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Lord Goodhart: I can go a little of the way with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, but not as far as he goes. I find a little far-fetched the concept that Conservative-minded supermarket owners might fill the shelves near the polling station with bottles of Haig whisky. Indeed, I would certainly welcome the idea of having mobile polling stations in a shopping mall or set up in a pedestrianised shopping street. The one point on which I feel some concern is having polling stations inside supermarkets or other retail premises. Commercial matters can arise there. It can be regarded as giving that particular supermarket an advantage over its rivals. People may say, "Let's go and vote and do our shopping at the same time". I am not sure that having people going up and down the aisles and checking out at the tills while one is a few feet away casting one's vote is the way I should like to see voting carried out. I have reservations about the idea of polling stations being situated inside retail premises.
Lord Jopling: I have listened to the debate with a good deal of interest. I have been trying to put the comments that have been made by Members of the Committee alongside a most helpful brief I received from the Local Government Association--I imagine that many Members of the Committee have the brief--in which are listed at the back the applications that have already been made for various pilot schemes. Forty-four local authorities have proposed a total of 64 different pilot schemes. I am interested to see that there are only four applications for pilot schemes regarding where one votes out of 64. That does not seem to reflect very much interest. With regard to the debate we had a few minutes ago about when people should vote, there were 27 applications, which seems to be rather a lot. Almost all of those were with regard to early voting and only six were with regard to weekend voting. It is significant that only four applications have been made with regard to where one votes. Interestingly, all had regard to mobile ballot boxes; none covered the siting of polling stations in supermarkets. I agree with the comments of a number of previous speakers. It does not make too much sense to start changing the format of a supermarket in order to embrace a polling station. I understand that those who run supermarkets give huge attention to the use of space. Surely fundamental changes in the supermarket structure would be necessary in order to accommodate a polling station.
Like the noble Lord who has just spoken and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, I have some interest in "mobile polling stations"; however, I am not sure what is meant by the term. Do we mean a caravan which is moved to a polling area and placed in one spot for the period when the polls are open? Like the noble Baroness, I remember caravans being used as polling stations in my former constituency. There is nothing wrong with that. But when I think of mobile polling stations, I am inclined to think more of the possibility of their being moved around. My former constituency in the Lake District included a large number of elderly people, as there were a large number of retirement homes. I could envisage it being helpful if arrangements could be made for a mobile polling station to call at certain times on retirement homes where the residents could come out and vote in person. I have always found that elderly people particularly like voting in person and much prefer it to a postal vote. All of us with experience of the elderly know their fierce sense of independence and how they like to make the effort to go to the polling station. Such an arrangement would be helpful for retirement homes.
A list of local authorities have made applications for pilot schemes; however, I see practically no interest in anything other than mobile polling stations, and not much interest in those. Therefore, I hope that our thoughts will be concentrated on mobile polling stations and not on any of the other options.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My noble friend Lord Mackay has dealt with this proposal in a particularly even-tempered fashion. To that extent, I think he is wrong. If he reflects on his own political involvement, he will know that, however composed people may be during a general election campaign, when it comes to polling day, emotions tend to be somewhat aroused. Over the past 20 years, I have been engaged in many arcane arguments about whether posters can be leant against the railings of a school as opposed to being attached to them, with the consequence that the local chief constable has been telephoned. All manner of people become extremely excited about these events. Even-tempered as my noble friend may be about this matter, he is absolutely correct to understand that it is an issue that could cause real difficulty. I have never been more vigorously castigated by political opponents than when I once inadvertently entered a polling station wearing my party's favours. I was taken apart by those who were doing duty as polling agents.
Am I to understand that if a polling station is to be within a supermarket, no one would be allowed to display their party favours; or, on the contrary, among and around the baked beans could we marshal an army of those wearing blue rosettes and that would be legitimate, while five yards away in what was a temporary polling station people were meant to be given the occasion to cast their vote completely freely and without any interference? There is real issue here, and clear rules are needed.
Like my noble friend Lord Jopling, I have no difficulty at all with the idea of mobile polling stations. Indeed, the idea of a caravan being placed in the car park of a huge supermarket such as Sainsbury at Nine Elms where people coming to do their shopping could slip in and vote and around which there would be a kind of cordon sanitaire, presents no difficulty. However, if the idea is that when people enter a polling station there are newspapers and all manner of things around and, frankly, a large number of people milling around with no interest whatsoever in voting, there really needs to be a requirement that we know precisely what would be permitted and what would not. I urge the Committee to note, as those who have engaged in party politics know, that as the day wears on, emotions can become very frayed indeed.
Baroness Fookes: I hope that the idea of mobile polling stations will be pursued vigorously and in detail. I have one concern. If they are to be of the caravan or van type, there may be difficulty for those who are disabled in mounting the steps. They can often be quite steep. One would need to look carefully at precisely the kind of vehicle that would be used.
I, too, like the idea enunciated by my noble friend of having a mobile polling station in a supermarket car park, but certainly not anywhere within the building. A car park is one thing; the supermarket itself is quite different.
Lord Smith of Leigh: First, perhaps I may declare an interest as one of the foot-soldiers of politics who takes a great interest in these matters. The proposal challenges the 19th century assumptions about where people vote. We have always voted in public buildings, often in schools. But nowadays, when we are thinking about raising standards in schools, and whether a day's schooling should be lost, we need to think whether schools are the best places for people to vote.
As my noble friend Lady Gould said, mobile polling stations are not new in political activity. They exist in polling districts where there are no suitable public buildings. I agree entirely with the previous speaker regarding access. That is a critical point in relation to mobile stations. We cannot always obtain the type that are accessible. Certainly, the more people are interested in the idea, the more difficult it may become. We must not assume that mobile stations will be available everywhere when required; we shall all require them on the same day. Therefore, those who need them will have to book early, and the type that have ramps for easy access will tend to go first, leading to problems for the elderly.
I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, on the need for the elderly to get out physically and vote. It is an activity that they enjoy. They are much more committed than many of the younger generation. I think the noble Lord's point related not so much to a mobile polling station, but to mobile ballot boxes. That possibility should be examined.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, for providing us with a good excuse to "go the round" on this one. That is very helpful. I was entertained to hear the noble Lord becoming slightly "moral" in his remarks, but we shall put that to one side.
There have been a number of useful contributions. I shall attempt to answer the points made as best I can. The idea of using mobile polling stations is very much targeted on old people's homes (if I may use that term). A mobile facility can be taken to any number of locations during the course of polling day (or days) to assist elderly people to cast their vote. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, made the very important point that these structures must give easy access. The Home Office already makes available grants for temporary polling stations to provide easy accessibility. Whether one uses the same mobile facility to visit railway station car parks, bus stations, park-and-ride stops or whatever, is something that local authorities must work out.
I was interested in the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, about the pilot schemes. He is quite right that there are not many schemes which do other than seek our endorsement of early voting systems, which is understandable. In this field it is still early days. There are some interesting innovations; for example, electronic counting and voting, and so on. Applications for mobile voting have been received from two very different authorities: Windsor and Watford. We must study carefully how they make progress with the mobile facilities during local elections this year.
A concern was raised about supermarkets. Brighton and Hove Council is first in a number of areas. Last year it used Asda. No doubt a good Labour council has contributed to the profits of the former employers of Mr Norman.
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