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The Earl of Onslow: Before the noble Lord sits down, the words "shall require" in the amendment could be replaced with "may require", and sub-paragraphs (a) to (e) could be removed. That would leave only the provision in sub-paragraph (f). In other words, if the electoral officer had any doubt, he could ask for documentary proof as evidence, which could be a credit card or any other form of identification. That would remove the valid point made by the noble Lord; namely, the need to ask every elector for proof of identity, which would be a waste of time. It would give the electoral officer a fallback position if required and it would not clog up the system, which the amendment might otherwise do. I am trying to be helpful.

Lord Bach: I accept the noble Earl's intervention as helpful, as always. I should like to consider the point. We are not minded to give such a power to the presiding officer, although it may well be that, as part of the questioning that he can undertake with any voter whom he suspects, he can ask for identification. I shall have to check that out before giving a proper answer to the noble Earl. I should like to consider his suggestion and perhaps write to him with something that I hope may satisfy him.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I was interested to hear the noble Lord's lineage and I congratulate him on the distinction that he enjoys. In the circumstances, I am disappointed that this does not provide a suitable opportunity for him to demonstrate the militancy which may be expected of him in view of his distinguished forebear.

I long have suspected that the Home Office does not believe that there is any source of good ideas other than within its own walls. The noble Lord shakes his head. I hope that he will provide evidence to prove me wrong; if so, I shall much enjoy it. The particular observation of the noble Lord which worried me was that the Government would keep a close watch on the situation. That is one of those "bromide" phrases which mean absolutely nothing. I wonder what would be said by those on the other side of the Committee, who are so much more eloquent than I, if a Minister from these Benches stood up to say that he would keep a close watch on the matter. That would provide no satisfaction to noble Lords; and I do not expect that it will afford my noble friend, who moved this amendment with such clarity and skill, any lasting sense of satisfaction.

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Perhaps the noble Lord will think again and take away the amendment, not merely say that the Government will not accept it. It will not cost the noble Lord anything to do that, but it will give the impression, albeit perhaps a rather shallow one, that every now and again the Home Office is prepared to give a little thought to ideas that come from another source.

Lord Bach: I am most distressed that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, believes that the Home Office is closed to ideas. That may have been so at the time he was such a distinguished member of the previous government. Perhaps in his day the reply that I have given would have been considered as nothing more than a "bromide" form of words.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I assure the noble Lord that it makes very little difference to me from which party a particular government come. I am quite capable of making the same kind of comment about either.

Lord Bach: I should like to ask the noble Lord whether that was always so.

Noble Lords: Yes!

Lord Bach: I accept from those who know the noble Lord much better than I do that it was always so. I am sorry that I am not militant enough for the noble Lord's purposes; the time may come when I am. To a certain extent, the noble Lord's contributions in this Chamber sometimes make up for my lack of militancy. My response is not meant to be a "bromide"; the Government have an open mind on this matter. However, for the moment we want to leave matters as they are and consider how they work out in the next couple of years.

Baroness Fookes: I wondered why the Minister referred so flatteringly to my time as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee; later in his speech I realised why. I do not accept everything that the Home Affairs Select Committee may decide subsequent to my membership of it--or even, on occasions, when I was a member of it.

I am slightly disappointed. I believe that the Government could take this matter further than they are prepared to do. I am willing to accept some of the assurances given by the Minister in the face of all the evidence. Having seen both main parties in government over the years, that is very trusting of me--far more so than my noble friend Lord Peyton, who I believe never gives anyone the benefit of the doubt. I hope that the Minister will do more than simply keep an open mind and that he will look at the matter more closely.

I should like to put one question to the noble Lord. In connection with another amendment, I made reference to a pilot scheme being undertaken by the City of Plymouth. Plymouth wants early voting and a single centralised polling station in the centre of the

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city. What I did not quote then (because it was not relevant) but quote now is its suggested voting procedures, which state:

    "(c) ii) The elector must produce a poll card or some other proof of identity before a ballot paper is issued".

Do I take it that when this comes before whoever is to make a decision on this matter such a procedure will not be accepted, even for a pilot scheme?

The Earl of Onslow: The Minister does not know the answer.

Lord Bach: The noble Earl is right: I am quite prepared to admit that I do not know the answer. However, we shall look at the form of the consent to that pilot scheme to discover whether it has been accepted in full or whether that part has been left out, and write to the noble Baroness. I congratulate the noble Baroness on saving that particular shot until the end of the debate.

The Earl of Onslow: Before the noble Lord sits down, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said recently that answers in the form of letters to Peers were of interest only to Peers. This appears to be an important answer which should somehow appear on the record rather than be simply placed in the Library. I do not know how that can be arranged.

Lord Bach: Perhaps the best way to do it is by means of a Written Parliamentary Question, in which case it will be on the record. We shall do our best to assist the noble Baroness.

Baroness Fookes: I do not believe that we can go any further tonight. On the assumption that I am unlikely to win a Division if I seek to call one, somewhat reluctantly I beg leave to withdraw the amendment. I hope to fight again another day.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 4 [Absent voting in Great Britain]:

[Amendment No. 119 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 120:

    Page 34, line 49, at end insert ("by reason of his attendance on a course provided by an educational institution or that of his spouse, or").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 121 and 122 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 123:

    Page 38, line 7, at end insert--

("(12) When a nominated proxy is approved by an electoral registration officer to hold a permanent or particular proxy vote for an elector, the election registration officer shall write within three working days of the application to the elector to confirm the name and address of the appointed proxy and the duration of the appointment of the proxy vote.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 123 relates to proxy voting. It is clear from the previous debate that, for understandable reasons, we do not have much of a

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clue how much personation goes on. Equally, we probably do not have much of a clue about the extent to which fraudulent use of proxy votes occurs. I am advised that it is relatively easy to apply for a proxy without the particular elector being asked to give his consent. Obviously, a person who is intent on doing this will select someone who has, to that person's knowledge, left the country, or who will be away on polling day or, in the case of a Jehovah's Witness, who may be registered but is known not to vote.

It has been put to me that there may well be a serious loophole here that can be closed by incorporating something like my amendment on the statute book. When someone asks for a proxy vote, the registration officer should write to the elector concerned and ask whether he has appointed the person as a proxy. The matter is fairly self-evident and I am sure the Minister understands the point that I seek to make. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have considerable sympathy with the amendment. As Members of the Committee will be aware the Working Party on Electoral Procedures looked at the whole question of absent votes in considerable detail. It made a number of recommendations to make it easier for people to obtain and cast postal votes, and these are reflected in Schedule 4 to the Bill.

However, the working party did not feel able to make any similar recommendations, for good reasons, in relation to proxy votes because, as it put it,

    "there are a number of current police investigations being held into allegations of proxy vote abuse".

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is as aware of those as I am.

Perhaps I may digress briefly. About eight or nine years ago in a closely fought, perhaps somewhat bitter, by-election in my locality there was a terrible abuse of proxy voting. A proxy vote had been stolen from someone suffering from Alzheimer's. That person was a long-standing Labour voter. Someone claimed a vote in a form which was wrong and quite wicked. The individual was entirely defenceless.

A system in which the elector on whose behalf a proxy has been applied for is sent a letter confirming their proxy appointment would certainly deal with the first of these mischiefs and, possibly, the second. An elector who had not applied for a proxy but who had received such a letter could raise the alarm.

We would need to be sure of the practicalities. I am conscious that it could represent a significant burden to the electoral registration officers during an election period when they will be at their busiest, particularly if it means that they will have to speak to administrators generally to seek their views on whether it can be done.

Accordingly, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment for the time being but on the clear understanding that I am sympathetic to the purpose behind it. We shall try to bring back some provision to cover that eventuality. As I said, the police are continuing with their inquiries. The working party has

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spoken on the issue. There is cross-party agreement that we must do all we can to stamp out abuse and fraud. I believe that, as I am sure the noble Lord does.

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