European Elections

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th March 1999.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea 12:00 am, 15th March 1999

When he plans to launch a public information campaign on the voting system to be used in the European elections. [74577]

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am pleased to announce to the House that we will be spending £3.5 million on a publicity campaign to explain to the electorate the new voting system for the European elections, and to encourage voter participation and a higher turnout. The campaign will begin in May. I will be happy to discuss details of the campaign with the Opposition parties.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

May I assure my right hon. Friend that there will be a wide welcome for his announcement that money will be spent on a public information campaign? The voting system will be extremely simple—indeed, it will be simpler than the present one, since it simply requires an "X" against one party name. However, does he believe that £3.5 million will be enough, given that £5 million was spent in New Zealand on introducing a new voting system to a far smaller population? Does my right hon. Friend think that the five weeks between the end of the local elections and the European elections will be long enough to drive the point home to voters across the country—who have known in previous elections that their vote might not count towards the result—that, for the first time, they will have a chance, through the new system, to ensure that their vote does count towards the result and does result in representation?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Everybody's vote counts in every election, whatever the system. I am glad that my hon. Friend has welcomed the substantial amount of money, which will enable us to run a television advertising campaign and provide a leaflet drop into every household. It should serve its purpose.Turnouts in previous European elections have been unacceptably low in this country and in some others, and we hope that they are raised. On my hon. Friend's point about the five weeks between the local and European elections, everyone would accept that it would be confusing if the publicity campaign were to begin before the local elections had been completed.

My hon. Friend will know that the New Zealand system is infinitely more complicated than the one we have introduced.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

Will the Home Secretary confirm that in any literature that is put out to try to explain the iniquities of the proportional list system, there will be a paragraph setting out clearly why such a system would be wholly inappropriate for future Westminster elections, and confirming that it will never be adopted for future Westminster elections?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

No—because that may be otiose. It is very important that this is an all-party publicity campaign, and that is why I am happy to discuss the matter with spokespersons of the other main parties.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

Will not the public search out their own information if they have a reason to do so? Whatever fancy franchise is operating, is not having 100 per cent. electoral registration—so that everyone has a vote that counts—of considerable importance in these and other elections? What progress has been made towards a modern electoral franchise system?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

As the system is new, we need to explain it and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) made clear—its simplicity. It simply requires one cross to be put on the ballot paper against the party of one's choice. That causes us no difficulty, although it may cause Conservative Members some difficulty—particularly as two Conservative parties will be standing. We accept the need for modernisation of electoral registration, and we will make proposals shortly in respect of that.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Will the public information campaign extend to Gibraltar, to explain to its citizens—who are citizens of the European Union—why they cannot have votes? Will the Home Secretary reconsider the matter and introduce a short Bill to give them votes in light of the European Court's decision, or will he extend one of the British constituencies—in London, for example—so that they get votes that way?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The Government take extremely seriously the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. The question of a specific and separate franchise for Gibraltar was fully debated in this House during discussion of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. That proposition was rejected. Meanwhile, we are considering how to implement the decision of the European Court, but there is no prospect of doing so before the June elections.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) said that the new system was simple. However, is there not tremendous scope for confusion, given that two Conservative parties will be standing—the Hagueite Conservatives and the pro-euro Conservatives?

May I now ask my right hon. Friend a serious question? The registrar of political parties is not obliged to give reasons for his decisions or to publish guidelines. Is not there a case, because of the confusion that has arisen, for the registrar to do that?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is not the system, but the message coming from the two Conservative parties that will be complicated. Even if we were to spend £100 million on an information campaign about that, we would not cut through the confusion at the heart of those parties.

So taken was I with my hon. Friend's first question that I have forgotten his second one.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

It was about the registrar.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Oh yes, the registrar. A process is laid down in the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 whereby if there is an argument, it is referred to a special Speaker's Committee. That is how these matters should be dealt with.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I hope that the Home Secretary will remind us how many Labour parties and Socialist parties are standing.

Large areas and populations are involved in the elections. The Home Secretary will obviously confirm that provision will be made for re-counts, contrary to some of the current rumours. Does he recall that virtually no one in the House, from any party, argued in favour of the closed list? Following the European elections, will the Government continue to be committed to the closed list for future elections, or do they have an open mind?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Of course there can, and no doubt may, be re-counts, at the point at which the votes are counted, in a constituency or a combination of constituencies.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

With respect, that is the appropriate point, because it is at that point that there is a reconciliation, or lack of it, between the total number of votes cast and the aggregate of votes cast for individual candidates at that level.

Regarding whether we have an open mind, I have always made it clear that we stand ready to review the operation of the system in the light of the experience in June.