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5.30 pm

In spite of the doubts that I have expressed about the amendment, something of its kind will be necessary to reassure us if we start to alter the electoral system. I agree with my hon. Friend about the words in the amendment that refer to

That is the good old British solution of deciding what is "reasonable". Surely those words cover most of the objections raised by the hon. Member for Braintree. The reasonable and proper approach is to allow someone wanting and intending to vote to produce reasonable proof of his identity, whatever that proof might be. For Members of Parliament, it could be their parliamentary pass--I do not know, but it would be something like that.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that he and his officials have thought the issue through carefully and that he believes that there will and should be mechanisms in place properly to answer the doubts that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) raised.

Mr. George Howarth: I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on raising the issue. It is the type of issue that the Committee should consider in its examination of the Bill. When local authorities plan their pilot schemes, it is important that they consider all the issues so that opportunities for personation do not arise.

I understand and sympathise with the concerns about electoral fraud. However, provided that the schemes are properly thought out, I fail to see why early voting or mobile polling stations should give rise to it. I shall explain the reasons for that view, because they are directly relevant to the comments of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

If there is more than one place at which an elector can vote, there must obviously be some link between them to ensure that, once someone has voted in one place, he cannot vote elsewhere. That is precisely the type of issue

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that we expect to see dealt with in the applications that are made for pilot schemes. Indeed, fraud was covered in the circular to which I drew attention earlier. If there is no provision for such linkage, it simply would not be feasible to approve a pilot scheme.

The computer technology that is available to many local authorities, although by no means all of them, is sufficient, through modems and a central database on to which the register would be downloaded, to make it possible for someone's vote at a supermarket to be registered on the central database. Therefore, any other opportunity that that person would have to vote would be closed. That is the simple truth of the matter, and we will look for such assurances in the pilot schemes.

With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley will feel able not to press the amendment.

Mr. Evans: This has been another useful debate, and I am grateful for the Minister's response.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) mentioned the fact that we, as canvassers and candidates, often tell people not to worry that they do not have their polling cards because they can still vote without them. We stress that point and we do not want to remove that option. However, the amendment deals with a specific pilot project that could be extended. If people are able to vote in more than one polling station--at present, we are allowed to vote only in the one designated for our address--a new problem will be created. We want to deal with that problem by ensuring that more people are able to vote, but not that the same people vote more often at the same election.

From what the Minister said, the schemes that local authorities introduce may require proofs of identity. That may be why he does not want such a provision in the Bill.

Mr. Maclean: My hon. Friend is a computer expert, but does he agree that if one has, for example, the opportunity to vote at three places in a district--at the primary school, at B&Q and at the supermarket--and all those places have to be linked by modem to a central database or to each other, that would require them to be online continuously for 15 hours, which would involve enormous cost?

Mr. Evans: I totally agree. Perhaps only one polling station would be made available to people other than the one in which they would normally vote. That depends on the pilot schemes.

Mr. George Howarth: To satisfy the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), I can say that the eighth point that needs to be considered in any application under the terms of the circular is an indication of the likely additional cost or savings arising from the running of a pilot scheme. That is one of the factors that the Home Secretary will take into account.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful to the Minister.

On proof of identity, in other countries something is done to voters when they vote, such as dyeing their finger or thumb, so that they are unable to vote again. We do not want to do that, and I am sure that the Home Secretary would look askance at any pilot projects that proposed to dye people's fingers after they had voted.

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New technology, however, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) suggested, should at least provide the opportunity for local authorities to come up with pilot schemes, perhaps in alliance with new technology companies which will want to advance a particular technology and demonstrate to the rest of the country that it works. That technology would have to be proven.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): I am rather sorry that I missed the beginning of the debate because I am intrigued as to why the Conservative party, in tabling an amendment, did not look at the list of identification documents that it imposed on all electors in Northern Ireland at single polling stations.

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the problems that will arise for political parties that might want to have a presence at every polling point, as is the case with us in Northern Ireland for very good reasons? There are many problems with the idea of a multiplicity of polling points which need to be carefully thought through before we pursue that policy. That system would be wide open to abuse, especially organised abuse such as we experience in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority and experience of the problems that will arise when people are able to vote in more than one place and on more than one day. We shall therefore watch the Bill's progress carefully and note any amendments made in another place or in this place at later stages.

I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the concerns of hon. Members generally that when we move away from single voting days and single polling stations, new problems will arise which need to be solved before elections take place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Evans: I beg to move amendment No. 24, in page 12, line 2, at end insert--

"(2A) No scheme under this section that makes provision for voting on more than one day shall make provision for voting to take place on any Friday, Saturday or Sunday.".

The Second Deputy Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 25, in page 12, line 2, at end insert--

"(2A) No scheme under this section that makes provision for voting on more than one day shall make provision for voting to take place on more than three days before the day of the poll.".

Mr. Evans: We aim yet again to ensure that voting is made easier, but that due regard is paid to the sensitivities of large groups of people who would feel offended if voting were to take place on key religious days. Amendment No. 24 would rule out voting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I need not go into further detail on that.

It would be ironic if a measure aimed at increasing voting participation had the reverse effect. The working group considered the matter and, in paragraph 3.18, said:

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    I know that the Minister is well aware of that problem.

Amendment No. 25 aims to restrict voting to four days, by stating that voting should occur for no more than three days before the day of the poll. Like colleagues who have already spoken, I am extremely sceptical about extending single-day voting. That is why I shall be listening carefully to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) when he speaks to his amendment No. 86, on postal voting.

I think that we can address most of the problems that will result given the inability of people to get to polling stations because of mobility difficulties and because of the way in which jobs have changed. We know that, all of a sudden, people may be called away in the course of their employment. More readily available postal votes will meet most of these problems. However, if there is a pilot project for voting on more than one day, there must be certain safeguards. To have polling taking place for a few days in one week and a few days in another would be inoperable and unrealistic.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has spoken about the problems of political parties being able to monitor what is taking place. Once we move to polling taking place on more than one day, and perhaps on more than one day in one week, we shall face real problems in allowing political parties to monitor the fair operation of elections. Amendment No. 25 would restrict the number of voting days before polling day.

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