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Mr. Simon Hughes: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman and I are far apart in our general views on the issue. However, proper consultation on the fairly limited issue of polling stations is necessary when one is told categorically, "We must have a polling station for each polling district," although the logical and cost-effective place for those people--in district A--to vote is just across the road, in district B, where most of them live. There are important issues to address.

I therefore agree with the hon. Gentleman that general ground rules on minimum consultation time and on informing people should be established and not left entirely--with no checking or authorisation--to local authority discretion.

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I also support amendment No. 26. It is not perfect--various flaws have been identified--but perfection in the matter cannot be achieved.

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Clause 10, as drafted, worries me. The last thing that I want is, in four or five years, the House being dominated at Question Time or at other times by arguments over alleged gerrymandering as a consequence of changes to something that had previously been accepted, without question and without anxiety, as a matter of routine. It is not a matter simply of improving, but of public perception.

The issue is non-contentious, but we are possibly about to make it contentious, and that does not seem to be particularly desirable. Let us ensure that the benefits that may come out of the proposal--possibly, for example, different voting hours or ways of casting a vote--are not clouded by the politicisation of a process that has hitherto been non-political.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I am pleased to tell the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) that I have some sympathy with the first half of amendment No. 26. My support for the amendment is probably--and appropriately--in direct proportion to the opposition to it expressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Clearly, it would be undesirable if local authorities were to operate pilot schemes that were contrary to, or out of tune with, the wishes of the local electorate. However, for reasons that I shall explain in a moment, including in the legislation an explicit requirement to consult seems unnecessary. When any pilot scheme is being considered or designed, and given certain guarantees and conditions, we have to trust local elected representatives to be aware of, and to represent--that is why they are elected--the interests of those who elect them.

My colleagues at the Home Office recently issued one of their regular circulars to local authorities, part of which dealt with the operation of the Bill and the application process for authorities that are interested in operating schemes. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)--who not only spoke in the debate, but served at the Home Office in the previous Government--will know that such circulars are issued fairly regularly.

The circular makes it clear that only applications that are well thought out and planned will be approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. In deciding which schemes meet those criteria, he will be looking for evidence that the application commands the confidence and support of local people. If he feels that a scheme is inappropriate and would not command the local population's sympathy, he would automatically rule it to be inappropriate. An application to run a pilot scheme that obviously does not have the support of local people would, in those circumstances, have little or no chance of being successful.

We should leave it to local authorities to decide how to meet the requirement. They might want to engage in formal consultation over 28 days or some other period; they might want to send people knocking on doors; or they might want to place articles in local papers and invite comments on them. It is for each local authority to consider the best way of advertising and receiving views

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on their proposals. I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley accepts that consultation will be integral to any pilot scheme, so there should be no need for the first part of his amendment, although the principle behind it is good.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) touched on issues relating to the location of polling stations and the effect that it could have on the outcome of an election. Local authorities already have the power to designate polling stations, and an appeals mechanism can be invoked by electors who believe that the local authority has failed to exercise that duty properly. The Bill does not change that. If there are suspicions of mischief or gerrymandering--a word that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield used, perhaps in the heat of the moment--it is open to any elector, including members of political parties who feel that the situation is disadvantaging a section of the electorate, to appeal against the siting of a polling station.

Mr. Grieve: How often are such complaints made or upheld under the existing rules? My experience is that the process is wholly depoliticised and I am anxious that it should remain so.

Mr. Howarth: I have no global statistics on the number of appeals, but I have experience of it happening. My local party once felt that a mobile polling station was inappropriately sited. On one occasion, we protested about its inaccessibility for people with disabilities. I understand from the global statistics that are available that such appeals are rare, which leads me to believe that the system is probably run fairly.

I stand to be corrected, but I think that it was Winston Churchill who said that a majority of one was enough. That principle has applied at every level of government. I clearly remember the previous Government often surviving perilous situations by one vote. On one occasion, they did not even survive by one vote, but overnight they were able to reverse that. We accept the principle that a simple majority is all that is required for even the most momentous legislation to pass through this House. The same is true in local government. I see no reason to depart from that principle for pilot schemes.

Arguably the most important decision that a local authority takes each year is to set its budget. I speak as a former local authority finance committee chairman. Fortunately, on Knowsley council the majority in the vote on the budget was never likely to be as small as one. That is in the nature of the psephology of the situation. If I had ever had to get the budget through by one vote, that would have been enough. Why should we treat pilot schemes any differently?

5 pm

I want to draw attention to the criteria that local authorities might be expected to consider when proposing schemes as they might be relevant in respect of consultation. It might be for the convenience of the Committee if I refer hon. Members to Home Office RPA circular 430. I am assured that a copy was sent to the

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Opposition parties, although I do not know whether it has filtered down to the relevant spokesmen. Paragraph 31 of the document states:

    "An application to run a pilot scheme must be made to the Home Secretary and must include the following information".

It then lists 11 pieces of information. I shall read out the last two.

Sub-paragraph 10 states:

It will be the responsibility of the local authority operating each individual pilot scheme to submit an evaluation of the effect of the scheme. It will obviously include such factors as turnout. If a pilot scheme operated in a way that was unexpected or unfair, that should feature in the evaluation. So those who are concerned about any mischief being made should accept the professionalism of electoral registration officers and others involved in elections in submitting an objective and honest evaluation of the pilot schemes.

Sub-paragraph 11 states:

There are other requirements involving such details as the name and the minutes of the council approving the scheme, so I shall not go through them exhaustively.

I hope that the circular, the process in which it involves local authorities and the fact that they need to evaluate any pilot scheme objectively and inform the Home Office of its outcome will assure the Committee that, although the amendments provided the opportunity for a useful debate, they are not necessary. I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley will feel it in his power to withdraw them.

Mr. Evans: This has been a useful debate on two major issues: consultation and the pilot schemes. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out, consultation can be defined in many ways. That is why the amendment is prescriptive and proposes that consultation should continue for at least 28 days.

I was a local councillor in opposition in West Glamorgan. The local authority had to consult widely before setting its budget. It seemed to be a matter of getting the businesses in and letting them have their say before jacking up the rates to tremendous levels. At least the authority could argue that local businesses had been consulted. We are looking for meaningful consultation on these changes. The pilot schemes represent a major constitutional change affecting voting. Local authorities are not the only ones who are guilty of poor consultation; so were the present Government and past Government in various respects.

The second part of the amendment, concerning thresholds, relates to clause 11, which transfers enormous powers to the Home Secretary. Once clause 10 has been implemented and the pilots have been approved, the Secretary of State can introduce those changes throughout the country. General election results could change on the basis of what might happen in the pilots described in clause 10. We therefore want to make certain that the pilots are subject to proper consultation and that

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consensus is achieved in the local authority area, to be demonstrated by a vote in favour by two thirds of the local authority councillors present and voting.

I also hope that the Home Secretary will feel able to publish the results of the pilot schemes, so that we have an opportunity to see exactly what is intended and where, and can make our own judgments.

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