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What do we want, and do we want it now? We want a mandatory register of lobbying activity to be provided for by statute, we want it to be independently managed and enforced, and it should include information provided by lobbyists and those being lobbied. We want the names of the individuals carrying out the lobbying activity and the organisations that employ or hire them, and in the case of multi-client consultancies, we want the names of the clients. We want information about any public offices previously held by lobbyists—for example, if they were former MPs. Such information would come from their career history, and there is no great secret about that. We also want a list of the interests of decision makers in the public services—I think of Ministers, senior civil servants and senior public servants—and summaries of their career histories outside the public service. Finally, we want information about contacts between lobbyists and decision makers, especially diary records and minutes of meetings. That is what we want, and we want it now.

I turn now to the revolving door, which was mentioned by my friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). Lobbying is about identifying and influencing those who exercise power and make decisions. Lobbyists buy access. The Government spend around £79 billion every year buying services from the private sector. Over the past 20 or 30 years, first under Margaret Thatcher and then under Tony Blair and the current Prime Minister, whole slabs of the public sector have been privatised. The private sector now has a foot in the door of the health service, and as I speak, the House is debating the Royal Mail and the Government’s proposal to part-privatise it, with TNT, a Dutch company, being a preferred partner. A decision has not yet been made, but Lord Mandelson has said that TNT is in the frame. Just imagine what TNT would give for inside information on discussions within the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform about giving a private-sector company a chunk of Royal Mail.

What can we do to prevent that? We already have a sort of quarantine system. When Ministers and senior civil servants leave office, they have to notify the advisory committee on business appointments. If there is a connection between someone from the public services subsequently profiting from the knowledge and contacts he or she acquired, the committee is supposed to blow the whistle—but it is a very quiet whistle. Lord Warner came before the Select Committee. He used to be the Minister with responsibility for health service reform, and he now has seven or eight consultancies. They are all above board and have been declared. He told the Select Committee that the advisory committee on business appointments had told him:

We know from the Mayhew report that the system is not policed—that is a huge lacuna—and it needs a complete overhaul.

It is a huge problem, and it is impossible to condense it into 10 or 15 minutes, but I have done my best. I finish on this note. I have been talking to my colleagues in the Labour party, and they say if people outside knew what was happening and the money that was involved, they would recoil in horror. It is not advertised. About a year ago, some of my friends proposed changing the standing orders of the parliamentary Labour party so that if a
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Member of Parliament or Lord wanted to take a second job, perhaps in consultancy, they would be obliged to write to the party stating the time commitments, remuneration and how the job would advance the party’s aims and objectives. That is what is required to drag lobbying into the daylight.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this new landscape. Things have changed in the past few weeks, and I hope that he will tell us that the Government are committed to introducing a mandatory register for lobbyists along the lines that I have set out.

4.40 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on securing the debate; not for the first time he has made parliamentary history by changing the terms and conditions by which we conduct our debates in this Chamber. He has also shown his customary dogged determination for change, for which I commend him.

My hon. Friend wants a mandatory register for lobbyists. I do not know whether we will go down that route yet. The Public Administration Committee published its report on 5 January, and I am committed to responding formally on behalf of the Government by 5 March. He is right that the world has changed in the past month, and the Government accept some of the valid points raised in the report’s analysis. I shall go through some of those points.

The report probably surprised everyone in the industry, and it has already had an effect. However, let me place the debate in the context of where we have come in the past 10 years, partly as a result of the work of the Select Committee. When considering the case for change, it is important to remember how far the Commons has come in the past 10 years. Lobbying became a concern after the famous “cash for questions” debacle in the 1990s when a compelling case was made that two Conservative MPs had been accepting cash for questions. On the back of that, the Government changed the way that things were done. Business appointment rules were extended to apply to former Ministers; we introduced
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an automatic waiting period of three months before Cabinet Ministers could take up posts; advisory committees were given the power to publish advice to former Ministers and civil servants where it was not followed; and Departments began maintaining records of gifts accepted by Ministers. We have now gone even further by publishing the annual list of gifts received by Ministers. Similarly, Departments began keeping records of hospitality accepted and the ministerial code now sets out the circumstances in which it is acceptable to receive hospitality. Furthermore, guidance is now available for civil servants accepting hospitality.

Interestingly, the Nolan Committee did not see the need for Ministers’ financial interests to be recorded separately from interests declared as an MP, but now all Ministers notify their permanent secretary on appointment of the relevant private interests, and for the first time the Government will be publishing that information. The Government also accepted the recommendations in the 2000 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It recommended that details of all ministerial and official meetings with external interests be properly recorded by Departments, and guidance to Departments now states how that should be done. The recommendation to issue guidance on consultation was accepted, and clear rules and guidance on how Governments should consult, including a Government code on consultation, are now in place.

The Committee also developed the seven principles of public life that now underpin the ministerial and civil service code and govern everything that we do as public servants. Of course, as my hon. Friend said, we must not forget that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has had a huge impact on the way that the Government do business. I hope he acknowledges, therefore, that we have made great and incremental change over the past decade, which has made the system more transparent and led to a culture change in the way in which people go about their business in government.

I accept absolutely my hon. Friend’s point that we can go further. He made some sensible recommendations for tightening the rules.

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. I must terminate the debate. We now come to the debate on early voting.

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Early Voting

4.45 pm

Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): The recent election and inauguration of Barack Obama has been politically a wonderfully bright moment in these dark days of the global economic downturn. “Obama mania” gripped everyone on both sides of the Atlantic, and for once it was not media hype, but a real feeling that something historic was being witnessed. Now that things are settling down, and Obama is getting on with the job in hand, it is time for reflection here. In British politics, it does us no harm to cast our eyes across the Atlantic and to learn one or two things about the American way of doing things—they learned enough from us in the past.

One of the most striking factors about the recent election in the US, other than the huge amounts of enthusiasm and grass-roots campaigning pumped into “swing states” across the country, was the sheer number of people queuing up for hours on end, exercising their right to vote. As a reminder, in November, nearly 57 per cent. of America’s voting age population flocked to the polls. If we compare that with previous elections— 44 per cent. in 2004, 51 per cent. in 2000, and 44 per cent. in 1996—we find that last year saw quite a substantial increase.

In the UK, luckily, our turnout has sustained slightly higher levels. In 2005, just above 61 per cent. of the eligible population voted, but we have seen a fairly disturbing fall in numbers given that the figure was 71 per cent. in 1997. Furthermore, in comparison with the rest of Europe, we are still lagging significantly behind. In France, 84 per cent. of the electorate took part in the last contest.

I have recently come to the conclusion that ease of voting is one of the main factors determining whether people turn out. Members might consider, for instance, the events last week: thanks to the weather, no one could reach work, transport networks failed and traffic came to a halt on roads across the country. Imagine that we had the profound bad luck of that happening on election day. What would turnout levels be like then? I admit that it is highly unlikely that a snowstorm will hit the UK in May or June, but weather conditions are just one example of the numerous deterrents that could, and do, prevent people from fully partaking in the electoral process.

The only answer is for us to consider methods of improving turnout through making voting far easier. Academics have researched the implications of postal voting and of improving access to polls by, for example, increasing the number of possible voting locations, lowering the average time voters have to spend waiting in line, or requiring companies to give workers some time off on voting day. Some countries have even considered internet voting as a possible solution. However, the only method I regard as fully tried and tested, with sufficient evidence in its favour, is what I call “early voting”.

The British electoral system remains very conservative. For years, we have voted on the same day of the week—Thursday—in the same way and at the same polling stations. The Americans did much the same thing, except that they voted on a Tuesday, until recently when they took the initiative and asked, “Why Tuesday?”
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Recently, in the UK, positive electoral innovations have taken place, such as the rise in the uptake of postal ballots. However, with turnout dropping, faith in the political system falling and people feeling more remote from their elected representatives, radical steps must be taken to re-enthuse people about voting.

On 7 January, Congressman Steve Israel introduced the Weekend Voting Act in the US Senate and the House. He said:

Clearly, we are not one of the other nations, but he is right. France allows people to vote at the weekend, thus avoiding the need to take time off work. Some people might say that is common sense, but I will leave that for the Minister to decide.

The work of Congressman Israel has been spurred on by the organisation Why Tuesday. I encourage everyone to visit its website, Its motto is, “Fixing our voting system one question at a time.” That is why I am here today—to begin getting such questions asked on our side of the Atlantic. I will turn the question: we should be asking, “Why Thursday?”

Turnout is already worryingly low in local elections. I suspect that it will not be high in this summer’s European elections, and if it starts falling any lower at general elections, the alarm bell will start to ring. A lot can be done to encourage voter participation, increase turnout and restore the vital link between voters and the people for whom they are voting.

Ken Ritchie, the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, has investigated the matter of early voting in some depth. He says:

I am sure that there will be—

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I am sorry to have missed the start of the hon. Lady’s speech. I very much endorse what she says. In the case of Croydon, would it not be good to use the main railway station in east Croydon to increase participation? I was a candidate in the London Assembly elections, which had early voting. Such voting did not make a difference then, but things may be very different in general elections. The hon. Lady’s American example might apply in places such as Croydon. Black and minority ethnic voters might be encouraged to increase their participation in elections.

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Mrs. Riordan: We have to make voting as easy as possible. There have been pilot schemes, but they have not been rolled out. Chester council used a pilot scheme and there was an increase in voter turnout, and the council would have liked to roll out the scheme. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We should use anything we can to increase voter participation.

How do we put the voter first? I recently tabled early-day motion 314 on early voting, which I encourage all hon. Members to support if they believe that allowing only one day for people to vote hinders the democratic process.

The evidence from across the pond is clear: turnout can be raised substantially by making voting easier or more attractive. In the US, there were record levels of early voting. More than 30 states in the US now allow early voting. Research has indicated that more voters are interested in casting their ballots earlier than ever before, and about 30 per cent. did exactly that in November’s presidential elections. Consider what 30 per cent. of the electorate in our constituencies would mean to us. In short, it is time for a radical overhaul of our voting system.

This is not a narrow party political issue, and it has cross-party support. There is no evidence that such a system would lead to any one party increasing its share of the vote. No politician or party should be against a move that makes the franchise easier to use, and expanding democracy is not something that elected politicians should ever be against.

At a time when it is crucial to increase voter participation, we need to be a bit bolder in the reform of our system. Recent years have seen a wide range of pilot schemes, but they quickly fall from favour. It is time to drag our voting system into the 21st century—look at the way in which the American elections caught the public’s imagination. We should understand why people took advantage of early voting and introduce it in our country.

I will finish by reading an e-mail that I received this morning following my interview on the “Today” programme:

4.56 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) on securing this debate on such a fundamental issue. A healthy society depends on a healthy democracy, and healthy democracies depend on high levels of participation. It is very worrying that this country and other western democracies have seen a trend towards lower turnouts. All democratic politicians and citizens should be concerned about that. This Government take the matter very seriously. I am delighted that my hon. Friend is taking such a debate on.

The causes of this trend are complex. I have to say that part of the cause lies with us politicians. We are not exciting our electorate sufficiently to get them to turn out and vote for us. Much of the time, it is clear that part of the problem resides in the fact that voters do not see that there is enough in the election for them to vote
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for. We are not making them think that politics matters. That is something that we have to look to ourselves to address.

It is clear that when voters in other democracies feel that a fundamental issue is at stake in an election, they turn out to vote in very large numbers. We saw that in the recent presidential elections in France. Arguably, the extraordinary scenes that we saw in the United States after the wonderful election of President Obama are the result of the fact that American citizens felt that that election was profoundly important for the future of their country. It was not necessarily to do with the voting mechanisms themselves. Such matters are complex. My hon. Friend is right to urge us to investigate how we can make voting more accessible and straightforward.

The very act of voting is at the heart of the democratic process, so how do we make that easier? How do we identify the barriers to people voting and how do we make the process more accessible? It is axiomatic that all voters who are entitled to vote should be able to do so. That is why I shall introduce measures to improve the register. Approximately 3 million voters in this country are entitled to vote but are not able to do so because they are not on the register. We must do everything that we can to improve the quality of the electoral roll.

Early voting or, as we call it in this country, advance voting could offer voters a greater opportunity to vote in a supervised environment if they are unable to vote on polling day itself. The act of voting in a polling booth is important in itself: it offers greater guarantees of security in polling and militates against electoral fraud, of which we have unfortunately seen some examples in postal voting, which is another way of making voting more accessible. It also gives people a choice of publicly affirming the democratic act of voting, which is very important.

The vote was hard won for everyone in this country and the progress towards universal suffrage took many years. Blood was shed in this country and in others to achieve it, so it is very precious. In some ways, it is important that voting should remain fundamentally a public act and that we should affirm the principle of voting in a democracy in that way. Advance voting perhaps offers that in a way that other more accessible forms of voting do not, as neither postal voting nor proxy voting offer that advantage.

Over the past decade, the Government have explored a wide range of options and mechanisms to see how we can increase participation by making voting more accessible to voters, and part of that work has involved advance voting. We have run pilots that examined the impact of improving the opportunity and convenience for electors who choose to vote using traditional methods, but in advance. The choice of times and locations for advance voting can be a key factor in determining convenience, turnout and value for money. As both hon. Members who have spoken today have suggested, it is important that those polling stations are located in central and easily accessible locations such as train stations, shopping centres and public libraries for several days running up to the election.

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