Sunday at the supermarket: a time to shop and vote

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The Independent Online
Voters could be allowed to cast their votes for local elections in supermarkets in the future. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says ministers will also be raising the idea of Sunday polling, and elected mayors in town halls all over Britain.

Voting in supermarkets is one of the novel ideas which will be raised this week by Hilary Armstrong, the minister for local government, as part of a radical strategy for reviving interest in our town halls.

The idea of opening polling booths by the check-out may appal traditionalists, and it could alarm the town hall returning officers, but Ms Armstrong believes the time has come for some fresh thinking. "If you have a good register of voters, and you can be certain about identification, with proper safeguards, why not allow voting in supermarkets?" she said. "There is no need to say that you can only vote at a polling station."

The Government is also opening the way to allow mayors to be directly elected all over Britain. It is backing a Private Member's Bill by Lord Hunt, a Liberal Democrat peer, to allow local authorities to hold direct elections for mayors, with a possible "cabinet" of local councillors.

The Bill, to be introduced in the House of Lords, would also allow councils to submit plans for indirectly elected mayors; the pilot schemes would have to be approved by John Prescott, Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions.

It came as speculation grew that Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, could win the support of the Tory leadership to run as the party's candidate for an elected Mayor for London, following a referendum next year. Lord Parkinson, party chairman, said he was "intrigued" by the idea, and refused to rule out the possibility that Mr Patten could be the Tories' choice over Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare.

When Ms Armstrong arrives in Leeds on Wednesday for the first of 10 regional seminars on local government, she will come brimming with ideas for town hall reforms. A rolling register to allow voters to join at any time in the year, coupled with new checks on identity, possibly using an electronic- based register, could allow supermarket polling stations to work. That could allow voters to use swipe cards to prove their identities before casting their votes.

Sunday voting may also upset the Sunday Observance Society, but Sunday shopping is now an accepted part of life for many families, who could be attracted by the idea.

She believes that allowing local elections to be held at weekends could mean more people can take the time to cast their votes. The elections could be held on different days in different towns, to suit local circumstances, such as market days. "Why should local elections always be held on Thursdays?" she added.

Ms Armstrong has set herself the task of winning back the two million people who removed themselves from the voting register rather than pay the poll tax under the Thatcher government. But her other goal is to turn local government's focus back on the people it serves, and away from a dependence on central government. She is keen to promote her discussions through video conferencing with councillors following the publication of consultation papers leading up to a White Paper next spring.

The Government is keeping Tory rate-capping powers for next year, pending reforms, but will be "tweaking" the allocations to be announced on 2 December. It could lead to Labour authorities in deprived areas getting more, while "richer" flagship Tory boroughs, such as Wandsworth, which did well under the Tories, lose out.