Skip to main content

Clause 4

Volume 301: debated on Monday 24 November 1997

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Referendum Supplementary

I beg to move amendment No. 31, in clause 4, page 2, line 26, after 'shall', insert

'subject to subsection (1A) below,'.

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 32, in page 2, line 26, at end insert—

'(1A) The polls at the referendum shall be open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.'

This simple amendment proposes that the hours for the referendum should be extended to between 7 am and 10 pm. Those are the same hours that we use for general elections and, in our judgment, this issue is of similar importance. The proposed arrangements are that the polls open from 8 am to 9 pm. Plenty of people work before 8 am or come back after 9 pm and they will have difficulty getting to polls during this period.

London is the international commercial centre of the world, with people working long hours substantial distances from their homes. Some of them travel for perhaps an hour each way from one side of London to the other to earn their crust. It could cause difficulties if this important issue is dealt with during the polling hours of 8 am to 9 pm.

I anticipate that the Minister will say that it is impractical to have the referendum from 7 am to 10 pm while the boroughs are voting from 8 am to 9 pm. The logical response to that is, "If that is the case, change the date of the referendum." She may say in response to that suggestion, "But that will add to the expense." Of course, the last refuge in these circumstances is to raise the question of cost.

The Minister will note that the clear financial memorandum suggests that the cost of having the referendum on 7 May 1998 is £3 million, and the cost of having the referendum on another date is £5 million. Therefore, the cost of moving the referendum to another day will be £2 million. Some might say that that is a lot for an issue such as this. Others might say that, in the history of London, £2 million is not such a big sum. In truth, it is what the GLC spent every eight hours in its heyday in the 1980s.

I hope that the Minister will accept that it is not an extraordinary sum of money and that it is possible to devise a system whereby polling hours reflect the working conditions of many people. I hope that she will be able to accept the amendment.

I support the amendment. We opposed the amendments on thresholds, which we felt gave the election artificial legitimacy. I am sure that the Government are keen to give the election legitimacy through the turnout. The Liberal Democrats believe that the amendment would increase the turnout, which is to be welcomed.

One of the objections to the amendment is that polling hours for local government elections are from 8 am to 9 pm. There are solutions to that practical problem. One way would be to issue referendum ballot papers during the hours when local government elections are not held. My office has contacted the returning officer in my borough, who believes that there would be no problem dealing with that practical difficulty.

An alternative solution would be to extend the hours of the local government elections. I believe that polling stations should be open longer for local government elections. They are important elections some people consider them to be more important than elections to the House. There is a strong case for extending the hours for local government elections.

The case for extending the polling hours for the referendum is even stronger, because of its constitutional significance and the importance of encouraging as high a turnout as possible. I am sure that, when right hon. and hon. Members have campaigned in local and other elections, they have had to encourage voters to participate in the democratic process. Late at night, just before the polls close, some people find reasons not to turn out to vote. By extending the hours, we will negate their arguments. We all have anecdotes to tell of people who feel unable to vote during the hours when local government elections are held.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) mentioned the problem of working hours. We live in a society in which people have long, extended working hours. It is difficult for some people to get to the polls between 8 am and 9 pm. The amendment would enable those people to participate, which would secure a much greater mandate for the Government's proposals.

There is another strong argument in favour of the amendment. The Government allowed extended hours in the referendums in Scotland and Wales. Londoners should be given the same rights. It is interesting to note that the report of the Hansard Society entitled "Election Campaigns", issued in September 1991, asks why we do not have the same polling hours for all types of elections. It is an interesting question, and I hope that, if the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment, she will justify the reason for having different polling hours for different elections.

Other bodies have reported on the same issue. The report of the Commission for Local Democracy, entitled "Taking Charge The rebirth for Local Democracy", says that there is no good reason for the difference, and proposes that extended hours should apply to local government as well as to parliamentary elections. I believe that extended hours should also apply to referendums, and we have an excellent chance to make that change now.

The Committee may also want to take note of the fact that, when a local government election is taking place at the same time as a parliamentary or a European election, the polling hours are extended for both elections. If that can be done for parliamentary and European elections, why can it not be done for a referendum? It seems extraordinary that referendums are the only exception.

The Minister may find my final reason for extending the polling hours even more powerful. This is the second day in Committee, and no amendments have been accepted so far. Some concessions have been made, and the Government have given some undertakings, but they have not accepted any amendments. There may well be a hidden agenda. The Government may not want a Report stage. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made a strong point to Madam Speaker earlier today. I was not present, but I believe that she was quite concerned, because the Government had already set the timetable for this week's business and had assumed that there would not be a Report stage. They second-guessed the House. The Government Whips may want to question that, but Madam Speaker was very concerned that there would not be a Report stage this week. If only to curry favour with Madam Speaker, Ministers should accept the amendments in the spirit of cross-party co-operation.

8.15 pm

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). He is absolutely right. The Minister for London and Construction is no longer in his place no doubt he has gone to a darkened room to calm down after the excesses of not accepting any reasoned amendments.

There is a good case for accepting the amendment. A more regular system of referendums is being put into operation: this is unlikely to be the last referendum. We need to be flexible about when voting should take place. After all, the current polling hours have not been set in stone. They were changed in the 1970s principally to recognise different work patterns. We no longer live in a world where people work from 9 to 5: they now work different shifts. People start early, especially in London. London has adopted a method of working that is a little ahead of the rest of the country. People who work in the City and in the money exchanges arrive early in the morning, as do cleaners. By not extending the polling times, we are denying those people the franchise.

I am pleased to see the Minister for London and Construction back in his place. It is important for the Government to show that they are prepared to listen to reasoned debate. If they refuse to accept any amendment, and to listen to any argument, the whole purpose of this debate is negated.

Was my hon. Friend as struck as I was by the Minister's revelation—I think that that is not too strong a word— that it was deemed necessary to extend the polling hours for the referendums in Scotland and Wales? Has my hon. Friend reflected on why London is apparently expected to vote in a referendum on one basis, whereas the Scots and the Welsh were able to vote on an entirely different basis? Does that not throw new light on the matter? I should be grateful for my hon. Friend's thoughts on that matter.

My hon. Friend should also bear in mind the fact that the population of London is larger than the populations of Scotland and Wales combined. That emphasises the fact that there is another agenda. When we began the debate, we thought that having the referendum on the same day would artificially increase the number of people voting in the local government elections. It quickly became apparent that we had misjudged the Government, because it had nothing to do with that. They were frightened that there would not be much of a turnout for a separate referendum. The amendment would provide them with a way to increase the number of people who vote in the referendum. There is nothing to fear from democracy.

Order. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. I keep missing him, but it is not deliberate.

I am fielding at backward short leg, Sir Alan. I apologise.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has done us all a service, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) testified, by drawing our attention to the fact that the Government's proposals for the referendum in London are less attractive, less generous and less satisfactory than the arrangements in Scotland and Wales.

I am half Welsh—indeed, I am more Welsh than anything else. I do not remember the precise terms of the Government's sloganeering in the Welsh referendum, but I recall it being something like, "Don't let Wales be left behind." Given the powers that are to be given to the Assembly in Wales, I am not in the least surprised that the people of Wales in the end demonstrated what they thought of the Government's proposals by the narrowness of the majority, which was contrary to all the Government's expectations.

Although I have testified to my Welshness, I am more a Londoner, by definition, than I am anything else. I profoundly resent London being treated less generously than Scotland and Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar referred to working patterns in London, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). If one takes the employed population and divides it by 659, the average number of people working in each constituency of this land is 37,500. Each day, my constituency has the privilege of receiving 750,000 working people, which is 20 times the national average. By the nature of things, a significant number of those people are less likely to be able to vote as a result of the voting hours that have been declared. My constituency constitutes between 20 and 25 per cent. of the entire employment of Greater London. The people who make that journey to work in the heart of the capital might be regarded as the essence of Londonness. I am disappointed that, unless the hon. Lady is about to accept the amendment, we are to be treated as a second-class city.

I must say just a sentence or two in support of the amendment [HON. MEMBERS: "Only a sentence."] The arguments are so strong that I felt they needed only a sentence or two in support.

The Minister may say that, because it is likely that the local elections will be held on the same day—Liberal Democrat Members have supported the idea that they should be on the same day—to facilitate an early referendum, it would be complicated to have the extended hours. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) made clear—he was clearly supported around the Chamber—if the option is a lesser or a greater number of hours and if we are doing something on the same day that London has not done before but Scotland and Wales have done, there must be a logic in opting for both elections to have the longer hours. There is no disadvantage to the electors or to the constitutional and democratic nature of the result.

I hope that the Government will accept the argument. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, that would allow them to show that they are willing not merely to listen to arguments but to accept them. That is very different from listening to but rejecting every argument, as they have done so far.

I wonder that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) bothers to ask a question, as he seems to know what my reply is to be. I hope that an element of my response will cause him some surprise.

Certainly for the first time in my experience, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) presented himself as a character of somewhat schizophrenic nature. He began his contribution by saying that he was more Welsh—he did not define precisely whom he was more Welsh than—and went on to say that he was more a Londoner than many Londoners. As I thought that we had established a neighbourly connection by virtue of our constituencies being contiguous and our histories being inextricably linked with Birkenhead, I was disappointed that he failed to touch on our connections with the north-west of England.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said that there was a strong case for accepting the amendments. If there is, he certainly did not present it. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said that the hours for the London referendum were unfair, given the hours allowed for the similar referendums in Scotland and Wales—I am paraphrasing and I am sure that he will forgive me. That point made before—I believe on Second Reading—to rebut that argument was that there were huge physical distances in the countries of Scotland and Wales. Both have a much more dispersed electorate than London. Although London is large and comprises millions of people, it is much more homogenous in an electoral sense—it is much easier for people to get to the polling booths and for votes to be returned for counting.

The geographical aspect is irrelevant to this point; it is the working hours that matter. The working patterns of Londoners are diverse. Many Londoners commute not merely into the City and the constituency of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), but out of London. They commute miles and miles—the length and breadth of the country. My brother, for example, is often in Leeds on business during the day. To be frank with the Minister, there is a large variety in commuting patterns, which presents an even stronger case for polling hours being even more extended in London.

That point about the working hours and working patterns of Londoners was also made by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). That is undoubtedly the case, but if work precludes an individual from attending the polling booth, a postal vote will be available for this referendum, as it is for local and for general elections.

Is the hon. Lady saying that, because London is compact and so many people live here, the hours allocated for a general election are inappropriate?

No, I have no recollection of having said that. My point was that the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton and for Croydon, South based their arguments for a change in the polling hours for the referendum on the work patterns of Londoners. I understood their argument to be that, because people start work earlier and finish later and may have long distances to travel to their places of employment, their lives would be facilitated if polling stations were open from 7 am until 10 pm. The point that I was making to rebut that argument was that postal votes would be available to people for the referendum as they are for local and general elections.

I am grateful for the opportunity that the amendments offer to clarify for the Committee the arrangements that we intend to put in place on referendum polling day.

As justification for rejecting the amendment, the hon. Lady said that the postal vote provisions would compensate. Is she saying that hours of work and distances to be travelled across London are acceptable grounds for having a postal vote? If so, will she accept an amendment to that effect?

It is my understanding that there is already a right within law to a postal vote because of the inability to be present at a polling station because of work. The hon. Member for Croydon, South looks perplexed. I am confident that what I am saying is correct, not least because I have exercised such a right on more than one occasion.

We will set out detailed arrangements for the combined poll in secondary legislation. We intend that the referendum poll should run from 8 am until 9 pm, alongside that for borough elections. Clearly, it makes sense with a combined poll for both to open and close at the same time. We do not believe that extending the hours for the referendum poll to run from 7 am until 10 pm would be in the interests of an efficient combined poll. A combined poll in which people could cast one vote but not another at certain times would be almost impossible to administer.

I have already touched on work commitments and the availability of postal votes. We want to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to exercise his or her democratic rights in both the referendum and the local elections. Extending the referendum would cost more, delay the count and provide little advantage in terms of increased turnout.

I hope that I have been able to explain to hon. Members how we intend to proceed and have allayed any concerns. I therefore ask the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to withdraw the amendment.

I am now more confused than I was to start with. The Minister prayed in aid the fact that, because Wales and Scotland have more dispersed populations, it is easier to get to polling stations and that, therefore, their circumstances differ from those of London. My knowledge of Scotland may be a little out of date, but things have not changed that much over the years. Actually, I spent a little time in Scotland over the summer break. I also have knowledge of Wales because I lived and worked there at one time.

The whole point about Scotland and Wales is that, traditionally, people tend to live much closer to their workplace. The great London and south-east tradition of commuting is almost unknown in Scotland and Wales, although I admit that commuting is becoming a little more frequent. If one adds that to the fact that travelling in Scotland and Wales is much easier and quicker precisely because their populations are more dispersed, one begins to see the utter fallacy of the Minister's argument.

If that is the basis of the Minister's argument, her analysis is profoundly flawed. She still has not answered the question that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) raised a short time ago. It is not good enough for Ministers to read from their notes at the Dispatch Box, making no connection with points made by Opposition Members in the debate. We are being provoked into attempting to get our arguments across in a more forceful way simply because Ministers will not listen to the debate properly or attempt to reply to the points that have been made.

8.30 pm

Did the right hon. Gentleman find the Minister's answer as unsatisfactory as I did? To increase turnout in the referendum, we could easily extend the hours for local elections to bring them into line with the period of 7 am to 10 pm, which the amendment seeks to introduce, thus getting around all the practical difficulties that the Minister outlined. She has therefore made no case for keeping the hours at 8 am to 9 pm.

I tend to agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is an interesting point. It is relevant, for the purposes of this debate, to consider how far extending the hours would increase turnout. Sadly, we speak in the context of a voting environment in which turnout in local elections, where candidates are supposed to be closest to the people and where the issues are supposed to affect people more, tends to be lowest of all. That is a regrettable long-standing historical fact of British elections.

Let me focus on the point about Scotland and Wales, and London. It is simply not good enough for our arguments to be brushed aside by the Minister's glib and unsatisfactory—I shall not even dignify it by calling it an analysis—assertion that, because Scotland is quite big with not many people in it—

Is not the substantive point that, even in Scotland and Wales the bulk of the population live in urban areas? Even within the confines of the old borough system, there are plenty of rural areas in London. As many people in rural areas of London will want to come to the polls as in Scotland and Wales.

My hon. Friend is right. Let us leave aside for the moment the great stretches of Scotland, which are thinly populated. The hon. Member for Moray will concede that, although distances may be greater, the time taken to travel them is much less because of the lack of congestion. When I spent some time in Glasgow recently, I was amused to find that the Glaswegian definition of "traffic gridlock" was quite alien to me. I found driving in Glasgow to be a joyous experience because one could make progress easily and move around readily. [Interruption.] I do not know when the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) was last in Glasgow or what his recent experiences of driving in Glasgow were. He may like to enlighten us on that. He seems strangely reluctant to do so. It is the Committee's loss.

I see your Chairman's eyes narrowing at me, Sir Alan. I shall not dwell on this point for much longer. I simply wish to say that that kind of response from Ministers in reply to serious points made by Opposition Members is not good enough. I hope that, before we decide whether we wish to push the amendment to a vote, the Minister will seek to catch your eye again, Sir Alan, to attempt seriously to respond to our arguments, rather than merely ask us to accept them on the basis of assertion.

Given that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) walked into the Chamber some 20 minutes ago, his assessment of today's debate hardly warrants close analysis.

No.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that people in Scotland and Wales find it easier to get to their polling stations because they live closer to their place of work. If I recall correctly, during most of his Government's tenure, the people of Scotland and Wales had no work to which to go.

The right hon. Gentleman argued that we had failed to give due consideration to the points that Opposition Members had presented. I stand by my previous statement. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said that a strong case had been made for the amendments. If that is so, neither he nor the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, or indeed the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), has made it.

I must confess that, having listened to this interesting debate, I find the Minister's arguments totally unpersuasive.

The Minister is trying to persuade us why we are wrong in putting forward the amendment. We put forward some perfectly valid arguments to which she failed to come up with a reasonable response. She described Scotland and Wales as some sort of outer land where people come down from the mountains, taking several hours trekking through the snow, to get to the polling stations. [Interruption.] We have Scottish Members present and we shall be pleased to hear from them.

I most certainly have and I have spent much of my life in Scotland.

The Minister's description of those countries is false and I should be surprised if people in Scotland and Wales would have to spend as long getting to polling stations as some people in London spend getting from one side of the city to another.

I tabled the amendment primarily as a probing amendment, but the more I listened to the debate, the more I wished that I had been determined to divide the Committee. However, we are still only on clause 4— about a third of the way through—and we shall obviously be here until late tonight. In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 4 and 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.