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Mr. Kaufman: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that replacing the polling card with a personalised swipe card would render fraud much more difficult to commit and would permit votes to be cast from any part of the country, or from abroad?

Mr. Hughes: I support working towards a system that allows people to vote electronically. As has been noted, people increasingly make use of personalised, 24-hour banking services, have their own personal identification numbers for telephone use and employ swipe cards in other contexts. We must be positive about the appurtenances of the modern age, but we must not devise a system that is easy for the clued-up 21-year-old but difficult for the 91-year-old. Some people late in life are not going to take up the use of swipe cards and complicated PIN numbers on their telephones.

I turn now to people with disabilities. I welcome the proposed changes to allow people to have help when they vote. However, I hope that the Government will consider going further, by regulation if not by legislation. There is merit in offering, to all who are registered disabled or who are in sheltered and residential accommodation, help that is independent of the people among whom they live.

It is always a worry that a residential home may deliver a block vote because its frail, elderly and confused residents have been organised by someone in the home. Ensuring that such residents were independent would allow us all to relax and trust the system more.

In very many polling stations, the ballot box is still kept about half a mile from the street entrance. That is often the case when schools are used. People with disabilities are often deterred from voting because the journey through the building is longer than the journey to the building. That is clearly a nonsense.

The Home Secretary spoke of the challenge that we face of revitalising democracy. I do not think that there is a crisis in democracy. Electoral turnouts were often very low in the past, but things can only get better. Sometimes turnouts are abysmal, as happened at last Thursday's election in Kensington and Chelsea. Another dire turnout was recorded in the earlier election at Leeds, Central which, given its many and historic problems, has at least as great a need for proper representation as any area in the country.

Any Representation of the People Bill must pass certain tests. We should seek to produce maximum turnouts at elections, but Liberal Democrat Members are not persuaded that compulsory voting is the answer and consider that other avenues should be explored before we even think of introducing compulsion. Making people vote in a free society appears to be a contradiction in terms.

We must also accept that the result of an election has to reflect the views of the electorate as expressed through their votes. All parties can benefit from the distorted way in which results are determined at present. For example,

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in the 1998 Newham council elections, Labour won 57 per cent. of the vote and secured all 60 of the available seats. Again, in the 1995 vote in Cheltenham, the Liberal Democrats won 49 per cent. of the vote and secured 93 per cent. of the seats. Hon. Members will know that, in the House and in local councils, one party will often get a majority of votes but another will get a majority of seats.

We will not persuade people that voting matters unless outcomes reflect what they want when they go to the ballot box. We made a bad mistake in June this year. By not linking the voter with an individual candidate in the European elections, we took away the incentive for many people to vote. Those of us who argue for a different and proportional voting system want a system that links to individuals, not merely to a party list.

Whatever we may think of the genesis of the Jenkins report, it makes the best proposal, which is linking constituencies and fairness. I hope that the House remembers that, whatever we think about it, the Government are committed to putting that question to the country. There must be a decision by the country--not by us--as to whether to keep the present first-past-the-post system or to implement the Jenkins report. That was the Government's pledge. It was in the manifesto and it should be honoured.

The reality is that people will vote most if they think that they have a chance of influencing something most. If Parliament is more powerful, people will vote more often in parliamentary elections. If local government has its chains taken away, people will vote more often in local elections. If those institutions are restricted,


people will ask, "Why bother? It won't change anything." That is why in so many parts of Britain the voting culture reflects that of the one-party state. We have all heard people say, "It doesn't matter whom you put up. Nothing will change." That culture has to be changed and the one-party state mentality has to go.

Young people are the test. They often say that they will not go on the register or vote. We must support all who have been working with the British Youth Council, Operation Black Vote and others to encourage young people to think that they are the people in whose interest it most is to vote. The more they vote, the more this place will reflect their interests and aspirations. Civic education, mock Parliaments and Hansard Society initiatives must all take place too.

This Bill is a beginning. It will do some of the technical things and it is welcome, but it is not the end of the story. Building up communities and making voting easier are important, but--to vary a phrase used this weekend--we need not just reform, but the whole reform and nothing but the reform. If we are to have electoral change, we need, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), not only the Monty but the full Monty and nothing but the full Monty. That means reforming the system of voting as well as the procedure. The sooner it happens, the sooner people will vote.

6.12 pm

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): I speak with some trepidation, on a number of grounds. First, many right hon. and hon. Members have shared with the House their experience of the high office that they held when this matter was last debated. At that time, I was the second

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substitute on the London borough of Ealing nuclear disarmament working party, which was sadly not conspicuously successful, but would certainly have been taken into consideration were the Ilyushins ever to have approached us.

I am also loth to criticise any aspect of what is an excellent Bill. For example, this is not a case of opening the Christmas present to discover with a cold feeling of horror that one has been given a Jeffrey Archer novel. It is rather that, within the vast body of the Bill--the detail is excellent--there is one small area that gives me ground for concern. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench will allow me to deal with clause 9 and the access to credit for people in my constituency, who have a great deal in common with the constituents of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

I am concerned that commercial and charitable organisations will not be allowed access to the electoral roll for credit purposes. As has been said, that could easily be costly and counter-productive. Certainly, there are problems, but it is not beyond the will of this House or the Standing Committee for those to be dealt with, and resolved, without causing severe difficulties for many of our constituents.

The role of businesses and charitable organisations has been mentioned. The credit industry is a particular concern. There is only one national database of this type. The electoral register is, as we all know, utterly unique, as has been recognised by the Office of Fair Trading. I will pray in aid some esoteric sources later to confirm the validity of that statement. The point about the register's uniqueness is that there is no substitute. It is not a question of this mechanism or another. It is all well and good to say that credit checking companies could discover alternative mechanisms. We do not yet have a national identity card or any comparable national database.

When the working party considered the matter--it has been said that a possible weakness of the working party is the lack of representation on it of the commercial or charitable sectors, although they certainly submitted views in writing--it stated that there was anecdotal evidence that people were concerned about receiving junk mail. Far be it for me as a member of the London Labour party to comment on unsolicited mail at the present time, but is the problem really the fact that we might get a few of those appalling letter from the Reader's Digest stating that, if we buy dozens of copies of some book, we may be entered in some spurious grand draw that at some stage may solve all our problems? Is that such an awful difficulty? Is it so terrible that the honest postal worker delivers that junk mail and the householder looks at it and throws it away--or, in the case of the correspondence to which I referred, reads it, appreciates it and takes the action suggested?

Ms Ward: Does my hon. Friend accept that, while junk mail is frustrating for those of us who receive it, a more important issue is the security of individuals who are, for example, escaping domestic violence and who want the right to vote and register, but who do not believe that that information should be put in the hands of the public at large and of commercial companies in general, as their pursuers might be able to trace them through it?

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