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Mr. Straw: That is a persuasive point that needs to be borne in mind. The argument in favour of proportional representation for Westminster seems to be pursued with slightly less evangelism than before. I am not clear why that is the case.

The Howarth working party delivered its final report to me in October. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East and to all members of his working party for the thorough, informed and positive report that they have produced.

It may be helpful if I deal with the so-called reasoned amendment, tabled by the Opposition. It states that the House should decline to give a Second Reading to the Bill because

The amendment claims also that

    "Members of this House have had no time in which to consult with local authorities and interested parties in their constituencies".

This is one of the most disingenuous reasoned amendments that I have seen for a long time.

It may be helpful if I set out the extent to which we have engaged in consultation--not embarked on it--not only with the public, but with the Opposition. The working party, established in 1997, included a representative of the Conservative party, and that representative worked, and co-operated, with the working party.

In July 1998, the working party produced an interim report--which I published--which set out the provisional lines along which it was going and included most, although not all, of the issues raised in the final working party report. These included: rolling registration; disabled access to electoral procedures; electoral forms management; absent voting procedures; registration of parties; returning officers' fees and charges; broadcasting issues; and responses to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions consultation paper "Local Democracy and Community Leadership".

The report went on to explain other changes that the working party was to introduce, including a rolling electoral registration system; polling aides for the disabled; pilot schemes for voting anywhere in an electoral area; mobile voting; early voting; changes to voting hours and days; all-postal ballots and electronic voting.

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Almost every issue in the final report was flagged up in the interim report. In addition, I remind the Conservative party that, alongside the Howarth working party, the Select Committee on Home Affairs sat at about the same time and held its own inquiry into electoral procedures. The Select Committee reported in September 1998, and its report has been available for public consultation ever since.

Conservative Front Benchers seem to have the most extraordinarily short memories. That may be because they keep changing--I am now on my fourth shadow Home Secretary in less than two and a half years. Written evidence was put into the Select Committee report, which went through a wide variety of issues--exactly those that are before the House today. In addition, the noble Lord Parkinson, of blessed memory, who was at the time the Conservative party chairman--

Mr. Bercow: A great man.

Mr. Straw: A very great man. Greater love hath no man for his party than to chair the Conservative party in the wake of its historic defeat in 1997 and still keep cheerful.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): And its great victory in 1983.

Mr. Straw: I pay tribute to that historic victory in 1983, from which we learned something. Lord Parkinson gave oral evidence to the Committee. For the fourth-time-around Conservative Front Benchers now to say that we have not entered into public consultation on the issue is simply nonsense.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On the subject of consultation, and further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), is it not the case that the working party did not include any representatives from the commercial or charitable sectors and that the problems raised by my hon. Friend would probably not have occurred had such representatives been consulted? Is it not the case that all those sectors were allowed to do was to make written representations?

Mr. Straw: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has asked me that question, because I was about to point out that, on the issue of the sale of the register, which is unquestionably one of the more contentious matters--but on which the Conservatives' representative agreed with the recommendations of the working party's report, which were the subject of considerable deliberation--the working party published a consultation paper in summer 1998 and invited representations on it. The working party received representations from the credit companies and other commercial interests, together with 90 letters written in response to a campaign run by the Daily Express against the free sale of the complete electoral register. No one can seriously argue that the possibility that changes would be made in the arrangements for the sale of the register were not fully the subject of public debate more than 15 months ago.

Mr. Bercow: The Home Secretary is not universally renowned for his competence, but he is known for his unfailing charm and courtesy. Therefore, within the

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privacy of the Chamber, I wish to ask him a simple question. Will he agree to a request from the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, which comprises 300 member companies and a spend of more than £3 billion on media advertising, to a meeting at which it can air its concerns and release him from his state of ignorance on this important issue?

Mr. Straw: I take the half-compliment that the hon. Gentleman paid me in the spirit in which it was made. He is under a misapprehension, because it is not that I am in a state of ignorance but simply that I take a position with which he disagrees. The two are different, but it is the error of mistaking disagreement for ignorance that led the Conservatives to the historic defeat of which we spoke a moment ago.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the influence of Professor Bernard Crick's advisory group on education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy, which shows the importance of consultation. The group's report showed the need for change to re-engage young people, and there is no better example of the need for the changes proposed in the Bill.

Mr. Straw: Before I deal with my hon. Friend's point, I wish to answer the direct question put by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I cannot give an undertaking to the organisation to which he referred that I will be able to meet its representatives, but my hon. Friend the Minister has already met representatives of several commercial groups and will be available to meet those of that organisation, should we receive a request from it.

I shall now summarise for the House what the Bill contains but, before I do so, I shall just mention what is not in it. Hon. Members will be aware that there will be another piece of electoral legislation this Session--the political parties, elections and referendums Bill. That Bill will give effect to the Neill committee recommendations on party funding and, very importantly, create an electoral commission. A draft Bill for that was published in July.

The working party recommended legislative changes in three main areas--electoral registration, absent voting and pilot schemes--that are covered in the Bill before us today, and I will deal with them in turn. Much of our legislation governing electoral registration dates from the end of the first world war and while, in general, it has served us well, it no longer reflects the needs of modern society. The rules were drawn up when only a minority of the adult population were eligible to be registered and when, for the most part, people lived in one place for most, if not the whole, of their lives.

We now have a very mobile population with up to a tenth of people moving house in any one year. It is plainly absurd that someone who moves to a new address just after the 10 October qualifying date has to wait 16 months--until February of the year after the next year--before being able to vote in respect of their new address. That can only have a harmful effect on turnout. People are prevented from voting for the local authority in the area where they live and have little interest in voting for the local authority in the place where they no longer live.

That is why, on the working party's recommendation, we are introducing a system of rolling electoral registration. This will allow the register to be updated

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constantly, so that people can be added to the register and deleted from it as soon as they move. The aim is to ensure that not more than about six weeks elapse between the date when people move and inform the electoral registration officer of their move and their inclusion on the register.

There will still need to be an annual canvass and safeguards to ensure that nobody is disfranchised by being left off the register. That change should ensure that every future election is conducted using a much more up-to-date register. I hope that the whole House will welcome this measure.

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