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Mr. Ross: The Government and everyone who has spoken seem to ignore the implications of multiple day voting for those who apply for postal votes. What difference will multiple day voting make to a time scale that is already tight?

Mr. Howarth: If the hon. Gentleman exercises a little patience, he will find that that subject will be debated later.

The debate has been useful. The amendment was not tabled as a probing amendment, but it has enabled us to consider serious issues, which could lead to disfranchisement for some people if the provisions are not implemented sensitively and properly. Nobody supports that. We now have a clearer picture of the way in which the scheme will work. I hope that it is sufficiently clear to persuade the hon. Member for Ribble Valley not to press the amendment.

Mr. Evans: The Minister has given assurances that those of strong religious beliefs will not be disadvantaged by changes in the pilot schemes or anything that follows them. I am reassured by that. Voting on multiple days will be expensive and none of us envisages polling stations being open throughout a local authority area for more than one day. However, it is possible that one polling station--perhaps at the town hall--will be open for early voting for a period of days.

As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, we are trying to provide some structure. For example, a polling booth might open for a couple of days, close for some strange reason and then re-open, but I am sure that the Home Secretary will take that into account in any submission on a pilot scheme made by any local authority. With those assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Forth: Our short series of debates has illustrated beyond all doubt the incredible difficulties that would be

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caused, were we to proceed with the clause. My difficulty with it is that it apparently stems from the proposition that people have huge problems casting their vote under our present electoral arrangements and that something should be done to ease those difficulties. I do not even accept that as an analysis or a proposition. There is no evidence that people experience enormous difficulties in voting. I doubt whether many Members of the House could come forward with evidence that their constituents have informed them, either verbally or in writing, that they have had great difficulty in voting and want them to make changes. I have received no such representations and doubt whether many other Members have.

We are therefore starting from the fanciful proposition that a large number of frustrated people in this country would dearly love to vote, but find it difficult to do so under the present arrangements. The clause is completely unnecessary, but it is worse than that. Our debates have teased out not only that, but the fact that the clause would give rise to considerable dangers and difficulties in the process of voting and holding elections, requiring increasingly elaborate and costly measures and safeguards that would, in themselves, endanger that very process.

We have to weigh up whatever advantages are being claimed for the clause that would induce people who do not vote to do so, as against the real dangers and difficulties that the measures would pose. As has already been suggested, it is rather odd that, with the same electoral arrangements, we get enormous variations in turnout in different elections--local, national, European Parliament or whatever they may be. It would appear that the difference in turnout has little or nothing to do with the arrangements that are in place, but everything to do with voter interest in the different levels of government or representation. That seems to be the variable, not the location of polling booths or the number of days available for voting.

The case has not been made to support proceeding with the clause, but I am somewhat reassured that at least a series of mechanisms are available or in place to make sure that we do not rush headlong into that. The onus is initially on the relevant local authorities. Should the clause be agreed to and should the Bill proceed--I hope that it will not--it will be interesting to see how many local authorities suggest well-thought-out schemes that will satisfy the Secretary of State in the way that the Minister helpfully described. That will show us whether we should proceed with such proposals.

Ministers have assured the Committee today that those schemes will have to be examined very closely to make sure that none of the weaknesses that have been exposed in our debates would affect our voting procedures. There is another worry, but we have received a reassurance and I am glad that we have: cost has to be a consideration in respect of the draft criteria, which already exist. I wonder whether at this stage anyone has made even a rough estimate of the difference in cost between the current system and providing new procedures, voting across two or three days, a number of different polling stations and polling opportunities--as we should call them in modern parlance--and all the security and computer systems that will be required.

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I suspect that, if we are to provide a viable, secure alternative to our existing procedures, the cost could prove prohibitive. I hope that that will be taken into consideration. This will not be a cost-free exercise. I hope that when consultation--or the equivalent that the Minister mentioned--takes place, people will be told about the possible cost increase that would be involved if they expressed enthusiasm for the different voting procedures offered to them.

This would not be a cost-free option; indeed, it might well be a very costly option. People should be asked whether they would like to be able to vote on different days, and in supermarkets--oh, and by the way, they would have to pay the following costs, through either their local taxes or national taxes. It should be made clear to them that this is not a cost-free option, but one to which a price tag is attached.

I am not a computer expert--I am quite the opposite--but I ask the techno-freaks among us how they think security can be guaranteed if we are to involve computers in the voting process. As I have said, I am a layman with no interest in computers, but every day I read in the newspapers about people breaking into computer systems and corrupting them. That is bad enough when our personal finances are involved; it would be disastrous if it posed any risk of tampering with material relating to voting.

It must be obvious by now that clause 10 not only has a very flimsy basis--indeed, no basis at all--but involves real dangers and risks for our electoral process. I wonder whether that has been taken into account sufficiently. The mere fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) had to table so many amendments, with the genuine aim of not only identifying the difficulties but dealing with them and providing appropriate safeguards, and the mere fact that the Minister has had to give repeated assurances about the measures that will have to be introduced locally and nationally, give some indication of the fragility of the process being proposed. That, surely, must be a great worry.

I am not inclined to support a clause that, in my view, leads us down a path that is not only unnecessary but dangerous. If we accepted it at this stage we would, at the very least, need much more reassurance later. We would need to be certain that what we were doing did not constitute an unnecessary folly and, above all, that we would not endanger the integrity of our voting system, which, as far as I know, has never been questioned so far.

Mr. Maclean: I was interested to note that, when the amendments to clause 10 were discussed--Conservative Members either supported them or distanced themselves from them, for various reasons--the Minister, with the kindness and courtesy for which he is famous, said that he was minded to accept an amendment, or accepted the spirit of it, and that we could look forward to either a revised Government amendment in due course, a Home Office circular or guidance to tidy up the problems identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans).

That, I think, proves the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). If we try these radical new electoral procedures, there will be many dangerous loose ends to

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tie up. I am not convinced that the Government have thought all that through, nor am I convinced that local authorities have the ability to do so.

I am not minded to support clause 10, because I consider it unnecessary to do so. If we look at voting patterns around the world, we see the position of countries that have just emerged from dictatorships and are experiencing democracy for the first time. In some African countries, voters may have to travel 100 miles to polling stations, but there is a 100 per cent. turnout--or very near that--because people are desperate to vote. They have not had that right before, and they treasure it.

We all say off pat that we must make it easier for people to vote at general and local elections in this country, but our history shows that the easier we make it, the more we take it for granted and the less we vote. If we shove a mobile polling station into every supermarket, outside the door of every school as the mums are picking up the kids, and at every other location where we think that it will be convenient for people to vote, we may find that fewer and fewer people do so.

I confess that I am one of those who has, on occasion, forgotten to vote at local government elections, or to organise my postal vote. I have made that mistake. I am not happy to admit it, but I must. I suspect that, for one reason or another, other hon. Members have neglected to vote at a local government election.

That is not because the system is too difficult, we do not qualify for a postal vote, or we are suddenly called away on urgent business. These days, we can easily get a postal vote for almost any reason under the sun. If we legitimately think that, at some time in the future, we might not be in the area to vote, whatever the reason, we can get a postal vote. It is very easy, yet some of us fail or forget to do so. Seventy per cent. of the electorate at every local government election do not do so, yet voting has never been easier.

The Government's solution is to increase the number of days. They propose two, three or more days. I was worried by the Minister's reply on amendment No. 25. If I heard him correctly, he did not want any bar on the number of days that polling stations could be open for voting, or a voting system could be available for people to use; it could be three, four, five or even more days. Therefore, I am not convinced on principle that we need clause 10. The Government are making it easier for people to vote in the vain hope that it will encourage more people to do so.

One of the benefits of our present system is that, for 20 or 30 years, voting has regularly been on a Thursday. Every hon. Member has experience of going around at general elections. Probably half the people to whom we speak know that the election is on a Thursday some time soon. Other electors will not be sure what day it is on, but probably about half know without prompting from us that the general election and elections generally take place on a Thursday. I expect that that results in a reasonable number of people getting to the polling station on the right day.

If we remove that certainty, so that, in local authority areas throughout the country, voting can be on any day of the week, a greater number of the electorate than ever before will be confused about which day the poll will take place. If my experience is anything to go by, everyone to whom I speak denies that they have ever had a polling

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card through the letter box. We all know that they deny even that they have had the party leaflet--the one we delivered five minutes earlier. They say, "No, I have never seen it."

That is not treating the electorate with contempt. We are the same. We deny having received letters, cards or circulars--[Interruption.] We do not deny it deliberately, but one cannot remember, with that mass of mail, some of the individual correspondence that one gets. Our electorate are the same. They get so much bumf through the letter box that they do not identify certain correspondence. If they receive polling cards two or three weeks before an election saying that they can vote on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, and that they can do it in various places, we will have a shambles. We will have confusion. I do not think that it will increase the number of people who vote.

The Minister said that the Government do not want to include in the Bill a provision that the Home Secretary shall not approve schemes unless he is satisfied that the schemes have adequate local support, and I assume that the extent of the consultation conducted on the schemes will be one of the yardsticks that the Home Secretary uses in judging local support. I should be alarmed, therefore, if the Government are planning to put pilot schemes into operation in May 2000.

I do not see how--even if the Bill were to proceed apace through both this place and the other place--there could be adequate notification and proper local consultation on such schemes, or how such schemes could legitimately be put into operation, before May 2000. Before we could have proper consultation in a local authority area, we would come up against a very tight deadline.

I appeal to Ministers: if they are going down that route, for goodness sake, publicise it in detail; and do not urge local authorities to submit rushed schemes, which hard-pressed Home Office Ministers will have to study not at leisure, but in a great rush, so that mistakes are made. As the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) suggested, such an attempt would also increase the danger of gerrymandering.

Mr. Haselhurst, if I wanted to be political--

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