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Mr. George Howarth: I can confirm that the Home Secretary intends to publish the results.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for that assurance, because we will all take a keen interest in the progress of the pilot schemes and how they are evaluated in different areas. I understand that local authorities are already consulting on pilot schemes to be put forward to the Home Secretary for the May 2000 elections. The time scale will be very tight, even though consideration of the Bill is proceeding apace here and in the other place. We want to be sure that the consultation will be thorough, so we will wish to ensure before proceedings are concluded that all local authorities will be well aware that the Home Secretary will examine all pilot projects to see what consultation took place before the proposals were submitted. However, I know that the Minister is not keen to see that requirement included in the Bill. With the assurances he has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Evans: I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 12, line 2, at end insert--

'(2A) Where a scheme under this section makes provision for voting in a particular election to take place on more than one day, it shall be an offence for any person to make public, at any time before all voting in the election concerned has been completed, information which indicates or purports to indicate the way in which two or more persons have cast their votes in that election.
(2B) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (2A) of this section is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding Level 5 on the Standard Scale, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both.'.

We aim to ensure the integrity of the ballot, and our amendment would prevent the publication of any exit poll that could affect the outcome of an election. Let us suppose that an election were to be held over two days, as the pilot schemes could allow. On the first day, exit polls could be conducted by various organisations for their own purposes, including media of all types, and the results could be published at the end of the day. If those polls indicated a trend in the voting, they could influence the final result.

We have all experienced the way in which the Liberal Democrats conduct their own polls during elections and publish the results in leaflets that claim that they are closing the gap on the party in first place. They do that to try to influence the outcome of the vote. We do not seek to prevent such skulduggery, but we do wish to prevent exit polls that arise from actual voting. We have information from the Library about other countries that have banned polling for various periods before elections take place. France is one of the best examples, because it has banned polling for two weeks while elections take place over two Sundays.

Polls can be suspect at the best of times and I am sure that we all remember warmly the uselessness of the exit polling in the 1992 general election. If the exit poll had

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been released before the voting had finished, people might have been induced to vote differently because of what they perceived the possible result to be. The amendment would ensure that bogus exit polls--and even accurate ones--would play no part in the election process. We want people to vote on the issues of the campaign, not on inside information.

Mr. Maclean: This is another amendment that attempts to tighten up a piece of nonsense in the Bill. The idea that we need to allow more than one day for voting in local authority elections is preposterous. Polling stations are open for a minimum of 14 hours for local government elections. A 30 per cent. turnout is achieved, at the expense of great disruption to schools, especially primary schools, which lose a day of lessons because they are open for electoral purposes.

Mr. George Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman may know that the Home Office often receives representations from people who are called away on urgent business on the day of an election. There is no opportunity for them to cast a vote, as they do not have time to apply for postal votes or proxy votes. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that reasonable?

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. We are not debating whether there should be voting on one or more days. We are debating whether, if there is voting on one or more days, there should be exit polls.

Mr. Maclean: That is it exactly, Mr. Lord. To answer the Minister, I shall have to return to the matter in the clause stand part debate. It is very easy for people to get a postal vote these days if they anticipate that they may be called away. People can get a postal vote automatically for lots of reasons these days, whether or not they intend to be away on the day of an election.

The amendment would improve slightly what is a nonsense in the Bill. I do not believe that exit polls, or opinion polls in general, should be banned. In countries where that has been tried, secret party polls and other information are still available days in advance and can influence voters. The Government propose that polling stations should be open for two days in a bid to raise turnout from 30 per cent. to 31 per cent. That is nonsense: it is dead easy to vote, but 70 per cent. of the public cannot be bothered. However, if the aim is to get those idle people out to vote, we need to adopt the proposal in the amendment.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I do not have share the strident opinion of the electorate expressed by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). I believe that anything that might increase election turnout is worth experimenting with.

I support the idea that the process should be regulated. In America, polls close on one coast long before they do on the other coast. The influence exerted by Vermont on California--if I have got that the right way around--is always an issue.

Mr. Forth: What about Hawaii?

Mr. Hughes: We must not forget Hawaii, of course. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will answer a

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question about postal votes. They are often counted earlier than those cast in the ballot box, although they can be submitted right up until the polls close. However, if we are to regulate as proposed in the amendment, we must cover the relatively small number of votes counted and attested before the main count.

Perhaps the answer should be that, regardless of how early votes are cast, no counting is begun until all votes are in. Before the count starts, we would need to ensure that only a verification exercise was undertaken, not a counting exercise. It would not be helpful if a survey of those who voted in the first two days of an election showed that one party was 50 per cent. ahead. That would influence the result, and I hope that the Committee would not support that proposition.

Mr. Forth: I echo the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), but in a slightly different way. The mere fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has tabled the amendment and that we have had this debate illustrates the difficulties inherent in this section of the Bill. If we were not having to debate the nonsense of spreading voting over a period of time or, as we shall come to, a number of different places, we would not have to consider safeguards.

5.15 pm

One of the beauties--the elegance, the simplicity--of our long-established electoral arrangements is that they are familiar. That in itself undermines the argument that somehow it is difficult to vote and that we should make it easier. However, what is perhaps even more important in the context of this amendment is that the simplicity, elegance and transparency of our existing arrangements makes them, if not foolproof, then proof against the kind of dangers that previous speakers have described. That should act as yet another warning signal that we are treading a dangerous path. We are proposing tinkering and experimenting with long-standing established arrangements in something as fundamental and crucial as our electoral process and voting procedures. That should give us pause for thought and, perhaps, should discourage us from proceeding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley has identified this danger, for which I praise him. However, I believe that a measure such as this is essential to prevent abuse of the new processes on which we may now be embarking. If local authorities, having jumped the hurdles that we discussed, go down this route, it will be incumbent on us to anticipate any difficulties that may arise and eliminate or reduce them as far as possible. However, the mere fact that we are worrying about safeguards illustrates the dangers of what is being proposed.

I support my hon. Friend's amendment, and will come back to the other matters on clause stand part.

Mr. George Howarth: I shall be brief, and hope that I can satisfy the Committee. When he moved the amendment, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) referred to bogus polls.

Mr. Evans: Some bogus polls.

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Mr. Howarth: Indeed. I draw the Committee's attention to a poll that was published by the Liberal Democrats in my constituency prior to the 1997 general election.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Your friends.

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