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Standing Committee B
Tuesday 4 November 2003
[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]
Amendment proposed [30 October]: No. 3, in
page 2, line 13, to leave out from the word 'poll)' to the end of line 14.—(Mr. Hawkins.)
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing amendment No. 4, in
clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): When we adjourned part of the way through our debate, we were focusing our attention on amendment No. 3. If my guess is anything to go by, the Government may respond by saying, as they did in the previous debate, that to have all normal polling stations available for handing in postal votes would be excessive and the cost would not be justified. That argument was used earlier and I suspect that it will be used again. I have some sympathy with it and see the logic of it, but I am concerned that the Government believe that it is necessary to make provision in the Bill for the use of places other than polling stations.
'(3A) Before including in a pilot order provisions for voting at places other than polling stations, the Secretary of State must consult all affected local authorities, and must not make such an order about a place in a local authority area if the local authority affected objects to it.'.
As I understand it, the traditional arrangement for postal votes is that they are put into a postbox and sent to the returning officer at the council offices, or elsewhere. If it is possible to deliver one's postal vote somewhere else without such legislation, the only query that I have for the Minister is why we now find it necessary to make the arrangements in the Bill. What does that say about the traditional arrangement? If we are going to spell it out here, is there a need to do something to avoid a challenge elsewhere?
Is the Minister minded to urge the Committee to vote against the amendment? If I remember rightly, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said that it was a probing amendment that had been tabled to see what the Government had to say, rather than something about which we are desperate to go to the stake. I still find it difficult to say that one can vote in a place that is not a polling station when a definition of a place that one can vote is a polling station, but I have been around that course so I shall not go around it again. If the Minister insists upon that arrangement, I would like him to give an undertaking that information about all places where
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votes can be delivered will be published so that there can be no doubt whatever about the arrangements. If it is not, some candidates will complain that they did not know what was going on.
Such places must be identified in the public domain so that everyone involved in the election knows where they are. On the day in question—or on more than one day, as the Minister says can happen—the places should be identified to avoid a situation in which people know that they can hand their vote in somewhere along this street but not know where. Assurances would be useful if the Minister wants us to consider withdrawing amendment No. 3.
I worry about the Bill, and something along the lines of amendment No. 4 would be very valuable. I draw on my experience over the years as the chairman of a planning committee, where one could only too readily get locked into committed development orders, which dictate what one can and cannot do. To save having to go round the course of saying, ''Let's have one here and let's have one there'', any Government could say, ''We believe that any supermarket over X sq ft is a suitable place, and therefore all supermarkets, or alternatively all Crown post offices, will be suitable places.'' A general pronouncement from the Government that does not make any reference to the suitability of supermarkets, post offices, council offices or whatever else could be used.
Even if we adopt a way of giving returning officers the ability to say to the Government, ''No, we don't think that in our case this supermarket or that post office is suitable'', I fear for the chaos and difficulties that might break out. If the Minister is going to urge his colleagues to oppose amendment No. 4, would he give the Committee an assurance that care will be taken, advice will be sought and that the Government will not insist on the use of places that local knowledge suggests would be thoroughly unsuitable?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie",8,1): Good morning, Mr. Cook, and welcome to the Committee.
I would like to disabuse the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) of his notion. I am afraid that we are going to resist his arguments and ask the Committee to reject the amendments. Amendment No. 3 would not allow a pilot order to provide for polling at places other than polling stations, and amendment No. 4 would allow local authorities a complete veto on the choice of places for any non-conventional polling station arrangements. Effectively, the amendments would give local authorities the chance completely to prevent remote voting if they objected to it in any way. The ability to have all-postal voting and electronic voting in pilot schemes is important in principle. We have already discussed the wider context under the amendments to clause 1, and it is necessary to make the legislative provisions to enable such voting to take place. The provisions in this clause are identical to the provisions in the Representation of the People Act 2000 that enabled local piloting to take place.
One needs the scope and flexibility to nominate places other than polling stations for all-postal voting
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not only for the wider purposes of allowing the casting of ballots in people's homes where they are received, but to ensure that we have specified delivery centres instead of polling stations so that people can return their ballots if they so wish, albeit to fewer places than the conventional number of polling stations. We need the scope that was provided for in the 2000 Act to enable that to take place.
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I hope that the Minister will explain the balance between local and central decision making. I envisage that decision making will primarily be a local matter because the local returning officers know the most appropriate places for the delivery centres. There is a balance to be struck and I would be grateful if he addressed it.
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. There will be a dialogue about specified delivery points between the regional returning officer, who is the key official overseeing the orchestration of the poll in a region, and local returning officers. It is very likely that each local authority area will have at least one specified delivery point for the return of ballot papers. If it were an all-postal ballot, there would not be the same number and frequency of polling stations. It is a matter for the regional returning officer to deal with at a local level.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne asserted that the Government would have a blanket designation and place lots of dots on local maps, but that is not our intention. We want to leave it to the discretion of the returning officer as far as possible. In that context, the two amendments would effectively wreck the opportunity for the next stage—the scaling up of regional piloting. At a regional level, we cannot rely on the unanimous consent of all local authorities to pilot the arrangements because piloting will take place across such a wide area.
There are concerns about compulsory piloting rather than retaining the voluntary arrangement that we currently have. As we move away from local voluntary piloting to the regional stage, we must be certain that we can make the arrangements apply equally and fairly across the designated region.
Widespread involvement of all local authorities is necessary not only for economies-of-scale purposes but to avoid voter confusion in the region, given that there will be communication across the constituency. It will also avoid complications for regional returning officers. If they were to have pockets of local authorities that chose not to operate all-postal voting, for example, it would be tremendously complex for them to administer the return.
There are lessons to be learned from wider-scale regional level pilots. Even those councils that have not yet volunteered or are not yet convinced can learn lessons from new techniques as their local returning officers inevitably become involved in the new voting arrangements. I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will agree to withdraw the amendment.
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Mr. Wilshire rose—
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Thank you—
Mr. Wilshire: On a point of order, Mr. Cook. If my hon. Friend winds up, does that preclude somebody else from contributing? I wanted to comment on what the Minister said.
Mr. Hawkins: I had not noticed my hon. Friend rising, so, with the leave of the Chair, I am very happy for him to contribute before I respond.
The Chairman: This Committee seems to be jumping over a lot of fences that do not normally occur.
Mr. Wilshire: I did not interrupt the Minister because I wanted to hear the whole of what he had to say before I came back in. I should be grateful if he would reflect on what I have said about delivery centres being identified and specified publicly so that people know where they are. He did not cover that point. I assure him that I am not attempting to wreck anything.
Mr. Leslie: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify the point. Clearly through the regional returning officers, just as is currently the case with the skill and ability of local returning officers, we will ensure that there is clear identification of any specified delivery points sufficiently in advance of an election and polling day for people to know where they are.