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Pilot Order

Amendment made: No. 50, in page 2, line 14 at end insert—

'(3A) The pilot order must make provision requiring the returning officer to provide (before the close of the poll at the election) polling progress information—

(a) to such persons or organisations as are specified in the order or are of such descriptions as are so specified, and

(b) at such times and in such circumstances as are so specified.

(3B) Polling progress information is information as to the electors by whom it appears to the returning officer at the time the information is provided that a vote has been cast.

(3C) For the purposes of subsection (3B) the returning officer must be taken not to have seen the contents of any ballot paper.

(3D) The returning officer is the person who is described as such in the order.'—[Mr. Leslie.]

Clause 4

Electoral Commission report

Amendments made: No. 4, in page 3, line 5 leave out 'voters' and insert 'electors'.
No. 48, in page 3, line 18 at end insert—

'( ) The report must also include an assessment as to the following matters relating to the requirement by virtue of section 2 to provide polling progress information—

(a) its effect on the campaigning of candidates and political parties;

(b) the use made by candidates and political parties of the information;

(c) the views of electors and political parties about the provision of the information (including views as to its effect on turnout of voters and use of the information by candidates and political parties);

(d) its effect on the conduct and administration of the election.'
No. 49, in page 3, line 22 [Clause 4], leave out 'voters' and insert 'electors'.—[Mr. Leslie.]

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. A

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remarkable piece of news is running on BBC television at the moment. It reports that the Prime Minister has revealed in an interview with the British Forces Broadcasting Service that there is massive evidence of systems of laboratories throughout Iraq that could have produced weapons of mass destruction. He has also talked about programmes for the building of intercontinental ballistic missiles. I raise this matter because although I understand that the statement is based on the Iraq survey group's interim report, it goes a good deal further than anything that the House has been told. If true, the news is very significant and the Prime Minister should surely have told the House before broadcasting it. Has the Prime Minister asked your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to come to the House and make a statement on the matter?

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, these issues were extremely controversial, both before the commencement of military action against Iraq and during the hostilities. They have continued to be of controversy, not least given the inquiry being conducted by Lord Hutton. Is not it appropriate that the House of Commons should be advised about these matters before anyone else?

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Following the points already made, can you confirm that Mr. Speaker has repeatedly ruled from the Chair that announcements such as this should be made to the House first? Can you therefore ask whether urgent inquiries can now be sent from this Chamber to No. 10 to determine whether the Prime Minister has spoken in the way suggested? If he has, can he be invited—very strongly—to come to the House of Commons promptly, in order that he may tell us what on earth is going on?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Obviously, the Chair knows nothing of these broadcasts or their content. The Chair can say that there has been no request from No. 10 for permission to make a statement. These are obviously serious matters, and they have been heard by Government Front-Bench Members. I remind hon. Members that the Prime Minister is due to answer questions in this House tomorrow.

Order for Third Reading read.

6.5 pm

Mr. Leslie: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Many hon. Members have contributed significantly during the Bill's passage through the House, especially by effective scrutiny in Committee. It is also worth commenting briefly on several other initiatives as we conclude the consideration of the Bill. First, I wish to put on record my appreciation of all members of the Committee, especially those who have also contributed to the debate today, for generating useful ideas and assisting the development of policy.

One example is the amendment that has just been agreed unanimously, to change the part of the Bill that relates to the definition of a voter or elector. The

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amendment was originally tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and affects the terms as defined in the Representation of the People Act 2000. The change that has now been agreed will extend the duty of local authorities so that when assisting the Electoral Commission they may be required not only to assist in the ascertaining of the views of those who have actually voted, but those eligible to vote and who chose not to vote. A consequential change has also been made to the nature of the Electoral Commission's report. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion and I am glad that we have been able to accept it.

Members from all the parties who took part in the debate in Committee—the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists, as well as Labour Members—made several helpful suggestions about how the marked register or—in legal terms—the polling progress information should be piloted in the case of all-postal ballots. Many hon. Members spoke of the need to provide political parties and candidates with an electoral register marked to show who had cast their ballot in the all-postal process, to be provided prior to the close of poll. Amendments were tabled and the Government have been able to accept them. That is the right way forward.

My Department has been in contact with representatives of all the main political parties and electoral administrators about the form that a marked register should take and how it could practicably be produced. The conclusion was that it should not take the form of an electoral register marked to show those who have cast a ballot, but instead be provided as a list of those who have returned an envelope purporting to contain a ballot paper, thus enabling worries about human rights, secrecy and privacy to be overcome. Parties would then cross-reference the list with their own copies of the electoral register. That was the clear preference of all parties and the favoured mechanism of regional returning officers. The purpose of the change—which has now been made—is to state explicitly in the Bill the principle that the information will be provided and to make clear the obligation on electoral administrators.

The rationale behind this Bill is simple: we need to modernise our electoral systems so that the public as a whole can express their democratic choice more easily and conveniently. There has been much discussion recently about the levels of participation in our political process, reflecting the sense that the turnout at elections is too low and needs attention. While there are no doubt deeper undercurrents that create voter apathy or fatigue—the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has mentioned some of them—some practical and achievable steps can be taken now to make the process of voting more amenable and suitable to modern ways of life.

I have announced today the Government's intention to extend the process, begun some time ago, of trialling new and innovative voting mechanisms, extending the scale now from the local to a regional level. All-postal voting is of benefit not just to those with difficulties physically getting to a polling station—those with disabilities or the elderly—but is of positive convenience to the wider population as well.

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Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): In Committee, the Minister assured me that we would see a dialogue between the Electoral Commission and the organisations that represent those with disabilities. Will he assure the House that he will take up any recommendations from the commission on people with disabilities?

Mr. Leslie: I can assure the hon. Lady that we have continued that dialogue, not only with the Electoral Commission but with organisations representing disabled people and elderly people. A number of initiatives may need to be included in the pilot order; for example, in relation to a device to assist visually impaired people to vote. The debate on those matters, in which she took part, was useful in developing policy.

At the local election pilots so far undertaken, all-postal balloting ran at nearly 50 per cent. turnout, compared with an average of 33 per cent. where conventional arrangements applied. That illustrates the likely impact of the removal of some of the physical obstacles that lie between the voter and the ballot box. We propose to pilot all-postal voting in the north-east of England and the east midlands. I hope, too, that a third region or nation will be identified over the coming few weeks, following conclusion of the considerations advised of the Electoral Commission.

The Government recognise that all-postal voting is not a panacea for all the problems of voter participation in our democracy. Nevertheless, it is surely right to take steps where we can on practical and popular improvements to make voting more accessible and simpler. All of us in Parliament have an interest in ensuring that our democracy remains healthy and that elected representatives have a clear mandate from their constituents to act. The Bill represents an important step forward in that objective and I commend it to the House.

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