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Mr. Yeo: The Minister says that the two-week delay in the lifting of the ban is intended to protect the rights of the Opposition. May I say on behalf of the Opposition that, in the interests of British consumers, we are willing to forgo those rights and approve the necessary order this afternoon?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman was not the leading or significant opposition that I had in mind. There may be real opponents of what I have announced today, and they should be given some time in which to have their say.


The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:

The right hon. Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, for Kensington and Chelsea.

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Points of Order

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Are you able to clarify for the record exactly what the broadcasting procedures are for the Westminster Hall debating Chamber? This morning, the broadcasting proceedings were unavailable to other Members, or to our staff. Is it expected that they will be available, particularly on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings?

Madam Speaker: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report, which records what the broadcasting should be. I would myself like to see the debates on our internal monitors. I am taking steps to find out whether we can have that for next week.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you had a request from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come to the House today, given the shocking and, perhaps to some, distressing news that the euro is now worth only 99.04 US cents?

Madam Speaker: I have not been informed that anyone from the Treasury is seeking to make a statement on that, or on any other issue today.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Has the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food told you whether it will be sending a Minister to the Tea Room because, in today's evening paper, we were regaled with the headline:

implying the past tense, half an hour before the statement to the House?

Madam Speaker: To the Tea Room? Is it to have a nice beef sandwich? I hope that if anyone is sent to the Tea Room for a beef sandwich, one will be sent to me in Speaker's House when I leave the Chair for a cup of tea.

Do I have another point of order? No? What a pity.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 107 (Welsh Grand Committee (matters relating exclusively to Wales)),

Question agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Representation of the People Bill

[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 1997-98, on Electoral Law and Administration (HC 768), and the Government response published in the Committee's Fourth Special Report, Session 1998-99, (HC 856).]

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Speaker: I should inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.2 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It gives me great pleasure to bring before the House this Bill, which aims to modernise our electoral procedures. Much of our electoral legislation dates from the 19th century. The Bill will help to ensure that the procedures are suitable for the next century.

Let me tell the House something about the genesis of the Bill. Following every general election, the Home Office carries out a review to see what, in terms of electoral processes, went well and what could be improved. Previously, that has been purely an administrative exercise, but, following the 1997 general election, I decided that something more fundamental was needed.

Accordingly, I invited my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), then the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, to chair a working party to review all our electoral arrangements and to produce recommendations which

The working party on electoral procedures, or the Howarth working party as it came to be known, included representatives of all the principal political parties, electoral administrators and representatives of local government. I am pleased to say that the working party was able to proceed by consensus and that, with a single exception, all its recommendations were agreed unanimously by all the representatives, including those of the three political parties. I hope that a similar spirit of co-operation will characterise our deliberations over the Bill. Electoral law is so fundamental to our democracy that changes to it should, wherever possible, proceed by consensus.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): How can we take the Home Secretary seriously on that point when we warned him that the system of election for the European Parliament that he was introducing would lead to an abysmal turnout? We were right. He ignored that advice, despite the measure being sent back from the Lords on numerous occasions, and we saw the lowest-ever turnout. How can we take the Government seriously about the turnout at local elections?

Mr. Straw: The Bill deals with the procedures for elections, which include the way in which we draw up the

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register, the way in which people are able to cast their vote, arrangements for absent voting, the positioning of polling stations and matters relating to eligibility for voting. There is a difference between those issues and questions relating to electoral systems, which, as the hon. Gentleman and others will recall, we debated on six occasions. When I woke up this morning and heard reference to the d'Hondt system, I thought that I had gone back to a year ago. I am pleased to learn that d'Hondt's fine work last century has been put to even better effect in the arrangements for Northern Ireland than in the arrangements for the European elections.

It is difficult to argue that the changes to the voting system for the European elections led to an increase in turnout. I do not argue that. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to argue that a first-past-the-post system automatically leads to high turnouts. The by-elections at Leeds, Central and at Kensington and Chelsea--safe seats for Labour and the Conservatives respectively--had turnouts below 30 per cent.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I will always, without exception, give way to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am deeply honoured that my right hon. Friend should be so kind, and I am very humble. Why does he not change back to the old first-past-the-post system for European elections to see whether that produces the result that we want?

Mr. Straw: I am not a one-Member Parliament. We live in a democracy. It is for humble Ministers such as me merely to make propositions and for this House and the other place to dispose of them. As I told the House during the passage of last year's Bill, we are reviewing the working of the system used for the European elections, and a report will be produced in due course.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): When the right hon. Gentleman analyses those statistics, it might be useful for him to look back to the European by-election in North-East Scotland, which took place just over six months before the European elections. That was conducted under the first-past-the-post system and the turnout was about the same.

Mr. Straw: I accept that point, which I was trying to make. Some people suggested that the change in the system for the European election would lead to an increase in turnout. I do not think that it is possible to argue that any more. I have never believed that the differences in turnout between us and continental countries are principally to do with the electoral system. They are to do with other factors.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, while it may seem attractive in principle to impose restrictions on the commercial use of the electoral register, the danger of clause 9 as it stands is that individuals who are excluded from that commercially

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available register, albeit by their choice, might find it difficult to obtain credit, as credit reference searches will be unable to locate them?

Mr. Straw: I shall come to that point. If the hon. Gentleman has more questions when I get to it, I shall give way again.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the system used in the European elections served one useful purpose of which we should take note? It taught us that under no circumstances should such a system be used for elections to this House. We have learned a very good lesson and I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees with it.

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