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Mr. Simon Hughes: This is an all-party new clause and I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to it. There are two issues: making sure that proper publicity is

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given to the process and to people's entitlement to vote, which we have all argued for in different ways, and balancing that with the fact that people should know that they do not need a polling card to vote. One of the great questions that we are all asked is, "I haven't had a card, so will I be allowed to vote?" We all say, "Yes, go along and give your name and address." We must strike a balance: we must get it across to people that they should be on the electoral register, but we must also tell them that, although they should check beforehand if they are concerned, or talk to someone and get on the list in the days remaining, they should go to vote anyway if they think that they should be on the list.

I hope that the spirit, if not the drafting, of the new clause will find favour with the Minister. On behalf of the Members from all three parties who tabled it, I hope that we can do more to make sure that there is not the confusion, and the resultant inaction, that we have too often heard about from our constituents and other electors.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Although the new clause has been tabled for good reasons, it contains a number of pitfalls. The obligation on returning officers to send out the official poll card for a general election within four days of the dissolution of Parliament would put, even in these days of computer technology, a great deal of stress and pressure on officers, who have to provide hundreds of thousands of poll cards. Sometimes that takes several days merely to organise. The timing of general elections is uncertain and there are plenty of examples of Prime Ministers calling snap general elections. There have been very brief periods between such announcements and dissolution.

Mr. Evans: Is that a hint?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman asks from a sedentary position whether that is a hint. I am afraid I do not know, but it is not intended as such. Returning officers have told us that the new clause would place such a heavy burden on them that they could not comply with such time scales. Given that the motives of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and those who support him are sincere and in many ways laudable, perhaps it would be useful to discuss the proposal with my officials. Although I cannot support the new clause, I hope to be able to consider the idea behind it and write to him and his supporters in due course.

Mr. Barnes: I am happy to have that idea examined and hope that some of the other amendments that I tabled, which tied in with the new clause and would have allowed people who have not been fully registered to get back on registers, will be taken into account. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 6

Official mark on ballot paper

".--In Schedule 1 (Parliamentary Elections Rules) of the 1983 Act, Rule 20 shall be omitted.".--[Mr. Linton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Linton: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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The new clause embodies a recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee to abolish the antiquated and entirely pointless practice of placing an official perforated mark on ballot papers before they are handed to electors. At the previous election, 2,169 voters were disfranchised--their votes rejected--simply because the official mark had been left off the ballot paper by mistake. Indeed, that very nearly happened to me. The polling station clerk was momentarily distracted--perhaps because I was the candidate, but I do not know--and handed me the ballot paper without franking it. Fortunately, the presiding officer was at her left shoulder to remind her of that. It made no difference to me, but it did at Winchester, where an election was won by two votes. The Conservative candidate later had the result declared null and void, on the pedantic basis that he would have won if the unfranked papers had been rejected. The voters made clear what they thought of that by increasing the original winner's majority from two to, I think, 28,000; but the by-election probably cost the parties about a quarter of a million pounds.

What has the official mark achieved? In the last five elections, it has led to the rejection of 13,000 ballot papers as a result of human error. That is not a criticism of the clerks; the job is very dull and, in terms of percentages, the number of unfranked papers is very small. It is easy to forget, partly because it is such a pointless exercise. Who wants the official mark? Chief executives want it to be abolished in favour of watermarking or bar coding; the Liberal Democrats say that it should be abolished, and that numbering of ballot papers is sufficient; the Conservatives say that they would not oppose the investigation of a different method of marking ballot papers. That is what they told the Home Affairs Committee.

The Committee had recommended the abolition of franking twice, first in its 1982 report and then in its 1998 report. On both occasions, the recommendation was unanimous. When the deputy chairman of the Association of Electoral Administrators gave evidence to the Committee, he was asked what change in the electoral system he would most like to see. He said that he would like the official mark to be abolished. So far, the Home Office has merely said that the matter requires reconsideration.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that he will try to persuade the Home Office to take this small step. In many respects, our elections are still conducted as they were in the Victorian era. That is the view of the election administrators themselves. The franking machine is the most Victorian of our electoral practices: it causes endless hassle for polling station clerks, thousands of disqualified voters at every election, and unnecessary by-elections such as the one at Winchester, and achieves absolutely nothing. I hope that Ministers will tell the registration officers to use watermarked papers, or whatever security method they consider appropriate; but for goodness sake, let us get rid of the franking machines.

Mr. O'Brien: The Home Affairs Committee said that there should be some mark or identifier on ballot papers to enable forgers to be detected, and suggested that the Home Office and electoral administrators should try to find a more up-to-date method, and should stamp each ballot paper individually.

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I have considerable sympathy with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), but I cannot accept the amendment at this stage, because we have not sorted out the alternative mark or identifier, and I think that we need to study the position further. I hope that, having heard that, my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw the motion. We hope to write to him explaining how we shall deal with the matter in due course.

Mr. Linton: I am not convinced that we need to decide on a new method of security before abolishing franking. The returning officer at the Winchester by-election made the holes in the ballot papers with a fork. The notion that franking has any security value in this day and age is ludicrous. It may have worked as a security method in 1872, when it was introduced, but it is not secure any more. By all means let us have a more secure system, but we might as well get rid of the franking machine right now.

In the circumstances, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn

Bill reported, with amendments.


Farming (East Anglia)

7.24 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I present a petition to the House that enjoys cross-party support in East Anglia. It is composed of 1,450 signatures. The most remarkable thing is that it is not from members of the public, but from farmers themselves. Given the number of farmers in East Anglia who are affected by the scheme, practically 100 per cent. have signed the petition.

The farmers are concerned that, in the whole of East Anglia, there is no slaughterhouse operating the over-30-months scheme. They are desperately concerned that that will cause extra suffering to cattle that are to be slaughtered. The petition reads:

To lie upon the Table.

Child Labour

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth): The petition that I present was given me by a group of young people in Rugby following their Christmas cracker appeal. They were part of the Big Take youth project initiative "Shout for justice and campaign for freedom." Those young

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people wish to bring to the House's attention their concerns about the fate of young people throughout the world. The petition states:

    This Petition of the people of Rugby Warwickshire and others, declares that Her Majesty's Government has ratified the convention on the rights of the child and is therefore committed to children's rights and therefore has a responsibility to do all it can to help end the exploitation of child labourers in overseas countries.

    The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons should urge the Secretary of State for International Development that all aid to such countries as Indonesia, India, Mali and Pakistan where child labour is known to be an extensive problem should have a reasonable percentage of aid linked to a programme of education for the child labourers.

To lie upon the Table.

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