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Lord Bowness moved Amendment No. 15:


Page 2, line 26, after ("shall"), insert (", subject to subsection (1A) below,").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 16. There has already been reference to the hours the polls will be open. Since by common consent it appears that this referendum is more than a mere local government matter, it seems that the voters should be given the maximum opportunity to cast their votes. I am sure we will be told that if that were to happen it would create enormous difficulties. However, I believe that every effort must be made to overcome them.

Two elections on the same day is not unknown. Indeed, that is what is proposed in this instance. The referendum question or questions will be on separate ballot papers from those being issued for the local government election taking place on the same date. We ask that polling stations should be open for the extra hours. I am not a returning officer and it is not for me to go into the practicalities, but if there is a statutory prohibition on local government voting papers being issued between specified hours, then between those hours no local government papers will be issued. If people want to vote in the local elections and referendum they will attend the poling station during the normal local government polling hours. If they wish to vote in the referendum but are unable or unwilling to vote for their council candidate, they may attend during the extended hours. Indeed, it must be the case that any voter attending during the normal local government voting hours can exercise a choice as to whether he or she votes in one or both polls being held on the same day. Therefore, the voters may create some of the difficulties which it may be suggested would be caused by accepting the amendment.

Similarly, there must have been instances--indeed there were on 1st May this year--of parliamentary elections being held on the same day as local elections.

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I am sure that the great experience of returning officers across Greater London can be drawn upon to cope with this matter. We have to remember that we are talking about Greater London. We are talking about a high proportion of the voters being commuters, many of whom will leave home very early to get into central London and many of whom will return home very late at night.

On an earlier amendment I emphasised the need for there being acceptance of the outcome and some stability in the future governance of Greater London. Therefore, whatever the outcome of the referendum, the participation of the greatest number of people is to be encouraged. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: I was grateful for the introduction to this amendment given to me earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare. We support the amendments. As I said at Second Reading, and as the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has said, if we expect people who live on the outskirts of Greater London and who work the long hours which so many people do work in central London to be able to take part in this election--we want as many as possible to take part--we should seriously consider the extension of hours proposed in the amendment.

I appreciate that there are more possibilities for postal and proxy votes than there were some years ago. The regulations governing postal and proxy votes have been loosened. Nevertheless, applications for postal and proxy votes have to be in so relatively early during the course of any campaign that when one knocks on a door during an election campaign one finds voters who say, "I have missed it. I did not know that I could apply for a proxy vote. I am almost always away from home for hours which preclude me from voting between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. and it is now too late. I have lost my democratic rights". I have been embarrassed when trying to explain and to some extent defend that system.

Local elections should take place between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Indeed, I suggest that there could be some confusion. I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, on this point. It would be preferable for the hours of the referendum and the local council elections to be the same. I am not aware of what the technical requirements would be to change the hours of local government elections. Perhaps this is the opportunity to ask the Minister to explain what would be required to extend the hours for that one occasion. I hope that the Government will be addressing this point in their review of local government. On this occasion I believe that Londoners should be given the opportunity to vote before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. on both matters.

Lord Monson: Perhaps I may put a contrary view. To keep polling stations open for 15 hours at a stretch is an expensive business, particularly if the count then has to take place in the small hours of the morning, as usually happens. I take the points made by other noble Lords about commuters. However, as I understand it, in the United States the voting for presidential elections and all other elections normally finishes at about 6 p.m.

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Commuting distances in the United States are probably greater on average than they are in this country. Therefore, I am not in favour of the amendment.

7 p.m.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare: Perhaps I may speak against that. The impression is that polling finishes at 6 p.m. It finishes in one part of America three hours before that takes place in another part of America. That gives the impression of voting finishing at 6 p.m., but it carries on until 9 o'clock. I still feel very strongly that this is a one-off situation. Even if the Minister is going to speak against this amendment, I wonder whether she might consider going back and saying that there is strong feeling on the matter. It is a one-off situation.

In the previous debate the Minister said that she hoped that there would be many ways--and I totally agree with her--of getting people to vote. There is the need to gain their enthusiasm and let them know that this great debate is taking place. They need to know that the vote is taking place.

The truth of the matter is that we live in the goldfish bowl of politics. We discuss it every day of our lives. Those of us who have worked in the other place or who have canvassed on the street, know that people are not all that interested in politics. Only a tiny percentage of us are vitally interested in it. In order to make sure that we get everyone who possibly can to vote on the subject, I believe that the Government should reconsider and say, "Let us on this one occasion have no excuses for there not being a high vote. Let us have no excuses at all so on this one occasion let us have a vote that starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m.".

I can understand the Minister being told by civil servants, "This will cost a lot of money and be very inconvenient. It will be hard to carry out". Why do we not just say, "Rubbish! We want to carry it out and get the highest vote possible"? If, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, in local government reorganisation this matter is already being considered, perhaps this referendum is the ideal event on which to make it work. I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter very seriously indeed because I know that she wants the highest vote possible.

Lord Tugendhat: Perhaps I may briefly support my noble friend Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare on this point. I take up the reference to the United States. I believe it to be notoriously the fact that voting figures in the United States are among the lowest in the Western world. Perhaps the rather limited voting hours contribute to that. It is also a sad fact--I speak as a former London MP, although that was a long time ago--that the turnout in London tends to be rather lower than in the rest of the country. There are a number of reasons for that. It is difficult to maintain the register. People move from one flat to another and so forth. Nonetheless, there are very great difficulties about voting in London. The turnout figures at national, local and European elections reflect that situation.

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Therefore, when there is a one-off poll of this sort in the process of creating a new system of government in the nation's capital, it seems, as my noble friend said, extremely important that there should be the maximum turnout, whichever way people wish to vote. Therefore, if one is going to keep the polls open longer there is a very clear justification for it.

I add one final thing. I know that we have a modernising government and one that believes in a young Britain and all the rest of it. Therefore, it will not have escaped the attention of Ministers that shops, offices, places of business and entertainment now keep very different hours from the past. If the Government are going to modernise our institutions, including, as I understand it--and there is a committee meeting this very day--this House; if they are going to change the State Opening of Parliament and all kinds of other things, it is a very small request to make that they should try to ensure that the largest possible number of Londoners can vote in a matter that concerns them as deeply as this.

Baroness Hayman: I certainly share the views which have been expressed that we should try to make sure that the largest possible number of Londoners participate in the vote on the setting up of the Greater London authority. For that reason I welcome the sentiments behind these amendments. It is clearly in the interests of democracy that all who wish to vote are able to do so. That consideration is at the heart of the Government's plans for the referendum.

I am interested in the points made about how in future we may think about less conventional ways, if I may put it that way, of voting and enabling people to register their choice, and may perhaps think a little more outside the box than simply adding an hour in the early morning and late at night. Any time that one adds an hour and has cut-off hours, there will be some people whose working or travelling patterns are affected by that.

Details for the combined poll will properly be addressed in secondary legislation. I am pleased to be able to inform the Committee that draft secondary legislation was placed in the Library of the House yesterday. I hope that that will answer some of the queries of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, that he felt I had not addressed on previous amendments. I hope that makes it absolutely clear that it will be possible to see, from the declaration of local results, borough by borough, how people have voted. We have no interest in being anything other than transparent in these issues.

It is our intention that, as far as possible, arrangements for the referendum should mirror those for borough elections. Arrangements for local polls, including opening hours, are well established. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that it would be very confusing to have two different sets of hours operating for the two elections that are taking place. When general and local elections coincide on the same day, the hours are standardised. We intend to do that for London, but to follow local polling hours. Obviously, that is not a course of action that Members of the Committee have suggested.

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I believe that there is little evidence advanced to the effect that extending the voting hours would have the sort of marked effect on turnout that we are all seeking to achieve. Turnout in London elections was 46 per cent. in 1994 and 48 per cent. in 1990. It is already relatively high for local elections. It suggests that perhaps polling hours are a less significant influence on voting behaviour in London than in places such as rural Scotland or rural Wales, where people may have to travel very considerable distances to vote.

Nevertheless, I take the point that has been made during the Committee's deliberations, that there are difficulties for those who have long journeys to work, those who work particularly long hours or those who have other difficulties in getting away from work. We are committed to ensuring that everyone who wants a vote can get one, either in person, by post or by proxy. Those who cannot attend their local polling station because of personal or work commitments would be able to apply for an absent vote. The availability of absent votes is going to be central to the publicity campaign, making it clear to Londoners that the referendum is taking place.


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