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Chris Ruane rose—

Mr. Heath: I give way for the last time and then I must make progress.

Chris Ruane: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. According to the Electoral Commission, 3.5 million to 4 million people are currently unregistered. Does he believe that a personal identifier involving a single signature will discourage or encourage those people to register?

Mr. Heath: My personal opinion is that it will do neither. I do not believe—the Government seem also to take this view—that people will be discouraged by having to put a signature on a piece of paper.
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I do not believe that a pilot is the way forward, and I certainly do not believe that a few authorities opting into a pilot would constitute any form of controlled experiment. If the Government want to run a pilot, let them do so properly. Let us have pilots in one or more regions. Local authorities should not be given the choice to opt in or out; if they are, the top-performing ones will opt in and those that do not perform very well will not bother. Let the Government, with the help of the Electoral Commission, identify regions in which it would be sensible to—

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: No. I am aware that I have taken up the time of other Members who want to make speeches.

Let us deal with this issue to a sensible time scale, and on a scale that provides us with the results that the Government apparently want. That is the right way forward, as I shall try to persuade the Government in Committee.

The Government have got themselves in a terrible mess on the issue of the expenses period. A four-month period for election expenses running before a fixed-term election is fine, because everybody knows where they stand. Of course, it is true that we always assume that county council elections will fall on the same date every four years, because that has been the pattern over the past few years, but the fact remains that having such a four-month period before an election whose date has yet to be determined gives rise to all sorts of problems.

I say candidly to the Government that if they really want this provision to work, they must increase the limit to allow for a full four-month campaign during the election period, rather than a one-month campaign. But doing so will raise the threshold to the point where the process will be open to the abuse that we are theoretically trying to reduce. Doing so will increase instances of abuse of the kind that we used to have—instances of the old formulations being used to enable people to pretend that they are not candidates, when everyone knows perfectly well that they are. It would be much more sensible to revisit this matter and to consider the consequences.

I now want to say something that some Members will not find so conducive. In this context, we also need to look at central parties' spending in local constituencies. A great deal of abuse is going on in this regard—on the part, let me say, of all the parties represented in this House. In constituencies that are considered marginal, a welter of general election literature from political parties that is "off record" so far as election expenses are concerned is addressed individually to electors and put through their doors. That is nonsense and an abuse of the process, and it should not happen. It is not difficult to identify instances where election literature is directly addressed to an individual elector in a particular constituency. Such literature must surely count as an election expense.

I want also to consider the change in the deposit threshold. I accept that this issue gives cause for concern, but I do not take quite so strong a view as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire because, in my view, the deposit is not the right way to eliminate
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fringe candidates. A financial barrier is not the right way to restrict access to the poll. A far better idea is to change the number of assenters, so as to require a demonstration of popular support in a constituency before entering the poll, rather than using the financial constraint of a deposit. We do need to consider this issue.

I welcome some of the new offences included in the Bill. We could go further by, for instance, preventing completed postal vote forms from falling into hands other than those of electors or returning officers. I welcome the co-ordinated online record of electors—the electronic register—and, I think, the performance standards, although I hope that they will not become over-prescriptive tick boxes. I hope that the Electoral Commission will seek, rather, to give guidelines and to audit the performance of electoral officers, rather than providing yet another system of targets. Moreover, the situation regarding imprints is still a mess, and I shall hope to improve it as the Bill progresses.

May we also please do something about the Post Office authorities' inappropriate influence in deciding what goes into a freepost leaflet? It is not for the Post Office to decide what we put in our leaflets. It is perhaps part of its job to refer something that it believes to be against election rules to the Electoral Commission, but it is not for the postmaster to decide what is appropriate for electors of X constituency to receive from candidates in an election.

I finish on a small point that is none the less important to Members. The Government are being cautious in doing something about the anomaly of the duplication involved in providing evidence of donations both to the Electoral Commission—as a result of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—and to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, whom we employ to deal with such matters. The Government should not feel such concern, because it is sensible to eliminate this duplication. Let the Electoral Commission have access to and audit our Register of Members' Interests, and let it be able to call in the commissioner for questioning, but let us not have this silly duplication.

If we all feel this way, we should not worry about what some splenetic tabloid writer may say about us weakening our standards. Eliminating this duplication would not weaken them—we know that, the Electoral Commission knows that and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards knows that. This would be a sensible and small improvement that would be welcomed by the Standards and Privileges Committee, on which I used to serve.

Mr. Heald rose—

Mr. Heath: I give way for the very last time.

Mr. Heald: I just want to say that we agree with the hon. Gentleman on this issue.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; it is helpful if we form as broad a front as possible on it.
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This is a modest but welcome Bill that is capable of improvement. I hope that the Conservatives will not express their distaste for its omissions by voting for the reasoned amendment, because that would be an unsatisfactory way of progressing what should be a Bill on which we reach consensus. For heaven's sake, let us see whether we can maintain the voting system's integrity and extend the franchise to those whom we are missing under the current process.

6.19 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I will address most of my remarks to the issue of ensuring that disabled people have full access to the democratic process, but before doing so, I want to point out that there are a number of things about the Bill that I welcome. I am thinking in particular of some of the changes to postal voting, following the problems faced by those whose postal votes did not arrive. On the day of the 2005 general election, a Scottish Mirror headline read, "The election: postal ballot scandal—probe launched into vote rigging in Aberdeen". As the Labour candidate for Aberdeen, South, fighting a very tight marginal, one can imagine the trepidation with which I read that headline. Stating that a special probe into "postal voting irregularities" had been launched in Aberdeen, the article continued:

That story meant that the local registration officer launched an inquiry to establish what had happened. In the scheme of things, 12 votes going amiss is not perhaps a huge problem, but what happened to those individuals might well have been replicated across the whole country.

In some cases, people had forgotten that they had applied for a postal vote by ticking the form in the previous October. In some cases, they did not tick the form because of household registration: perhaps the head of household had decided that his whole family should apply for a postal vote. When the postal vote did not arrive, they were none the wiser and did not find out that they had a postal vote until they arrived at the polling station. It often did not dawn on those who did know that they had applied for a postal vote that they had not seen it until the day before the election. Only then did they wonder where it had gone. In all those cases, people turned up at the polling station but were not allowed to register their votes. At that stage, they were disfranchised and there was no way that they could register a vote in the hope that it could be checked at some time in the future. That is why I welcome two measures in the Bill—the marked postal vote register and the tendered voting system—and I hope that they will answer the concerns that were raised in my constituency during the election.

I want to make a point on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East (Rosemary McKenna), who unfortunately cannot be present today. She found that 500 votes in her constituency were discounted on account of a clerical error. It appears that the officer in one particular polling station had, instead of writing the polling number on the
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counterfoil, written it on the ballot form itself. That made it possible at the count to identify whose ballot papers they were, so 500 were discounted. My hon. Friend is looking for an assurance that the Bill will make provision to correct what was obviously a clerical error. The voting intentions in all those cases were perfectly clear and I am glad that that did not happen in my constituency. With a majority of 1,300, that could have been very worrying. In many constituencies, 500 votes can be the difference between winning and losing.

It is important for people to have the right to vote in a range of different ways. I do not agree with tightening access to postal votes, as the expansion of such votes has been a great advance, improving the access of elderly people and people with disabilities to the democratic process. However, the postal vote is not a panacea and should not be viewed as an either/or. Some people with disabilities will want to go and vote in person, while for others, postal voting may present as many barriers as going to vote in person.

I hope that the Bill will start to make access to voting much easier and my major plea is for consistency. It would appear that, on account of having different registration officers in different areas, there is little central guidance, which can result in different advice being given out to different polling clerks in different areas. It can even result in differences in the literature that is produced in different areas. For instance, one of my constituents did not realise that they should have received a postal vote until they turned up at the polling station because the polling card did not mention that a postal vote had been applied for. In areas such as Westminster—where I am also on the electoral register, as are other hon. Members—I know that polling cards did indicate that a postal vote had been allocated. Something as simple as the information on the polling card can help to inform people about exactly what they have signed up for.

Now that it is possible to apply for a postal vote for life, it is easy for people to forget from one election to another that they have already applied, leading to a duplication of applications for postal votes. As soon as an election is called, all the political parties start throwing leaflets through people's doors encouraging them to apply for a postal vote, resulting in people applying when they already have one. That is bound to increase the work load at a busy time for electoral registration officers. It is important to make their lives as easy as possible.

My plea for consistency also applies to what we mean by an accessible polling station. When I talk about access, I am not just talking about physical access. We tend to think of people in wheelchairs requiring physical access, which is, of course, important. I want to be able to get into all the polling stations in my constituency. This time, when my constituency had expanded by three wards, I discovered a polling station that I could not get into on polling day. I turned up to be faced with six steps. As a candidate, I wanted to go in and visit the polling station, but I found that in order to do so, the polling clerk would have to leave their position to go to open the back door to let me in—but how did I get to him to tell him to do that in the first place? That problem is not uncommon. There is often a big sign outside, saying "to gain access, please alert the polling clerk inside".
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Disabled people want to vote on their own as well. Gaining physical access is important, and it is not just about sticking in a one-in-10 ramp over six steps. It can be quite daunting to see something that looks like the north face of the Eiger. There must be a proper ramp, which is not just a temporary expedient, but permanent and stable. Access for people with visual impairment may require a Braille template or large print to be in place.

Scope's "Polls Apart 4" report—so called because it is the fourth election in which the organisation carried out a survey of the accessibility of polling stations—caused considerable concern. I had thought that, at last, things would be a lot better. However, the Scope survey discovered that 68 per cent. of polling stations at the 2005 election did not meet every single one of the accessibility criteria. About 60 per cent. had flat access so that people in wheelchairs could get in, but other concerns had been forgotten about, so the polling stations did not meet all the accessibility criteria.

The report also found that in 63 per cent. of cases there were problems and barriers to postal voting, too. That shows that postal voting is not necessarily the answer to the problem of lack of physical access to a polling station. Too often, it has been expressed to me as an excuse that I can always vote by post. If the post box is not accessible or it is difficult for people living alone to find someone to countersign the ballot, postal voting cannot provide the answer. Postal voting is an alternative and it can make life easier for many disabled people, but it does not provide the whole answer. As a candidate, I certainly want to be able to visit all the polling stations in my constituency. Disabled groups are very keen that personal identifiers should be introduced. They are not so sure about piloting the scheme, but this debate has made me understand why the Government want that to happen. They also have some concerns about what happens in care homes, and who is responsible for filling in the registration forms and encouraging people to vote.

My time will run out soon, but I have a couple more things to say. First, I hope that the proxy vote will be retained. It is very important in constituencies such as mine, where many people work offshore. Postal voting does not always work for them, as they do not necessarily come home in the period between the day that an election is called and polling day. Proxy votes are also very important for people who work abroad—for instance, many of my constituents work in the middle east.

Finally, I am very glad that candidates are to be allowed their common names. When I first stood for election, I had to use the name Margaret A. Begg—the one that appears on the electoral register—even though everyone knows me as Anne Begg. The change proposed in the Bill is crucial for allowing people to identify candidates.

6.31 pm

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