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Mr. Forth: I do not agree with the thrust of this part of the Bill, and I regret to say that I do not share the enthusiasm expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans).

I am slightly reassured by the fact that the wording of the clause that the amendment is intended to alter provides a safeguard before we rush headlong into unnecessary change, but I will keep most of what I want to say in reserve for the stand part debate, which an earlier occupant of the Chair suggested would be appropriate for wider discussion.

As I understand it, nothing can happen unless or until the relevant local authorities have submitted proposals to the Secretary of State. That is useful from my point of view, because I suspect that it will mean that nothing will happen at all in many parts of the country, which I think is a very good thing--I see no reason for these changes. The proposals would then have to be approved by the Secretary of State. I suppose that they might be defective, and the Secretary of State might see fit not to approve them, so there is another possible safeguard there. The Secretary of State would then make an order, and so on.

There is a certain safeguard against what I regard as unnecessary change in any case. I believe that voting is entirely practicable now for citizens who wish to cast their votes, and that there is no need for extraordinary or even bizarre measures to induce people to vote.

I consider the amendment to be defective in a number of ways. I am very unhappy about new section (1A). As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has pointed out, it makes a vague reference to consultation with electors. I consider the changes envisaged in the Bill and, indeed, in the amendment to be so fundamental and so radical as to require much more support and reassurance than is provided by consultation with electors, in the loose sense in which it is proposed in the amendment. Surely it should be demonstrated that a significant proportion of voters in an area are enthusiastic about the idea of pilot schemes that will begin to change something as fundamental to our democratic process as our electoral system, rather than mere consultation.

We all know--those of us who were in government until two and a half years ago, and those of us who are now in government--how variable the consultation process can be. We know how meaningful and, indeed, how meaningless it can be. I am sorry to say this to my colleagues who have signed the amendment, but I do not believe that the proposed approach to consultation provides anything like the reassurance that should enable us to embark on changes as radical as those proposed in the Bill.

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I am, however, more reassured by what is proposed in the proposed new subsection (1B). I am reassured by the higher hurdle involved. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) suggested that the hurdle was too high; I consider it to be appropriately high. I think that our electorate will be reassured if we require visible, palpable, substantial support before taking these steps towards change. I think that the proposed subsection (1B) gives that, but that subsection (1A) falls short of what is required.

I am in a dilemma about the amendment. I do not support clause 10 but I shall return to that later. I would like to support subsection (1B), but I am very unhappy about subsection (1A). I suppose the only conclusion I can draw is that, as it goes further in the direction that I would like from the original wording, I am prepared to support it on that basis. I believe, however, that we need far more safeguards and reassurances before plunging headlong down the path proposed in clause 10.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): I support the amendment merely because it makes a bad clause slightly better. I am genuinely concerned about clause 10, which has the potential to create a right shambles throughout the country as different authorities produce different ideas on voting and present different schemes to the Secretary of State.

With the best will in the world, how will the Home Office know whether a proposal by X authority in some part of the country is properly thought out, properly workable, fair and will not lead to a polling booth being situated outside a factory that employs, say, 500 people? It may sound eminently sensible, but it may stack the voting in the ward one way. If the mobile polling station were put outside a school where mothers pick up children in a different part of the ward, there might be a totally different result.

Therefore, there are grave dangers in allowing local authorities to come up with their own ideas and schemes on how to increase votes in their area. They may not be widening the franchise generally, but be planning to stack votes in favour of a particular party in a local authority area.

It is not good enough for the Bill to say that the scheme must be approved by the Secretary of State. If local authorities have written the scheme cleverly and put in all the correct buzz words and phrases about fair and impartial voting, the Home Office will not spot it, unless it gets a big staff increase and can go around every local authority area to check in detail its proposals for mobile voting, or for whatever local quirk that they wish to introduce. That is my worry about the Bill.

If the Government want to increase voting opportunities by putting polling stations in shops, supermarkets and, in that case, rural post offices--

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. The right hon. Gentleman is talking about various pilot schemes and new systems. The amendment deals with consultation and approval. I should be grateful if he would stick to that.

Mr. Maclean: I am grateful for the reminder, Mr. Lord. I was trying to set the scene and to say why, if the Government were to create a hotchpotch of systems

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throughout the country, consultation before local authorities sent a scheme to the Home Office would be vital.

There is only one safeguard in the Bill: after a local authority comes up with a scheme, the rest of the electorate have to depend on the Home Office and the Secretary of State to say, "No, that is a bit dodgy. We do not like it. The proposals are faulty. We will send them back and reject it." The amendment suggests that there must be widespread consultation locally. It could identify difficult, bogus, fraudulent schemes, and schemes that have not been properly thought out, or may be politically biased.

I do not think that any hon. Member would trust every local authority to come up with foolproof schemes without some bias. There are about 400 local authorities. With the best will in the world, some of them, somewhere, will make mistakes. The schemes of some may be politically motivated. The amendment proposes consultation. That may identify to local people what the authority is up to and prevent some dodgy schemes being presented to the Secretary of State as if they were all legitimate and above board.

I support the proposal for two-thirds majority votes, although I am not generally in favour of them; I believe that, on most occasions, a simple majority is sufficient. However, in view of the way in which the Government are, in some ways, putting the cart before the horse with their proposals, I favour subsection (1B) and two-thirds majority voting.

I would have preferred it if the Government, in going down the route of having lots of different schemes throughout the country for different systems of voting, had put into the Bill clear principles and guidelines on how it should be done, a list and schedule of appropriate places and the safeguards to be built in. They could then have invited local authorities to produce proposals that met those guidelines and criteria. In those circumstances, I would have been happier, but, as the Government have gone down the route of inviting local authorities to invent any scheme that they wish, with the Home Office then arbitrating, it is vital both to have widespread consultation locally and to ensure that there is a public vote in the local authority, with a two-thirds majority. In that way, we can be assured that the majority of elected representatives locally are happy with the proposals that are sent to the Home Office.

4.45 pm

Mr. Grieve: When the scheme first came before the House on Second Reading, I broadly supported it. It was one of the clauses that I thought was fairly creative. I thought that because I accept that there are ways in which our voting methods may be improved, but, picking up the points that have already been made--I do not want to repeat, or to labour, them too much--the merit of the present system is that it is essentially completely depoliticised.

Looking back over what is now, I suppose, 20 years of involvement in local politics before even becoming a Member of Parliament, I can think of no occasion when the siting of polling stations, for example, was a contentious issue. The whole thing is so enshrined in the tradition that it is handled simply by the chief executive's department in the local authority. In my experience, it has not been questioned.

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There must be some anxiety that, if we embark on an action that encourages local authorities, at what is essentially a political level, to come up with pilot schemes on how voting may be improved, there will be ulterior motives, as was touched on by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst). That causes me concern. I leave aside whether moving the polling station to a new location that appears to favour one party or another will lead to a different result. The provision may mean that what has never been questioned will suddenly be questioned. I can foresee that, on the Floor of the House, Members will say to Home Office Ministers that there is gerrymandering of polling station sitings, for example. When I considered the matter on Second Reading, that did not hit me in the face. It was only when I reflected on it afterwards that I could see the dangers inherent in such a change.

I do not want to pull the rug from under any change because I accept, as I said on Second Reading, that innovatory ideas may be beneficial, but we need to be careful because, as we know, there are local authorities throughout the country, not necessarily represented by one political party, whose motives are often questioned. Those will precisely be the places where most questions will be asked about any changes. It is vital, therefore, that some local consensus should be achieved.

As I told the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), local authority consultations are variable things, and some of them are scandalous. It is not unusual to have a local authority consultation in which, notwithstanding the fact that a majority of individuals have expressed view A, the local authority--by use of some extraordinary, creative statistics--nevertheless decides that its idea, which was in favour of view B, should still be given a go. The Home Secretary will then have to make various difficult decisions, and politicise what had previously been a non-political process.

I should be interested to hear from any other hon. Member in the debate whether, hitherto, the siting of polling stations in their constituencies--which tends to be long-established in local schools--has caused major political problems. I cannot think of any examples of that happening, but I should be interested to hear whether it has.

The proposal might open Pandora's box.

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