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Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): That is because the hon. Gentleman is never in Blaby.

Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman claims that I am never in Blaby. I must tell my neighbour that I spend a

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great deal of time there. I know that candidates from other parties visit residential homes and I am sure that they have had the same experience as me. Postal or proxy votes can be abused, and the system should be more stringent. Someone who cannot make a decision should not continue to be enfranchised. Postal votes are not a panacea. The Minister should consider that.

Unlike most Members of Parliament, I have voted as a service man. While I welcome changes that make voting easier for the services, the system is currently fairly easy. It was a problem to persuade service men to make a service declaration and register to vote. Service men are usually young men--and women nowadays--who are between 18 and 23 and they have other matters on their minds. Traditionally, few in that age group vote. However, it is easy to do so. In 1979 and 1983, I helped to return a Conservative Government by voting in person; in 1987, I was able to vote by proxy because I was abroad. It was easy.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) made good points about clause 9 and the electoral register. I want to approach the matter from the point of view of security. Some individuals, including Members of Parliament and former Ministers in both Houses, have a serious problem with security against terrorism. Many of my hon. Friends have said that they do not wish to be found through the electoral roll--I am sure that that also applies to other hon. Members. For that reason, I have registered in Westminster only recently, although I have lived there for eight years. It should be possible to register anonymously. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale said that he was willing to discuss providing for special cases with the Government. The Select Committee on Home Affairs envisages making very special cases.

The anxiety about Irish terrorism continues; I hope it will disappear soon. A bomb was placed under Airey Neave's car outside his flat in Westminster; Ian Gow was blown up outside his constituency home. Both were traced through the electoral roll or publications such as "Who's Who". A famous case occurred in Bristol in 1985, when a university lecturer went through an electoral roll and identified various members of the services, and others, whom an IRA active service unit wanted to target. I hope that the Minister will address that important issue.

Linked with my previous point is the need to register one's address on a ballot paper. I know from his contribution that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will disagree with me. I have lived in or on the borders of my constituency since I was selected as a candidate. I confess that I live 100 yd outside my constituency, but I can throw a stone across the border--[Interruption.] My neighbours would take a dim view of my throwing stones, but there are no neighbours between me and the river Avon, which marks the border. Many Labour Members would be embarrassed because they do not live in their constituencies. I am not sure whether the Home Secretary spends much time in Blackburn, but he is not here to defend himself, so I shall not ask. The Minister for the Environment has three houses, and I do not know which one he counts as home. However, I make a serious point about security. There may be a security problem on account of terrorism, lunatics or stalkers.

We should examine carefully the proposal in clause 10 for pilot schemes under which voting can take place on more than one day. It is worth considering the history of

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electoral reform. Various electoral reforms took place in 1918 after the great war. The Representation of the People Act 1918 increased the electorate from its pre-war figure of 8 million to 21 million, granted the vote to men over 21 and women over 30--a discrepancy that would be considered ill judged on both sides of the House nowadays. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 allowed women to become Members of Parliament. Countess Markiewicz was the first woman Member of Parliament. She was elected in Dublin for Sinn Fein, but never took her seat. The Redistribution Act 1918 increased the size of the House of Commons and adopted the principle, with which we all agree, of equal constituency sizes. The first general election that was held on only one day took place in 1918--elections had previously been held over several days. If we intend to change that, we should study history and ascertain whether it has served us better to hold elections on only one day. There is no advantage to voting on more than one day.

Lack of interest is a genuine problem. As politicians, we are all interested in politics. However, it does not grab the attention of others in the same way. I am sorry about that, and we should consider how we can interest others. We care, others do not. That has nothing to do with the difficulties of voting; it is not difficult to vote in this country. I accept that some people are disfranchised. However, although hereditary peers were disfranchised for one day last week, I admit that I do not believe that that was the end of the world. It is generally easy to vote and easy to register.

Abstention is a respectable political act. The Bill's attempts to persuade people to vote in supermarkets or mobile voting stations are patronising and nannying. Everyone knows that they can vote if they want to do that. If the Government made politics and Parliament more important, people would vote in local elections. The previous Government reduced the importance of local authorities over several years; that was not necessarily a good thing.

Mr. David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman voted for it.

Mr. Robathan: I believe that it was before my time. However, the Government reduce the importance of Parliament by making announcements outside Parliament; by appointing the first Attorney-General from outside the House of Commons for many years; by appointing unelected cronies such as people who shared a flat with the Prime Minister; and by appointing a Lord Chancellor who was the Prime Minister's pupil master. That cannot be right or good for democratic politics.

There are also unelected regional development agencies--in my case, the East Midlands development agency.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): The hon. Gentleman says that certain things are not good for democracy. Does he accept that a third of the electorate not participating in the previous general election was not good for democracy

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and that anything we can do--including the implementation of the measures in the Bill--is bound to improve that situation?

Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman is not quite right: 71.5 per cent. of the electorate voted in the previous general election.

Mr. Love: The figure that the hon. Gentleman produces relates to those who are registered to vote. It is estimated that about 91 or 92 per cent. of the population are registered, so a third did not turn out.

Mr. Robathan: Nevertheless, that does not change the point. People may make a genuine decision to abstain or, for all sorts of reasons--the hon. Gentleman will know what they are--determine that they do not want to be registered; some may relate to criminal activities. It is easy to register and vote in this country; it just requires a bit of effort. Whatever Labour Members may think, the British public are not that stupid--they are quite capable of registering and voting--and Members of Parliament are living examples of how easy it is to vote, because we manage to do so weekly.

To return to the east midlands and regional development agencies, the East Midlands development agency is unelected--as is the regional assembly--and such organisations do not bolster Parliament. Conservative Members believe, and many Labour Members know in their hearts, that the Government are undermining and ignoring Parliament and taking power from the representatives of the people, which is why people may think it not worth voting. I would like politics to be made more relevant to people, both locally and nationally, and the importance of Parliament and county and other councils should be stressed. To answer the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), that is the way to rebuild confidence and to increase participation. Allowing people to vote at supermarket checkouts is not the way to increase participation and make Parliament and other elected Assemblies more relevant.

7.43 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I am rather saddened by the contribution of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), because we have heard plenty of examples of why people, through no fault of their own, do not vote. Although our system--compared with many others world wide--offers people many opportunities to vote, major obstacles still prevent them from taking up their democratic right. I agree with him that merely modernising the way we vote will not increase the turnout at elections. The way in which we all carry out and talk about our politics and communicate to our electors what we are doing as constituency Members of Parliament, as well as the way in which they represent their views and attempt to influence us, are all part and parcel of giving politics in this country a good name. We must encourage people to think that voting in elections is worth while.

I was disappointed in the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who is unfortunately no longer in his seat, because he talked about delaying the progress of many of the radical ideas and modernising ways forward presented to us in the Bill. That is no surprise, because Conservative forces have not been at the forefront of

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extending suffrage or the reform of our electoral system; they have been dragged to it by the prospect of turmoil in the country caused by the majority being disallowed to take part in a system that they were entitled to use. Conservative forces also have no credit to their name in respect of women being given the vote.

On a more positive note, I welcome the cross-party collaboration on the working party, which was chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). I made a submission to it and have also written to Home Office Ministers on issues surrounding election campaigning and representation. Despite the Bill being somewhat technical, it holds a seed of a revolution in British political participation. As we prepare to enter the new century, it is apt that we are reviewing a system that has remained fundamentally unchanged for years and years. That review, along with consideration of the way in which we present politics and the plans for citizenship lessons in our schools, will go some way to increasing participation in elections.

At present, the register disfranchises people through no fault of their own. I have to admit that this year is my 20th in the Labour party and I have been a campaigner all those years. [Interruption.] It is true.


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