Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Caroline Flint: No.

Mr. Grieve: I apologise; I thought for one moment that the hon. Lady wanted me to give way.

The House should be able to consider the options, table amendments and discuss the matter in Committee in the ordinary way. My reluctance to support this measure is not because I think that it is ill-intended; I think that it is well-intended--however, I shall not give my support to a measure that will make potentially major changes to our system of elections after only a three-hour debate in the House. I am sorry, but I am just not willing to do that. I hope that the Government will reconsider. I dare say that the Committee stage will be taken upstairs: I am not sure whether the Bill will be treated as a constitutional measure. If I have the opportunity to intervene in Committee, it will be to make the point that the Henry VIII clause is a bad part of the Bill.

Now that I have got that off my chest, there are a number of details--

Mr. Mike O'Brien: For the sake of clarification, as the question has been raised by a number of Members, I can confirm that we intend the Committee stage to take place on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Grieve: I am obliged to the Minister. I also apologise for having had to leave the Chamber for about an hour, possibly when that was being explained, to attend a meeting of the Church and nation committee of the Church of Scotland.

I am concerned about one or two matters, although I hope for reassurance. Clause 13 deals with persons with disabilities. I am all in favour of giving such people the opportunity to vote, and I would certainly be worried if

30 Nov 1999 : Column 221

someone who had decided that he wished to vote was prevented from doing so because of his physical disabilities. I welcome clause 13 for that reason, and hope that it will work in the way in which it is intended to work.

However, I must express a slight worry, born of an event that I witnessed with my own eyes when I fought a Lambeth seat in 1987. A substantial number of persons with quite severe physical, but also learning, disabilities--about a dozen--were brought to the polling station by their carers, who wished to persuade the returning officer that they had expressed an intention on how they wished to vote, and that he should record their vote accordingly. It was apparent to me, a spectator standing beside them, that they had formed no view whatever about the election, that they might well be ignorant of the fact that a vote was taking place at all, and that they were probably incapable of making up their minds about how to vote.

I trust that the measure, as drafted, will be accompanied by regulatory procedures or guidelines sufficient to enable the necessary distinctions to be made by the officer dealing with the polling station involved. I considered what I saw on that occasion to be scandalous: it was simply a piece of exploitation. It was said earlier--by, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)--that such practices were not unknown in old people's homes and nursing homes.

These may be matters of detail, and of course there is always a balance to be struck. We must ensure that people are not wrongly denied the opportunity to vote, although there may be a risk that people will cast votes when they had no intention or desire to do so. However, the issue merits consideration; otherwise, we risk bringing the system of election into disrepute. As I have said, I was shocked by what I saw on the occasion to which I have referred. It was a travesty of what an election should be about.

I was slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) should raise the issue--which, I accept, does not feature in the Bill--of the length of time for which someone might be out of the country before being deprived of the right to vote. I was staggered by what I heard. This country has always prided itself on the fact that, unlike other countries, it does not apply rules that deprive people of the right to British citizenship because they happen to be citizens of another state. I have always considered that to be rather important.

My late mother regularly voted in both French and United Kingdom elections because she had dual nationality, and at one time had residence in both countries at the same time. It never struck me that the one was incompatible with the other, and I am sure that the Minister will feel able to agree with that principle. We know that many citizens of the Irish Republic effectively exercise citizenship rights in both countries with no difficulty, and, indeed, without formal dual nationality.

I hope that the Government will put all such thoughts aside when considering the appropriate length of time for which a person should be allowed the vote. It has been suggested that 20 years is too long for someone who has previously been resident. I am prepared to consider a shortening of that period, but, if the issue is to be raised in the future, we should bear in mind that increasingly, in

30 Nov 1999 : Column 222

the mobile society in which we live and given its international dimension, individuals leave the country for long periods, but continue to take an active interest in its affairs and have a desire to return. There is no evidence that the system has been abused. It has been suggested that, because few people take up the opportunity, it is worthless, but the number who take up the opportunity may reflect the number who feel sufficiently concerned to do so. That is no reason for us to deprive people of that opportunity if they have a contribution to make.

Clause 6 deals with:

I welcome any measure that extends the franchise to those who are clearly eligible to vote in this country, but may not be able to exercise their right. I am all in favour of homeless people being able to have a point of contact enabling them to exercise a specific right to which they are plainly entitled. That causes me no concern, and I shall be happy to help to devise any system to facilitate it.

I share the fear of some of my hon. Friends--a fear that may be shared by Members on both sides of the House--that personation of voters and abuse of the system are taking place. We have little idea of the extent to which that occurs, but most of us have ample anecdotal evidence that the registering of people who are likely to occupy very temporary addresses has been exploited in order to lay hands on voting cards so that other people can, effectively, vote without their consent. The Home Secretary said that such action was a serious criminal offence, and I wholly accept that, but I venture to suggest that this is one of the criminal offences for which the offender stands a limited chance of being caught, unless he is unlucky enough to be recognised at the polling station as someone who has voted before, or as someone known not to be the person whose voting card he is handing in.

Having made those preliminary comments, I hope to participate actively in later discussion on the Floor of the House. I am grateful to the Government for saying that the Committee stage will be taken on the Floor. I am sorry that I cannot support the Bill tonight. In many respects, I should have liked to do so, but I return to my original criticism: it is bad practice simply to say that pilot schemes can be turned into a complete change in our electoral roll system as a result of rubber stamping by the House after a short debate. That is not what I understand parliamentary democracy to be about, and it is certainly not what my electors would wish me to vote for.

8.9 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I was feeling upbeat because I thought this Bill to be, in many respects, not very controversial, but rather one that could genuinely improve representation. I am a little less happy after listening to the speeches of Opposition Members, who have made rather a meal of a number of the clauses and issues involved. I understand their right to oppose and to draw various conclusions from some of the changes that are being introduced, but I am not sure whether this is the right time to do some of the things that they have been doing. It would have been much more appropriate to allow the Bill to go through Second Reading and then to raise detailed objections and make significant improvements in Committee.

30 Nov 1999 : Column 223

The Bill is the first stage of looking for improvements. It is likely to be followed by the political parties funding Bill later in the Session. The two together mean that the Government have put their foot firmly in the water to improve this country's electoral processes. They come on the back of what I see as a major series of constitutional changes. The Government are certainly reforming when it comes to the constitution. We have to look only at their policies on devolution, the House of Lords, modernising local government--which is partly referred to in the Bill, but will come in train later--and modernising the House of Commons.

As a member of the Modernisation Committee--a quick plug there--I was pleased to see the start of the Westminster Hall experiment today. It showed the best of Parliament, as the reform slipped in seamlessly and was welcomed by all sides, including those who, perhaps, had some doubts whether it was the right way to go. In view of today's turnout and the quality of debate, we can feel proud--it is an opportunity whose time has come and we should make the most of it.

The Bill contains four key principles, which are important in their own right. First, it provides another stage in the development of the modernisation agenda; secondly, it is about increasing participation; thirdly, it is about fairness and justice; and last but not least it is about, I hope, getting better representation, if not better representatives.

I tread gently here because the Jenkins report is not mentioned in any way in the Bill, even though it examines the electoral system. Indeed, the report is yet to be voted on. As someone who tends to favour electoral reform, I think that we cannot just pass over the report--the debate will have to happen. Perhaps the Bill will lead us towards that debate, although it will not happen quite yet.

We need to look at how the key principles that I have identified take us forward. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a good defence when he was accused of not consulting widely on the matter. It was unfair and unrealistic for the Opposition to make such an accusation. My right hon. Friend listed a number of ways in which he had gone out of his way to consult, either directly through Government action, or, more particularly, by making representations to the Home Affairs Committee. The way in which the Government responded was laudable and interesting.

I shall concentrate on two issues that have not been widely covered in the debate so far--there is no point in going over old ground. The first is the impact on local government. Again, that is part and parcel of the agenda to modernise local government. I should like the measure to kick start some of the other changes that local government should be encouraged to introduce. The Green Paper "Modernising local government: local democracy and community leadership" showed only too clearly how the turnout in local government elections has declined, the repercussions of that decline and why we need, if nothing else, to refurbish our local government system, so that people genuinely get back to participating in that form of government. It is worth while aiming towards that, even if we also want to look at the wider parliamentary stage.

30 Nov 1999 : Column 224

I am not sure whether my intervention on the Home Secretary came at the right time because he did not quite answer it, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary could refer to it when he replies to the debate. It dealt with the link to citizenship in general. I made the point about the importance--although perhaps it has not had as much debate as it could have--of the Crick report on education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy.

Let no one misunderstand that the changes will be embedded for some considerable time. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) went through some of the history of reform; I could do so, too. Reform tends to come in 100-year bites, or not much less than that. What we do today will be in place for a considerable time. Some of us would like much more rapid change and more radical opportunities, but what we do will stay in place for some time. Therefore, today we are legislating for the next generation and possibly the generation after that.

Those generations will be interested in having different access. They will be the children of the internet; we cannot fool ourselves and think that they will be anything else. They will have grown up in the electronic world, yet we may try to foist on them old-fashioned methods. At the very least, we should listen to what young people have to say. They are not put off by politics. They are only too aware of and interested in green issues, for example, let alone world debt and so on. Unfortunately, when I go to schools they tell me that they find the political system somewhat difficult to take. They do not understand all its implications and do not find it very accessible. We should do all we can to make it more accessible to them. It should not be our only or main consideration, but it should be a consideration.

Next Section

IndexHome Page