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Life Peerages (Appointments Commission) Bill [H.L.]

Lord Kingsland: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to establish a commission to make proposals for the conferment of life peerages under the Life Peerages Act 1958. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.--(Lord Kingsland.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

Parliamentary Commissioner (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

Representation of the People Bill

3.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

[Amendment No. 93 not moved.]

Clause 10 [Pilot schemes]:

[Amendments Nos. 94 and 95 not moved.]

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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 96.

    Page 11, line 45, leave out ("when,").

The noble Lord said: I should not like to think that the Committee is getting itself into bad habits by not moving amendments.

Amendment No. 96 is a probing amendment which seeks to discuss the question of when people vote. We will discuss--I hope in short debates--"when", "where" and "how", but this amendment seeks to debate "when". Amendment No. 103 is linked with this amendment and addresses specifically the issue of voting on Saturdays and Sundays.

It is interesting that the Bill gives local authorities the power to run experiments. One of the experiments they can run is to change the polling day from a Thursday to another day in the week or, indeed, to a number of days in the week. So we could be voting on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I believe that some of the experiments concern that issue.

My amendment seeks to give the Minister an opportunity to explain to the Committee the Government's thinking in regard to "when"; what kind of proposals he has received from local authorities; and what he thinks are the advantages of voting over two or three days in a week.

As I said at Second Reading, I am hard pressed to see any advantages. I certainly do not see any advantages for the foot soldiers of democracy--in other words, the people in the political parties who man the polling stations and who get out the vote. They have a busy enough day on a Thursday, from dawn until dusk in the summertime; and from dawn until long after dusk if the election is held in the wintertime. They have a busy enough day manning the polling stations, checking who has voted and pulling out their people.

After all, the motivation behind the Bill is to try to increase the number of people voting. One of the ways in which people are encouraged to vote is by way of the "knocking up" carried out by the foot soldiers of the political parties. I suggest that if polling were held over two or three days, it may be extremely difficult for the political parties to cope because of the amount of effort required. Rather than an increase in the number of people going to the polls, we might see a decrease. So we have to think very carefully about the people who do that work.

It may also be a problem for the people who man the polling stations for the returning officer. It will increase the number of people needed. While at the moment people carry out a very long, one-day shift, from seven in the morning until nine or ten at night, they cannot be expected to do that over two or three days. So serious issues need to be addressed when we discuss the question of whether we should vote over a number of days.

The other amendment I have tabled deals with the question of voting on Saturdays and Sundays. In the part of western Scotland that I come from, and further north into Lewis and Harris--as in Wales and in

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England--many people still consider Sunday a special day. Some consider that it is a family day, but they believe it is even more special than that; they believe that it is a day on which work should be done only in extreme circumstances. They would find it very disturbing if they were invited to use their vote on a Sunday, and only on a Sunday.

I accept that continental countries do so, but we have just heard from the noble Baroness from the Foreign Office that all the countries in Europe do not have the same voting systems. We should not interfere with, nor indeed copy, other people's voting systems.

It would not be a good idea to have voting on a Sunday. There are many people, perhaps not a majority, but this Government are supposed to look after minorities--although not all, because the minority of the population which hunts foxes is not looked after and does not have its opinions heard--who believe that we should keep the sabbath and that there should be no compulsion to vote on a Sunday. The same could be said about Saturday when members of the Jewish community may find it difficult to reconcile voting with keeping that day as a holy day. Their numbers may be lower than the size of the population who keep the Christian Sunday, but they are still a minority who will feel strongly about the issue.

My Amendment No. 103 suggests that if any movement is made to the weekend, it should be to both days. I shall have to be convinced by some fairly rigorous experimental work that there is any point in moving from a single day to more than one day. I shall certainly need to be convinced that a move to voting at the weekend is worthwhile. I believe that the number who find it difficult to vote at the weekend, because they may be away from home, may be greater than those who currently experience problems on a Thursday. I propose the amendments in the hope that the Minister will explain government thinking on the issue of "when", and also to lay down a marker to indicate that I for one would be resolutely opposed to picking either a Saturday or a Sunday as the single day of voting in this country. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his interesting comments. I am particularly grateful for his sympathy towards the foot soldiers, as he put it. Many of my noble friends behind me would be impressed by the salutations in that direction as, no doubt, would many noble Lords in his own and other parties.

I shall speak first to the second of the noble Lord's amendments, Amendment No. 103. I applaud him for having tabled it. It would be very wrong if any changes to our electoral procedures were to result in a particular group being put at a disadvantage. I hope that I can set the noble Lord's mind at rest, and, for that matter, anyone else's.

Perhaps I may begin by quoting from the guidance which the Home Office issued to local authorities

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about how to apply to run a pilot scheme. It stipulated that among the material that a local authority is required to include in its application is,

    "An assurance that no voter will be put at a disadvantage by the proposed innovation".

That is obviously important. It is quite unambiguous. A local authority which is unable to provide that assurance will not be successful in its application. A scheme that makes it easier for the majority but significantly more difficult for the minority to vote evidently does not meet the test.

Those are not merely words from the Home Office. They have been translated into action. A number of local authorities which have applied to run pilot schemes at the coming May's local elections have had their applications turned down simply on the grounds that a particular religious group might have been put at a disadvantage. Indeed, we have gone even further than the amendment. A number of schemes involving both Saturday and Sunday voting have been turned down because the polling hours were longer on the Saturday than the Sunday--or vice versa--and the Home Secretary rightly took the view that that could have a discriminatory effect.

I should mention that those decisions were taken in consultation with representatives of the opposition parties who are happy with the approach that my right honourable friend adopted. There is widespread support for it. More generally, perhaps I may usefully quote what the Home Secretary said during Second Reading in another place:

    "If weekend voting ever became part of the national arrangements, we would have to ensure that it took place on both days. There are members of the Jewish community who would not wish to vote on a Saturday and there are members of other communities ... who have strong feelings about the observance of [Sundays]".--[Official Report, Commons, 30/11/99; col. 172.]

I hope therefore that I have been able to reassure the Committee that the Government are fully alert to the needs of those of strong religious persuasion and that we shall do nothing that is detrimental to the interests of such people. I hope that that is a clear statement which will give the noble Lord the reassurance he seeks.

I turn now to Amendment No. 96, which goes much further. If passed, it would, as I understand it, preclude the running of pilot schemes which involved early voting, changes in polling hours or voting on days of the week other than Thursdays. I should be grateful for the noble Lord to confirm that that is his intention. I cannot believe that he really wants to rule out--

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