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Mr. Gray: I wholeheartedly endorse the points that have been made by hon. Members of all parties. However, I am concerned that such an amendment might affect the legitimate telling operations carried out by all political parties during elections to determine whether their vote has turned out.

Mr. Howarth: I have not as yet seen the Home Office's precise draft of an amendment to be tabled in the other place. However, I think that it would be illegitimate for it to interfere with the workings of political parties. It is legitimate for a political party to gather information for different purposes from voters leaving polling stations if they are willing to provide it. However, in terms of the principle that we are discussing, we would have to distinguish between a political party's making use of exit polls--for want of a better term--to enable it to identify those who have already voted so as not to disturb them further, and its using the information to publish a poll on its behalf. That would be illegitimate.

Complex issues are involved. However, it has suddenly come to me out of the blue that the arrangements that the Home Office intends to make would not affect telling.

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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth: I will, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that this is the last time that I shall do so. I am about to say something with which he might be rather pleased.

Mr. Bercow: I await with eager anticipation, bated breath and veritable beads of sweat on my brow to hear what the Minister has to say.

Will the Minister confirm that he is not aware of instances--I confess from my experience in Buckingham that I am not aware of them--in which tellers' activities have been used for a partisan advantage by political party? It would be a matter of grave concern if they had. Is it not true that, on the whole, such activities are internalised activities that are conducted for the benefit of the organisation locally, and that there is no evidence of their being used for partisan purposes?

Mr. Howarth: I accept the hon. Gentleman's view entirely. From my experience in the Labour party, I know that the information that is gathered as people exit the polling station is used solely for internal purposes. I am bound to say that such information is not always entirely accurate. On more than one occasion, I have been chased down the path by an irate voter assuring me with such vigour that they have already voted that I am inclined to believe them.

Our intention is to table suitable amendments in the other place to cover precisely the points raised. As I said earlier, we are grateful to the Opposition for raising this important issue. On the basis of the further undertakings that I have given, I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Evans: The Minister's response--not only now, but in Committee--shows the usefulness of the Committee stage and the scrutiny that the Bill is receiving.

A polling organisation might publish a poll in a newspaper, on the internet or on television or radio purporting to represent an actual trend because it is based on the response of people who have taken the time and trouble to turn up at polling stations and cast their votes early. That poll may or may not be accurate. We are all aware from our own electoral histories of instances where the polling has been totally accurate and others where it has been totally wrong. Many different polling methods are used, but I am not sure that they are becoming any more accurate.

If a polling organisation gets it wrong, people may decide how to cast their vote on the basis of the information given. That may be false information and it may distort the vote in one way or another. There are therefore powerful reasons to prevent the publication of polling.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) legitimately asked whether, since we do not know how the Bill will be amended in another place, there will be an effect on the traditional telling in which political parties become involved. I have been reassured on that point. Perhaps the Minister will take on board the fact that political parties may decide in their telling also

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to conduct their own polling. We all know that that goes on. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, it is normally done by releasing spurious canvassing returns. They greatly inflate the support that they receive and are shocked when they come third or fourth when the result of the election is announced--when they find that support on the doorstep was not reflected in the votes in the ballot box.

3 pm

Telling would be allowed to continue, but we should also consider circumstances where early polling takes place and political parties publish leaflets and other literature--or information is made available on radio, television or the internet. It would also be wrong if a political party said, "We have done some early polling of those who voted early and we find that we are now first and everybody else is way behind," or even that the result would be very close when in fact it was not.

Telling must be allowed to continue. When the Home Secretary examines pilot projects, I hope that he will ensure that, in any early voting that takes place, the facility of political parties to tell and to look for personation, for example, will be allowed to continue. It should not be made so difficult that we are not allowed fully to fulfil our functions when the poll is taking place.

With the assurances that the Minister has given us, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): On a point of order that is relevant to the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise that I did not make it before the previous debate. I have discussed it with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

On the amendment paper yesterday, there were three selections by Madam Speaker that included amendments that had the support of Conservative Members and Liberal Democrat Members. The names of those who had tabled them appeared above them. In each case, the lead name was either the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst or that of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). There were other amendments above which only those two names appeared.

When we read the selection paper today, we found that two of the three groups that were withdrawn had the support of both Conservative Members and Liberal Democrat Members. I am not pressing you to make a ruling now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I ask for an indication from you or from Madam Speaker of whether it is in order, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst tells me that he was led to believe--I accept that--that shared amendments can be withdrawn without the permission of others who were signatories to them? My hon. Friends and I did not know that the amendments would be withdrawn. We had not been asked and we had not agreed that it should happen. We found that amendments with which we would have persisted were not on the amendment paper.

I am not criticising the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst or for Penrith and The Border. Clearly, something has gone wrong. One of the amendments was in the group that we have just debated.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The rules make it clear that the Member who has the lead name--in this instance,

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the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)--is entitled to withdraw the amendment at any time before it is before the House. Therefore, it is not a matter for the Chair. It is perhaps a matter of courtesy to get in touch with those who added their signatures to the amendment.

Mr. Evans: I beg to move amendment No. 29, in page 12, line 4, at end insert--

'(2B) No scheme which makes provision for voting to take place on more than one day and which makes provision for voting to take place on either Saturday or Sunday shall be submitted to or approved by the Secretary of State unless it makes provision for voting to take place on both days.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No.21, in page 12, line 37, at end insert--

'(e) the choice of polling day or days was seen as offensive by religious or other groups; and
(f) the choice of polling day or days led to any prejudice of the votes cast by certain groups.'.

Mr. Evans: I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will accept that most of the amendments to which he referred were covered by my amendment. However, I understand his point.

The amendment is the result of discussions that have taken place during the passage of the Bill. We believe that polling taking place on a Sunday would be entirely unacceptable to a large group of people if that was the only day on which polling took place. It would be ironic if, in introducing a Bill designed to enfranchise more people and to encourage more people to vote, even a pilot allowing voting on a Sunday led to a number of people feeling unable to vote. That would be completely against the spirit of the proposed legislation. If polling is to be on only one day, let us put it into the Bill, if it is the position, that polling will not take place on a Saturday or a Sunday.

We all know that there will be problems in any event. If we tried two-day polling on a Saturday and a Sunday, it would allow people who for religious reasons have problems about voting on a day when they are involved in religious observance to vote on the other day.

There are other problems with weekends, which the working party discussed. Life styles are changing for many people, who tend to go away, particularly if they have country homes or caravans, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). They may decide to go away for the entire weekend. People may be deprived of the opportunity to vote, especially if the amendment that we discussed earlier in the name of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) about earlier postal votes is not accepted.

In addition, the vote might be distorted. I am not too sure that people with caravans would ever take the opportunity of local declarations of interest if they were away from home with their caravans. With weekend voting, people with second homes could distort the vote. I suspect that similar considerations may apply to students, who are on the register in the area of their university and at home. Some students go on short weekend breaks or go back to see their families. Weekend voting needs to be examined carefully.

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The amendment relates specifically to the religious consideration. We ask the Minister to let it be known to local authorities that are thinking of having pilot studies in their areas that it would be entirely unacceptable for that to be on a Saturday or a Sunday. It will be for the Home Office to consider various other days if the pilot study submissions show that people want polls on other days. If there is to be voting on a Saturday and a Sunday, only a true pilot study in various areas will properly tell us what the impact will be and whether there will be an increase in voting. I would be entirely opposed to the change of poll from a Thursday to just a Saturday or just a Sunday. Perhaps the Minister can tell us today whether he has received representations from organisations objecting to the piloting of polling on days other than the two that I have mentioned.

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