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Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): My hon. Friend has mentioned the entitlement to the use of Welsh in Wales. I wonder whether the Minister thinks it equitable to give Scottish Gaelic the same status in Scotland for elections, and perhaps Ulster Scots and Irish Gaelic should have the same status in the north of Ireland. That would represent, recognise and understand the indigenous languages of the United KingdomI make a particular plea for Scottish Gaelic, as a native Gaelic speaker.
The allowance includes six words in Welsh and six words in English. My compatriots have a reputation for being verbose and using three words where one word will do in English, and the extra space recognises the reality and the normality in Wales of bilingualism. Again, I am not speaking only on behalf of my party. In Welsh, my party's title is Plaid Cymru, and in English it is the party of Wales, which makes six words, so we do not require 12 words. The Conservative party is Y Blaid Geidwadol, which again makes six words. However, the Wales Labour party is Y Blaid Lafur Gymreig, which makes eight words, and the Liberal Democrat party is Y Blaid Ryddfrydol Democrataidd. The Bill will allow those two parties to print their full titles in both Welsh and English, which is welcome.
My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) has referred to the situation in Scotland, which the Bill does not specifically address. The legal status of Scots Gaelic requires an amendment to the Bill, and perhaps we will table such an amendment later in the parliamentary process. I would not dare to speak for Ulster Members, but the recent welcome encouragement for Ulster Scots might call for the extension of the facility to the north of Ireland. Although that point has a particular local character, it is serious. I regret the fact that the good practice on bilingualism in Wales is not replicated elsewhere in the Bill. The Bill contains provisions relating to languages other than English, but perhaps the Government will consider that particular point on the descriptions.
I want to make one more point about language, which concerns the term annibynnwr, or independent. I have no truck with political correctness, but there are people who would contend that annibynnwr is gender specific.
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It means "the independent man" rather than "the independent person"annibynwraig refers to an independent woman. The situation could be easily resolved by the use of the adjectival form annibynnol, which avoids the gender issue, and I commend that construction to the Government.
In Wales, annibynnwr is likely to be associated in the public mind not with an independent member of a council, or, for that matter, an independent Member of the House of Commons, but with a member of the Union of Welsh Independents. In my part of Wales, the Presbyterian Church of Wales predominatesI am a Calvinistic Methodistand in more sectarian times the term Annibynnwr had a more unkind usage. As a child, I remember reciting:
which suggests that Methodists should sit on the floor. That is a digression, but the link between annibynnwr and a particular sect should be avoided, so I commend the word, "annibynnol" to the Government.
Finally, Plaid Cymru and, I assume, the SNP call for greater transparency in the funding of political campaigns in Wales. I want to see clearer enforcement of the use of accounting units. That point does not specifically affect my party, because we campaign only in Wales. However, other parties campaign in Wales and across the UK, and there is a temptationI will only call it thatto spend campaign money in Wales but account for it elsewhere. I hope not. Surely the enforcement of clearer accounting units would deal with that. Greater accuracy and transparency can only be good for the political process in Wales.
Individual registration has been mentioned by several hon. Members, notably the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers). I note my party's support for the Electoral Commission's standpoint; we would want individual registration to be introduced as soon as possible.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate. It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams). I appreciated his in-depth description of the Welsh language terms that we use in Wales.
I welcome the Bill. I am anxious that the fear of fraud does not overwhelm its other objectives, which are access to voting for all and the highest possible turnout, and I congratulate the Minister of State on the efforts that she has made to try to strike that balance. In my constituency, the turnout was 70 per cent. at the last election; that is a good turnout and one of the best in Wales. When I was first elected in 1997, the turnout was 80 per cent. I think that that 10 per cent. drop is echoed in most constituencies. It is therefore important that we do all that we possibly can to encourage people to vote, and I welcome the parts of the Bill that apply to that.
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The electoral registration officer in Cardiff has always had a good record in getting as many people as possible on to the register. During the last election campaign, when we called on houses in multiple occupation I was struck by the fact that the individuals who were there matched the people who were supposed to be living in the household. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who knocked on many of those doors with me, will agree that it was a very good register. I welcome the extra powers that the officer will have as a result of the Bill.
However, I am worried about certain aspects of the Bill, including the proposals on individual registration. I accept that the term "head of the household" is outdated, and it is unfortunate that it is used, but moving to an individual registration system could have a detrimental effect on the number of people on the register. Young people, particularly students and those living in houses in multiple occupation, may miss out when the so-called head of the household registers the whole family. We must be careful in moving down this track. Although ideally it is probably the best solution, in practice it may mean that we lose many more people from the electoral register. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) mentioned the millions who are already missing, and we must bear that in mind. I am glad that the Government are approaching this cautiously by carrying out pilots, and I hope that they will monitor them carefully.
I am pleased that electors will be able to register to vote much nearer to the day of the election, but I am concerned about changing the deadline for applications for postal votes from six to 11 days. I understand the reasoning behind thatit gives more time to check that fraud does not take placebut there is a danger that lots of people may lose their vote. For example, how would somebody who was admitted to hospital at the last minute get an emergency postal vote? In the 11 days before the last vote, there were numerous examples in my constituency of people phoning up wanting to get an emergency postal vote because of illness. Can anything be done about that?
Given the huge advances in technology, it seems wrong that 11 days are required to process a postal vote. Surely there must be a quicker way of doing it while ensuring the safety of the vote. We should not cut out those people who need postal votes at the last minute for reasons beyond their control. I am pleased that the Government are supporting postal voting, which has extended the franchise and improved people's participation enormously. The nature of people's families today, and the number of people who have caring responsibilities, not only for children but for elderly people, makes it essential to have a postal voting system, and I am pleased that the Minister has said that that option will always be available.
I am concerned about a couple of issues that arise when electors have to sign for their ballot paper at the polling station. I am sure that other Members have experienced the situation whereby at some point in the day there is a huge rush of people wanting to get in and vote. Has the Minister thought about the practical
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implications of having to sign for one's ballot paper at the same time as one goes in to vote? The only purpose of signing for one's ballot paper is so that it can be checked if there is a query, and that depends on having individual signatures at the time of registration. We have to try to make the system simpler. During my last count, an hour was spent poring over hundreds of votes because the marks were not clear. Torches were sent for and the ballot papers were held up to the lightat the request of my opponent's agent, I might sayto establish that the votes were legitimate. The hour while those votes were studied was very frustrating, and it seemed to me that there should be a system that would do away with such a situation.
What will be the position of somebody who cannot read and write, as a significant number of adults cannot, when they go to vote? If we are able to encourage them to go to voteI accept that many of them may not do sowhat can we do to give them privacy so that they are not embarrassed about the fact that they cannot find their name? I have had the experience of trying to encourage such people to vote and trying to explain how the ballot paper will look and that one need only put a cross on it where one wishes. I am sure that people from all parties have been through that process. If we say to them as soon as they get there, "You've got to publicly sign for your ballot paper", that might discourage one of the more disadvantaged groups in our society from playing their part in the democratic process. They should not be put off by the fact that they cannot read or write. I hope that the Minister will think about the implications of that.
I welcome the steps to improve access, particularly taking children into polling stations and the voting booth so that they can learn the habit of voting early on, because there is a danger that they may never get into that habit. I know canvassers who have gone into houses to sit with children while their parents are driven to vote and others who have looked after children in a car while their parents voted. The proposal is therefore eminently sensible and will be good for children and democracy.
I welcome the opportunity that the Bill provides to tackle many of the barriers facing disabled people when they register to vote, especially the introduction of a system that enables the maximum number of disabled people to vote unaided and in privacy. As was said earlier, disabled people expect to have the same range of places in which to vote as able-bodied people. They need to be able to go into the polling station as well as to get a postal vote.
Other steps, which are not included in the Bill, should be taken to increase participation. I support many of the proposals that have been mentioned for increasing the number of people on the electoral register. I believe that the voting age should be lowered to 16 so that people get into the habit of voting when they are young and still in school, where they can discuss the issues in a group. I hope that voting young would set a voting pattern for them for the rest of their lives.
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I believe that voting in Westminster elections should be more proportional so that electors feel that their votes count. Again, that would help to increase participation. I do not support compulsory voting. It is up to us as politicians to make electors believe that there is a reason to vote. That, too, would increase participation.
We can do many things to increase participation but one of the most important is making our politics relevant to people. We can do many things in the House, through the way in which we operate and practise politics in our day-to-day work to try to reach out to people. That is as important as all the issues that the Bill covers.
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