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Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Government have in train a full strategy on the extension of broadband facilities which will include provision in rural areas. The number of dishes will be determined on the basis of local planning decisions. If the noble Lord is suggesting that a separate dish would be necessary for the part of a business that would be diversified, the particular circumstance would need to be taken into account. There is no primary legislation covering such matters.
Lord Borrie: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if the measures for mandatory rate relief for local food stores and petrol stations are to succeed, it is equally important to tighten up on planning permissions for new supermarket developments?
Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords. In our new planning guidance we have clearly indicated to local authorities that we shall look hard and with great robustness at any proposals for out-of-town supermarket centres.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, guidance is publicly available and is regularly updated on the website maintained by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at www.maff.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/default.htm. This includes guidance for the public on countryside activities and visits and on how to prevent the spread of disease. We believe that the guidance is relevant to those who are planning campaigns for the forthcoming elections. Political parties may wish to consult local electoral officers and MAFF guidance about access to the countryside in restricted areas.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the point that I made in my initial response was that advice from the Chief Veterinary Officer, Mr Jim Scudamore, is generally available for local authorities and, obviously, for local electoral registration officers. As to the other matters, it is clearly the case that local authorities will be expecting to deal with such issues. The Government have now made it much easier for people to acquire both postal and proxy votes. After all, they are now available on demand. Local authorities are expecting to gear up for that process. I am sure that electoral registration officers are fully prepared for that eventuality.
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, I have telephoned many of my old constituents in Dumfries and Galloway, and others in Cumbria. There is no one in either of those great areas who considers a democratic election during the first week in May, whether local or national, to be anything but ludicrous. At present, there is no possibility of the normal, democratic process of face-to-face meetings, knocking on doors and the opportunity for candidates to put forward their personalities during the election. Indeed, the whole country will feel that the Government are letting us down very badly if they go ahead.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not sure whether there was a question in the noble Lord's intervention. However, do I now take it that it is the policy of the Official Opposition to suggest that we should be cancelling elections on 3rd May?
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, can the Minister tell me about postal votes? For example, is the onus upon a person to apply, or will electoral officers notify each person of his or her entitlement to a postal vote? Can the noble Lord tell us how the mechanisms of postal voting are supposed to work?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is a matter of application. As ever, the Home Office has been extremely diligent in these matters. We are ensuring that there is widespread publicity on postal vote applications. Indeed, I believe that we have provided 1.5 million postal vote leaflets, which are now being distributed through electoral registration officers. We are also working very closely with those officers to ensure that there is a thorough campaign to draw the new postal vote process to the attention of every elector.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my noble friend has made an important point. I am worried, as I am sure is the case with others, about the dangerous signal that might be sent were we to abandon this year's local elections. We are very concerned about the tourist industry. I believe that the most helpful guidance issued by the Chief Veterinary Officer, Jim Scudamore, assists us greatly in that regard.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the Minister's announcement that 1.5 million postal voting forms will be circulated to local authorities in the near future is most welcome. There is no doubt that those in the countryside will feel a little more hopeful if there is to be an election, which many of them believe would be inappropriate. Having said that, the handling of a very large number of postal vote applications by local authorities will almost certainly pose administrative, if not resource, problems. Therefore, if there is to be a poll at the beginning of May, can the Minister assure us that adequate resources will be made available--if necessary, by using the Bellwin rules--to pick up the problem and ensure that absolutely no difficulty will be placed in the way of those who are confined to the countryside?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, perhaps I may clarify what I said in this respect. I said that 1.5 million postal vote leaflets were being made available for distribution through electoral registration officers. We shall, of course, keep a very careful eye on the number of postal vote applications that are made. I am not aware that representations are currently being made as regards the need for extra resources. I am sure that county councils, and those new unitary authorities that will be going to the polls on 3rd May, will be mindful of the need for adequate resourcing to deal with any increase that may arise in the demand for postal votes.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister confirm that experiments have been carried out as regards the process of conducting local elections entirely by post, and that, on those occasions, the turnout was higher than had been the case previously?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Yes, my Lords. Selected ward areas were covered by total postal voting during last year's local elections. I believe that turnout in some of those ward areas was as high as 60 per cent; indeed, perhaps a fraction higher. So the democratic process was protected, and there were greater levels of involvement in local elections than ever before. Those who conducted the experiments are to be congratulated on their work. It gives us great confidence to know that people in any sort of election will certainly be able to participate fully by casting their vote.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, very considerable time pressures apply to the completion and return of such forms. Therefore, will the Minister consider the possibility of sending out application forms before a demand arises from voters in restricted areas?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as government, we do not have the power to do so. Clearly, that is a matter for each electoral returning officer properly to consider. I should add that such forms are also available on the Home Office website: www.homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk.
Lord Naseby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that only one-third of the electorate has access to the website? It is all very well to be told that there are 1.5 million postal vote forms for the remaining two-thirds, but how are those people to be told that such forms are available? Is there to be a major advertising campaign, or will it be just word of mouth from your Lordships' House?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, perhaps I have not explained the process clearly enough. I said that 1.5 million postal vote leaflets have already been printed. These will be distributed by electoral registration officers. The Home Office is working with local authorities--and, for that matter, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food--to secure additional publicity so that people will be fully aware of their postal vote entitlement. I am sure that everyone in your Lordships' House will want to support that endeavour.
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