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Mr. Simon Hughes: I endorse the pleas of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) and I wish to add two points. Community views need to be respected, and the Bill will permit that.

The first point is that it is clear to me from inquiring of people that the promise that we were given that people would not be expected to work on Sundays is being ignored. In many places, the reality is that people have no choice. If they want their jobs, they must work on Sundays. People's rights are not being respected.

The second point relates to differences between constituencies. My constituency is very different from that of my hon. Friend--there are probably not two more different constituencies in the whole of the United Kingdom. I have many constituents who live in London during the week, but who are not here at weekends. Increasing numbers of people have weekday homes and holiday or weekend homes. We must address that issue, because if we introduce weekend voting--and I do not oppose that if people want it in certain parts of the country--we must recognise that the electorate will be different.

If we introduced Sunday voting, we would have to enter an entire debate about second homes. Significant additional people would be able to vote in places in which they were not customary, working, resident members of the community. The consultation must take that into account; otherwise we would have a worse situation than the Vale of Glamorgan's, with not just 32 extra voters registered from overseas but hundreds or thousands of extra voters who had only a partial link with a constituency. That is an additional reason to take account of local and broader national considerations before we invade traditional patterns of life and community living.

6.30 pm

Mr. William Ross: It is not often that I agree with Liberal Democrat Members, but I do on this matter, as I did whenever Sunday trading was discussed.

Clause 11(1) gives the Secretary of State very great powers. I hope that no Secretary of State would exercise them without full consultation with, and the agreement of, all the major political parties. Our electoral system must be free from taint. The possibility offered by the provision is that a Secretary of State could introduce schemes that were politically favourable to his party in any one of a number of places in the United Kingdom, but not in all. That would whip the rug from under the concept of democratic accountability and democratic elections. I hope that the Minister will give an unbreakable commitment that real consultation will be held and real agreement secured before any such schemes are introduced, even where they appear to be reasonable.

Subsection (3) states that an order made under subsection (1) could apply to local elections in Northern Ireland. That seems to fly in the face of the assurance that

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I was given a few moments ago in relation to clause 10. What are the Government's intentions with regard to that provision? In Northern Ireland, pressure can be exerted in elections other than general elections. I recall that the nationalist community on one estate were not too anxious to vote in an election. After a gentleman who had served a long sentence for multiple murder visited houses there in the last hour or two of the poll, it was amazing how many people came out to vote. I hope that Ministers will consider that point carefully and remember the undertaking that has already been given.

Subsection (6) states that any order that in other circumstances could be treated as a hybrid instrument will not be so treated under the Bill. That is a serious step. I hope that the Minister will explain why the power is needed in the Bill.

Mr. Evans: We, too, are unhappy about the sweeping powers given to the Secretary of State in clause 11(1). Unless we are satisfied with the assurances given to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), we will revisit clause 11 at a later stage.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The Government have no plans to oblige people to vote on a Sunday. The Bill provides for ample debate about the benefits or otherwise of any pilot scheme. The Government have said repeatedly that it is our intention to consult fully on such matters. I know that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has been told by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that he would be happy to discuss any proposals with him. Once we see how the pilot schemes work we can consult on their outcomes and find whether we can achieve a broad consensus on which to move forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 4

Absent Voting in Great Britain

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): I beg to move amendment No. 86, in page 39, line 18, at end insert--

"Closing date for applications

7A. In paragraph (2) of regulation 69 of the Representation of the People Regulations 1986 (as amended by the Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 1997), for the words '5 p.m. on the eleventh day' there shall be substituted the words 'noon on the fifth day (in the case of an application received by post), or noon on the second day (in the case of an application made in person),'.".

The amendment would move back the deadlines for postal voting applications to the fifth day before polling or, for applications in person, to the second day. I hope that we are in the big tent of consensus both across the Committee and between Front and Back Benchers. The amendment, I hope, has the key to solving many of the issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie).

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The current applications deadline is the 11th working day before the election--in other words, the Wednesday just over a fortnight before polling day. I am told that the election administrators are adamant that they cannot deal with postal vote applications in less time. If that is so, nothing illustrates better their over-cautious approach. The Home Affairs Committee thought that it was a ludicrously early deadline, especially now that registration offices are all computerised. It will be even more ludicrous when we have postal voting on demand.

The Home Affairs Committee did not specify a deadline, but I think that the proposal in amendment No. 86 is in the spirit of its recommendation: having postal vote applications by post by the Thursday before polling day and in person by the Tuesday before polling day. Those are conservative targets. In its evidence to the Select Committee, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives said that it was possible for proxy vote applications to be granted on polling day. Back in 1993, the Plant report recommended that postal votes should be granted up to polling day, or the eve of polling day.

In Sweden, one can apply for and get a postal vote in any post office on the eve of poll and, in many cities, up to 5 pm on polling day. Indeed, in one post office in Stockholm, one can get it up till 7 pm, one hour before the polls close. That might be one reason why turnout in Sweden is more than 80 per cent., compared with 71 per cent. here. It is not because Swedish politics are that much more interesting.

It is difficult to believe that the 11th day provision was itself a concession. The previous deadline was the 13th day, which meant that people often had only four days after an election was called in which to apply for a postal vote. However, the changes in the Bill mean that electoral registration officers no longer have to consider why someone is applying for a postal vote, or satisfy themselves that the reason is genuine. They can grant the postal vote immediately; it can be sent by return of post, or handed over the counter. I do not understand why the election administrators say that it is difficult to do that in less than 11 days when in Sweden it is apparently possible to do it in one hour. In any case, the argument that it takes 11 days is rather undermined by the fact that late applications can still be dealt with up to the sixth day before an election, and applications from polling station staff up to the fourth day before.

I suggest that the Minister sets a deadline for the administrators that is closer than 11 days. I think that a five-day period is perfectly achievable. I understand that the Home Office believes in setting deadlines to get work done, and this is a classic case. Home Office Ministers need to set deadlines that the administrators can work around. Making it easier to apply for and get postal votes will solve many of the problems to do with early voting and Sunday voting. If it is easy enough to get a postal vote, people will not worry about elections being held on a Saturday or a Sunday. If it is that easy to get a postal vote, we will not need an elaborate system of early voting--we will effectively be able to go to a post office, library or town hall, and get our postal vote up to within days of the election.

There is support for the amendment from all parties; I urge the Minister to find out whether the Home Office will relent on this matter.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I fully support the proposal made by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton). I am

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reminded of the phrase from the Bible that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Elections are made for people to participate in, not the other way around. Although it is easy to find technical objections, it must be possible with all the modern technology to have the smallest period--literally a few hours--for people to register.

We all know that people pretend reasons to obtain postal or absent votes, for their own convenience, because they will not be around or because they are not certain whether they will be at home. We have to allow that flexibility. I hope that the Minister will be as supportive as possible. This may be one occasion when we have to say to the electoral administrators, "It may be difficult, but you have to deliver; we are a modern democracy".

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