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Mr. Maclean: I do not support amendment No. 24. I believe that extending voting for local government elections beyond more than one day is nonsensical. However, if that is the way in which the Government wish to go, so that there can be voting for two or three days, and they want pilot schemes to that effect, I see no good reason to bar certain days of the week.

If we are to have genuine consultation, as the Minister has suggested, I assume that local authorities in certain areas will not come forward with proposals to have voting on the day of the Jewish sabbath or on a day of any other strict religious observance. Even if there is a second day of voting that falls on a holy day, there is no problem provided that there is one day on either side of it that is not a holy day.

I would be strongly opposed to a proposition that there should be only one day of voting, which could be moved to a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Such a proposal would understandably cause great offence to those who still have some--

Mr. Hurst: I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman recalls that Saturday was commonly the polling day in urban district and rural district elections.

Mr. Maclean: I am perhaps slightly younger than the hon. Gentleman. I have no personal experience of what he says, but I believe that, historically, he is correct.

We have a fairly well-established precedent of Thursday being polling day. That is well known and well understood, but we still have a miserable turnout. That is not because it is difficult to vote. Those who do not vote in local government elections will turn out and vote in

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general elections, where the poll will be more than double that in other elections. It is not impossible for people to get to polling stations, and there are not awful difficulties that require two or three days for elections.

It seems that people have taken a different view about the merits of voting in local elections as opposed to general elections. Similarly, they have taken a view about the merits of voting in European elections. That is a route that I do not wish to go down. I merely suggest that, if the Government are minded to proceed with their proposition that there should be two or three days of polling for local government elections--I oppose that--local authorities must surely have the freedom to come up with any two or three days that they like, after proper consultation with local people. I would not rule out Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

I have participated in Sunday shopping debates in this place. We must admit, whether we like it or not, that millions more people go shopping on Sunday than to church. If it is the Government's intention to stick a voting box in every supermarket and every B&Q, it would make sense to have polling stations in the shops while they are open, and that would include a Sunday, with the limited shopping hours of between 10 and 4 o'clock. I am opposed to the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and I do not support his amendment, but that does not mean that I support the Government's view on increasing the amount of time during which polling may take place.

5.45 pm

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) pointed out to me that it is difficult to see what amendment No. 25 means. I do not want to steal his speech, but he said that the amendment was nonsensical. It refers to multiple voting days, and specifies that voting should not take place

If voting takes place on two or three days, which is the day of the poll? I assume that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley means the last day of the poll--presumably the Thursday, or perhaps the Sunday.

Nevertheless, there is some sense in saying that, if the Government choose to go down the route of multiple voting days, there must be a cut-off. I think that one day is sufficient. I would grudgingly go to two days at most. Voting over three or four days would be nonsensical in local government elections or any other election. I support the thrust of amendment No. 25, but I would tighten it up.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Let me take the amendments in reverse order. On amendment No. 25, it seems sensible that a limit on the number of days should be built in to the legislation. Reference has been made to a drafting issue. There is also a practical issue for the political parties and those who administer elections. Spreading the elections over more than one day may bring in marginally more voters, but it entails greater expense and more work on the part of the officials, polling station staff, police and political parties. We must draw a line.

Amendment No. 24 refers to pilot schemes. It is right that bids for pilot schemes should come up from the grass roots. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Lord,

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on clause 11 and to speak about the position in her part of Scotland, reflecting the fact that there are different views in different parts of the country.

If voting takes place on a Friday, which may make it difficult for members of the Jewish community to vote, a range of dates must be provided to allow everyone with a strict religious view the opportunity to vote. It may be Sunday for some, Saturday for some and Friday for some. If there is to be non-Thursday voting, and voting is to take place over the long weekend, it must take place over the whole period, otherwise difficulties arise. We understand the issue, but I do not take the view that there should be an absolute bar in the legislation to voting on Sundays, Saturdays or Fridays.

Incidentally, I remember the participation of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) as a Minister in the debates on Sunday trading. We are now in the world of Sunday shopping. I am not persuaded that we are the better for it.

Mr. George Howarth: May I express sympathy for the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)? I am glad that I have the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) facing me, rather than behind me.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for moving the amendments, so that we can debate an issue that will be important to a large number of people. We must make sure that we do nothing to harm the interests of those with strong religious faith, especially anything that would prevent them from voting on a particular day of the week.

It is up to local authorities to decide which innovations they want to pilot. As we have already discussed, they are required to submit applications and, in so doing, they will have to consider the needs of all their electors. The guidance to local authorities on how to apply for a pilot scheme, to which I referred earlier, makes that clear. Among the material that a local authority will have to include in its application is an assurance

That is unambiguous.

Clearly, any local authority that wants to try voting on a day other than Thursday will have to consider seriously the religious views of its population. Specific days will be more significant in some areas than in others. I assure the House that the Home Office is conscious of those issues. It is perhaps significant that, on Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie):

For that reason, which the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border expressed clearly, we must provide options. I hope therefore that I have reassured the House--

Mr. William Ross: Party workers may also have severe difficulties in working on Saturdays or Sundays.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which applies to workers of all parties.

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Let us consider amendment No. 25. I am somewhat puzzled by the thinking behind it because it would impose unnecessary restrictions on local authorities that wished to run pilot schemes to allow voting to take place on more than one day. There is no valid reason for that. The working party on electoral procedures recommended that local authorities should be given the chance to try out innovative electoral procedures. Clause 10 provides for that. The aim of the provision is to allow local authorities the freedom to try out new procedures, which, we hope, may make it easier for people to vote. Imposing restrictions such as those that the amendment proposes would do the opposite. For example, why should voting not take place at the weekend immediately before the Thursday and in the intervening days? What is the objection to offering an early voting facility for more than three days? If a local authority believes that it can run such a scheme successfully, and that it will boost turnout, we should not prohibit such innovation.

I have already said that local authorities will need to give an assurance that no voter is put at a disadvantage. They will also need to provide an assurance that

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