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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way to increase voter participation is to introduce teaching about government and politics in schools--not at 16 for A-levels, but at the age of 11?

Mr. Drew: I could not agree more. One of the things that I banged on about before coming to this place was the sad decline in citizenship education. The last Conservative Government did not help--they had a policy of discouraging, in all sorts of ways, the politicisation of the curriculum, as some people saw it. As always with such things, it can be done badly, but if it is done well, it can yield many benefits.

I am saddened that a Bill which, in the main, hon. Members agree to across the Chamber has not achieved the consensus that it should have done. I want to examine some of its detail. I was out of the Chamber for a short time to attend an unavoidable meeting, but otherwise I have not heard any hon. Member say that he or she is opposed in principle to the idea of a rolling register. All hon. Members could quote examples of people who have claimed to have been disfranchised through no fault of their own. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Henschel of Whitminster moved in before the local election, prior to the general election. They were staggered that, although they moved in well in time for that election, they could not get on to the register. The simple fact is that we have

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utterly failed to keep up to date with the technology that permits us to maximise people's participation in the electoral system.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many Conservative Members accept great chunks of the Bill, but have reservations about the sweeping powers that the Home Secretary would have after the pilots to introduce the systems wholesale over the country, with just an affirmative resolution of the House?

Mr. Drew: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Many of those issues could be considered in Committee, where there would be considerable consensus. We are having a debate on the principle of the Bill. The Opposition, for reasons best known to themselves, are opposing it in principle, which I find somewhat strange and difficult to understand.

I shall refer briefly to some of the other issues. I am aware that other hon. Members are waiting to speak and I do not want to take up their time. We have argued effectively about the need to bring in groups who have been disfranchised through no fault of their own, including the homeless and temporary residents of mental institutions--they are often there voluntarily, which makes it unfair to exclude them. It will still be possible to prevent some people from voting, but those who have made a decision to go to such places should have the right to use their vote.

I am particularly interested in the declaration of local connection. It sounds a bit new Labourish, but I think that I know what it means. We are trying to overcome the problem of someone having to have a residency to allow them to vote.

It is a shame that the hon. Member for Blaby is not in his place. As a former service man, he said that he had found it easy to cast his vote. I have been on the armed forces parliamentary scheme during the past year and found it interesting to talk to service people. Many of them said that it was not easy to vote, largely because, for various reasons, they were doing back-to-back tours of duty. We have to be more flexible in how we allow people to register. Many service people have moved to Germany and have no particular residency in this country. We should make the maximum effort to allow them to register and vote in this country.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman put great emphasis on the fact that some patients in mental hospitals are there voluntarily. I welcome the fact that patients who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Acts will also have a right to vote. Does he agree that there is ample evidence that people get sectioned for all sorts of different reasons, which do not disqualify them from exercising a judgment on which party to support at a general election?

Mr. Drew: I agree with that helpful intervention. I apologise if I had misconstrued the Bill. People should not be disfranchised just because they happen to be in a certain place.

Many of the advantages of the Bill are for local government. Parliament is not excluded from the experimentation, but it is aimed principally at

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reinvigorating local government. We shall then be able to judge whether the improvements yield the greater participation that we all want.

Mr. David Heath: The hon. Gentleman and I both have experience in local government. People's interest in local government will be reinvigorated only if it has the power to change things that people care about. Only when we release the shackles from local councils and allow them to do the job that they are elected to do will people become interested in them again.

Mr. Drew: There is a kernel of truth in what the hon. Gentleman says, but the Bill is also about allowing people access so that they can express their opinion on what their local councils are doing. We need to meet in the middle on that. Many of the proposals will be directly relevant to local government. The Bill is about reinvigorating local government and ensuring transparency in its operation and elections.

The Jenkins commission is not directly related to the Bill, but there is a natural connection. We have to deal with the issue of electoral reform. I support the idea, but there are Members on both sides of the House who do not. We need to have that debate because it is important that people should have a choice about the electoral system for this place as well as for other bodies.

The link with the electoral commission will be largely covered in the Bill on the regulation of the party funding system. Will it be possible to evaluate, review and perhaps educate through the commission, so that we can ensure that the changes are having the desired effect? We also need a process to enable us to tinker further to produce tangible improvements without having to resort to more primary legislation. Has any thought been given to the electoral commission and how the proposals may embed themselves within it?

This is a good Bill that will produce significant improvements and be a stepping stone towards further measures. It is important that it should be passed. I had hoped that the whole House would adopt a consensual approach, but unfortunately that does not seem to be the case. Let us see in Committee how we can take matters forward to improve representation in this place and elsewhere.

8.26 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) criticised the Conservatives for failing to wave the Bill through and give it a fair wind even though we have some serious concerns about it. That was in tune with the comments of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who criticised Her Majesty's Opposition for breaching a consensus or refusing to allow one to be reached. In matters of electoral reform in particular, it is for the Government to bring forward innovation and change to ensure that their proposals enjoy consensus. The fact that we are stating our objections to the proposals cannot be held against us. Like other Conservative Members who have spoken, I endorse many parts of the Bill, but I also have serious concerns about it.

We were drawn down a side alley, which may have been a preview of discussions that we shall have on another Bill in the near future. I want to respond to some

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of the points made by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton). He was adamant that those who pay no tax should not be able to vote in this country. I am concerned about a large number of British people who habitually reside overseas--pensioners who may have paid tax over their working lives. In that sense, they have contributed financially. Many have contributed in other ways, such as by fighting for this country. They may live overseas for part of the year, or for the whole year. Those people should not be disqualified from voting in elections in a country about which they care so deeply. That is especially true when many of them draw pensions from this country, and they have a right to express views on the way in which their pensions are treated.

We have been reminded recently--not least by some unfortunate behaviour in the Gallery a few days ago--that pensioners feel strongly about the principle of what they have contributed during their working lives while they have been paying taxes, and they have feelings and beliefs about what they deserve in return. They believe that they should be able to represent those views through the democratic process. That is no less so if they happen to be resident in another country--perhaps another European country.

This a typical new Labour Bill, as it spectacularly misses the point. The Bill seeks to address the question of low turnouts without recognising--as the Home Secretary appeared to do in one or two earlier observations--that the key cause of low turnouts is low interest in the political process; in some instances, lack of interest. It is not because it is too hard to vote or--as the Prime Minister appears to believe when he sees low turnouts in by-elections in constituencies held by his own party--because people are universally happy with everything that is going on in the country and with the Government's performance.

It is not because there are insufficient numbers of elections or opportunities for them to cast their votes. One outcome of the Government's actions--which will result inevitably in lower turnouts--is that people are becoming sick of the number of times that they are being asked to go out and vote. They are asked to vote for representative assemblies which have little power and which cannot take independent action. They are asked to vote for new bodies which many people did not want in the first place. In the near future, the people of London will be asked to vote for a London mayor, a post that was not wanted by the majority of people in the first place.

The piling on of new layers of government or--as Labour Members might say--of new opportunities to participate in the electoral process, is not what people really want. People want to be able to register a vote--or perhaps two or three--that will really matter and will return people to institutions with some power to affect their lives. The Government's behaviour in increasing the numbers of elections will not achieve higher participation--quite the reverse.

The experiment in the European elections--with which the hon. Member for Stroud may have agreed, but about which I had grave reservations--provided absolute proof that, by making the electoral system more complex and by breaking the link between a single representative and the elector, the Government achieved a new low in turnouts in the national elections of just over 23 per cent.

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It increased confusion among the electorate and massively decreased the interest that the electorate had in that part of the process.

The Government have missed the point, and some points of detail are traps in the Bill. The possibility of weekend voting--which may be prejudicial against certain minorities--leads the Home Secretary to give an assurance that, if there is weekend voting, it must be on a Saturday and a Sunday. I welcome that, but if we are to depart from the principle of elections being confined to a single day, it is vital that we have sensible controls on the way in which polling can be conducted during the process. The prospect of a running commentary on the outcome of an election, which could influence the turnout and voting behaviour during an election over two or more days, would be a matter of concern.

The introduction of new voting technology and techniques risks increased confusion--particularly for the elderly, but not exclusively so. Again, if confusion is increased by perhaps unnecessary changes, there is a danger that we will turn people off the whole process and discourage participation.

Electronic vote counting or the electronic registration of votes is seen by some hon. Members as a great way forward to the 21st century, and they believe that it will increase security and prevent electoral fraud. There may be other advantages. However, all hon. Members will have stood in a church hall or a leisure centre when a vote is being counted, and they and their counting agents will have scrutinised what is there on paper. Electronic voting may appear to be much more efficient, to accelerate the counting of votes and to be a great technological and electoral advance, but what happens if the votes that have been cast cannot be verified? What final guarantee is there if there is no tangible evidence of how people have cast their votes?

We all know that scrutiny of votes is not scientific because one cannot be certain of what has happened, but it provides some check and the ability to ascertain where the cross was placed by a particular voter on a particular ballot paper. If we adopt electronic voting, that will not be possible. Computers might be able to generate lists of people on electoral rolls who have voted in a particular way, but it will be difficult to verify that that is how people intended to cast their votes. It might be a computer error, a programming error, or even a deliberate attempt to change the outcome of an election.

We have discussed the development of an edited register of electors. What is there to prevent bogus or single-issue political groups from obtaining a register for political reasons and abusing it? Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby raised the issue of the security of people on the register who may be targets for terrorists or other groups.

What is the logic in allowing declarations of local connections that would allow homeless people to register to vote but not allowing someone who might be at risk from terrorist attack to register only a local connection instead of an address on the electoral register? I listened with interest to the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on that issue, and I have sympathy with them, not least because of his recent experiences. In some instances, the threat to an individual may be so extreme that there may be a better way to proceed.

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The declaration of local connections might also lead to abuse, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) suggested. There is a possibility that people might be able to claim a local connection to several places, especially if they are sleeping rough in a city or town centre, and that they might claim a connection to a place with a particular electoral balance. There is room for abuse, although that is not necessarily a reason not to pursue the reform. We must consider the issue very carefully.

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