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Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman may know that I take a particular interest in the matter, having introduced the Referendums Bill in the last Session. The Government's new referendums Bill, or whatever it will be called, provides for an allowance of £5 million to be spent in a particular campaign. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is rather bizarre, and may be linked to a particular campaign?

Mr. Hughes: I agree that it is rather bizarre, and the hon. Gentleman knows that in general I support some of his initiatives. I hope that when we come to that debate, we will try to reach a settlement about holding referendums that is in the interests of people, not parties, and in the interests of the best system, not a particular result.

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I welcome the working party on electoral processes, which was chaired by the then Home Office Minister, now the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). I thank him for his work and pay tribute to the work of my colleagues, Chris Rennard--now Lord Rennard--who gave evidence to the Select Committee on behalf of our party, and David Loxton, who was our member of the working party and participated in trying to achieve the best consensus.

We welcome the rolling register proposal. I repeat my tribute to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who rightly pressed us on the matter. I hope that there will be a greater effort to introduce an annual reminder for people to get on to the list. A summons once a year to go somewhere, fill in a form and register to vote would be far better. In my constituency, the forms normally get delivered in August, for a date of registration in October, to make sure that they are in on time. But a huge spread of time focuses the mind less, not more. People are less likely to vote without an incentive to register or a reminder to do so.

Secondly, we welcome the proposals for increased residential qualification. Mental patients who have not been convicted should of course have the right to vote; it has been a scandal that so far they have not. Remand prisoners who have not been convicted should of course have the right to vote; it has been a scandal that so far they have not. People who are homeless should of course have the right to vote, and it has been a scandal that so far they too have not. It is also right that service personnel should be able to name their place of residence.

I was once canvassing in a by-election and found three names on the register. The person who answered the door was not on the register. I said, "Excuse me, sir, why aren't you on the register?" He said, "Well, I'm a service voter." I said, "May I ask which service?" He said, "It's not far from Portsmouth. You will probably guess that I mean the Navy." So I said, "I'm sorry to be inquisitive, but what job do you do?" After a pause, he said, "Well, I run the Navy." People in the services--whether in the most humble or the most senior post--may want their vote where they live, and they should be allowed that right.

There are several arguments for revisiting the proposal in clause 9. Many people are clearly perturbed about it--indeed, I have received more representations on this proposal than on any other. Secondly--and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) knows more about this than I do--it is a fallacy to suppose that the proposal is the best way of trying to protect people from direct mail. There are other ways of doing that. If we do not want to receive unwanted post, the remedy should be applied generally, not particularly to the electoral register.

Thirdly, there is the serious issue of how such a proposal will affect people for whom the electoral register is used to determine creditworthiness. In constituencies such as mine, many people are out of work. Their appearance on the register confirms that they have an established residence; it gives them the right to receive services that they would not otherwise receive. We must ensure that accepting new proposals will not advance social exclusion rather than social inclusion.

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Mr. Allan: The concern is that people will ask to be excluded because they think that they will no longer receive junk mail, but they will subsequently encounter problems regarding creditworthiness, as my hon. Friend mentioned. The question is how to balance the two important data protection principles: not using data collected for one purpose for something else, and ensuring that such data are accurate. Bodies will be able to find data in another way but it will not have the state authorisation of the electoral register, which is believed to be trustworthy, especially when it comes to credit scoring.

Mr. Hughes: I hope that we heed that sort of argument and take a proper, rational, considered view. It is not just the Confederation of British Industry that has made representations. I have had letters from the Stroke Association and Marie Curie Cancer Care. Cancer organisations, I gather, stand to lose about £2 million if we change the rules and make them pay the full commercial price. So I say to the Minister, not in a strident way, that I hope that we can try to reach consensus on this matter.

Mr. Bercow: All the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised are cogent, but does he agree that the threat in clause 9 to impose an additional cost on business should be averted, if at all possible?

Mr. Hughes: I do agree, and think that the matter would be suitable for consideration of the type undertaken in a Special Standing Committee. However, I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the idea that we try--behind the scenes and in the Committee Corridor--to work together to get the matter right.

I wish to raise two other points in this section of my speech. Of course it is right that people in general public life, or private people who are threatened--by domestic violence, for instance--should be able to vote without being made more vulnerable. Such people are usually female, but occasionally men come into that category. I shall not elaborate, but the House will be aware that I have some knowledge of these matters.

I do not believe, however, that such privacy should be available to people who are candidates or elected public representatives. I consider that the electorate should know where their councillors and Members of Parliament live, and that those people's addresses should appear on the register and ballot paper. Where electoral candidates live in the community--or whether they live there--is an important and relevant piece of information for electors. The hon. Member for Ryedale rightly cited the case of Jill Dando, but matters are different for people such as Members of Parliament.

I turn now to the issues surrounding the conduct of elections. We support the pilot scheme idea of looking at different ways of extending opportunities for elections. We want to make sure that the pilot schemes are evaluated, and I underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), the leader of our party in Scotland, is sitting beside her just now. Many of us want to make sure that voting at a time that is against the

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wishes of the community could take place only if the community agreed to it.

I remind the Minister that, in Wales, there used to be local voting--a referendum--on Sunday opening every 10 years. I have not consulted in detail on the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute, but the way forward might be to combine district or local authority area votes in the area for a referendum. By that means people could decide when they wanted to vote. I hope that my hon. Friend's point will be heeded.

As for absent voting, the right hon. Member for Gorton made the self-evident point that people must be allowed to vote wherever they are, as modern technology allows them to plug into the electoral system from all over the world. In addition, people living in the United Kingdom should be able to vote by post on a permanent basis. The evidence that I have seen shows that electoral turnouts are considerably higher in countries where people vote only by post than in those where people vote mainly in person. We must reflect on that, even though it may cause the electoral process and campaigning to change, as votes may be cast two weeks before the final date.

A whole set of considerations affect people living abroad, and they have been mentioned already. Clearly, the considerations affecting UK citizens will be different from those affecting people who can vote here because they are Irish, Commonwealth or European Union citizens. It is important to realise that these distinctions exist. Another issue is the need to decide whether the link should be defined according to citizenship, or citizenship and tax liability--a perfectly proper combination--or something else.

I now think that 20 years is probably too long, although I voted against limiting the period to that length of time when it was proposed some 10 years ago. I also think that five years is too short a period. For example, my brother lived in Cyprus, having been sent there by his employer. The posting was not permanent, and although he was there for more than five years he retained strong links with this country and has come back here to live. My point is that we must be careful about people who live abroad only because they are obliged to. We must not act in haste and repent at leisure. That is what the worst legislation leads to, and it still happens far too often.

I understand the temptation to react to the Michael Ashcroft affair and to conflate party funding issues with the provenance of votes. I hope that Ministers resist that temptation. There are legitimate questions about who funds political parties, and it will be quite proper to have that debate. However, like the Home Secretary, I hope that we discuss that matter in a measured and considered way and come to an agreed view about how parties should be funded and about how much people should be allowed to spend in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hallam made the point that our methods of checking whether the person who presents the polling card is really the person on the electoral register leave much to be desired. No one knows how much fraud is committed. The injunction "vote early, vote often" is probably followed sometimes--although no hon. Member in this House would know anything about that, of course.

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People are thoroughly confused about the use of polling cards. Many do not vote because they think that they need a polling card. Disabusing people of that misapprehension would help, as the delivery of polling cards is often even less efficient than the organisation of the register.


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