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Rosemary McKenna : I very much appreciate the opportunity to welcome the Bill despite the fact that my amendment was not selected.

I want to put it on the record that the Minister has assured me that the circumstances that arose in my constituency at the last election will not arise again. Five hundred ballot papers were ruled out as ineligible because the polling clerk had written on the ballot paper the identifying number of the electors. That was a scandal and a disgrace. The returning officer was absolutely right that according to the law they could not be allowed. What worries me is that that is all right with an 11,000-plus majority, but it would have a significant effect in a by-election or a council election in my constituency, or anywhere.

This particular individual in Kirkintilloch had been a presiding officer in a polling station in the past, had had extra training, as had all the others, and had been given the information from the Electoral Commission, yet he still made this mistake. The Minister has assured me that the separation of the ballot paper from the identifying marks means that it cannot possibly happen again, and I am delighted to have that reassurance. It is crucial that it does not happen again—the 500 people who voted in Oxgangs primary school had their votes taken away.

The terms of the provision could have been reinforced a bit more, and I will be watching its operation carefully. I very much welcome all the other changes that have been made in the Bill.
11 Jan 2006 : Column 390

6.43 pm

Mr. Heath: I add my thanks and congratulations to those that have already been put on the record. I welcomed enormously the approach taken in Committee by Ministers and by Conservative colleagues, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), when trying to put forward constructive proposals to make a good Bill better.

Mr. Heald: I forgot the hon. Gentleman when I was paying my tributes. I apologise, because he has played a very big part in these proceedings and should definitely have been included. Perhaps he will put in a leadership bid—who knows? [Interruption.]

Mr. Heath: My odds are 33:1 with a leadership run, which will not happen. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I will just about forgive him the fatuity of the last vote, which was an exercise in pointlessness as it asked the House to divide on two positions that amounted to the same thing.

On the principal objectives, we have striven for consensus whenever possible, even if we have not always achieved it. That is as it should be. We have made the point over the years, including in the previous Parliament when we considered electoral reform, that such issues should not be partisan and that we should agree a common framework for our essential democratic processes. It is important that we listen to each others' points of view and accommodate them as far as possible. That has happened during the Bill's passage.

Changes have been made through our consideration and as a result of the points that were made not only by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), but by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who chairs the Standards and Privileges Committee and made the point about reporting donations to hon. Members. A minor consideration on imprints was also taken into account. There has been a retreat on descriptors, thus preventing us from holding a difficult debate on whether "annibynnwr" is a better description than "annibynnol" for independent candidates on Welsh ballot papers. A minor amendment was made when the Government finally understood my point about arrests within polling stations. I was right and the Minister eventually accepted that the original wording did not convey what the Government intended.

Clearly, we need to make more progress on the four-month issue, which we debated. Progress has been made on deposit thresholds. The definition of election material is important and will be introduced probably through secondary legislation. The Government accepted the point that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East (Rosemary McKenna) made.

It is a shame that we did not reach the amendments that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) tabled. He has been my colleague on many occasions on Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring expeditions. He well knows the requirements of international organisations that we do not yet fulfil.
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Ms Harman: We accept the spirit of the amendments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and we will table amendments in another place that will effect his proposals on independent observers.

Mr. Heath: Again, that is welcome. I made points in Committee that the right hon. Gentleman intended to make today in good faith to ensure that our systems were compatible with the international treaties that we had signed. The Minister therefore gives us good news.

I also welcome the fact that we will deal with the service voter issue in another place. That is an important matter and I hope that we will not have hard travail to reach a conclusion.

As far as possible, we have dealt with matters in this elected House rather than the other place. That is important because such decisions should be made here. Notwithstanding the wealth of experience in another place, we are responsible to our electors for ensuring that our democratic system is in place.

There is one outstanding issue: how we maintain the integrity, especially of the postal ballot, but also of our wider electoral arrangements. I am not convinced by the Government's proposal for pilot schemes. We need personal identifiers but we must continue that argument elsewhere and it may revert to us for determination. In other respects, the Bill is a good measure, which I commend to the House.

6.48 pm

Mr. Betts: I welcome the Bill, especially the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary have conducted discussions on it. They have listened not only to Opposition Members but to Labour Back Benchers. I thank them for their approach.

Clearly, it is a national disgrace that 4 million people who are entitled to vote in this country are not even registered. It is also undemocratic and discriminatory because a disproportionate number of those who are not registered come from inner-city areas, are young, are members of black and other ethnic minority groups or live in private rented accommodation and houses in multiple in occupation. It is right that the Bill seeks to address that deficit in our democratic system.

I particularly welcome the powers and responsibilities given to registration officers in clause 9. However, I still want further reassurance about the powers of officers to obtain information from organisations that are not within the council for which they work, especially when houses are transferred from a local authority to arm's length management organisations or housing associations. Organisations such as local colleges, the Post Office and even private sector organisations such as utility companies might have to give information to registration officers.

The Bill represents a welcome step forward, but I believe that we shall eventually have to move to a system similar to that in Australia, in which most of the information comes to returning officers automatically from various organisations, and in which canvassers are used on a periodic basis to back that up. That would turn our system round to some extent.
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I welcome the setting of a national standard for the way in which officials operate. It is clearly right that general elections be conducted on registers that are drawn up on a similar basis in every local authority in the country. Having a national standard is important for that reason, if for no other. I also welcome the powers given to the Electoral Commission to ask for reports from various officers, to assess how different authorities are doing and to draw comparisons between them. I hope that such reports will be made annually and that we shall also encourage the scrutiny committees of local authorities to engage with their registration officers and others in considering how they compare with the work being done by their counterparts in other authorities. We must have scrutiny at local level, as well as information produced by the Electoral Commission at national level, so that Members of Parliament can ensure that our registers are much more accurate and democratic.

6.51 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): We often pass imperfect legislation, but legislation is always improved by proper consultation. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, who has conducted herself in an exemplary manner in that regard. I am particularly grateful for her help, support and encouragement with the amendments that I tabled. I am also grateful for the great help that I received from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who has led so ably from our Front Bench, and from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

This has been a good exercise in co-operative working in Parliament and the law is being significantly improved as a result. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), who looked after my interests in Committee. I appreciate that, because his predecessor, Robin Cook, was one of the sponsors of my private Member's Bill, which led to the amendments that I tabled.

I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because he has done valiant work on service voters, although he has yet to see a result. I hope, however, that as a result of the Bill's consideration in another place, he will.

6.53 pm

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