, would he be kind enough to tell me and the Committee how many representations he has received from constituents in Ribble Valley in support of the principle or practice of such pilot schemes? It is important to demonstrate the degree of public interest.

Mr. Evans: There are elections in Ribble Valley every four years and the next ones will not take place for some time. The pilot schemes will take place this year and next so Ribble Valley will not be involved. Hon. Members will make their own decisions about the popular support for the schemes, but I support the Government's intention to widen the franchise, which is why we need to ensure that voting is made easier. At the same time, fraudulent voting must not be made easier, which is why we are asking the Secretary of State, through the amendment, to ensure that proper consultation takes place with local people.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): May I help the hon. Gentleman? Was he suggesting no representations--a nil return? Is that what he was trying to say?

Mr. Evans: Yes, that is right. A pilot scheme is unlikely to take place in my area because there will not be elections for at least another two years, which is why I would not expect the people of Ribble Valley to write to me asking for one. None the less, elections will take place in May in more than 150 local authority areas and may be taking place in the hon. Gentleman's area.

Mr. Fisher: The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that I have not received a single inquiry along those lines, and I rather doubt that any other Member of the House has.

The Temporary Chairman: Order. Those are important points that can be made on clause stand part. We are talking about consultation and I am sure that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is about to return to it.

Mr. Evans: The points that have been drawn out by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) reinforce our amendment. We are asking that the local authorities consult positively with people in their areas. When we discussed amendments concerning reducing the voting age from 18 to 16 I said that I had received no

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letters from constituents on that matter, but I was told that that did not really matter and that what was right was important. Making it easier for people to vote is right, but we must achieve that in such a way that we are not making it easier for people to vote fraudulently.

I hope that the Minister takes on board the fact that we are seeking a consensus on the pilots. We can achieve that by ensuring that the local authorities, at least 28 days before the pilots are submitted to the Secretary of State, positively seek the opinions of the people and organisations in their areas on the suggestions that they are making. In respect of proposed new subsection (1B), we are seeking the same sort of consensus that there is on the changes. Local authorities would have to hold a vote. We are seeking two-thirds approval for a pilot submitted by an authority to the Secretary of State, which would clearly show that there was a consensus in that authority.

We appreciate that the changes that could result from the pilot schemes might be fundamental. Indeed, the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) himself talked about the "wide-ranging powers" that would be conferred on the Secretary of State, saying that

We ought to be more concerned about that. I hope that the Minister can reassure the Committee that, although he may not be able to accept our amendment, he will at least look at it again to ensure that we achieve proper consensus on the pilots.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I am most grateful to be called to speak on this matter and I hope to be brief. I know that you, Mrs. Dunwoody, will put me in my place immediately if I stray too far into general principles.

I understand fully that one of the evils to be remedied is fraudulent voting, but the other matter about which one has to be cautious is the politically motivated stationing of polling booths or mechanisms for attracting voters that will favour one party or faction as opposed to another. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) mentioned the possibility of siting a polling station by a factory, but local people would know very well that siting a polling station by factory A may produce a different result from siting one outside stockbroker office B. Placing a polling booth by a certain railway station would produce a different equation from placing it by another station. I hope, therefore, that local authorities will consult not 28 days before submitting a scheme, but way before. I should have thought that any responsible local authority would take soundings well in advance of publishing a scheme.

There is a second aspect to the amendment, which concerns a two-thirds majority being obtained at the local district council meeting. Surely such a provision would virtually block any progress on a pilot scheme, except in authorities where there was an overwhelming majority. Even the events that are occurring now are leading to different political consequences in polling stations; it would be very surprising if a two-thirds majority on councils that were controlled overwhelmingly by one party led to a consensus.

I cannot support the amendment in its present form, but I hope that the spirit of consultation, and of soundings before the implementation of the scheme, will be adopted by all responsible local authorities.

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4.30 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I support the amendment in general terms, but I think it important for us to ensure that proper consultation takes place before pilot schemes are adopted. If we are to engage people in the democratic process and ensure that those people think that our measures are not gimmicks but are for real, we must be certain that the water has been tested.

Let me share with the Committee an experience that I still have far too often, and find very frustrating. I hear of proposals from local authority officers which, before any consultation has taken place, have been presented to the public. Although the proposals have come from their own officers, councils often are not told the details, and Members of Parliament frequently are not consulted.

There ought to be a process to deal with that. I welcome the idea of a pilot scheme, and I know that the Minister is aware that I have a positive approach to the Bill as a whole; but I think it important for enough people to have been consulted to give the idea some credibility and credence. It should not be seen as the whim of someone who has had a wheeze of an idea. If we are to modernise and update the system, we do not want to experience lots of failures. When the pilots have happened, we shall not want to hear that no one voted and that it was not a good idea.

The general purpose of the amendment is that ideas should be presented on the basis of popular support, that those ideas should be tested and that they should then be validated.

Mr. Grieve: Consultation with local authorities is highly variable. It can range from what could be described as full consultation to consultation in circumstances that have often led me to believe that the consultation has been stage-managed with the aim of achieving the desired results. Is not that an argument for also introducing a mechanism to ensure that, at council level, such changes cannot be implemented without more than a 50:50 consensus?

Mr. Hughes: I am sympathetic to that point. The genesis of the Bill lay in a working party in which the Government tried, entirely reasonably, to achieve consensus. The Bill resulted from the consensus that was achieved; proposals that did not achieve consensus are not in the Bill, because they merit a different process.

I am sympathetic to the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). Specifically, I want all local councils and parties to be consulted as a matter of course. The hon. Gentleman's constituency contains a district authority and a county authority. I believe that, in areas where that is the case, both tiers should be consulted. In fact, I think that there should be only one authority, and that Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament should be involved automatically.

Guarantees should be included in the Bill. There should be certainty about the process: for instance, a minimum time should be specified for consultation. The other day, a consultation in London began on 15 December, with a closing date of 4 January. The consultation dealt with a Government proposal about expenses for the mayor of London. It was hardly geared to maximise public

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participation and response; indeed, some of us were sceptical about the idea that the aim had been maximum public participation.

Guarantees are needed. We have all been victims of consultations that have started on 31 July when the deadline has been 6 September. I do not want to labour the point, but I think that the general view is that the Minister should reassure us that either the law or secondary legislation--regulations--will deliver what we want.

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