Draft National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2002

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Paul Flynn (Newport, West): It gives the hon. Gentleman something to do.

Mr. Thomas: Indeed.

When I visited the polling stations last year, I was concerned about accessibility and I must tell the Secretary of State that the device that enables blind

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people to mark their own voting cards was not available in all polling stations, nor had all officials been trained how to use it. I have raised the matter with my local electoral officers and chief executive, but if we pass the order it is incumbent on us to ensure that some training is provided and that the devices are not kept in cupboards or behind school desks. Officials should know how to use them and encourage people to use them.

Access to polling stations, especially in rural areas, is a wider issue and beyond the scope of the order. If the Secretary of State wants to encourage disabled people to exercise their right to vote and take a full part in the civil process, they must have access to polling stations. Regrettably, many do not have that access and it may be embarrassing for disabled people to have to vote outside the polling station, with or without a companion.

Will the Secretary of State explain the effect of the order on students and student registration? Article 7 refers to

    ''attendance on a course provided by an educational institution''.

I want to clarify whether the position of students is changed by the order and, if so, how. It is the habit of students to register in more than one place: at home and where they are studying. Hopefully, they use their vote in only one place, but we should consider the matter and I would appreciate it if the Secretary of State clarified whether the order makes it illegal or it is already illegal for students to exercise a vote in more than one place. The temptation exists, particularly when elections are held only in Wales—perhaps for the National Assembly—and no election is held in the place where the students come from.

The Chairman: Order. I remind hon. Members to avoid reading newspapers too obviously while the Committee is deliberating.

Mr. Thomas: I take it that you were not referring to me, Mr. Taylor.

My final question to the Secretary of State concerns the amount of money set aside for by-elections, to which article 16 refers. I understand that the order covers only by-elections for the National Assembly for Wales, for which the new amount will be £100,000. How was the amount arrived at and how does it compare with the amount that was previously spent in by-elections for the National Assembly? It is limited, of course, because list by-elections simply involve moving up the list, so we are discussing only constituency by-elections for the National Assembly.

I would be happy to support the order, subject to a response from the Secretary of State on those questions and points. I am confident that I will receive one, because he has approached the matter in an open and encompassing manner.

10.50 am

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful for the comments of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire on the way in which we have dealt with the issue. As I said earlier, all Members of the House, irrespective of their party,

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want to ensure that people have the greatest opportunity to vote, and the order helps achieve that. I assure him and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) that we will keep them fully informed of developments in respect of the future order.

Article 16 on the election expenses of candidates is necessary to make a clear distinction between the expenses of individual candidates and of political parties. The former are controlled by the Assembly order and the latter by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

On disability and voting, the right hon. Gentleman made a valid point about the influence of the companion who accompanies a disabled person to the polling station. On behalf of the Committee, I will refer his comments to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Obviously, his important point applies to all elections, not just Assembly elections.

My officials are consulting their Assembly counterparts and other Departments on the next order. Under the new rules, we must consult the Electoral Commission, which in turn has its own consultation process. We will lay the order as soon as we possibly can, once the consultations are over and we have drafted it.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the change of date for local government elections in Wales. He will appreciate that that is a matter for the National Assembly, and I assure him that the order does not deal with it. It does not endorse or oppose any postponement of local elections but is simply about the process; however, I understand his point.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion made an important point about increasing voter turnout. He was absolutely right, and it is a matter of great concern to us all. I do not think that any constituency escaped a drop in turnout in the general election; some experienced a greater drop than others. I take his point that we should examine more imaginative ways to increase turnout. That is now a role for the Electoral Commission, which will come up with ideas to improve voter turnout. In my constituency, there were 8,000 applications for postal votes for the general election. I sometimes wonder what the turnout figure would have been without that arrangement.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned students. Under the order, students can apply for a postal vote without giving reasons or ask for a proxy if their course prevents them from visiting a polling station. That does not alter the fact that they can vote only once. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I used to be a Northern Ireland Minister. That was not always the case there, but the law is that one can vote only once.

Expenses are increased in accordance with expenses for parliamentary elections. The order relates to all Assembly elections, not just by-elections. The hon. Gentleman also raised a vital point about training electoral officers to use devices to help blind people. We will consult the Association of Electoral Administrators, particularly in Wales, on that matter.

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I am grateful for Committee members' support for these important proposals and urge them to vote accordingly.

Question put and agreed to.

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    That the Committee has considered the draft National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2002.

Committee rose at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee
Taylor, David (Chairman)
Ainger, Mr.
Clwyd, Ann
Davies, Denzil
Flynn, Paul
Havard, Mr.
Jones, Mr. Jon Owen
Knight, Mr. Greg
Lucas, Ian
Murphy, Mr. Paul
Öpik, Lembit
Prisk, Mr.
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Smith, Llew
Thomas, Gareth
Thomas, Mr. Simon
Wiggin, Mr.

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Prepared 12 March 2002