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Secondly, we need to establish a national funding agency separate from and independent of the arrangements outlined in my first proposal. The necessary payment would come from that funding
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agency, and it would go with the parent, on behalf of the pupil, travelling with him or her to the institution that he or she attends.

My third proposal is that we establish a special educational needs standing commission. Its role would be to accredit the assessors, to hear appeals and to offer advice—in the light of emerging practice and policy—to the national funding agency about requirements and needs and the increase in public expenditure necessary to meet them.

My central thesis is that that would be a real advantage over the present system, which is weak because local education authorities assess and decide, pay and provide. For the most part, they are in control of the whole process, and we need to make it a great deal more independent. We need to make it quicker and fairer—independent of the Government, independent of local authorities and independent of the sources of supply. That, surely, makes sense.

I do not decry the very real efforts made in the field of special educational needs. It is a complex area, in which there is always a danger of generalisation. There is good practice, bad practice and indifferent practice. Every child is unique; each case is different; but there are serious weaknesses. I politely suggest to the Government that a real problem is now emerging: the desire to cut costs and the elevation of the useful tool of inclusion into some sort of dogmatic edict in every particular, which is grossly damaging and needs to be changed. We are talking not about guinea pigs in some giant experiment of starry-eyed social engineering, but about children who need help, more help and better help, and who need it now. My Bill will help to provide it, so I commend it with enthusiasm to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Bercow, Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. Douglas Carswell, Mrs. Nadine Dorries, Mr. Nick Gibb, Stephen Hammond, Mr. John Hayes, Mr. Philip Hollobone, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr. Julian Lewis, Mr. George Mudie and Bob Spink.

Special Educational Needs

John Bercow accordingly presented a Bill to require that statements by local authorities relating to special educational needs are issued independently of decisions about the funding of facilities and services arising from such needs: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed [Bill 195].

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Points of Order

4.42 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During the previous statement by the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made some inaccurate comments—unintentionally, I am sure—about the reasons behind the death at Deepcut barracks of my constituent’s son. For the family’s sake, I want that inaccuracy to be put on the record.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Cheryl James, the daughter of one of my constituents, also died at Deepcut barracks. For the avoidance of doubt, I support what the hon. Lady has said. No substantiated evidence of self-harm has been produced. It is important to put that on the record, because it has caused great distress to the parents. It would be a shame and very upsetting if that misunderstanding were repeated in today’s record.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The whole House understands the sensitivity of the issues, but it does not prevent my saying that it is not in order to pursue a matter of debate in the guise of a point of order. In the case of the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), Mr. Speaker specifically refused her request earlier. Both hon. Members have now had their opportunity to make their point. As they must know, they will have further opportunities to raise particular matters of contention—including with the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), if they wish. They should also give him notice of their intention to pursue the debate in that way.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),

Question agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Work and Families Bill

Lords amendment considered.

Schedule 1

Leave and pay related to birth or adoption: further amendments

Lords amendment: No. 1.

4.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): I beg to move, that this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The Lords amendment was tabled by the Government to correct a minor drafting error in schedule 1, which amends section 80E of the Employment Rights Act 1996. At paragraph 38, line 32 the schedule currently reads:

The paragraph then lists other people covered by the law. The correct wording is:

and so on.

As well as not achieving the policy intention of including mothers as well as employers, the current wording of paragraph 38(3) does not make sense, as the definition of employer cannot include employees. It is clear that that was a minor drafting error made during the construction of the Bill. The error was unfortunately only noticed shortly before Third Reading in the other place, hence the requirement to make an amendment at this late stage.

I ask hon. Members to agree with the Lords in accepting the amendment, and I apologise to the House for any inconvenience caused.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to his new post and congratulate him on the excellent brevity of his first speech on this subject? May I astound the House by agreeing with him entirely in every word? This is clearly a drafting error. The Bill does not make sense as it stands and it must be corrected. I certainly do not oppose the Lords amendment. I will resist the temptation to go further into the rights and wrongs of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which, of course, was mostly right, not wrong, given its date. I entirely agree with the Minister and support the Lords amendment.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I welcome the Minister. We agree.

Lords amendment agreed to.

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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),

Question agreed to.

13 Jun 2006 : Column 660

Electoral Administration Bill

[Relevant documents: First Joint Report from the Constitutional Affairs and ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committees, Session 2004-05, HC 243, on Electoral Registration; and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6647. Oral and Written Evidence, taken by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, on Electoral Administration, HC 640-i and 640-ii, and on Party Funding, HC 1060-i.]

Lords amendments considered.

New Clause

Lords amendment: No. 7, before clause 13, to insert a new clause— Absent voting: personal identifiers.

4.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 8 and the Government motion to disagree thereto, and Lords amendments Nos. 9 to 15, 47 to 49, 59, 60, 79 to 81, 89 to 93, 95, 102 and 131.

Bridget Prentice: I have placed in the Vote Office an explanatory note on these Lords amendments that, I hope, will help hon. Members to wade through the 130-odd Lords amendments before us this evening. They simply explain what the amendments will do, rather than give any detailed background to them, but I hope that they will help us to move through the course of the debate.

I ask the House to agree with the Lords in amendments Nos. 7, 9 to 15, 47 to 49, 59, 60, 79 to 81, 89 to 93, 95, 102, and 131, but to disagree with the Lords in amendment No. 8.

Lords amendment No. 7 was tabled by Lord Elder and built upon by the Government. Taken together, the series of Lords amendments are designed to enhance the security of postal voting by establishing a scheme that provides for the use of identifiers by postal voters at elections. The amendments had support from all sides in the other place. They provide for the collection of personal identifiers from persons applying to vote by post or proxy. Postal and proxy vote applicants will be required to provide their date of birth and signature on application forms. The amendments provide for the retention of identifiers by electoral registration officers and set out the purposes for which they may be used.

At elections, postal voters will be required to provide their signature and date of birth on the postal voting statement that they must complete and return with their postal vote ballot paper. All postal voters, including proxy postal voters, will be subject to that requirement. A postal ballot paper will not be deemed valid if the postal voting statement does not include both a signature and a date of birth. Furthermore, returning officers will be required to take steps to verify the signature and date of birth on that statement, which will involve checking that the identifiers
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provided on the postal voting statement correspond with those previously provided on the postal vote application. If they do not correspond, the ballot paper will be rejected. The detailed arrangements for checking postal voting statements will be set out in regulations. Under the amendments, there will be no change to the current voter registration arrangements. The amendments therefore remove from the Bill the provisions that would have allowed personal identifiers to be piloted and rolled out as part of the voter registration system.

On Lords amendment No. 8, we have said previously that we accept the principle behind individual registration. We have also accepted the practical value that the use of personal identifiers might have in combating fraud. However, it is also an important principle that everyone who is entitled to register to vote is registered. Under-registration disfranchises individuals and skews the map of political representation. Northern Ireland is often cited on both sides of the debate. The main Opposition party has frequently called for us to introduce into Great Britain the tried and tested system of individual registration. Individual registration in Northern Ireland has had some benefits, especially for the perceived security of the process, but it is not true that the experience in Northern Ireland is an argument for that system to be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.

When individual registration was first introduced in Northern Ireland, 120,000 entries dropped off the register—a decrease of some 10 per cent. in those on the register. The 1,192,136 entries in August 2002 had decreased to 1,072,425 by December of that year. At the next canvass, the total number of entries fell slightly further to 1,069,160. The Government have taken steps to address that decline, first by reintroducing a period of one year’s grace before entries are removed from the register, and secondly by introducing new primary legislation.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): If the hon. Lady went to Northern Ireland and talked the matter through with its electoral registration officer, she would find that, as she says, there was a dip. However, as a result of active canvassing, within a matter of months, 92 per cent. of those on the census were registered to vote in Northern Ireland, which was described by the Northern Ireland Office at the time as an outstanding success. How can she try to wriggle out of what is the obvious solution?

Bridget Prentice: The rigorous canvassing did increase registration, which had suffered an extreme dip, but has not increased it to anything near the original figure of 1,190,000. As I said, new primary legislation has been required to try to rectify some of those issues. Therefore, we believe that individual registration is not yet ready to be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): With regard to the Northern Ireland statistics showing that registration dipped as low as 82 per cent. and then increased to 92 per cent., a registration rate of
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92 per cent. on the UK mainland would not be acceptable. We want 100 per cent. registration. Anything that decreases registration should not go ahead.

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which he has raised with me and with other Ministers. It is essential for us to do all we can to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote is on the register and we should therefore not introduce unnecessary blocks to prevent that. Such action would constitute as much of an insult to democracy as some of the other actions that we are discussing.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the Electoral Commission’s stance on individual voter registration?

Bridget Prentice: The commission supports individual voter registration. We in Government disagree with the commission, as I have explained. We have said that we agree with the principle and we are implementing it in relation to postal votes because of the particular problems that have arisen in that regard.

Mr. Heald: If the hon. Lady leaves all the bogus entries on the register, such as Hooty McBoob, Michael Mouse and Gus Troubev, which is an anagram of “bogus voter”, and there is active canvassing of new people who should be on the register, registration could be as high as 110 per cent.

Bridget Prentice: As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, although that is an amusing suggestion, we shall not be implementing it. We have included a variety of processes for the canvass. Electoral registration officers can take a number of strong measures to ensure that the register is accurate, ensuring that those who should not be on the register are not on it and that those who should be on it are.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The Minister appears complacent. Is she aware of the position in my part of the world? In Bradford, election results have been called into question because of concern about voter fraud. There has also been concern about the police time taken up in investigation of all the fraud accusations. Does she accept that the amendments provide a simple way of addressing many of the worries in Bradford and in the country as a whole?

Bridget Prentice: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman intervened. The amendments that I am asking the House to support will indeed address the points that he raised in relation to Bradford and elsewhere.

I mentioned the Northern Ireland example. We are also concerned about the drafting of Lords amendment No. 8. It makes several references to the role to be played by the Chief Electoral Officer. Outside Northern Ireland, there is no such officer; the role is played by local electoral registration officers. That would create a serious flaw in the operation of the proposed scheme.

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