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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Greenway: I will, just once more.

Mr. Brady: As the Home Secretary has specifically mentioned the possibility of voting on Saturdays and Sundays, he should clearly address himself to what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Greenway: That is true. We think that it is one of the factors that should have been clarified much more fully during consultation.

We are also concerned about the absence of a specified limit to the number of days on which early voting can take place. That would add to the problem.

All those points were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) during the passage of the Bill that became the Greater London Authority Act 1999, but so far the Government have chosen to ignore them. We will press them again in Committee.

The remaining question for the House to consider is what form the Committee should take. On 20 November 1995, when his party was in opposition, the Home Secretary told the House that "careful scrutiny" was

We agree with that. As we speak, however, the Government remain to be convinced that the Bill should be considered by a Committee of the whole House. We believe that it should: precedent dictates that constitutional Bills of this nature should be taken on the Floor of the House, so that Members have an opportunity to contribute. The Representation of the People Bills that became the 1985 and 1989 Acts were so considered; why should the Government seek to deny the same opportunity now, unless they wish to deny effective scrutiny of this Bill?

The Opposition's reasoned amendment gives members of all parties a chance to ask the Government to reconsider all these matters. A Representation of the People Bill reforming electoral procedures should be uncontroversial, and supported with unanimity and consensus throughout the House; the Government, however, are attempting to

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push the measure through Parliament with unseemly haste, with inadequate scrutiny, and with no attempt to organise serious public consultation. That is the mark of a Government who see clinging to power as their overriding priority. We have grown used to the Government's treating the House and the country with contempt, but in the case of this most important issue we should tell them to think again. I commend the amendment.

5.28 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): It is a novel concept that a Government with a 30 per cent. lead in the opinion polls should be clinging to power, but the speech of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) contained a number of novel concepts. One was the interesting notion that consensus consists of the Government's accepting all the views of the Opposition but none of the views of their own Back Benchers. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is far too sensible to accept such a definition of consensus from a party which, after all, will show its respect for consensus by voting against the Bill at 10 pm.

I am entirely satisfied that my right hon. Friend is taking measures--swift measures--to make it easier for people to vote and to give them greater opportunities to vote. I certainly agree with one observation made by the hon. Member for Ryedale: the ability to vote in elections is indeed the most precious attribute that any citizen of a democracy can have. The difficulty that we still have is that it is not a right to vote. It is not easy to vote. Obstacles are thrown up in front of people who wish to exercise the right to elect a Member of Parliament or a councillor. If the Bill can make it easier to vote and increase the turnout at elections, it will have been worth while.

My misgivings about the Bill are not about what it proposes, but what it does not; I hope that by the time it has reached the statute book, it will propose those things. Everything in the Bill relating to enhancing the opportunities for the franchise has my support, but let us consider, for example, the references to postal votes and absent votes for sickness and to late applications. In this electronic age, I can see no reason whatever why there cannot be applications for such votes right through to the eve of poll.

A constituent of mine discovered that he was ill only two or three days before the last general election. He was heartbroken that he was not able to vote. I hope that the use of electronic means for voting will encourage the Home Secretary to place the deadline for applying for absent voting much nearer polling day. I go further--I hope that, in considering means of advancing votes and making it easier to vote, he will look at different ways of absent voting.

Last night, I was discussing with the people who organise telephone voting for the Labour party's national executive committee the way in which that can be used as an alternative to postal voting. In NEC votes, people can vote either by post or telephone. There are secure ways of ensuring that there is no fraud on the telephone. It will make it much easier for people who have applied for a postal vote if they can vote by telephone. They could even do that on polling day itself.

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Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I ask the right hon. Gentleman a practical question. If a vote were cast by telephone, would not that negate the privacy of the ballot box because someone at the end of the telephone would know how the vote was cast?

Mr. Kaufman: No. I assure the hon. Lady that the way in which the vote is cast in NEC votes can preserve privacy. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) would prefer voting for the London mayoralty candidate to be by telephone because it might preserve privacy, of which he is a new-found adherent.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we can ascertain who the pensioners on the electoral register are, one way to enfranchise them--for example, if they are ill just before the election--is to send them all a postal vote, which they can either send in, or relinquish at the ballot box?

Mr. Kaufman: There are safeguards against duplicate voting. Indeed, they are referred to in the explanatory notes to the Bill. It may be that what my hon. Friend proposes can be followed through. In examining voting, we need to find out how to make it easier. I am encouraged by the way in which the Home Secretary has suggested that the school, the public building or the library, which are the repositories of polling stations, are not necessarily the only places. Places such as supermarkets, citizens advice bureaux, clinics and many others can be available.

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Kaufman: I should like to pursue my argument a moment or two longer. Such places can be available because electronic means of voting are possible. I have referred to voting by phone. My right hon. Friend wishes to make provision for applications for postal votes by fax. That is well and good. I very much hope that he will consider the possibility of voting by fax or e-mail. I could go further.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Telepathy.

Mr. Kaufman: My hon. Friend is one of the few people in the House who, I accept, can cap any attempted witticism of mine.

In this computer age, there is no reason why it should not be possible for those who are on holiday to go into a polling location wherever they are and register their vote by computer rather than having to apply for a postal vote beforehand.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Kaufman: I now have two people to give way to, but knowing my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's attitude of self-abasement to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I shall give way to her first.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Where does this tremendous faith in computers come from? As the new House of Commons system is busy eating my e-mails as of this week, I do not have the same faith in electronic equipment.

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Mr. Kaufman: There can be few locations in this country with as much disruptive building work going on as the House of Commons. Other places are likely to be a good deal safer. There is no reason why someone on holiday in Cornwall could not go to a polling station there and be logged through to a polling centre in their own constituency to vote. The point about democracy is giving people the chance. I agree that the security of the ballot must be maintained and hacking must be prevented. Problems have been noted in the United States in that respect.

It is right that my right hon. Friend should consider pilot schemes, but I hope that when we get to the next election, whenever that may be--sooner or later, it makes no difference to the Opposition--we shall have brought pilot schemes into national use. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward) in hoping that my right hon. Friend will not limit himself to local authority pilot schemes, but will institute such schemes himself so that we can have the widest possible participation in elections by the time of the next general election.

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