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6.29 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), and I am fascinated to know of his

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connections with Conservative associations. I am afraid that the Epping Forest Conservatives' Christmas bazaar is already past, but I should like to check that the hon. Gentleman has received his invitation to the Epping Forest Conservatives' Christmas party. I hope that he will let me know if he has not, as it is obviously an oversight on the part of my computer. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I did not hear the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Pound: I am sorry; I merely said that I would be reluctant to attend the soiree at Epping Forest with my wife if the previous Member was present.

Mrs. Laing: I do not know whether that is a compliment. I shall be more careful in giving way in future.

Mr. Bercow: What does the hon. Gentleman's wife think?

Mr. Pound: She is keen to go.

Mrs. Laing: The Bill contains much that is good. Any measure that improves the democratic process is to be welcomed, and should be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Some measures in the Bill would make the ballot box more accessible to people who are in some way disadvantaged, which can only be good. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, voting is a very precious right--the most precious right in the defence of a free society--so he is absolutely right to welcome most parts of the Bill.

I wish to draw attention to some aspects of the Bill. First, I am worried about the idea of a declaration of local connection. It is hard to understand how that could work well, and how it could improve the democratic process. Would it mean, for example, that the gypsies--it may be more politically correct to say travellers, because I know that some genuine gypsies do not like to be confused with travellers--who have recently moved into my constituency for an unknown length of time would, in some circumstances, have the chance to be registered and to vote? If they could do so in my constituency at present, could they do so again, in a few weeks, in another constituency? Would they be able to declare a local connection in more than one place at once? If one need not be permanently resident in one place, surely it is theoretically possible to have a local connection with more than one place at a time.

I appreciate that many of us can be registered to vote in more than one place; indeed, many Members of the House are because of our respective residences in our constituency and, during the week, in London. However, we exercise our adherence to the law in voting only once. Not everyone in the country can be trusted to be quite as scrupulous in their adherence to the law. I am very uneasy about that.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend has just conjured up an extremely worrying scenario. Does she agree that if people were free simply to hop, skip, jump or traverse by other means all over the country at short notice and be entitled to vote, we would be faced with the electoral equivalent of flying pickets?

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Mrs. Laing: As ever, my hon. Friend eloquently illustrates a difficult point. He is absolutely right; we could indeed have flying local connection voters. We could certainly have itinerant local connection voters, and modern technology makes it possible to move quickly around the country and vote very many times.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): It is probably true that the largest single group of people who appear on two electoral registers is university students, of whom there are probably 500,000 or more in the United Kingdom. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that, as a group, they are not worthy of trust?

Mrs. Laing: Certainly not. I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question. I was a student, and I was registered in more than one place, but I do not believe that university students or other students who have a home address and a temporary term-time address, or those who have a temporary work address--such as nurses--fall into that category. As I understand the Bill, they would not be required to declare a local connection. They have a permanent, although not always occupied, position in a student hall of residence or a hospital, for example, so there is no problem. The problem would occur with people who deliberately wanted to vote more than once. That could happen. It is our duty, in passing laws, to make electoral rules as watertight as possible, but I can see gaping holes in the legislation. It is not watertight and its provisions must be more closely addressed.

Secondly, I welcome the rolling register. It is a good idea, and modern technology will allow the register to be updated more than once a year. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) drew attention to the fact that peers who were formerly Members of another place lost their right to a voice in Parliament, and the next day were not given a right to vote. Many of them lived in a constituency where there was an imminent by-election, in which they were not allowed to vote. They were disfranchised. The Minister will say that that was only temporary, but a temporary departure from an important principle is as bad as any other departure from an important principle.

A Labour Member said that, even if those peers had been able to vote, it would not have made a difference to the by-election result. It might have. All those peers might have voted for Miss Whiplash; she might not have lost her deposit. We do not know, and it is not up to us to know, but it is up to us to defend their right to cast their vote. That is what counts.

Thirdly, the introduction of new technology worries me. I share, of course, the Home Secretary's wish to give greater access to the polls to people who are disabled. The very last thing that my mother did before she died, a few weeks ago, was to go out to vote. It was very difficult for her to do so because she could not walk up the front steps of the polling station--a back door of the building had to be opened for her. It took a whole day's organisation to enable her to get into that polling station to cast her vote. She was determined to do so. It would have been much better if she could have retained her right to vote without having to be practically carried to the ballot box.

I am well aware that, in that situation, most people who were not of the character and determination of my late mother would not bother to vote. Therefore, anything that

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we can do to improve accessibility, especially by developing new technology, must be welcomed. However, let us not go too far. The right hon. Member for Gorton painted a picture of voting systems that entirely depend on pressing electronic buttons. So much can be done by telephone, by e-mail--if one can work out how to get into the e-mail--by computer or by other electronic means. However, as a society, we should be careful about that. If everything is done by electronic means, we shall soon lose all social connection. People will never meet each other. They will not go shopping; they will log on to the internet and click on the Tesco website, although I find that that takes longer than going to the supermarket.

Ms Ward: I fully understand the hon. Lady's point about social connection, but does she not agree that the chances of meeting someone in a voting station and having a decent conversation are very small unless one is a politician looking for votes?

Mrs. Laing: I often agree with the hon. Lady, but I disagree on this occasion. On a sunny morning in my constituency, people like to go out to vote and they meet each other. Groups of people who have not seen each other for ages are able to talk because they have all gone to the same place at the same time on the same day. It is a social function to go to the polling station to vote. I do not suggest that people enjoy voting as a recreation in the same way that they would enjoy going to a coffee morning. However, we must be careful that we do not do everything electronically and lose all social connection.

My fourth point is about compulsory voting, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) mentioned briefly. In Australia, voting is compulsory, but the system of proportional representation used there is complex. I visited Australia two years ago and was shown the ballot paper. It was bigger than me or the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward). It would be hard to deal with such a ballot paper and it would take ages to fill in.

Mrs. Dunwoody: The hon. Lady should not undervalue the advantages of proportional representation. In New Zealand, the system is so complicated that it has guaranteed no real Government for some years.

Mrs. Laing: I am delighted that the hon. Lady has made that point. I was broken hearted at the result of the New Zealand election last weekend. I am afraid that my first reaction was, "Well, there we go again--the wrong result under proportional representation."

Mr. Pound: No, Labour won.

Mrs. Laing: Some Labour Members might consider it to be the right result under PR. Whether one thinks the result in New Zealand was the right one or the wrong one, it is the wrong system.

In Australia, it is not surprising that the Government had to make voting compulsory. As many people in the House know--I think that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will agree--the best way

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to encourage voting is to keep it simple and to make it meaningful. We do not want people to go to the polling station to spend an hour in there reading the ballot paper. It should be simple for people to cast their votes and to know that the way in which they cast their vote will have an effect on the result of the election.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey seemed to agree about the complexity of the system in Australia and about the undesirability of introducing compulsory voting. I hope that he will also come round to the sensible view that changing the voting system in this country will be bad for democracy and will discourage people from voting. We saw that happen in the turnout for the European elections a few months ago.

The central issue in the Bill is how one is qualified to vote for this Parliament and other democratic institutions in our country. The Home Secretary said that he hoped that there would be a consensus on the measures for overseas voters. However, I listened to the right hon. Member for Gorton and I am certain that such a consensus is unlikely. I would find it difficult to agree with the right hon. Gentleman on this point. He was dangerously close to suggesting that we, as Parliament, should adopt a clause that would give electoral advantage to one party or the other. I hope that no Member would ever vote for party advantage rather than for a point of principle. The right hon. Gentleman said that only 13,000 people from overseas voted and that the vast majority of them voted in what are currently Conservative constituencies, but so what? That does not matter.

I am aware that the right hon. Member for Gorton is not present to respond to my points, but I would gladly give way to him if he were. However, it does not matter how those overseas voters vote; we are discussing a matter of principle.

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