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Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare: Do the Government yet know what the word "absent" means? Will it mean, "I cannot be at my place of voting because of work in central London" or does it mean that one has to be abroad or away completely?
Baroness Hayman: The absent voting regulations are much more generous now than they were when I was fighting elections and perhaps when the noble Lord, Lord Archer, was doing so as well. Anyone whose circumstances, including their work situation, are such that they cannot reasonably be expected to get to their polling station during polling hours is entitled to an absent vote under Section 7 of the Representation of the People Act 1985. It is certainly not a matter, which was my preconception, that one had to certify that one would be abroad or anything like that. The regulations are much more widely drawn now.
It is quite simple to apply to the electoral registration officer to do so. As I have said, we shall be taking steps to ensure that how to do so is much more widely known. I believe that the problem is much more with people not understanding the availability of proxy votes than it is with opening hours. Absent votes can either be in person, by post or at the polling station by proxy--that is if one can get someone else to go to the polling station on one's behalf.
We are committed to spreading the message that everyone who wishes to vote will be able to do so. The Committee may be interested to know that we are already talking to several major employers to explore how we can reach specific groups of workers who may have difficulty in getting to a polling station and encourage them to register for an absent vote. We want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights in both the referendum and the local elections. I hope that there will be a spin-off in terms of increased turnout for the local elections.
I have set out our plans for maximising voter participation. I do not believe extending the hours for the referendum poll to run from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. would add significantly to that effort. Extending the referendum vote would cost more, delay the count and, we believe, provide very little advantage in terms of increased turnout, certainly compared to what a wholehearted campaign about publicising absent votes could achieve. A combined poll in which people could cast one vote but not another at certain times would be near impossible to administer. Extending polling hours for local elections would create severe administrative problems for boroughs. Local authorities prepare well in advance for their own polls and would not thank us for additional complications, especially when they have the extra burden this year of preparing for a combined poll. It is not simply a matter of Whitehall civil servants. It is a question of taking into account those who actually have to administer such elections. I hope that I have been able to allay any concerns about the way in which we intend to proceed. I stress once again that anyone who is unable to vote because of work or other commitments will be entitled to an absent vote. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, to withdraw his amendment.
Baroness Hamwee: I do not know whether the Minister can help the Committee with regard to what would be required to extend the voting hours for council elections on the same day. I raised that matter earlier because I accept the point about difficulty and confusion arising if the voting hours were different. The Minister says that the Government do not believe that there would be any significant advantage to be gained by extending the hours. My observations are personal and, I suppose, anecdotal. However, over many years I have been aware that in my area where turnout at local elections is generally over 60 per cent.--it is not an area in which people do not take any notice of what goes on--many people find themselves unable to vote despite an awful lot of literature coming through the door and very many reminders from people knocking on doors about the absent vote facility, of which the Minister reminded the Committee. I have seen people in substantial numbers in polling stations early in the morning and late at night during general elections. The Minister sounds confident, but I shall be interested to know whether the Government have any hard evidence about the hours of the day at which people tend to vote.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: I wonder whether the Minister will reflect further on this matter before we return to the Bill on Report. If she does so, that would probably enable her to answer the specific question put by my noble friend Lady Hamwee about whether it would be possible to make arrangements to extend the hours of local government elections before the poll for the referendum. That is an important consideration. During the Minister's speech I noted one phrase which is an old friend from the past. The noble Baroness referred to "well tried and tested arrangements." Some
Baroness Hayman: I wish to be helpful to the Committee but I am also anxious not to deceive noble Lords in terms of a commitment to move on this issue. The Government are extremely concerned about the difficulties that would be caused by extending the hours for this poll. It would be expensive, administratively disruptive and would delay the results of the local elections. It is not impossible to do it; it could be done by secondary legislation. In the sense that I cannot give the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the answer to her question about the number of people who vote at particular times, I am willing to take that point away and return to it on Report. We all live by anecdote and I suspect that some people will always just miss the poll whatever the time at which it opens and closes. Therefore, there is an inherent difficulty in that proposition. However, if it would help the Committee if I were to bring back whatever evidence we have about voting patterns and flows, I certainly undertake to do so on Report. I cannot say with any confidence, however, the Government having taken a firm view in another place, that they will do anything other than that on Report.
Lord Elton: The Minister said that draft secondary legislation was available in the Library. I have had a quick look at it. The draft proposes that the hours of polling shall be between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. on the day in question. However, that is a draft. I wonder whether the Minister will be able to tell us on Report what arrangements might be made to enable us to discuss that draft effectively. By convention, this House cannot amend subordinate legislation. Therefore, some sort of debate would be required before the subordinate legislation could be formally tabled. It may take a little time to work out how to get round that, but it will be worthwhile if the Minister could do so between now and Report stage.
Baroness Hayman: That is another reason for saying that I shall consider something rather than give an immediate response to it. I cannot give the noble Lord an off-the-cuff response, but I shall certainly look into the issue.
That is very specific indeed. The Minister in another place, on 24th November at col. 715, said that it would be for the courts to reach a view on whether they should entertain such an application. He said:
I hope that in replying to this debate the Minister can tell us why the clause does not mean what it actually says. It is very specific. The Minister is aware that there have been concerns expressed about some elements of the Welsh referendum. I believe it is inappropriate that we should seek to pass legislation which on its face ousts the jurisdiction of the courts. I am aware that there was a similar provision in the Welsh and Scottish Bills. While that may be claimed as a precedent, it does not mean necessarily that that is a good thing. Without wishing to detain the Committee any longer, perhaps the Minister can concentrate on the assurances given by her colleague in another place. Can she explain to the Committee why this does not mean what it says?
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