I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill's purpose is to allow continuation of the Government's successful programme of piloting innovative electoral processes—including all-postal voting, electronic voting and other electoral innovations—at the forthcoming European elections and, where they are held, at local elections next year. Piloting new voting mechanisms is not done for its own sake. It is innovation for a purpose: to engage the maximum number of voters in the elections, and to make their participation more easy and convenient.
I am grateful to the Minister. I accept that it is early on in his speech, but I want to ask whether he intends to give an explanation for motion 4 on the Order Paper, which allows for the Bill to be carried over. In making provision for carry-over and explaining it to the House, the former Leader of the House set down certain criteria. Will the Minister tell us during his contribution what criteria he is using for this carry-over?
The motion is very simple, and relates to the Bill's importance and to ensuring that it gets on to the statute book. That is why the motion appears as it does on the Order Paper.
The measures in the Bill form only one part of the Government's wider programme of reform, and of improving the country's democratic processes. We must always aim to reinforce the faith that the public have in our democracy and strive as best as possible to re-engage their trust in the institutions that work on their behalf.
Let me place these measures in context. The elections pilots programme began following the passing of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which has enabled local authorities to apply to trial different ways of voting at local government elections, in order to see which kinds of innovative electoral techniques make it easier for people to vote. It also allowed for the piloting of different approaches to counting, and measures aimed at improving administrative efficiency.
I know that the whole House is aware of the apparent reluctance of a sizeable number of the public to engage with democratic institutions, whether at the local, national or European levels. That is clearly demonstrated by the low turnouts at recent elections. We saw a 59 per cent. turnout at the general election of 2001; a 24 per cent. turnout—5.1 million fewer votes compared with a decade earlier—at the European elections of 1999; and only about a third of the electorate cast their vote at this year's local elections.
When we changed to the list system of elections, I remember the Foreign Secretary assuring us that that would lead to a higher turnout, but it has not. Is not the solution to go back to first-past-the-post, which we all love and cherish in the House?
That is an interesting comment, but I suspect that it is a debate for another day.
I was about to say that the reasons for falling voter turnout are, of course, complicated. There are many and varied theories about the reasons for the fall—and we have just heard one such theory—including a declining sense of social identification, changes to social structure, voter awareness and so forth.
We politicians must share at least some of the responsibility for voter disengagement. Some people argue that it is the confrontational nature of party politics that is putting off voters. Others say that we need more confrontation in politics to whip up some interest and excite people into voting. Whatever the reality, I hope that there is no need for confrontation today.
Does the Minister accept that one of the problems of the current system is that although the strength of the individual—including how good someone is at representing a particular area—can be an important factor in encouraging people to come out and vote for that person, the European system does not allow people to vote for a particular individual. That arrangement means that a key part of the tools that would otherwise be available to rebuild turnout at elections is lost.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point because the abilities of an elected representative to connect with the views and wishes of the electorate is obviously important, but it is not for me to judge whether Members of the European Parliament, local councillors or, indeed, other Members of Parliament are particularly good at that. The hon. Gentleman has his own views on that matter.
The Government have already introduced many significant measures to improve participation in the democratic process, including the devolution of decision making, the development of regional and city government and the modernisation of local government. Although making voting more convenient is not a panacea designed to increase the vital element of democratic participation, there is certainly much evidence that it can help. It must, anyway, be right to explore as thoroughly as we can how to make the voting experience fit better with the way people now live their lives. After all, there have been a great many changes since the fundamentally important introduction in the Ballot Act 1872 of our traditional method of voting in secret via the ballot box.
Not for the first time, the Minister's position can best be described as studiously opaque. On the one hand, he tells my hon. Friend Chris Grayling that he has made a good point and expressed himself forcefully, but, on the other hand, he fails to tell us whether he agrees that the removal of the link between the individual Member and the constituency is regressive. What is the Minister's view? Will he explain himself?
I am not sure that Chris Grayling made such a good point—Mr. Bercow was the more eloquent—but I believe that having a relationship between a constituency and an elected representative is important. That continues at a European level, just as it does at national and local level, because we still have European parliamentary constituencies—although the Opposition do not seem to have noticed that.
Is it not time for the Government and the Minister to be bold? Given the discussion that has taken place about different electoral systems, it would be the essence of boldness to conduct first-past-the-post elections to the European Parliament in one region and in other regions to operate a system of proportional representation. I would be willing to volunteer Scotland as the area that should have first-past-the-post elections.
That is probably not a good idea, and I am afraid that I cannot help my hon. Friend in that regard.
It may be helpful if I outline briefly, in very broad terms, how all-postal pilots and electronic voting pilots work, based on the experience gained so far. The key element of an all-postal election is that every person registered as an elector in that election receives a ballot paper through their front door, or wherever they have registered to receive their ballot paper. That means that the election is instantly accessible. Everyone who is registered to vote is given the means to vote without having to do anything at all, except fill in the ballot paper and return it.
The Royal Mail has to deal with that matter frequently when delivering post to persons who live in such houses. We always need to ensure that we have the most effective delivery systems. I have confidence in the Royal Mail's ability to cope in such circumstances, and we already have much experience from the all-postal elections that have already taken place.
At all-postal elections, the ballot papers are delivered no later than one week before the close of poll, and usually between two and three weeks in advance. An elector may then choose to do one of two things. Votes can be completed at the voter's convenience, and then cast simply by posting the completed ballot to the returning officer. Alternatively, votes may be delivered by hand to any place designated for the delivery of ballot papers by electors. Such places are staffed delivery points where trained election officials are on hand to assist electors with any queries they may have or to provide replacement ballot papers. They also contain a secure area where ballot papers may be completed in an environment similar to a polling station.
I shall now explain how an electronically enabled—or e-enabled—region's voting pilot would work. At any e-enabled electoral pilot we would provide—in addition to postal voting—opportunities for voters to cast their ballot via the internet or by telephone. In any e-enabled pilot area, each registered elector would receive a postal ballot paper in the same way as for an all-postal election. However, at the same time as the ballot paper was sent out, details would be given about how to vote using the electronic means on offer. That would include a unique personal identification number to allow the elector to access the voting website or telephone system in order to cast their vote. Typically, a remote electronic voting channel would be open for use a full seven days before the close of poll. When a vote had been received, whether by post or by an electronic channel, the voter would be marked as having voted on the register of electors, and no further votes from that person would be accepted.
Can the Minister give the House some assurances about the audit trails for the electronic system he proposes? He may be aware of the heated debate that is raging, especially in the United States, about the companies that supply the technology, and whether voters can verify that their votes were cast as they intended. Those debates have not been resolved and I would be extremely concerned if we were to adopt that approach in a large public election until and unless those questions have been answered.
That precisely why we are extending the next step in the piloting process and why the Electoral Commission will oversee such matters. The Bill contains provisions to allow the commission to scrutinise and monitor the process. It can report back, and consequential changes and improvements can then be made. In this country, there has been the most widespread use of electronic voting so far. In the view of the Electoral Commission, there are no grounds for worry about fraud or security.
All-postal voting and e-voting have both undergone widespread trials at a local level and a great deal of history and experience has already been gained in the electoral pilots programme so far. The Government remain keen, therefore, to ensure that piloting can continue, and expand, next year.
The pilots programme began at the May 2000 local elections. At those elections, the convenience of having available for the first time early and all-postal voting, and small-scale electronic pilots, was welcomed by voters.
Given the size of the areas covered by the European elections, will the Minister assure the House that any decisions to mix the various alternative methods of voting will not encourage turnout disproportionately among different elements of the population? For example, will he confirm that there will also be all-postal voting when an e-pilot is taking place? People of different age groups in society clearly respond to technology differently. An election could be distorted if one approach was adopted, and not another.
We have considered that point very carefully. We have concluded that, if and when an electronically enabled pilot is held in a region, we must also offer people in that region the simultaneous opportunity to vote by post by means of an all-postal ballot. The task is to open up new channels and avenues for people to cast their votes. What we are discussing is the next step in piloting new voting mechanisms.
Will not local elections take place in England in the same period, and might not that be confusing? In light of that, may I suggest that, as no elections are scheduled in Scotland, that would be an ideal place for such an experiment?
That is like seeing the first swallow of spring: I have just received the first bid for a region—and nation—to hold a pilot. We must wait for the Electoral Commission's recommendations as to which regions or nations should be eligible for the pilots.
The programme of local piloting continued in the 2002 local elections, with 30 local authorities holding pilots. That included 13 pilots running all-postal schemes and nine involving electronic, including telephone, voting. Around 2.7 million people were eligible to vote in those 30 pilot areas—that is, 7.4 per cent. of the English electorate. Surveys by the independent Electoral Commission, which has a statutory duty to evaluate each pilot scheme, and by the local authorities running the schemes showed that people again found the new methods of voting easier, more convenient and quicker to use. Postal voting was popular, securing significant increases in turnout in some areas. The substantial number of e-pilots provided a vital building block in establishing public confidence in e-voting. In all the e-pilots, the hardware and software performed successfully without any significant problems.
In connection with the question about software asked by Mr. Allan, there are considerable concerns in the US that the companies providing the software are all closely aligned with the Republican party, yet no one is allowed to see the software. Does the UK Electoral Commission have the in-house expertise—or access to external expertise that could be bought in—to examine the software to ensure that it works accurately?
I have full confidence in the Electoral Commission's ability to monitor and scrutinise the veracity and validity of electronic voting software and the means by which e-piloting can take place. I have no evidence to suggest that any problems have been encountered so far, but we obviously keep all such matters under review. I have great faith in this country's electoral processes, and in our returning officers who operate most of them.
My authority was one of those that undertook trials of both e-voting and the wider use of postal voting. After holding pilots, we need to analyse what happens when we return to traditional voting methods and I should welcome my hon. Friend's views on that. Given that, for good or bad, my region, the south-west, will include Gibraltar, we are likely to be excluded from future pilots under the Bill. As several local authorities in the south-west volunteered to take part in earlier pilots, is it fair that we should have to go backwards? What are the implications of that?
I hear what my hon. Friend says. However, we now need to scale up pilots from the local authority level to a wider area and the European parliamentary constituency basis—the regional and national basis—provides that opportunity. In a moment, I shall talk about the consequences of that and about which regions might be eligible. I hope to touch on some of those points in more detail later in my speech.
May I test the Minister's confidence in the transparency and openness of the new systems of election? Traditionally, our electoral system has been self-policing; in effect, the participants in an election keep an eye on each other and on the electoral process. The new systems are far less open to the scrutiny of the participants, so where does the Minister find his confidence that there will be the same degree of scrutiny?
A massive body of work and evaluation has already been undertaken by the Electoral Commission on the local pilots that have taken place. Obviously, we want to make sure that scrutineers from political parties can also have confidence in the process. That is an important issue to which we might return and examine further.
At the local elections in May 2003, there was widespread use of electronic or postal voting, which proved most successful. Sixty-one local authorities, with about 6.5 million potential voters, held electoral pilot schemes. There were 17 e-voting pilots and 33 all-postal schemes. In the 17 e-voting areas more than a quarter of all votes were cast electronically. The all-postal pilots were also a great success. In the all-postal areas turnout was impressive, averaging more than 49 per cent. The average turnout in the same local authority areas for previous comparable elections was about 33 per cent.
Does the Minister agree that one important way for the participants to self-scrutinise the process is to check on turnout during a normal polling day? Does he agree that key to that is the provision of a marked register during the period when ballot papers are out in the wider electorate? Could not he resolve the concerns by undertaking that a marked register should be available after each day on which ballot papers could be returned?
The Electoral Commission has reported on that issue and the Government will be responding to its recommendations on marked registers. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examines the commission's report, which will interest all those in the Chamber who are aficionados of the electoral process; they will want to study carefully the commission's proposals on marked registers.
Many people's minds would be put at rest if one of the central ways in which political parties and citizens could check that the electoral process was above board was through a marked register, so does the Minister concede that we should ensure that marked-up registers are available after postal and electronic elections and that we should introduce such a measure now rather than after holding pilots?
Any changes that we make to the marked register arrangements will be considered separately from whether we should hold all-postal or e-voting pilots in some regions during the combined European and local elections next year. We need to examine that principle separately from the fundamental issue set out in the Bill.
Given the success of the pilot programmes so far, both in making voting more convenient and, as a consequence, in raising turnout, we are keen to see piloting continue next year and to extend its scope.
I observed the pilot in my Sheffield constituency this year. For much of the day anyone in my constituency could have voted twice—in person at the polling station and electronically—because the hardware and software for checking the two systems failed and there were technical problems for most of the day. Fortunately, the result was clearcut with a large majority, but had the result been close I am confident that the losing party would have mounted a challenge. What I am not so confident about is whether we could have resolved the problem; we would still be trying to sort it out because the systems were too opaque.
The Electoral Commission has looked particularly into the experience in Sheffield. As has already been pointed out, we rely in this country on the public to abide by electoral law and to realise that duplicate voting and so forth are offences. It is important to compare conventional voting mechanisms with new ones. There is a certain level of security and we need to ensure that people are aware of offences that take place. We hope to provide the same degree of security and prevention of fraudulent activity in the new voting mechanisms.
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend: our country's record is superb. Even allowing for the conspiracy theories suggested by Mr. Allan, there is no reason to suspect that modern systems would result in an increase in fraud. However, proper checking mechanisms are important so that the public can be confident. Is not there an argument for strengthening the powers of returning officers to enable them—for example, in the postal voting circumstances that I described earlier—to ensure that distribution was properly carried out?
I have no doubt that the security and safety of the voting arrangements under the new mechanisms will be a feature of our debate. Two clauses specifically relating to tightening up security arrangements for all-postal balloting were inserted to reflect some of the concern that we anticipate, although I reiterate that the Electoral Commission has indicated that it sees no greater opportunity for fraud in all-postal balloting or electronic voting than in conventional mechanisms. We rely on the commission's professional advice, which is for the whole House and not just for the Government; it is an independent organisation.
The eventual aim is to hold a general election at which voting is available in a number of ways, using both conventional and new technologies. We have said that our aim is to achieve that some time after 2006, which means that the next general election, whenever it may be, will not be run in that way. It is only right, however, that we should prove the success of new voting methods and electoral procedures consistently on a larger scale before we take that step. That is why we are legislating now—to take the next step forward for larger-scale voting pilots.
As the House is already aware, following a consultation exercise and with the passing of the Local Government Act 2003, next year's local and European elections are to be combined in England. Combining those two elections is another important measure aimed at encouraging more people to take part in the democratic process, making voting more convenient by avoiding electors having to vote on two separate occasions within a matter of weeks.
Piloting at next year's elections will be a useful and significant step along the path to a general election that will offer voters the chance to choose from a range of new voting methods. The Bill is necessary to allow that to happen; currently, there is no legislative provision for piloting innovative voting at European parliamentary elections and the Bill is intended to fill that gap.
Clause 1 provides a power for the Secretary of State to make an order that will specify which region or regions are to pilot innovative voting procedures in combined European and local elections. After consulting the Electoral Commission, the Secretary of State may make an order setting out the region or regions in which piloting is to take place. That order will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure so as to give proper opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny—a concern that often arises during debates. We hope to outline in December what the order will contain. Any order made by the Secretary of State will also apply to any local elections combined with the European poll that takes place in the region or regions chosen.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, why does the Bill exclude London? Secondly, what consultations will the Government carry out with returning officers in the areas that may be covered by pilot schemes to ensure that they also support the concept of the pilot scheme and that they do not suggest significant operational reasons why the pilot scheme should not take place in that region?
Two forms of consultation are already being undertaken: the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is consulting local authorities on the piloting procedures and practices and information will be gathered in that way, and the Electoral Commission has already commenced a consultation process to consider the selection of which regions might be recommended to the Secretary of State. I have forgotten the hon. Gentleman's other point.
I shall refer to London in a moment because a specific clause deals with excluded regions, and I should like to bring out certain issues in a little more detail.
Under clause 2, a further order will set out the details of the precise manner in which the elections in pilot areas may differ from the way in which they would be run normally. The Secretary of State will be required to send copies of that order to the local authorities involved in the pilot, the Electoral Commission and the relevant regional returning officers. Local authorities must then publish the order in their area in such manner as they think fit.
In a consultation exercise running until
On the specific question asked by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, to minimise complexity and retain clarity for the electorate, London will be ruled out from consideration as a pilot region. In London, elections will be taking place for the London Assembly and the Mayor, which will add greater complexity and complication to the work of regional returning officers and others who are implementing the elections.
Questions must also be asked about what lessons could usefully be learned in the rest of the UK from pilot schemes run using atypical electoral systems. Such considerations also apply to Northern Ireland, which is outside the scope of the Bill, and to the European parliamentary region to be combined with Gibraltar under section 11 of the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003—the issue raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew. The Electoral Commission recommend that that should be the south-west region in England, and it is hoped that a statutory instrument to that effect will be laid before Parliament before Christmas.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to me again. I am intrigued to know whether there is a mechanism to allow the pilot scheme to take place in the south-west if it includes Gibraltar, because of the different system of elections in Gibraltar; or has that recommendation come from the great and the good, making it easier not to include that region if Gibraltar is within it?
We felt that that matter was so important that we wanted to consult the Electoral Commission, so in no way was there a sense that the Government were simply deeming a certain region to be chosen for combination with voters from Gibraltar. The commission has recommended the south-west, and we shall accept its recommendation. I would not want to pre-empt the statutory instrument that Parliament will consider, but it is fair to say that we do not want to run pilot schemes in regions with an added layer of complexity. We simply need the pilot schemes to run in some regions, not in others, so that we can examine the differential effect of all-postal piloting at regional level.
Avoidance of additional complexity is also why there is provision in the Bill to prevent Westminster by-elections, by-elections for the National Assembly for Wales and mayoral referendums, elections and by-elections from taking place in a pilot region on the day of next year's European parliamentary election, or at any time within three weeks before or three weeks after that date.
With respect to local government by-elections in England and Wales, however, the returning officer can choose to combine them and hold them on the same day, so that they can be treated in the same way as the ordinary local Government elections. If the returning officer chooses not to combine the elections then, the local by-election cannot be held at any time within four weeks before or three weeks after the date of the European parliamentary election, again, to avoid over-complexity. Leaving the decision on whether to combine local government by-elections in England and Wales to the discretion of the returning officer allows those elections to be treated the same as all other local authority elections. That will not add insurmountable complexity, compared with the complexity of including parliamentary by-elections.
Clause 3 will disapply section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, so local authorities will not be able to apply to run separate local pilot schemes under that Act on the same day as next year's European and combined elections. That will help not only to contain costs, but to retain other elections as a control with which pilot results can be compared. It is also important to ensure consistency throughout European parliamentary constituencies and to avoid confusing electors with different voting arrangements in the two different ballots.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he has been very generous. If a postal strike took place in one of the cities in a large region with a postal voting pilot scheme, inevitably causing problems in part of the area, what emergency provisions does the Bill contain to get the ballot papers to the electorate? Clearly, if regional quotas were set and thousands of ballot papers were caught in Manchester, for example, that could skewer the quota system for the whole region. Would the election be put back? Would the returning officer have the power to get hold of those ballot papers? Some trade unions might be tempted to use that as a bargaining chip. What provision has the Minister made for that?
In the wider sense of what contingency measures are available, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Ever since postal voting arose, people have had concerns about what would happen if the postal system were unable to cope. For some time, we have had discussions with Royal Mail and had confidence in its ability to conduct postal voting. It prioritises postal voting and the delivery of postal votes in its work, and we will, of course, ensure that we work with regional returning officers to put in place proper and robust contingency plans to cope with all the different scenarios that the hon. Gentleman mentions.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend could clarify something that I did not quite understand. Is he saying that no local experiment can be carried out in a European region if a postal ballot takes place there?
That is right. The point of scaling up piloting to regional level is to achieve consistency in European parliamentary constituencies. It would not be right if a certain corner of a European parliamentary constituency had all-postal voting and another did not, because ballot papers and so on would be available in different formats to people in a similar constituency. Clearly, we need to ensure fairness in each European parliamentary constituency at that level.
Would people vote using a ballot box for local elections in that area, while still having a postal vote for European elections; or would the postal method be used for both local and European elections in the area?
The latter is indeed the case. We would ensure that all elections took place using an all-postal pilot scheme if that European parliamentary region were chosen for piloting.
May I return the hon. Gentleman to the point that he was making before previous interventions when he spoke about the robustness of the process if the post were disrupted by local industrial action? Will he confirm that during the 2001 borough council elections in Stockport, when there was an experiment with an all-postal ballot, several hundred people in that borough were disfranchised by a postal delivery strike?
I am afraid that I do not have the details of the Stockport arrangements to hand. I hope that the House will forgive me for that omission at present, but I will certainly look again at that matter. I am sure, however, that the Electoral Commission will be fully appraised of the situation that the hon. Gentleman reports from Stockport and about experiences elsewhere. This is a learning process, which is why we are having pilots. If we do not have pilots and gradually increase awareness and capability, we will not be able to move towards the target of a general election with different means of voting after 2006. Of course, lessons are there to be learned from each pilot as it takes place.
Provision is being made in the Bill requiring the Electoral Commission to evaluate any pilots at the European and combined elections in 2004, in the same way as it is now required to evaluate local election pilots. Any such evaluation will be important in helping to formulate the way forward for future piloting and the development of a strategy for innovative voting.
On the point about evaluation of fraud, the Minister has been confident that there has been no fraud in previous experiments. Can I ask him how he knows that? Does it not indicate merely that fraud has not been discovered? Has the Electoral Commission gone back to check whether the votes that were cast were cast by the people to whom they were attributed, especially given that, for electronic voting, it seems that only the number is needed in order to vote? If those numbers were collected by person or persons unknown they could easily cast multiple votes, and I am not sure how that fraud would be discovered.
Let me say that this is a significant point, and it would help if I were to make absolutely clear the Government's view. The Electoral Commission, in the many evaluations that it has undertaken into electoral pilots so far, has found no evidence of any greater exposure to fraud, nor did it feel that the opportunity for fraud was enhanced or that the security of the poll was undermined. I recognise, however, that this is a real concern for many, and for that reason, as an initial response to the Electoral Commission's recommendations aimed at further enhancing security and improving public confidence, we propose the introduction of two amendments to electoral law, but only at this stage for next year's pilots.
First, at present, the existing powers of arrest without a warrant are restricted to arrest in relation to personation at polling stations. "Personation" is the name given to the offence committed, under section 60 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, when someone votes as someone else but without their consent. Clause 6 of this Bill extends that power beyond the polling station, which is clearly helpful where remote voting is widely in use. Secondly, clause 7 provides that the magistrates court is given a power to allow in exceptional circumstances, on application from the police or a prosecutor, an extension of time for a prosecution to be commenced, up to a maximum of 24 months after the date of the offence. The current legislation allows only 12 months in England, Wales and Scotland.
Taken together, I believe that those two additional anti-fraud steps will improve the security of postal voting and create a more confident environment for the pilots to succeed in the region or regions eventually selected. In the longer term, if those measures are shown to be helpful, we would look to apply them more widely. In addition, other security measures not requiring primary legislation, such as watermarked ballot papers, may be employed for next year's pilots where necessary.
Members from both sides of the House are agreed on the need to reverse the decline in participation in the political process and to ensure that people's experience of politics and their interaction with Government institutions remains relevant to modern lifestyles. Each one of us here has a personal as well as a wider interest in ensuring democratic legitimacy. Since 2000, the Government, with partners including local authorities and the Electoral Commission, have promoted a successful programme of piloting innovative voting schemes. Those have offered ways of voting that are more in step with the way that people today live their lives, and in many cases have raised the percentage of people voting at elections, which is surely vital if those holding elected office and democratic institutions themselves are to hold and retain public confidence.
While increasing civic engagement is about more than offering updated ways of voting, that is one crucial part of it. The European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill is simply intended to allow the electoral pilots programme to continue next year and to scale up its size to bring closer the day when new ways of voting will become available to all of the electorate. That is in all our interests, and I commend the Bill to the House.
The Minister's claims that the Government want to improve our democratic system and improve faith in the political process are indicated by the presentation of this Bill, which is a symbol of the present crisis of confidence in the democratic process in this country, which has been created and worsened by this Government.
With serious reservations, one could say that considerable advantage is to be gained from more postal voting in particular, provided that the system is rigorously monitored and that opportunities for fraud and undue influence are eliminated. There are two main questions to be addressed. First, why is the turnout in elections, and particularly in European elections, so dangerously low? In the last general election, in 2001, the turnout was a mere a 59.4 per cent. averaged across the country. That represented a massive 12 per cent. fall from 1997, when this Government came to power. Between 1955 and 1997, the turnout was consistently above 70 per cent. In the last European elections in 1999, again under this Government, the turnout across the country was a mere 23 per cent. compared with 36 per cent. in 1994.
The Opposition believe that the decline in turnout for the European elections is partly because of the introduction of party lists under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, which abolished first-past-the-post. It is also because of the centralising, remote and bureaucratic process of further and deeper European integration, now culminating in the disastrous European constitution, which has been agreed to in principle by this Government. That constitution will further undermine the trust and respect in the political system and a referendum on it is now essential. Indeed, the shadow Foreign Secretary and I went to No. 10 Downing street this morning to demand a referendum from the Prime Minister.
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this Bill is about elections, not referendums, and certainly not about the matters that he is currently discussing.
I will of course accept your injunction, Mr. Speaker. I will also simply say, however, that voting is about elections and referendums, but I take your point up to the limit that I can.
Having said that, first-past-the-post should be introduced for European elections. Indeed, you may be interested to know, Mr. Speaker, that only last year the European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by the indomitable hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), urged the House to reintroduce first-past-the-post for European elections. First-past-the-post is the only system that maintains the immediate link between a representative and his constituency. That is particularly important when we have enormous European regions of up to 6 million voters. Why do the Government not amend the Bill to ensure that first-past-the-post applies?
There is evidence that postal voting can increase voter turnout. For example, in the local elections in Chorley in Lancashire, all-postal ballots increased turnout from 31 per cent. in 1998 to 61 per cent. in 2002—turnout nearly doubled. The same applied in Stevenage. When postal voting was used in Greenwich, however, the turnout dropped by 0.4 per cent. between the same two local elections. In Hackney, the turnout dropped by 3 per cent., so the results were bizarre and mixed. However, the fact that postal voting has been so beneficial in the areas in which it has worked is encouraging, providing we know that the system operates properly and without fraud. The doubling of turnout is beneficial but we must ask why there are such curious and bizarre results in different parts of the country.
Before I talk about fraud and arrangements for adapting the offence of personation under clause 6, I must refer to a remarkable inquiry on election fraud in Birmingham. It reported last November and its findings include important lessons. There was deep concern in Birmingham about the way in which postal voting, personation and intimidation at polling stations had emerged. Birmingham is the heartland of modern democracy in many ways because in the 19th century it was represented by John Bright, the archetypal democrat. His campaign for democracy culminated in its acceptance by the Conservative Government under Disraeli in the Reform Act 1867.
John Alden, a Conservative city councillor, led the investigation in Birmingham. Hon. Members should bear it in mind that Birmingham is a Labour council. The council was determined to get to the bottom of the matter, so it appointed a distinguished Conservative city councillor to lead the investigation. The Birmingham Post quoted John Alden as saying that until he completed his investigation, he had not realised how serious the perversion of democracy had become. He said that matters had become so bad that we needed to apply the rules that exist in Northern Ireland to voting arrangements and postal voting. However, the Bill will not extend to Northern Ireland, so the threshold of the law will be set at a lower level in England, Scotland and Wales than in Northern Ireland.
Councillor Alden urged the council to insist on changes to the outdated electoral law. A senior police officer told a committee that existing election law, which was based on trust and the Representation of the People Act 1983—the Act to which the Minister referred—was insufficient to bring prosecutions against offenders. Of course, we bear it in mind that clause 6 will apply the provisions of the 1983 Act on the law of personation without amendment. Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Churchill, the head of the West Midlands police major fraud unit, said that the postal voting system had few major checks or controls to ensure that the true identity of the voter was known, and added that the 1983 Act inadequately coped with the misuse of postal votes and personation.
I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the 1983 Act is not always hopeless in the west midlands. An individual was convicted and, I think, jailed for personation in the constituency next to mine in Wolverhampton. That individual was a Conservative councillor.
I am always extremely interested in any objective information of that kind but I am making a more general point about how the Government have reacted to personation in recent inquiries and, especially, the inquiry by the Select Committee on Home Affairs on personation and electoral fraud.
There is an even deeper problem: low turnout is a reflection of a cynical view of politics and politicians and a lack of respect for the political system. The Government stand condemned for bringing our democratic system of government and trust in the people into such grave decline that it is well said that no one believes a word that the Prime Minister says. Indeed, the fact that he has refused to grant a referendum on the European constitution to which he has agreed in principle is yet another indication of the contempt that he has for the British people. Whatever the merits of trying to increase turnout using postal voting, which I have said should be encouraged along with proper safeguards and changes to the law, that of itself will not remedy the crisis that faces the British electoral system or the lack of faith and trust to which I referred and to which the Minister referred in his opening remarks. I appreciate that he understands that there is a serious problem.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way because he has returned to a point on which I wanted to intervene earlier. He talks about the UK situation but surely, as an intelligent hon. Gentleman, he realises that falling turnout is not only a UK or European problem, but a worldwide problem that must be addressed. He is critical of the fact that the general public are sceptical of politicians but the public throughout the globe are sceptical of politicians.
There is truth in what the hon. Gentleman says but we need to improve the situation. My observations, comments and the evidence that I have adduced show that the Government are not dealing with the problem properly at a deeper level in the way in which they should.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that cynicism is keeping people away from the ballot boxes, how does he explain the fact that wherever postal voting pilots have been held, turnout has increased and, in most cases, doubled? In the Chester North ward council by-election that was held using postal voting in my constituency two weeks ago, the turnout was 64 per cent.
I can only say that that must prove the hon. Gentleman's enormous influence in his constituency. Having said that, I am bound to point out that although the average turnout in the past general election was 59.4 per cent., the turnout in my constituency was 67 per cent. There is a relationship between the activities of local Members and the outcome of a given election.
Surely an ignorance of the functions of the European Parliament explains, at least in part, people's reluctance to participate in European elections. Would my hon. Friend care to speculate on the proportion of the electorate who could adequately describe the European Parliament's remit? Does he agree that on the whole, whether fairly or unfairly, most voters regard the European Parliament at best as an irrelevance and at worst as a pestilential nuisance?
There is no doubt that that view is frequently held and I understand why. However, the fact remains that the incredibly low turnout in European Parliament elections is more a reflection of what people think than of what my hon. Friend, other hon. Members or I might think. The important thing is the way in which people react to what they see in the political arena. The average turnout in the last European elections was 23 per cent., but I think that it was only 9 per cent. in one constituency. My hon. Friend's comment is a reflection of not only what some hon. Members think but what the people think, which is the key point.
Whatever the merits of trying to achieve increased turnout, we must still address the crisis that faces the British electoral system. Conservative Members do not believe that e-voting should be piloted throughout an entire region because the jury is still out on its reliability and security. To be positive about aspects of the Bill, let us consider the differences between all-postal areas and others in the last few elections. The average turnout in all-postal areas was 48 per cent. in 2002, 15 per cent. higher than the average 33 per cent. turnout across England. Average all-postal turnout in the 2003 pilots was 49 per cent. compared to 35 per cent. across England as a whole. There are clear advantages if the system is run properly.
The Electoral Commission recommends that all-postal voting becomes the norm for local elections, subject to legislation to tighten fraud. It maintains that there should be a statutory presumption that all local elections be run as all-postal ballots unless there are compelling reasons why an all-postal ballot would be inappropriate or disadvantageous for a group or groups of electors. Given that all-postal ballots clearly increase turnout, the Conservatives are not necessarily opposed to their more frequent use in elections. However, practical considerations have to be addressed. Against the background of what I am about to say, I invite the House to think seriously about the Birmingham examples, which are hard, factual and raise difficult questions.
There are concerns about ballot security. Checks and investigations into previous postal voting have been piecemeal and inadequate. What reliable evidence there is suggests that the scope for abuse is wider than the Government might care to admit. I have dealt with improved anti-fraud measures. There is also the problem of voter confidentiality. Concerns have been raised about compromising voter secrecy in all-postal pilots. There was a serious problem with the declaration of identity in all-postal schemes. It was attached to the ballot paper and only detached at the count. It would be better to retain the traditional method of placing the ballot paper in a sealed envelope, separate from the declaration of identity. That would help to reassure voters that their ballot would remain confidential during the delivery, handling and counting processes. Those are practical considerations that have little to do with party politics. It is a matter of getting the system as good as it can be.
There should also be more delivery points. Given that the Bill will impose all-postal pilots on local authorities that may not wish to participate, it is important that there are delivery points in each local government ward to allow electors to drop off their ballot envelope by hand to a nearby secure location. Indeed, in light of strike action by Post Office workers in parts of the country, as mentioned by hon. Members, there are genuine concerns about the reliability of the postal service in an all-postal election. Moreover, the postal system has become even more unreliable under this Government. An average of 1,500 items of mail are lost every week across every parliamentary constituency according to Postwatch on
A delivery point in each local ward established by the local authority would act as a measure of last resort in the event of industrial action. It would also reassure voters who did not trust the postal service, so increasing turnout. Large rural areas may need to have more than one delivery point per ward. Greater clarification would be needed for voters of their opening times so that the points could be used up to the close of poll.
Proper central funding is needed. Although the Government have promised to fund the cost of the pilot schemes, we want a firmer guarantee in the Bill that all extra costs will be met by central Government. One crucial reason why council tax bills have soared by 60 per cent. on band D bills since 1997 under this Government is the succession of underfunded burdens and regulations that Whitehall has passed on.
Accessibility for the elderly and the disabled also needs to be considered. Although all-postal voting can facilitate voting for those who are less mobile, it is important that pilot schemes recognise the special needs of those with more severe disabilities or impairments. That should include accessible copies of the ballot paper or envelope and of voter information.
There is also the issue of updated marked-up registers. During the pilot schemes, some local authorities provided marked registers at various stages before the final deadline for the return of ballot papers. That helped to increase turnout by allowing local political parties to remind those who had not yet voted of the election. Those who had voted were spared being bothered by political parties. We want that practical, simple and useful practice established in law. Without a statutory obligation, some local authorities will go slow and fail to provide the information. Political parties are facing problems with rolling registration, with some council electoral registration departments failing to provide updated electoral registers on time.
I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point about an updated marked-up register, but does he agree that the problem is more fundamental in that there needs to be a marked-up register in the first place? Does he agree that it is disappointing that the Minister said that the issue is going to be "considered separately"? Surely it should be considered now because there should be a marked-up register in those regions with pilot projects.
I have great respect for what the hon. Gentleman says on many things, although I do not agree with him politically. I agree with what he proposes and it will have to be pursued in Committee.
The Minister said that there will be a uniform approach to voting across regions, but does my hon. Friend accept that local authorities in some areas that have adopted one of the new means of voting, such as all-postal ballots, may have to change their systems back again if their region is not deemed eligible for an entirely postal-based experiment? The impact of the measures could be increased as a result.
My hon. Friend also makes a valuable point. I hope the Minister takes it on board the fact that we are making a serious and useful contribution.
E-voting in the 2004 elections could entail remote voting by telephone, text messaging, SMS, digital TV and internet. As the region adopting e-voting will also be an all-postal system, voting electronically in a polling station will not be relevant. We are not convinced of the merits of conducting an e-voting pilot across a whole region as opposed to holding e-pilots in local authorities that have volunteered. The Government have a target to offer e-voting at the general election after next—2009–10—but if e-voting is rushed and bungled in the 2004 elections, the method will lose credibility and create a Florida-style "hanging chad" system, resulting in a debacle in the High Court. We have to be careful because we do not want that situation to arise in the UK.
Electronic voting has not had a significant effect on turnout in past schemes. The Electoral Commission's evaluation of the 2002 pilots noted that the findings suggest that the advent of new technology did not inspire the electorate to vote in significantly greater numbers than would otherwise have been the case and that there is no strong pattern of improved turnout. The Electoral Reform Society observed that it merely increased the convenience of voting rather than making people more likely to vote.
On security concerns, we believe that more local trials are necessary before the widespread adoption of e-voting. Dr. Ben Fairweather, a research fellow at De Montfort university's centre for computing and social responsibility, and the Foundation for Information Policy Research have carried out useful research. The Government will know of it and I hope that they are taking on board their useful and objective advice.
The ERS said that e-voting does not raise turnout in any significant way. The Local Government Association said that it had concerns about e-voting on a regional basis, particularly in the short space of time between now and the next elections. Similarly, an IT journalist, Bill Thompson, said that it was not possible to design an e-voting system that could be guaranteed secure against a concerted and well-funded attack. That is serious stuff from people who understand the nature of these modern systems.
The problem that we face is not confined to the issues that I have raised, as there are also difficulties relating to Scotland and Wales, which I shall summarise. There are significant reasons for opposing an all-postal ballot in Scotland. In particular, there are many rural and island communities there, and we are concerned that it is simply not practical for an individual to deliver a last-minute postal ballot to the returning officer. To ensure that that does not happen, in many areas receptacles for last-minute votes would have to be in the same places as polling stations to ensure equality of opportunity for last-minute voters, which would greatly increase the costs of an all-postal ballot for Scotland. Indeed, in previous all-postal ballots, a marked register has not always been available, and the democratic legitimacy of an election is undermined if political parties do not have the opportunity to view the full marked register after the election. Likewise, to ensure transparency for the electorate, political parties are allowed to monitor turnout throughout polling day. It therefore follows that all political parties should be furnished with a daily marked register from the first returns of postal ballots until
As someone who has participated in elections, I understand how useful it is to encourage people to vote. However, how will our constituents feel about certain information being available to participants in an election? They may wish to abstain, but there is scope for someone to come round and badger them to vote. The hon. Gentleman was worried about the fairness of a postal election. If people make a conscious choice not to participate in an election, that will be in the public domain for a full four weeks.
The hon. Gentleman may recall that I specifically referred to the problems that I anticipate with regard to undue influence. The fact is that unless the Bill is amended to deal with such questions, there will be problems. Assuming that the Bill completes its Second Reading, the Committee and Report stages will be particularly important because serious questions pertaining to the hon. Gentleman's concerns will arise.
There are problems in rural areas in Wales. Given concerns about postal services, postal votes may not be received or sent in time. Indeed, people in Wales have voiced similar concerns about personation, and adjustments to the electoral laws are required. The bottom line is that there is a serious problem in the way in which this country's democratic system operates. It is not merely a question of increasing postal votes, important as that is if it is done properly. The way in which we conduct our business in the House is also affected—that is a much bigger question to which we must all pay attention. As the Conservative spokesman on constitutional affairs, I assure the House that Conservatives, and myself in particular, are giving a lot of attention to those questions. It is no good our talking to our constituents or making speeches about the desirability of increasing turnout if we do not address the problems inherent in the way in which we conduct our business in the House. Notwithstanding my determination not to strain the limits of debate to cover the European issue, that, too, is a serious problem. The Prime Minister's refusal to hold a referendum on the European constitution demonstrates the need to take the measure seriously. I shall await the outcome of this afternoon's speeches before a decision is made about what we will do about the Bill. It does have some merits, but the question has yet to be weighed in the balance.
Unlike Mr. Cash, I will not be tempted to say anything about the EU constitution. I should like to begin by welcoming the Bill and putting my cards on the table by urging the Minister, on the basis of our beneficial experience of postal voting in the north-east of England, to include the north-east in the pilot regions for an all-postal ballot in the elections.
To support that, I simply refer to the marked increase in turnout in my constituency, which includes parts of Gateshead and the City of Sunderland local government areas. For example, turnout increased in the Leam ward in the Gateshead part of my constituency from 21 per cent. in 2000 to 53 per cent. in 2002. In the Felling ward, it increased from 24 per cent. in 2000 to 53 per cent. in 2003. Last year, the City of Sunderland had an all-postal ballot, and the turnout in one of my wards there went up from 17.51 per cent. to 42.77 per cent., and in the other from 18.73 per cent. to 42.66 per cent. That shows a spectacularly successful increase in turnout. I have deliberately chosen as examples wards with no new political or local controversy that might have explained a sudden increase in turnout. None of the wards that I have mentioned could in any sense be described as marginal, so the only explanation for the marked increase in turnout was the switch to postal voting.
Some areas of Gateshead borough have had all-postal elections for three years running. My hon. Friend Mr. Drew made the point that once people get used to that kind of voting it will in practice be difficult to turn the clock back. I should like to tell the Minister that if my area is not one of the pilot areas there will be huge disappointment among voters who, for a period of more than three years, have grown used to all-postal voting and believe that it suits them. They would be disappointed to go back to a method of voting that they consider old-fashioned. Indeed, many aspects of our voting system are old-fashioned. For a long time, polling day has traditionally been Thursday, but I am not at all convinced that that fits in with people's lifestyles today.
People in Gateshead who welcome the postal system have repeatedly told me on the doorstep that it fits in with their lifestyle much better than the traditional polling on a Thursday. In a typical household, there may be two working partners, perhaps with different work patterns, who are unable to spend much time together. When they come home in the evening they will be tired after a day's work. If the weather is inclement and if they do not live in a marginal area, they may not feel a burning desire to vote in person, given all those constraints. However, they find the postal system, in which they can vote over a period of time, much more voter and democracy-friendly.
I am following the right hon. Lady's argument carefully, but surely it is an argument for optional postal voting, not for compulsion and not for all-postal ballots. Although I remain to be convinced, it may well be that people will only vote if they are presented with a postal ballot paper, but they can still apply for that, as they could in the past.
Of course, it is true that people can apply for a postal vote. Sometimes they do not apply, perhaps because they have not got round to doing so. People told me on the doorstep that they very much appreciate the new system. They feel it works well. It means that the postal vote is delivered to them automatically and they find that it fits in with their lifestyle.
The increase in turnout has been particularly gratifying in the north-east, which traditionally, sadly, has been a low-turnout area, on average turning out some 5 per cent. less than the national average. Seeing the increase has heartened many of us. In a telling intervention, my hon. Friend Mr. Jones referred to the results in his area. What I am reporting from my local authorities in Gateshead and Sunderland is true of many other parts of the north-east.
I draw to the Minister's attention the fact that in 2003, of the 39 authorities that piloted all-postal voting, no fewer than 13 were in the north-east of England. That was the highest number in any region, and it was the only region in which a majority of the voters involved voted by post. Again, that shows that the north-east would be a suitable region to show the success of a pilot in the coming elections.
I note from the Electoral Commission's report that all-postal voting pilots seem to have been more successful than the other pilots, but I welcome the Government's continued willingness to innovate and find new ways of attracting people to vote. In some ways, it seems ironic that we are worried about turnout. Most television programmes that one sees these days seem to involve polls of one kind or another, with people being urged to vote and a large number of them taking part in such votes. The Government are right to analyse such experiences and find ways of increasing turnout. On the evidence so far, the all-postal system seems to have most attracted voters. For that reason, I strongly believe that we should build on it.
I recognise the concerns that hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed about fraud. However, I welcome the fact that the Bill tightens up procedures, and I welcome clause 6. As the explanatory notes state,
"this clause is included in order to address security concerns surrounding innovative voting methods in general."
I am glad that the Government are responding to those concerns. On the basis of the experience in my local area, I can say that there have not been problems of fraud. I am glad the systems that we have used have been given a clean bill of health.
In conclusion, I would like all elections from now on to become routinely all-postal. I am sorry that it looks as though it will not be possible to conduct the next general election in that way, but in the meantime I am happy to support the Bill, and the Minister's words in moving it.
It is a pleasure to follow Joyce Quin. I listened carefully to her remarks. It is also a pleasure to spend two consecutive days dealing with Department for Constitutional Affairs legislation, which is always a joy. I was worried that yesterday we would be beset by lawyers, and that today it might be the turn of the psephological anoraks among hon. Members, but obviously that is not the case. The debate is already proving to be interesting and useful.
I understand the Government's wish to pursue innovation in our electoral practice in order to increase turnout. It should concern everybody in this country, not just politicians, if our democracy is allowed to be eroded by low participation rates. If there are simple ways—I suspect that none of the answers is simple—in which we can improve voter participation, we should implement them.
I was interested to see in my constituency that in last year's district council elections, one of the district councils, South Somerset, had a trial for postal voting and e-ballots. Comparing and contrasting what happened in South Somerset with what happened in Mendip, the other part of my constituency, was of great interest. Anecdotally, on the basis of the experience of my constituency, there appeared to be a marginally increased turnout in South Somerset with the postal ballot, which corroborates the views of the right hon. Lady about her area.
By far the biggest contribution that we can make to higher voter participation is to give people the feeling that their votes count, and that they are voting in a real contest in which there is a likelihood of somebody winning and somebody losing by a reasonably small margin. Again, I have experience of that in my constituency. I fought a tight election last time. My majority was 130 in the 1997 election, which happily quintupled at the last general election to 668. One of the factors involved was that we had one of the top turnout levels in the country—we were in the top 10, because every voter in my election knew that their vote counted.
My hon. Friend, I and my hon. Friend Mr. Oaten can demonstrate why it is so important that we should identify the relationship between the impact of a vote and turnout, rather than some of the tinkering measures in the Bill. For example, in 1974 the perceptive voters of Bodmin knew that the election would be close. I ended up with a majority of nine and the turnout was 83 per cent. In 2001, unfortunately from that point of view, my majority rose to almost 10,000 and the turnout was reduced to 63 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester demonstrates even more dramatically the importance of a close result. In the preceding general election he had a majority of only two, but could claim a rather larger majority in the subsequent contest.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It looks as though I have assembled colleagues in order to illustrate a point, whereas that was not by prior arrangement.
I repeat that making votes count and having a real issue to vote on is the best predictor of voter behaviour. One of the problems with local authority elections is, sadly, that people do not feel that changing the council will make any difference to the vast majority of council services, because so much control is exercised at national level, including the determination of the level of the council tax, which people probably have at the forefront of their minds when deciding which way to vote in local elections.
The evidence from the pilots that have taken place in the north-east runs completely contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggests. In Chester-le-Street, which had a pilot this year, turnout went up, on average, from 29 per cent. to 50 per cent. It is a Liberal Democrat-free zone, and some wards are far from marginal, but people still turned out to vote.
As I said, the pilots have had a marginally beneficial effect; but if the hon. Gentleman believes that bringing turnout up to 50 per cent. is a triumph for democracy, I have to disagree.
I am not convinced. The hon. Gentleman has brought it up to slightly below the national average: well done. We should aspire to higher than that.
Local government elections often do not attract high turnouts because people do not feel that their vote makes a real difference to the way that they live. That is doubly the case in European parliamentary elections, where people find it difficult to connect their voting to what happens in the European Parliament or the effect that it may have on their lives. That is partly a result of the absurd closed list system that the Government brought in, against our advice.
Although I am well disposed to the view that it is important to experiment, I am not that well disposed to the Bill—in fact, I have deep reservations about it. As the Minister will know, prior to its introduction some debate took place about the moving of the local authority election date to coincide with that of elections to the European Parliament. All those who took part in that debate understood that it was not in anybody's interest to synchronise the local elections with a full-scale pilot of a novel form of voting for the European elections. Clearly, the Government have changed their mind. They are entitled to do so, and to introduce legislation as a result, but we are at least entitled to ask why.
Principled arguments are important here. The Government propose pilot schemes within the context of a national—indeed, international—election. That is very different from electing an entire local authority on a new voting system. People in different parts of the United Kingdom will be elected on different voting systems. The counter-argument is that that already happens in Northern Ireland. That is a valid point: Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote system, while the rest of the country does not yet have that benefit. Even so, I find it difficult to accept that some parts of England will have one voting system, while other parts have another, for the same election for membership of the same Parliament.
Scotland is a single region for the purpose of the European Parliament elections, as is Wales. That being the case, there is no such separation within Scotland and Wales; that is why I did not use them as an illustration.
If, in their infinite wisdom, the Government decide that pilots should take place in Scotland and Wales, there will not be different electoral systems in England.
That is precisely why I phrased my comments to exclude Scotland and Wales. The hon. Gentleman is making my point for me.
A fundamental objection to having two different systems for the same election arises in terms not only of the outcome, but of the campaign. Unless the parties entirely change their views on how they fight such elections, we are talking about national campaigning. Therefore, people in different parts of the country will vote at different points in the campaign—those who are in a postal ballot region will vote before its completion.
But that is not the general case: it is for a specific reason of incapacity or absence. [Hon. Members: "No."] I accept the hon. Gentleman's point.
The closed list system is problematic. Liberal Democrat Members have long argued that if we are to have a list system, it should at least be an open list. A closed list closes down the options of individual electors, who effectively vote on a party ticket, as parties have complete control over who their candidates will be and in which order they will be elected. That exacerbates, not ameliorates, the problem.
Practical issues are involved, too. We have already had a brief discussion about security of delivery during which the subject of houses in multiple occupation was raised. I was recently involved in campaigning in north-west London, where there were many houses in multiple occupation, some of which had a single letterbox. That means that an unscrupulous individual could scoop up any number of ballot forms and use them for nefarious purposes. It is extremely important to have a better method of verification for the postal ballot. We cannot be complacent. Judging by his earlier comments, the Minister seems to have a faith-based system whereby because he believes that the situation is all right, it is. I do not accept that. Much better safeguards are required for verification of identity—an authorised signature, for example. I accept what Mr. Cash said about maintaining the secrecy of the ballot, but the two things are not incompatible.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's reservations about the postal voting system and the need for security measures. Why, therefore, cannot he bring himself to agree with the Government's proposal of a pilot scheme in order to find out what the pitfalls may be?
Pilot schemes for local elections are beneficial because they involve the whole electorate for the given local authority area, not just part of the electorate on an experimental basis. That is not the right way to do it.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if we are eventually to move to nationwide new and innovative voting channels—which he may believe to be worth while—we need gradually to scale up the piloting, testing and trialling of those techniques? If he accepts that that is the best way in which to proceed, how on earth are we supposed to do so without piloting at a regional level?
There are several ways, and the Minister restricts his approach unnecessarily. For example, it would be possible to hold the entire municipal elections for a year on the basis of a postal ballot. That would provide experience of a nationwide ballot in an election other than a general election. [Interruption.] Mr. Davidson says from a sedentary position that that is not a ballot.
I am sorry that I misheard him, but of course it is a pilot if it does not apply to a general election but is conducted on a sufficiently wide scale to satisfy those who need to consider the matter. The Bill describes precisely that process when it refers to three regions of the United Kingdom holding a national election. I have suggested a more satisfactory approach.
We need a better system of verification. There is also a case for a receipt system for postal ballots to advise those who have voted that their vote has reached the returning officer. If those people know that they have not voted, they have the opportunity to make an early application for investigation. A receipt system is a way round the problem.
My hon. Friend Mr. Allan said that we needed some sort of sustainable audit of the e-vote system. Clearly, that is a deficiency in the American system, to which several hon. Members referred. There are even more deficiencies in the Tallahassee method but I would be worried if a form of audit could not be established.
We also need a system that allows for a recount. There is currently no effective method for that and I shall revert to the subject shortly. I agree with hon. Members who said that we need a marked register that is statutorily available on a clear basis so that political parties know what is happening.
I do not discount the comments of the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West about experience in her constituency. However, there are many instances of malpractice or alleged malpractice, albeit minor. All parties throughout the country have made complaints.
I agree. The hon. Gentleman knows from his constituency that there are all sorts of dangers in allowing malpractice to continue unabated or to remain possible in future. We must make the systems as watertight as possible. I make that point notwithstanding the Electoral Commission's comments. It said that there had been complaints of irregularities but that they had not distorted the outcome of elections. That may be correct, but they undoubtedly compromise the integrity of the electoral system and we should be aware of that.
It could be argued that the massive electorates for European elections mean that the distortions are less likely to have an effect. However, not every result is so clear cut. In the previous European parliamentary elections in the north-west region, the difference between ninth and 10th place was decided by 2,500 votes in an electorate of 5.5 million. That was therefore a close race, and similar to the result for the fourth and final seat in the north-east region. Under the current system, there is no recourse to a recount at constituency or borough level. If our system is to have integrity, we must introduce such provision.
Earlier, I referred to the difficulties with postal delivery and delay. The hon. Member for Stone spoke about the volume of misdirected mail. I tested the Minister on Stockport, which he treated with some levity, as though he could not be expected to know what was happening there. He should know what has happened in pilot areas. In Stockport, clear evidence showed that a postal delivery strike meant that some electors—probably hundreds—were disfranchised. That is unacceptable. The Government have introduced new proposals to deal with personation, but increasing the penalty will not deal with the basic problem of the capacity for personation that the postal vote system introduces and is less obvious, although it exists, in direct voting systems.
Let us consider the regions that are to be chosen. The Minister explained that London is discounted because of the mayoral elections. We have been told that Northern Ireland is discounted because of the different voting system there. However, the ground for discounting the region that we assume is the south-west and will include Gibraltar is less firm. I do not fully understand why Gibraltar is a barring factor. Mr. Drew has said that the population of Gibraltar is slightly smaller than the town of Stroud, which he so ably represents. I strongly supported giving the franchise to the people of Gibraltar, but I do not understand why they cannot use a postal vote as well as anybody else in the United Kingdom.
Once the regions that I mentioned are removed, few are left from which to choose three. I have a practical worry. It would be unwise to use as a pilot one of the regions that has a high preponderance of local authority elections on the same day. Wales holds elections for 100 per cent. of local authorities on that day. In the north-west of England, 76.7 per cent. of the electorate will have local authority elections. Most of the large metropolitan areas of the north-west—33 councils—hold elections on that day. It is asking for trouble to use the north-west as a pilot with that scale of overlap of different elections and electoral systems.
I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments. Given that no other elections will take place in Scotland on that day, does he agree that Scotland is the ideal place to conduct one of the trials?
There has been persistent knocking on the Minister's door to designate Scotland one of the trial areas. As I am arguing against a pilot, it would be difficult for me to say that Scotland should hold the trial. That is a matter for the Minister. I simply say that if there are to be pilots, they should not take place in the most complicated regions.
I echo the point of the hon. Member for Stone about those who are disfranchised by disability. The Bill is the perfect vehicle for dealing with that long-standing problem. I speak partly as the chairman of the all-party group on eye health and I have worked closely with the Royal National Institute of the Blind for some time. I want the Minister to take the matter seriously, and we shall table amendments in Committee on it.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman and Mr. Cash mentioned a matter to which I did not refer earlier. The Disability Rights Commission and the RNIB made a joint submission. Although they generally recognise the extra flexibility that an opportunity for postal votes in all elections gives people with disabilities, we clearly need to elaborate on matters such as requesting assistance from returning officers to help in a secret ballot process. I shall be happy to expand on that in Committee.
I think that we have made some progress there, and I am grateful to the Minister for that. This is obviously something that we can debate in Committee.
The timing of the Bill is very suspect, coming, as it does, so late in the Session. It also has a spill-over provision, which we debated earlier. Why on earth we should need simultaneously to have a spill-over provision and a timetable, I do not know. The two seem to be mutually incompatible. We are worried that, even with the best will in the world, by the time the Bill receives Royal Assent, there will be insufficient time for the necessary training for the pilots, especially if we are talking about the very large regions that have a large number of local authorities.
I do not entirely understand why, if the Government were minded to introduce these measures, they could not have been included in the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, which we have already considered in this Session. At that time, the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Yvette Cooper, who was sitting on the Front Bench earlier, spent many happy hours debating with us matters relating to the European elections, without once touching on the issues before us today. Now, suddenly, we have a Bill that must be rushed through at the last minute in order to be put into effect by the time of the European parliamentary elections.
For all those reasons, and for the reasons I have ventilated in terms of the inappropriateness of partial pilot schemes within a single electorate, and because of the practical difficulties that still need to be overcome, my advice to my right hon. and hon. Friends will be to oppose the Bill this evening. If we are unsuccessful in that, we shall try to amend it in Committee to make it a better Bill.
In recent years, Members on both sides of the House, along with countless other people in public life, have rightly complained about the low turnouts in elections. The great virtue of the Bill is that it shows that the Government are willing to extend specific practical and innovative solutions on a large scale. There is no doubt that low turnout must be tackled. In the last general election, turnout was at its lowest since 1918, and in the last European elections, fewer than one in four voters went out to the polling stations. Even more worryingly, low turnouts are noticeably concentrated in the poorest socio-economic groups and in certain geographical areas.
My hon. Friend Mr. Davidson suggested earlier that first-past-the-post and proportional representation should be trialled in different areas. I would also strongly recommend that to my hon. Friend the Minister. Perhaps one of the best first-past-the-post areas in which to hold a trial would be Scotland. Building on other comments that have been made today, I particularly want to consider the piloting of new voting procedures.
As the Bill is premised on the need to increase turnout, it follows that there should be two criteria for choosing the location of the pilots. First, they should be in areas where the turnout is low and the potential for an increase in turnout is greatest. Secondly, as with any scientific experiment, the variables must be kept to a minimum. Scotland satisfies both criteria. In my own constituency of Glasgow, Anniesland, the turnout in the Scottish Parliament elections in May was 45 per cent., down 5 per cent. on the general election in 2001. Postal votes, however, were returned at a rate of 72 per cent. Nearly 2,500 votes were cast by that method.
Those 2,500 people might not otherwise have voted—not out of laziness or even because of any disillusion with politics. Many have pressurised jobs and have substantial family commitments. Many others are among the socially excluded. The provision of postal votes therefore gives a voice to those who have difficulty in participating in something that we all take for granted—the exercise of their democratic rights. There are about 18,000 over-60s in my constituency who vote, and many of them have great difficulty in getting to the polling stations, especially as my constituency is somewhat hilly, and some of the schools and halls that are used for voting have difficulty in arranging disabled access. We worked very hard to get postal votes for those people and we had a great deal of success. If only the rest of the population had voted at a rate of 72 per cent. Scotland, therefore, has enormous potential for an increase in turnout, and this is proven by the track record of my constituency and others.
There is another factor that must be taken into account. Any psephologist will tell us that a person's decision whether to vote or to stay at home is affected by a whole range of issues. A change in turnout could be affected as much by local matters as by the introduction of different voting methods. In Scotland, there are now four different voting methods. To hold a pilot scheme in an area where two different elections are taking place on the same day would complicate matters further. Not only that, but the European and local elections will be taking place under different voting systems. The multiplicity of variables in the elections in England and Wales next June will, therefore, make any scientific assessment of the impact of new voting methods much more difficult. In Scotland, however, there will be one election under one voting system. It therefore provides the perfect testing ground for the pilot schemes to which the Bill refers. May I also suggest that it would, perhaps, be of benefit to trial the same pilot scheme for the next general election and compare first-past-the-post and PR on postal ballots?
The importance of security, especially locally, has been mentioned by several hon. Members, in the context of the availability of an electronically marked register. I would suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that such a register should be put in place. It should be one that all the parties, and anyone else who wished to do so, could check on a daily basis, and one that could be updated daily. That would allow all the parties to know what the turnout was like, and anyone who felt that there was any misuse of the register would be able to go in and have a look at it for themselves.
The hon. Gentleman just mentioned an electronic marked-up register. Will he clarify that he is suggesting that that should be used not only for electronic voting but for postal voting, so that there would be a marked-up register for the voting in its entirety?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking for that clarification. That is absolutely correct.
When postal ballots come in, they are not all opened on the day of the election. Many are opened the day before, or the day before that, depending on how long they have been coming in. When the returning officer in Glasgow was opening the postal votes for Glasgow, Anniesland, he was somewhat shocked because there were about 600 a day, compared with about six a day for the rest of the Glasgow seats. That was because we had worked so hard, particularly among the elderly people, to ensure that they were not disfranchised. My proposal would help all parties to know where the voters were voting. Mr. Cash was complaining that too many people were knocking on doors and annoying people who had already voted. This register would go a long way towards solving that problem.
Mr. Heath mentioned security problems. His was the best speech that I have heard in a long time in favour of the introduction of identity cards. He appeared to be worried about people voting as others, or otherwise misusing the electronic systems, but one of the ways in which the system is misused the most involves personation. One way to get round that problem would be for everyone to have an ID card. Before we know it, we could even be swiping our votes in.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is harder to impersonate someone using a postal vote than under the present system whereby all that someone has to do to get a ballot paper is turn up at a polling station and give a name? To use a postal vote, a person has to have access to the building to which the ballot paper has been sent.
My hon. Friend is correct, and I do not need to add to what he said.
I shall not take up much more of the House's time, but I wanted to speak about Scotland as one of the trial areas. I hope that the Minister will remember that the Scottish region in Europe covers a vast area. It will make it a lot simpler for the electorate in that area to be able to vote by postal ballot. I hope that we continue to consider the different methods as we take the issue forward. From the days of John Logie Baird, Scotland has often been in the forefront of technological change, and I want it to be at the cutting edge once more.
It is important that we examine how to improve the voting system and ensure that people are not disfranchised. I will support the Bill. If I am fortunate enough to be on the Committee, I may propose a few tweaks, but I am sure we will find agreement.
I take great pleasure in following John Robertson, who made a good case for Scotland being part of the postal ballot trials. However, I may give him a reality check in the few minutes for which I will detain the House. The Bill has some good and welcome provisions, and all hon. Members will welcome parts of it. I sympathise with Mr. Heath about the timing of this Second Reading at this point in the Session, especially as legislation was already being considered with which this measure could appropriately have been linked. We have suspicions that the devil may be in the detail.
I am not opposed to all postal ballots in principle. I can assure the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland that there were far in excess of 600 postal ballots in my constituency at the last general election, and I am delighted to have received every one of those votes. I suggest to him that the devil is in the detail, and that we should consider the wider reasons for falling turnout.
I am delighted to receive that clarification. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. He is so intriguing to listen to that I was obviously distracted at that part of his speech.
The key aim is participation. That is what all hon. Members have focused on, and they are right to do so. The declining trend in voter participation at elections should be of concern to us all, both on the Government side and in the Opposition. In Scotland in 1999, the turnout in the European elections was 24.7 per cent., which can hardly have been seen as a ringing endorsement for the manner in which election campaigns on either side of the political barrier were conducted. It shows what little connection there was between the electorate and those seeking election. There was a decline of more than 13 per cent. in the five years after the elections in 1994, so it is a worsening trend.
The Scotland parliamentary elections in 2003 were only the second elections since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, for which we had waited some 300 years—some with more expectation then others. Fewer than 50 per cent. of the electorate could be persuaded to attend the polling booths on that day. This is a wider problem than that of postal ballots.
It has always struck me as worrying that, if we cannot encourage a wider proportion of the public to attend a polling station once every five years—or once every two years in Scotland, given the Scottish parliamentary elections—we have a bigger problem than perhaps we realise.
There is another side to this problem, which is that we have too many politicians in politics. I have consistently called for a reduction in the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament and the number of Members of Parliament from Scotland. That would contribute greatly to an enhancement of the role of elections and an enhanced role for politicians in general.
In Scotland, we have a complex political situation for elections. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland, among others, has alluded to the diverse nature of elections. Each elector in Scotland has to contend with a list system for European elections, first-past-the-post for Westminster elections, the additional member system for the Scottish Parliament, although that may change if the governing party decides that it is in its electoral interests to do so, and the first-past-the-post system for the council elections, which apparently will change to the single transferable vote system.
Would it be much easier to harmonise elections if we ensured that elections to Westminster remained subject to the first-past-the-post system, the Scottish Parliament moved to a first-past-the-post system, and we retained a first-past-the-post system for Scottish local government elections? I support that position; does the hon. Gentleman?
I shall give the hon. Gentleman a direct answer: yes, I do. He takes a principled position. I have always believed that the first-past-the-post system creates the best connection between the electorate and the elected Member. It creates a direct connection between those who filled in the ballot paper and those who were fortunate enough to receive more votes than anyone else. I speak as someone who received 74 more votes than my nearest competitor, which gives me a direct interest in first-past-the-post elections. I can see that direct connection at the sharpest end. Interest in elections is greatest when there is a close contest. It is interesting to note that in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale there was a comparatively high turnout at the last general election. There always has been, perhaps because there have historically been very close contests, although perhaps not for much longer.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that I said as much in my remarks. It says much about all sides in politics. We are failing to excite the electorate, and we all need to do more. When in a glasshouse, do not throw stones. The Government have more to answer for than most, because they have disengaged with the electorate and left them bored with the electoral process.
In my view, the solution is simplicity and a direct relationship between the elected Member and his electorate. I was interested to note the reference to the report of the European Scrutiny Committee, of which Angus Robertson is a member. It advocated a return to a first-past-the-post system in European elections.
It may interest the hon. Gentleman to know that that decision was not uncontentious, and required the casting vote of the Chairman against the established practice that the Chairman supports the status quo.
That shows that the Committee is populated by very wise men.
This argument is recognised across the political divide. I perused my copy of Public Finance of
"Generally, I don't think the experiments are the answer".
The Electoral Commission admitted in its "Modernising elections" document of August 2002 that
"the nature of the voting process is unlikely ever to be the primary factor in most people's decisions about whether to participate in any election".
There we have it in crystal form. The fact is that the Bill deals with the symptom and not the root cause of the decline in turnout.
I have particular concerns about the partial trial. The result of selecting only three regions across the United Kingdom may be differential turnout. I accept the argument of my hon. Friend Mr. Cash that the evidence for postal ballots increasing turnout is not yet conclusive. If we accept the Government's view that postal ballots increase turnout—otherwise why would we be introducing them?—we may increase turnout in three areas but not in others across the UK. That may skew the result. The UK is a diverse country: Scotland is different from the south-east of England, not just socially but politically.
A partial trial has the potential to influence the result. I was surprised, although perhaps I should not have been, that even the Scottish National party agreed with that. In the Edinburgh Evening News of
All too often, the Conservative Administration was accused of using Scotland as a guinea pig. How curious it is that that should now be reversed.
Elections in my constituency, and in constituencies throughout Scotland, are conducted in a very rural way. In 1997, there were 5,090 polling stations in Scotland. That gives some idea of the nature of the beast. It will be very difficult to conduct a postal ballot in such areas—although it may also be very rewarding, because rural voters often benefit most from postal ballots.
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I have not, but I understand the difficulty of returning postal ballot papers in rural areas. It is difficult for people living 15 miles from the nearest post box to receive ballot papers, let alone return them.
It is important for people to be able to return their papers at the last minute, just as they are able to vote at the last minute at polling stations. That will make postal ballots in Scotland disproportionately expensive. Although I do not oppose the principle of all-postal ballots, but it is as well to be aware of the implications of selecting Scotland as a pilot area.
Is it not the case that any member of the public in Scotland can demand a postal ballot? A system already exists in councils for the counting of postal ballot papers. All that this means is that there will be more to count, and the new arrangement may even prove cheaper.
I must contest that. As I have said, voters across the three trial regions must be able to vote at the last minute, as easily as they can under the regular direct voting system. That will be expensive, as I hope the Government realise.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing that Scotland should not be used as a pilot area because of the problems of postal ballots. At the same time he is arguing that the system should be developed on a UK-wide basis if it is introduced. Is that not a contradiction in terms?
I try to be. As I said at the outset, I do not oppose all-postal ballots in principle, but I feel that the selection of only three areas has the potential to produce a skewed result, and that the selection of Scotland as one of them has the potential to create a very expensive postal ballot trial. It will also be expensive to arrange a contingency arrangement for distributing ballot papers in the event of a postal strike. We must have an assurance from the Government that any extra expense will be funded by the UK Exchequer rather than being passed on to regional and local government, which is already hard pressed.
I will leave it to others to consider what has already been said, and what will be said, about the security number e-voting system. As one who has had some experience of e-commerce, however, I feel that the system is wide open to abuse.
I welcome the extension of personation measures beyond polling places, which I consider logical, but I am worried about witness signatures. We must be careful not to expose ourselves to the risk of fraud. In some past trials, witness signatures have been attached to ballot papers. As the Bill progresses, we need to see evidence that the Government take concerns about fraud seriously, and that witness signatures will be returned separately to protect the dignity of the electoral process.
The hon. Gentleman was probably present for the opening of some postal ballot papers at the time of his election. When such papers are opened, the separate pieces of paper bearing witness signatures are discarded. Not only is that almost a waste; it has the potential to disfranchise elderly people who may be scurrying around wondering whom to get as a witness.
The hon. Gentleman has illustrated the delicacy of the balance between security and encouraging the return of ballot papers. I am merely saying that we must be careful not to expose the system to further fraud.
In an intervention earlier, I raised the subject of marked registers with the Minister. That subject must be considered in Committee, for it is an important part of the self-policing way in which elections are conducted that representatives of candidates standing for each political party can visit polling stations and establish the percentage of the electorate who have cast their vote at particular times during the day. If we are to adopt all-postal ballots, and if the Government value that process—as I do—considering it to be an important element of scrutiny, they must assure us that a replica will be applied to such ballots. Candidates and their representatives must be shown a marked register during the voting period—daily, I would suggest—so that they can have confidence in the system and see things move forward in a structured way over the two or three weeks involved. Such an arrangement may please those who have campaigned to improve disappointing turnouts, but above all it is a key part of the transparency on which we must not compromise.
In recent years, even since my arrival, the House has taken steps to modernise its procedures and change timings in order to increase scrutiny by the wider public. For instance, Prime Minister's Question Time has moved from 3 pm to noon. One argument for doing so—other than convenience for the Prime Minister's diary—was that it enabled further scrutiny of the system: it would set the agenda for the day and return politics to the heart of the political process. It is arguable whether that has been achieved.
Before moving towards all-postal ballots, we have to think very carefully about the consequences of doing so. What is the potential result in terms of the way in which elections are covered? How will the media cover an all-postal ballot, and will it excite the electorate? Will the election crescendo be the point at which ballot papers are issued, or on the last possible date for returns, in which case most people will have voted anyway? This is an important issue. If we are trying to expand turnout and to increase the number of ballot papers returned, we must take into account ways in which to excite the electorate. I accept that the electorate need to be excited—as I have said, the Government have obviously failed to excite them so far—but we have to take into account the manner in which they will be informed about this election process.
The trialling of this system in three areas raises the possibility that different electorates will peak at different points. I accept that some people in any case return postal ballots, and as a result different peaks already occur; however, this system will only accelerate that process, creating a more complex way of informing the electorate about a particular election.
As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, most of the electorate are gasping for the opportunity to pass their verdict on the manner in which their European affairs have been dealt with in recent years, and next June will provide their opportunity to do so. I want above all to see a higher turnout, through which we can put our Conservative case in Europe once more.
The essence of my case is that we have to be very careful before we dispense with the ultimate confidentiality afforded by voting at a polling station. It is the absolute pinnacle of confidentiality: voters can go into the booth and put a cross in whichever box they like, and no one will know. That principle is accepted universally, across the political spectrum, and we must be very careful before moving away from it. I accept that the huge benefits that postal voting could bring may well be a positive factor, but we must be very careful about the detail in which the devil may lurk.
I want to restrict my comments to postal voting, largely because I am computer illiterate and have very little experience of e-voting in my constituency or any other parts of the north-west. I am a little disappointed in the Bill's title and content, as we have had more than enough pilot schemes to make it absolutely clear that postal voting does increase turnout. Instead of e-voting pilot schemes, I would much rather that we opt for a scheme that allows postal voting throughout the UK for the forthcoming European and local elections.
Mr. Heath said that in no previous election have certain parts of a constituency used one system and other parts a different one, but that is not so. When my borough used postal voting—the only time that it did so—just three of the 24 wards used that system. The result was the same as others have described: an increase in the postal vote in those three wards of between 25 and 50 per cent. Also, there was no appreciable difference between the results in those three wards and the results in any of the others. Postal voting seemed to make no difference in terms of the choice that people made from the parties on offer; it simply ensured that many more people voted in those three wards than voted in the others.
Mr. Cash and others have highlighted the fact that past postal voting pilots have hugely increased the number of people wanting and able to take part in ballots, and who have actually done so. As I have said, we should have opted for a postal vote throughout the country, but I accept that that is not on offer, and that we must go along with what we have.
The Electoral Commission has looked at past postal voting ballots over several years. My right hon. Friend Joyce Quin mentioned some of the difficulties that have arisen. All-postal ballots have been held in places in the north-east such as Sunderland and Gateshead, and in Trafford, Oldham and Chorley, in the north-west. If we do not allow them to have all-postal ballots in the next local elections, they will feel extremely disappointed at the prospect of returning to the traditional ballot box. The system will create some difficulties, and illustrates another reason why we should have opted for the postal ballot throughout the UK.
The Electoral Commission has also looked at the very important issue of fraud in postal voting ballots, which several Members have already mentioned. We need to ensure that we reduce as much as we can the possibility of fraud in postal ballots. However, the commission's expert view is that postal ballots lead to little increase in fraud, and that individual results are not affected. And even if a slight increase does occur, it must be considered in the light of the overall increase in turnout. A single vote in a 50 per cent. turnout, for example, is proportionately of less value than a single vote in a 25 per cent. turnout, so an increase in fraud does not of necessity mean a change in the result. That is not to say that I am endorsing fraud in any way; on the contrary, I want to stress that the legitimacy of the ballot should be paramount. We should ensure in every way possible that fraud is reduced.
The Minister said in his opening remarks that he has already received a bid from Scotland for one of the all-postal ballot pilots. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West made a bid for the north-east, and I now want to make a bid for the north-west. I take issue with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who said that the many local elections that will take place in the north-west at the same time as the European elections will cause some problems. That is not my experience. I was a local councillor in 1979, when a general election and local council elections took place at the same time—indeed, the same thing has happened since—and the fact that the returning officer for the two elections was the same person, and that the elections were held at the same time, caused absolutely no difficulty. The votes were put to one side, and the general election votes and then the local election votes were counted. The only difficulty that arose was that it took an extra day to get the results.
I agree totally with what my hon. Friend has said, but does he agree that putting a European election with a local election will make it very difficult to analyse the result? It will be difficult to tell whether localness has affected the European election, or vice versa.
Of course local elections and other elections can be held on the same day; indeed, the past couple of general elections have coincided with county council elections for non-metropolitan counties in England. However, complications do arise in terms of the scale of the operation, particularly in a very populous area such as the north-west. Also, our experience shows that county council elections tend to constitute an ineffective popular judgment on the performance of county councillors, simply because the campaign is completely eclipsed by the general election.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's latter point, but I take issue with the point about skills. Far be it from me to comment on the skills of electoral returning officers in the south-west, but I can certainly say that those in the north-west are more than capable of dealing with two elections on the same day.
I want to deal with the north-west and explain why it should be one of the areas included in the pilots. It is a large area with some 5.5 million electors, and it is extremely diverse. That is important because if the Electoral Commission is going to draw conclusions from the pilots, it is no use having a pilot scheme in an area without a decent range of diversity. That would prevent proper conclusions from being reached.
The north-west has many rural areas, from the hill farms of the western Pennines and those of the Lake district, which is important for tourism, right through to the market gardens and the cattle, cereal and root crop areas of the Solway, Lancashire and the Cheshire plains. The area is also hugely urban with major cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, historic tourist towns such as Carlisle and Chester, and industrial towns such as my own area of Wigan. We also have new towns such as Skelmersdale on my doorstep and satellite towns such as Partington, linked to Manchester. All those areas show the potential for the Electoral Commission to assess the impact of postal voting.
There is also considerable socio-economic diversity in the region. I have already mentioned Liverpool and Manchester and the huge problems that exist in their core inner city areas. Equally, however, there is deprivation—albeit of a different sort and scale—in the Pemberton area in my constituency, for example. The two wards there are among the top 5 per cent. of deprived areas in the whole country. There is also rural deprivation, often hidden deprivation, of the sort that exists elsewhere in the country. There is also great affluence in Cheshire and on the outskirts of the region's towns and cities, so we certainly have great diversity of socio-economic levels, as well as geographical diversity between rural and urban areas.
Differences in ethnicity are also evident. Some wards in my borough and elsewhere comprise an almost wholly white British electorate. Equally, other areas have majorities of Afro-Caribbean, Hindu Indian, Pakistani or other Muslim people. In some places, the Chinese form a huge part of the population. The divergences are wide, which also provides the Electoral Commission with the ability to assess the effect of postal voting on those diverse areas. In choosing the north-west as one of the pilot areas, the Minister and the Electoral Commission would be able to consider all those differences within wards and whole polling districts. They could assess different geographical, socio-economic and ethnic factors, so I urge the Minister to choose the north-west as one of the pilot areas.
In introducing the Bill, the Minister made it clear that the prime aim was to try to increase turnout. He shared the worry of many in the House that turnout is too low and has fallen quite sharply in recent elections. The explanatory notes also make it clear that that is the prime driver of the legislation. In a Second Reading debate we should therefore ask why the turnout is so low and why it has fallen so sharply in recent years in respect of general and European elections.
The prime reason why so few people now choose to vote is that they do not believe that the people that they are going to elect, of whatever party, can make any real difference to their lives. They do not believe that those people, at whatever level they are seeking election, will have sufficient power to change the way in which people are governed. We can understand the process if we examine the differential levels of turnout between general elections, local elections and European elections. It is still the case that far more people turn out for general elections than for the others. The reason is obvious: many more people still believe that it makes a difference whether one chooses a Conservative or a Labour Government. People still believe that if they choose the right individual Member of Parliament, he or she can make some difference by representing the constituency well, having influence over bureaucracy, and helping to fashion laws in this place that might make more sense and affect their daily lives.
When it comes to local elections, people know from their experience over many years that, however well-intentioned councillors and candidates are—we obviously all believe that those in our respective parties are extremely well intentioned and capable—there are very tight limits on what can be achieved. In fact, local councillors are driven by legislation coming from this place and, more importantly, by guidance and guidelines in ever-increasing volumes from Whitehall, and they are circumscribed by the financial rules and amounts of moneys voted in the House in respect of local government settlements. As a result of their experience, more and more people are unfortunately saying that they do not believe that local councillors, however well-intentioned and of whatever party, can make much difference, so they are not bothering to vote. They probably sense that the most powerful person in any local authority today is the unelected chief executive, over whom they are unable to exert any direct or indirect influence.
When it comes to European elections, people take the dimmest view of all. More than three-quarters of the electorate say that there is no point in wasting their time going to the polling station. I suspect that many would say that it is not even worth spending time filling in the piece of paper that comes through the post. People do not believe that MEPs, however well-intentioned and capable, can make any real impact on things that matter in their daily lives.
If we examine the power structure in the emerging, more integrated European Union, we can understand that people are in many ways being rational. It is disappointing for me, as someone who desperately wants democracy to work, that there is such a huge democratic deficit in the EU. The fact is that our elected representatives have no or very little control over the people and the things that matter in the governance of the EU.
Let us suppose that voters are interested in the state of the European economy, whether there are enough jobs and enough credit, or whether interest rates are set at the right level. They would discover that Euroland, the decisive bloc within the EU, is on autopilot under an unelected official—the governor of the European Central Bank. Unlike in the UK, where an elected Chancellor of the Exchequer and an elected Cabinet could call the so-called independent Governor of the Bank of England to heel, change the rules, issue new instructions or, in extremis, change the personnel, MEPs have no such influence or control, because the central bank was deliberately set up to ensure that there was no democratic accountability and that dreadful politicians had no influence over it.
Let us consider alternatively the emerging settlement in the European constitution for the conduct of foreign policy. Again, in the British Parliament, a good tradition is established. We have an elected Foreign Secretary, who is senior to the permanent secretary to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and answerable through the Cabinet to the House of Commons. We can all directly have an influence over foreign policy, and even, on certain occasions, effectively have a free vote in the House over the big issue of war. Many Members recently exercised their discretion over that. In the EU, however, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, soon to be appointed once the constitution goes through, will be unelected, and no MEP will be able to influence that Minister in the way that hon. Members in this House can individually and collectively exert influence over the UK's elected Foreign Secretary.
Take defence procurement. Here the Secretary of State for Defence is answerable to the House in respect of the purchase of weapons. However, the new armaments agency, which will be set up under the new European constitution, will have an unelected leader, and it will be impossible for people voting in European elections to have any influence—[Interruption.]
I see that the Minister is getting impatient because he does not like my analysis. However, it is entirely appropriate for us to ask whether the Bill is tackling the problem in the right way. Why, for example, does it not suggest that we should elect some of the people in Europe who have the real power? That would be more sensible, but we are not allowed to do so under Europe's rules, and the Minister is not proposing to do so in the negotiations on the constitution. So we will still have this huge problem in future European elections. Many of our electors will say that they do not mind whether they vote by post or in person, or by some new electronic method, but they will not agree that this Bill has got it right. The problem is that an MEP cannot bring to account the men and women of power.
Has the Conservative party made a tremendous U-turn? Is it now Conservative party policy that the electorate should be able to elect directly the President of the European Union?
Of course not, because my party does not want a more integrated Europe and it does not want those people to have all that power. I seek to explain to the House, for those who are integrationists and federalists and who will welcome the constitution that we intend to oppose, why the British public will think that it is thoroughly undemocratic and why the Bill is another missed opportunity. Ministers will discover that it does not matter how they invite people to vote in European elections if the people believe that those whom they elect have no influence over those with the power. Ministers wish to give them even more power, but we do not. The problem of voter interest will remain.
I am following my right hon. Friend's thesis with interest, and I agree with it. If the Government show that they listen to the people, that will deliver increased turnout in elections much more effectively than changing the electoral system, whether to e-voting or postal voting. Does my right hon. Friend agree that by holding a referendum on the EU constitution, the Government could show that they listen to the people? Does he think that we should have a pilot referendum?
Order. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is being tempted down different paths, but I would be grateful if he could resist the temptation.
I accept your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The lack of turnout in European elections is primarily motivated by the inability to vote on the people who have the power. I—and many of my colleagues—wish that they did not have those powers, but they are going to gain even more.
A second factor is the move from the first-past-the-post system to the closed list, which was another blow to turnout. The recent precipitate decline in turnout appears in part to have been linked to that change. It was not only that more people had discovered how powerless their MEPs were: many voters in the last election realised that they no longer had any power to influence who would be their MEP, because the political parties had pre-empted that. All voters could do was make a party choice. Many people might have wanted to make a personal choice, just as many do in national elections, because there are different swings in various places. Electors were not able to reward MEPs who had done an assiduous job for their constituency, nor were they able to penalise those candidates on the list who were unlikely to do a good job. Many people saw that as another reason to stay at home.
The general election also saw a sharp decline in turnout. On my thesis, that was for similar reasons. More and more powers are being taken away from this place by the development of power in Brussels and by the quangocracy. Under this Government, more and more decisions are made by quangos, so people ask why they should vote when Members of Parliament no longer have the same power.
The incompetence of the Government overwhelms anything that the hon. Gentleman may allege about the Opposition. If he looks at the differential turnout patterns in the last election, he will see that it was the turnout in the Labour vote that fell most sharply between 1997 and 2001, which speaks volumes about people's judgments on the Government.
While it is true that turnout fell sharply in many Labour areas, it did so in my area because people assumed that we would win anyway because the Opposition were so useless. If the Opposition do not pull their weight, it diminishes the interest that people have in politics.
I do not agree with that analysis. On that basis, Labour would have done better than it did in 2001, when it won on a tiny vote. I am describing a general problem with politics in Britain, and by 2001 people had become very cynical about the whole political process. They were most cynical about the European Parliament, by a big margin, but they are becoming more cynical about this place because it appears to have less and less power.
My electors—and I am sure many other Members will agree—engage more strongly with me and my work on free-vote issues. Then people can see that Members of Parliament can have a decisive impact. People engage less and less on the big issues that matter to them because they do not believe that any of us, including the Government, have the same control over those issues that we had before, because of the growth of the quangocracy. The poor turnout levels in local government tell a similar story. People have become more and more cynical about how much difference elected local officials can make. They sense that councillors are part-time and under a lot of pressure. More and more people need a full-time job and it is difficult to fit in the work of a councillor for someone of working age. The electorate are responding to the growing bureaucracy and professionalisation of councils, with more and more decisions taken by officers on the say-so, instruction or guidance of Whitehall. People are more reluctant to vote, because they think that it will not make any difference.
The Bill proposes a solution based on symptoms rather than causes. Experiments have shown that people are more likely to spend the few minutes required to cast a postal vote than the many more minutes required to go to the polling station in person. Despite what I and others have said about the growing unpopularity of voting, a one-off stimulus could occur in various places were there to be a compulsory postal ballot. That is the experience so far, and it may happen again in the future if the Bill is passed. If that can be done honestly and satisfactorily, I would be relaxed about it, but the Committee will have to look carefully at whether that can be achieved. The potential for fraud, personation and other difficulties must be overcome in a way that satisfies us. We want good, honest and open elections, and we would like to encourage far more participation.
I hope that the Minister considers carefully the good points made about identification of voters. Perhaps we should go back to the system of the double envelope to avoid any suggestion that voters could be identified and their intentions made know to other parties. We may need a more stringent system for checking the outer envelope to ensure that an individual casts only one vote and to ensure that it is cast freely and without pressure. Other hon. Members have mentioned the problems for those who live in flats or care homes. We need to ensure that such people genuinely exercise their own choice and are not guided too much by those who might think that they are doing those in their care a favour but may not be truly representing their views. Some sensitive issues arise from that, and we need to consider them carefully.
We must also make sure that, where we go over to electronic voting, it is not possible for fraudsters to get hold of the series of numbers being used. In an election with a relatively low turnout, they could use those numbers to take advantage and develop a lottery approach, on the basis that they would probably get away with it and that no one would be any the wiser. That is a more serious danger than the one posed by people who turn up at polling stations pretending to be their own neighbours, and so on. In that instance, there is always a risk that, when they vote, those fraudsters could bump into the people who they are claiming to be. I hope that Ministers will be aware of the extra dangers that I have described.
It would give a very bad impression outside the House if this debate could be summed up as follows: Members of Parliament met, asked themselves why people did not vote very much, especially in European elections, and concluded that it was merely because people really could not be bothered unless a ballot was sent through the post to their individual addresses. If that were to be our conclusion, people would feel that we were living in a very unreal world. The style of voting is not nearly as important as the candidate one chooses, the issues one hopes to settle, and whether one feels that casting a ballot will make a genuine difference.
People voted in droves when power was more heavily concentrated in the House of Commons, and when Ministers answerable to the House were clearly able to make a difference in matters ranging from interest rates to environmental protection. There was no problem with turnout at general elections. Now that power has dissipated from elected hands—it has passed upwards to unelected European officials, downwards to unelected quangos in the UK and, in large measure, to unelected local government officials—people are becoming very cynical.
We in this House should worry a great deal about the way in which we are taking away power from those who are elected and giving it to the unelected. We then express surprise when people conclude that casting a vote is a waste of time. I hope that the Government will think again about their great constitutional settlement. They will understand that they cannot tackle the problem by means of this Bill alone, as it will make a very modest contribution to a problem that is much more deep rooted. If the Government drive ahead with constitutional changes that give away more and more power to unelected people, the disillusionment will grow much greater, and people will ask why they pay our salaries.
First, I congratulate Conservative Members on both the Front and Back Benches. They have shown much ingenuity in contriving to fixate on all things European, regardless of the subject before the House. However, I shall stick to the matter in hand.
Before I make my main comments, I want to say something about voter registration. I have spoken in the House before about the problem in Glasgow, where one in five adults eligible to vote are not included in the electoral register. That is a scandal, and a legacy of the poll tax. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, people refused to be registered to vote because being registered meant they had to pay that iniquitous tax.
The council tax system also gives people a motivation for coming off the electoral register: when two people share a household, the 25 per cent. council tax discount given to single householders can be claimed if one person does not register to vote. That is an argument not for abolition of the council tax but for a more stringent enforcement of the electoral register. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that into account, as there is no point in encouraging people to vote if they are not on the electoral register already. Too many people believe that enrolling on the electoral register is an option, and not a legal necessity.
Some of us would like to get rid of the council tax, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that one thing that could be done would be to break the link in the registration office? The biggest damage was caused by the fact that the poll tax register and the electoral register could be cross-referenced. Do not people need to be confident that the electoral register could be used for no purpose other than establishing the right to vote, and that a separate register would be used for the council tax? The two registers would not be linked, and no data would flow between them.
That is a positive suggestion, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not wanting to be drawn too far down that road. I wanted simply to mention that matter before I made my main comments. Registration is a concern for all of us, as it does not reach 100 per cent. in any constituency, as far as I know. The situation has become much worse since we stopped canvassing door to door.
People fortunate enough to live in what was once called Strathclyde region will be familiar with a very successful postal ballot held in 1994. At that time, the then Conservative Government were getting impatient with Strathclyde, as people there kept voting Labour. They decided to reorganise local government to create a few more Conservative councils. In the event, the plan did not work, but one consequence of the reorganisation was that something had to be done with the water and sewerage industry. The proposal was to create a quango.
I was working as a press officer for the regional council at the time. The council decided that the people of Strathclyde should be consulted, and it organised a postal ballot of every elector in the region. The electorate numbered about 1.5 million people, out of a total population of 2.2 million.
The ballot was not an election, and it was not about a major constitutional issue. In fact, given the subject—the future of water services—it was rather dry.
I apologise to the House for that.
When the ballot papers were counted, the turnout was found to be 71 per cent. of all electors in Strathclyde. Incidentally, for those who are interested in such things, 2.8 per cent. of voters supported the Government's proposals. That is a real example of how a postal ballot can have a direct effect on voter participation.
It may be helpful to compare that referendum with some others. Turnout in the Scotland referendum in March 1979 was 63.8 per cent. and in the Wales referendum on the same day, it was 58 per cent. In the European referendum of 1975, turnout in Strathclyde was 61.7 per cent. Even in the Scottish referendum of 1997, turnout was only 62 per cent., yet when we chose to ballot people in Strathclyde on an issue that was hardly of overwhelming constitutional importance, turnout was 71 per cent. That speaks volumes for what could be achieved by the pilots.
I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely helpful question. If there were a referendum on any constitutional issue, I would expect turnout to be significantly higher if there was a postal ballot.
Like many of my colleagues from Scotland, I especially welcome the proposal—if it actually is a proposal—for 100 per cent. postal balloting in Scotland. I add my voice to those calling for such a move. In 1999, turnout throughout Scotland and the whole United Kingdom was derisory. As Mr. Redwood pointed out, part of the reason was undoubtedly disenchantment, or disconnection, with the European political process. That is not solely the fault of the list system. European parliamentary constituencies were so large that disconnection existed even before 1999. I suspect that it was inevitably part of the process. We need to rein in our expectations about what the pilot projects can achieve. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, they are not a panacea.
Three factors cause low voter turnout, two of which are the responsibility of politicians. The first is disconnection from elected representatives at all levels. We have all heard the arguments: all the parties are the same, they can change nothing and politicians are too cynical. Some people even say that politicians are far too dismissive of other opinions, which of course is nonsense.
The second reason, which has already been mentioned, is the electoral system. Earlier in the debate, my hon. Friend Mr. Davidson suggested that we should hold an additional pilot for a first-past-the-post system in Scotland, and compare turnout with that for the rest of the UK. However, we have already conducted such an exercise; we used first past the post for the European elections and when we introduced the new proportional system turnout plummeted. The results of that experiment speak for themselves.
In Scotland, there are four possible electoral systems: first past the post for Westminster; the additional member, or hybrid system, for the Scottish Parliament; the list for Europe; and, imminently, the single transferable vote for local elections. My mother is a lifelong voter and has never missed an opportunity to vote, but she told me that if single transferable voting is introduced in Scotland she will not vote in the local elections. I fear the effect on turnouts in future if we further confuse the electorate with all those different systems.
The third reason for low turnout is something that politicians can do little about: the wilful apathy of the electorate. I do not hesitate to put some of the blame for low turnouts on the electorate themselves, although some of it is ours. We are seeing the triumph of the instant gratification society, where promised gains over a long number of years have little or no significance for voters and where participation in our wider community—be it voting or taking part in a public meeting—comes far down in people's priorities, after every soap opera and football game broadcast.
I believe that the postal ballot pilot scheme will result in higher turnouts next June, but I wonder how many right hon. and hon. Members would be willing to bet any of their own money that any of those gains will be maintained in the long term.
The experience in Gateshead, where we have had three consecutive years of postal ballots, certainly shows consistency: there has been little decline in turnout even though the system has now been used on three occasions.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Perhaps my earlier question about which of us would put money on those gains being maintained has been answered—perhaps my right hon. Friend would be willing to do so—but my fear is that it is undeniable that turnouts have generally decreased since the end of the second world war. Although there are blips, such as 1979 and 1992, we are in something of almost a post-democratic age, when voting is not the priority that it once was. I agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham that changing the mechanism is helpful, but it might not address that long-term decline, which should concern us all as democratically elected politicians.
If, after two or three such experiments, we see that the gains are reduced—that turnout is reducing to what it was before we introduced postal ballots—what will we have to do? There are gains to be made from such an experiment, but those gains are finite, and I would not be surprised if, a few years from now, we have to consider not creating further ways to enable people to vote, but making the duty to vote a legal obligation.
Like pretty much every other hon. Member who has spoken so far, my motivation in discussing the Bill is to consider imaginative ways to make it easier for people to vote and to support any and every fair and transparent measure that will boost turnout. A load of suggestions about how we might ease people's ballot casting are on offer, and I am particularly motivated to support any measure that will improve turnout because there is a disproportionate decline in voting among the youngest eligible people in our society. If that issue is not addressed as a matter of priority, it could well store up grave difficulties for us in the future, as that cohort of younger voters continues in its apathy for whatever reason and does not bother to cast ballots in the future.
I simply believe that the status quo is not sustainable and that it is right to consider imaginative, innovative ways to try to change things. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have not been wrong to point out that, to a certain extent, we may be dealing with the symptoms, not the affliction. That may be a criticism of the workings of the European Union or whatever else. Nevertheless, that does not negate the reasons for considering the way we cast our votes.
My central concern is that if there is widespread change, it should embrace the highest possible standards and safeguards, but the Government have yet to convince me that that is in fact the case. I would counsel caution, in as much as progress should not be pursued at the risk of imperfect pilot schemes that might then slow the speedy introduction of reformed and updated voting methods.
The Government should consider various factors, bearing in mind the central premise that we believe that all-postal balloting assists in engaging more of the electorate—something that I support—and we have had many examples from throughout the UK where that is the case. Incidentally, in my book, anything that increases voting by between 20 and 50 per cent. has to be a success, and it would certainly be viewed as a success by people who found it easier to cast their ballots, so that cannot be discounted. Nevertheless, electoral procedures should be improved in a number of ways, so that people have full confidence that postal ballots are secure, fair and efficient.
I turn first to matters of security, which I and other hon. Members mentioned earlier in interventions. As most Members will be aware, one of the most important measures for detecting electoral fraud is the ability for the public and political parties to inspect the marked-up register of those who voted in an election. Despite current problems in certain local authorities, the public inspection of marked registers is an important safeguard. We need only look at the recent examples of marked-up registers going missing in Renfrewshire, where a number of very closely contested council elections took place recently, and where, curiously, the marked-up register seemed to disappear only in the most closely contested wards. As a result, we know that people value the existence of the marked-up register as a central control mechanism to ensure probity and the highest standards.
The difficulty at present is that the current law does not permit the marked register to show whether a postal ballot has been returned—that is, whether a vote has been cast. All that a marked register will show is that a postal ballot has been sent. In a recent ward by-election in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Salmond, one could see clearly that a third of postal ballots were not returned, but one could not work out which third of the electorate that was. The Electoral Commission has given oral advice to the effect that it is in favour of the introduction of a marked register and would have wanted that in advance of the European elections, should we go forward with the pilot programme outlined by the Government today. There has been no mention of that from the Government, however, and when I intervened earlier the Minister said that that matter would be considered separately. I strongly urge him and his colleagues to examine whether this matter can be integrated as part of the Government's considerations, as that would put many people's minds at ease.
Another matter that is of central importance is the electoral timetable. A number of electoral procedures should be changed to make all-postal balloting fairer and more efficient, and changes to the electoral timetable will be needed should the norm become all-postal voting. The time scale for the issue and replacement of postal ballots, which has not been raised in the debate so far, needs to be addressed. The earliest that an elector can currently receive their postal ballot paper is 10 days before polling day or the close of polling. When a large number of postal ballots have been issued at a traditional general election, those ballot papers can take up to three to four days after the earliest point at which they can be issued. In some instances, an elector then has six working days in which to respond. If, however, an elector declares that they have not received their postal ballot paper, the earliest point at which a replacement ballot can be issued is three working days before the close of polls. With postal services being reduced in a number of areas in Scotland and, I suspect, elsewhere in the UK, that gives insufficient time for an elector to receive a replacement ballot paper and have it sent back by post. I would have thought that one of the central points of any reform is that every elector should have the same guaranteed right to vote. If problems are inherent in the timetabling of the system, the Government must look at that closely.
On the issue of location of delivery points, it has been suggested that each local authority should have a delivery point for postal ballots to be returned in person or by hand. That could be a safety mechanism, as other Members have mentioned, in the case of industrial action. There is as yet no suggestion as to what number of delivery points should be set up in each local authority area. I would welcome the Minister's views on that, since it is an issue of profound importance in a very large geographic area such as the one I represent. If, for example, someone living in Tomintoul had to get to Elgin, that would be a very substantial journey.
In terms of efficiency, there is another measure which has not been raised so far but is not unknown to many Members of the House. Parliamentary candidates and agents have had experience regarding the efficiency of the Royal Mail in delivering bulk items of post. The experience of the Royal Mail when delivering election addresses in several areas is testament to that. Although postal ballots are addressed items, the Royal Mail gives no guarantee that each elector will receive a postal ballot. I return to a point that I made before: all electors should have the same guarantee of service so that they may exercise their vote. An elector using a postal ballot is in a significantly different position to one who turns up at a polling station.
I shall briefly talk about e-voting. Before I read the Bill, I was worried that pilots might be rolled out meaning that people in some regions could vote electronically while people in other regions would use postal votes. Such a scheme would have been a grave mistake, so I am reassured that the systems will be tried at the same time in the same region. It would be entirely wrong for some people to be able to cast their votes much more easily than others because they could access technology rather than using the post, which is available to all. However, I am worried about past experiences of technological breakdown meaning that, in extreme circumstances, one could not cross-reference and find out whether postal and electronic votes had been cast. Mr. Allan said that that had happened in his area, so the Government must examine the problem closely to ensure that it never happens again.
For reasons of equity, I disagree with a point made by Mr. Cash. He said that it was not a good idea to conduct a pilot throughout a whole electoral region and that it should be more localised. A pilot should take place throughout a whole electoral region rather than in only one part.
The Government should consider a further question, although it does not fall entirely under the scope of the Bill and it has not been addressed by any hon. Member. If ballot papers are to be issued two to three weeks before polling day, as the Minister said in his opening remarks, how will that dovetail with coverage by broadcasters—especially our public broadcasters—and how will it tie in with the Representation of the People Act 2000? If the Government choose Scotland or Wales as pilot regions—although I do not accept the use of the terminology of "region" for Scotland or Wales—they must bear it in mind that Scotland has a seven-party system and Wales has a four-party system. I am sure that the Government are keen to ensure fair and equitable access to the media wherever and whenever an election is held. However, if ballot papers are delivered two to three weeks before an election takes place, at what point will the Act kick in? At what point will the Government and—hopefully—all political parties be keen for everyone to have fair access to the media? Perhaps the Minister did not have time to talk about that during his opening speech, but I would be interested to hear his colleague's view during the wind-ups.
Pilot schemes must be introduced with cross-party consensus. There is a feeling—no one dares speak its name—that one electoral system or another could give a specific party political advantage. I do not share that view because any electoral system on offer gives the same advantages and disadvantages to all. Nevertheless, if we want to go forward, we need to bear cross-party consensus in mind, which is why I strongly urge the Government to examine the worries that I have raised on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru—the principal opposition parties in Scotland and Wales. If pilot projects were to be rolled out in Scotland or Wales, it would be advantageous to have cross-party consensus.
I welcome the Bill. I begin by echoing the opening comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Harris about the number of people on electoral registers because that point was raised in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on
My hon. Friend Chris Ruane has an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall tomorrow on electoral registers. We need to do something. We have passed legislation and numbers have fallen. We need to back that up by carrying out checks at vacant addresses, as some local authorities already do.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the pilot scheme must also deal with electoral registers? We should not wait two years for a register to be updated. We need a rolling register instead. In Glasgow, Anniesland, for instance, where there is a high turnover in council housing, the register is out of date by between 20 and 30 per cent. every election.
My hon. Friend is right. There are significant problems in parts of the country. We cannot sit back and be complacent. Although the issue he raises is important, we must also encourage the electorate to go out and vote. The responsibility for that lies at the door of each and every one of us. No one can run away from the fact that we have a major part to play.
Mr. Redwood commented on dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes. We need to get to the bottom of why people are not voting. There has been a steady decline in turnout. The 77.8 per cent. turnout in the 1992 general election fell to 71.4 per cent. in 1997. Mr. Duncan, in his excellent contribution, tried to lay the blame at the door of the Government. His party was pushed to one side at the 1997 election when the number of people taking part in the process fell by more than 6 per cent. There was a further and more drastic decline in 2001 when turnout fell to 59.4 per cent. It is not good news for us if we, as politicians, who have a role to play in society, cannot engage with people.
Perhaps the problem is the lack of an alternative on the Opposition Benches or the general dissatisfaction at the pace of reform, for which the people in the UK are crying out. Perhaps the problem is our colleagues and friends in the media breeding criticism and dissatisfaction. Although that is sometimes justified, all too often people are only interested in the headlines. So when politicians speak to the general public, what we hear is, "You're all the same. You're all in it for your own ends. Why do you bother?" We need to turn the clock back.
When I intervened on Mr. Cash, I explained that the problem is not confined to the UK or the EU. In Canada in the 1970s, 74.6 per cent. of people turned out to vote. By 2000, that had dropped to 61.2 per cent. I may regret mentioning Europe, but the turnout in France was 76.5 per cent. in the 1970s. By 2002, that had dropped to 64 per cent. There are, however, some European countries in which that trend has been bucked. The trend in Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland is against the decline experienced elsewhere.
We are looking at the European Parliament elections today. There was a 63 per cent. turnout across EU countries in 1979, which fell 10 years later to 58.5 per cent. and a miserable 49.4 per cent. in 1999. Even though I have categorised that 49.4 per cent. as miserable, it was double the turnout in the United Kingdom. Political parties and politicians must try to widen their appeal and engage with those who turn out to vote. However, a revival in civil society making it easier to vote can help, which is why I am very much encouraged by the fact that three areas are being considered for postal ballot pilots. In 2003, we can enjoy the advances of the electronic age, including e-commerce and e-voting, yet it has been in the old idea of postal voting that there has been significant progress, and that is to be applauded.
I hope that, in connection with the issue just raised by the hon. Gentleman, I may vicariously invite a response from the Minister in his summing-up speech. Can the Government explain why, between 1997 and 2001, there was a 12 per cent. drop in turnout compared with the figure of approximately 75 per cent. in the entire range from 1945 to 1997?
I am obviously keen to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say, but I am not sure whether his question is directed at my hon. Friend the Minister or me. However, I am happy to give my tuppence-worth. There is a problem with people becoming disillusioned. Our friends and colleagues in the press and media hype up the situation, and say that none of us is worth voting for or supporting. However, I wonder where they would be if we were not here.
Indeed. I hope that the hon. Member for Stone agrees to a certain extent that that is what the media have done in recent years.
In 2002, there were 30 postal vote pilots involving 2.5 million electors. The average turnout at all postal elections was about 47.5 per cent., well above the average of 33 per cent. for traditional voting methods. On polling day for the Scottish Parliament this year, I met people who had already voted through postal voting. They said that it was the first occasion on which they had done so, and they were pleased to have been able to seize that opportunity. They said that in future they would not use any other way of voting. Of course, there are anxieties about the use of postal votes, and Angus Robertson and others have advanced an argument about security and the need for a secret vote.
The Bill will allow three regional pilot schemes for elections to the European Parliament to be held. I appreciate the anxiety that the hon. Member for Moray experiences when some of my colleagues and I talk about Scotland. However, I am sure that at the end of the day he respects the fact that although Scotland is a nation, it is also a European parliamentary region. The Bill does not specify in which areas the pilots will take place, but Scotland would be a good area. The Electoral Commission will make recommendations, and I hope that the Minister, as well as listening to what it says in mid-December, will listen to what Members of Parliament have said.
Will the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to impress upon Ministers that it would be a tremendous advantage to introduce safeguards, in particular with regard to a marked-up register, and that that should happen before any pilot project is undertaken?
Yes, that has come across loud and clear this afternoon. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have strong reservations about a marked-up register, as do Conservative Members.
I shall briefly consider three previous postal pilots in Scotland. In April 2002 the first pilot took place in a ward of Stirling council. The turnout was more than 63 per cent., far higher than the turnout at the other council by-election held on the same day. In September 2002 there was a by-election in Durn ward, Aberdeenshire. Sir Robert Smith has left the Chamber, but he will know about that one. The turnout in a postal ballot was 66 per cent, the highest ever in a postal pilot. That was in contrast to another election that day to the same council, in which the turnout was a mere 36 per cent. In November 2002 in a ward in the Scottish Borders, there was a turnout of 65.8 per cent., which was up 3.1 per cent. on the turnout for the 1999 election.
Three schemes in Scotland's 32 authorities are far fewer than those that have taken place elsewhere in the United Kingdom, such as the 33 schemes held in the 43 local authorities in north-west England. The time is ripe for a widespread scheme in Scotland. As I said in an intervention, the European elections in June 2004 will be the only elections to be held in Scotland, so no comparison can be made with any other European parliamentary region. Scotland's rural nature provides an opportunity to reap the greatest dividends from a postal ballot, which will benefit people living in rural areas. I understand the comments made by the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, but such an election could turn out to be less expensive than would otherwise be the case. He mentioned that there are more than 5,000 polling stations, but there will be no need to open them.
The electorate of an average-sized European constituency is 3.8 million. Although Scotland has a larger population than that, it would provide a clear indication of the success of postal voting. On the question of how we cover the election and promote the idea of a postal ballot, I hope colleagues would agree that press, television and radio in Scotland are unique. Through those means we have an opportunity to promote the excellent idea of a postal ballot.
We heard from the hon. Members for Moray and for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale their reservations about a full postal pilot being carried out in Scotland. Some of the arguments have already been made as to why such a pilot should be held. I share the concern about fraud, but I am fairly relaxed with clause 6, which covers that. The House of Commons research paper makes excellent reading and highlights some of the problems that have arisen in the past and ways in which they can be dealt with.
The issue of the witness to a postal ballot causes me some concern. When the ballots are returned, we see those who open the ballot papers discarding the witness form. One wonders whether anyone would take any notice if voters had got Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck to countersign their ballot papers. It is important that we ensure that people cast their vote.
I have come across elderly people, in particular, who did not return their postal ballots, even after having requested one, because they had no idea about whom they should secure as a witness or whether it mattered.
The Electoral Commission has indicated that it would not wish parties to be heavily involved in collecting postal votes once cast. There is some justification in that. Although we are all supposed to be right hon. and hon. Members, we are not held in the highest esteem. Sometimes the fraud element is there to be abused by individuals and, dare I say it, parties. Serious consideration must be given to the marked-up register. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is able to say something positive about that—if not today, at a later stage.
Some hon. Members are concerned about moving the local authority elections in England and Wales to coincide with the European Parliament elections. In 1999 and 2003, Scotland experienced the marked difference that resulted from combining the two elections and getting people to come out to vote in more than one election on the one day. It is difficult to judge whether the knock-on effect came from people who normally vote at local elections suddenly deciding to cast a vote in another election on the same day, or vice versa, but it is clear that combining the two elections in 2004 will be helpful.
The Minister still has a lot of work to do. I am not sure that I would want to serve on the Committee, but it will be interesting.
None of us should run away from the problem: we all have a job to do, whether by engaging more closely with the electorate whom we are supposed to represent or through the proposed pilots. We must unite and say with one voice that we wish the electorate to play a far greater part in elections.
I should like to concentrate my remarks on the all-postal pilots that took place in the local elections in 2002. My constituency is one of the three component parts of the London borough of Havering, which was chosen as one of the authorities to be piloted. That process gave rise to a range of difficulties, which I hope will be addressed in Committee.
Because what was involved was a new and different way of conducting an election, the local authority faced a challenge in disseminating information in the pre-election period so that people understood what would be expected of them and how voting would differ from the traditional method. They had to understand that everybody was voting by post, not just those who usually chose to do so; that the cut-off date for casting their vote was much earlier than the date of the election; and the nature of the documents that they would receive and how to process them. Many people were unaware that they would be able to vote in person only at the town hall because none of the usual polling stations would be open. Such information had to be emphasised to everybody, especially elderly people, well in advance.
Another problem that arose was the non-arrival of ballot papers: certain electors did not receive them. That posed a series of questions. Had they been lost in the post? Had they been wrongly delivered? Had they gone to the wrong number in the right road or the right number in the wrong road? Had two been posted in the same letterbox? Had neighbours received them by mistake? When they complained to the council, the question, "Are they telling the truth?" arose. The council was satisfied that the ballot papers had been posted, so nobody ever knew what happened to them. Often, it was too late to issue duplicates because the deadline for posting them back was too close. The electors had neither recourse nor a way of obtaining a ballot paper. Some angry people lost their opportunity to vote. The information to electors must make clear the last possible date for alerting the local council of non-receipt of a ballot paper, thus allowing plenty of time for an exchange of phone calls or correspondence and for the duplicate to be sent out and returned to the council so that it can be included in the ballot.
Many residents who had moved into the area since the previous election assumed that the fact that they paid council tax meant that they were automatically on the electoral roll. They were indignant to find that they were not. They believed that paying council tax entitled them to a vote, and I have much sympathy with that. Local authorities have an additional duty to encourage people who have moved into the area to ensure that they are on the electoral roll and not to rely on the fact that they pay council tax.
I am not sure whether the problem that I am about to consider was common to all the pilot schemes, or peculiar to the London borough of Havering, where a one-envelope system was used. Electors had to enclose their declaration of identity and their marked ballot paper in the same envelope, which contained a ward identification mark on the outside. At that point, the ballot ceased to be secret. A basic breach of confidentiality occurred and there was no guarantee that the council received the envelope. At the town hall, the two documents in the envelope had to be separated, and it was possible to see how an individual had voted. Indeed, that was difficult to avoid. I am not accusing council staff, who in the London borough of Havering are beyond reproach, or claiming that that actually happened. I am simply pointing out that it was perfectly possible, and that that is an obstacle that needs to be overcome.
Will my hon. Friend clarify whether representatives of political parties were present when the envelope was opened and the declaration of identity separated from the ballot paper? That would reinforce the risk of loss of confidentiality, of trust in the system and of voter anonymity.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I understand that representatives of political parties were not present, but I am prepared to be corrected on that.
It is also possible for envelopes that are identified by ward on the outside to be diverted or otherwise interfered with. Again, I stress that I have no suspicions that that happened in Havering, but it is possible. Interference could occur for political reasons when the likely voting intentions in a specific ward were predictable or consistent over several elections. It would therefore be possible to affect the outcome of an election.
The system compromises the security of the election in several ways. It involves more people in handling the paperwork at all stages of the election, from the preparation of ballot papers in council offices through their delivery—or non-delivery—by the Royal Mail and their storage for possibly three weeks after their return to the town hall. Ensuring that there is no interference with the accumulated ballot papers is another security issue.
In addition to his call for a referendum on the European constitution, the shadow Attorney-General, my hon. Friend Mr. Cash also refered to the 1,500 items of post that go missing every month in each of our constituencies. In a month in which there would be a large additional number of items—as would be the case when ballot papers were being sent out—it is therefore fair to assume that a number in excess of 1,500 would be likely to go missing.
There is a question here of voter confidence. People want to know that the town hall has indeed received their ballot papers when they have sent them back. Not only are there difficulties with voters receiving their ballot papers, but there is no guarantee, when they have filled them in and sent them back, that the town hall will have received them either. The ballot papers then have to be transferred from their local venue to the Electoral Commission for counting. All these different stages offer additional opportunities for fraud or complications in the electoral process. It is also less convenient for local scrutineers to attend a count in central London, including the London boroughs, than it is for them to go to a local count or to a town hall to observe the counting of postal votes. The whole system is simply not as reliable as the traditional method. In the interests of public confidence, the system has to be seen to be inviolate.
Many people had either not read the instructions that they received before the election, or not understood them properly. Many did not understand that no polling stations would be open, but by the time they realised that, on the morning of the election day, it was either too late or too difficult for them to get to the town hall, which was the only option open to them at that stage. If they could not get to the town hall before noon, they lost their opportunity to vote.
I have to confess that there was an increase in turnout at that election, but there were a lot of really high-profile local reasons for people wanting to vote. The local electorate were up in arms about council tax. Historically, the London borough of Havering had been underfunded for many years, and the long-awaited review of local government finance and the way in which central Government funds local government was imminent. People were expecting old wrongs to be put right. Unfortunately, their hopes were dashed, but at that stage they were still hopeful, so there was a very high level of interest in that local election, and it is difficult—perhaps impossible—to know how much of the increased turnout can be attributed to the postal voting system and how much to the high level of interest in council tax and other prominent issues.
The insecurity that I perceive in the system, along with the lack of confidence, the opportunities for interference and multiple voting, and the loss of opportunities for people to vote at all, are too high a price to pay for an increase in turnout. There is already a choice for everyone. Anyone who wants to vote by post can do so. People no longer have to justify their request for a postal vote. At one time, they had to give details of the holiday that they were taking, or state that they were likely to be in hospital or give reasons of employment in order to get a postal vote. Now, all that they have to do is request one, and they get it. Nobody is prevented from having a postal vote.
Furthermore, large numbers of people enjoy going and casting their vote personally at the polling station where they have always voted. There is a certain ceremony attached to it, and it seems to give the activity more significance. For those reasons, I would like to see the status quo retained, so that anyone who wishes to have a postal vote may have one, and anyone who wishes to cast their vote in person is still be able to do so.
Other hon. Members have mentioned internet and telephone polling. Those issues give me enormous cause for concern, because I perceive very high risks and far greater opportunities for corruption and interference in the process.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another point that has not yet been raised is the problem that would emerge if, in a national election, during the period between the closure of the postal voting procedure—which could be about 10 days before the election—and the election date, a significant statement were made that could dramatically affect the basis on which the people voting in person then decided to cast their votes?
I thank my hon. Friend for his profound intervention. Indeed, such a statement could change people's voting intentions significantly. Many people may have already cast their vote but may wish that they had not done so because they have changed their minds. The Minister may like to consider that in Committee.
The way to increase turnout is to persuade the electorate that there is some point in voting, and that they are voting for candidates who will represent their views, work hard and produce policies that will affect their everyday lives. They would then be far more likely to take an interest in an election. Casting a vote once every four years is hardly an onerous task. Some people enjoy doing it. They enjoy the significance of turning up personally and going through the little ceremony of entering the polling booth and casting their secret vote knowing that no one else knows how they have voted.
I support the status quo. People can ask for a postal vote if they want one, but those who want to vote in person should retain the right to do so.
Last week the Sunday Herald published the results of a survey of attitudes of young people in Scotland. It provides information that has a direct bearing on the debate. The survey was encouraging. When young people are asked what they think, rather than having views imputed to them, the findings show that they have a socially responsible attitude. However, the results of the survey of the attitudes of young people to voting were of concern. A question about the most important things that make someone a good citizen offered a number of options, and for the group aged 11 to 25 the lowest of all was voting in elections. Only 17 per cent. thought that voting in elections was important if they wanted to be a good citizen.
I am sure that that does not mean that the actual turnout for that group when they come to vote will be as low as 17 per cent. There is no immediate election—no general election is in the offing. Nevertheless, that low figure should worry us all, as it shows how little young people identify with the voting process. It does not suggest that the recent reductions in voter turnout will improve in the future when these young people come to vote.
We have had a mature debate, with only the occasional lapse into a more partisan argument. I accept there are a host of reasons why voter participation has declined. I do not believe that the problem of declining turnout will be solved only by technical solutions—some quick fix that will make things better so that more people vote. However, there are a number of ways to make it easier for people to vote, and they have a role in encouraging people to engage more in the electoral process.
I accept that people's alienation from the political process is part of the reason for a decline in turnout. However, before hon. Members get subsumed under a pall of doom and gloom, there is evidence to show that many other factors contribute to lower voter turnout, which we can address more easily than some of the more fundamental problems that have been referred to.
One of the biggest factors, which my right hon. Friend Joyce Quin mentioned, is the change in people's lifestyles. The traditional election day picture that is painted is one of people going along to vote in the morning, walking down to the polling station after they have done their shopping or at 5 o'clock on their way home from work. That picture does not reflect the reality of how many, probably most, people now lead their lives. They travel many miles to out-of-town shopping centres, and they return from work at all times of the day. Members leaving this place in the evenings must notice how many people are going home, clearly from work, at 8, 9 and 10 pm. We must not fall into the trap of self-righteously criticising the electorate for deciding that, having got home at that time of night, the last thing they want to do is go down to the polling station to exercise their democratic rights.
It may seem odd to those of us whom the Minister described earlier as aficionados of the electoral process—others might describe us as obsessives—that people do not necessarily want to do that, but we should not say that they are guilty of wilful apathy because they choose to lead their lives as we might not. I say that with respect to my hon. Friend Mr. Harris, who has just returned. If people want to go late-night shopping on a Thursday—Thursday being the traditional polling day—we should not tell them that they are not fulfilling their duty to society because they do not rush out to vote at 9.59 pm.
Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that, as well as a change in lifestyles, there is disenchantment with the electoral process and the way in which elections are conducted. As he will know, in the recent Scottish parliamentary elections things changed in all too many constituencies: the constituency Member became a list Member, and the list Member became a constituency Member. Did that lack of change not affect the electorate? Such arrangements will disenchant the vast majority of those about whom the hon. Gentleman is talking.
I said earlier that many factors were involved in lower turnouts. I am merely suggesting that we should not fall into the trap of assuming that all those factors explain the drop, given other important factors such as changes in lifestyle. June elections provide an example. Many people now go on holiday at all times of the year, rather than restricting their holidays to the traditional trades fortnight when towns and cities empty. We must not try to fit the voters into our preconceptions of how they should behave; we should make it easier for them to take part in the electoral process.
I mentioned young people's attitudes earlier. We must begin to consider such issues comprehensively. The more voters—young or old, new voters or people who have voted in many elections—become used to not voting, the more the idea that casting a vote is a civic duty will be rejected, by increasingly wide sections of the population.
That is why I believe that the time is right for the Bill. We have had local pilots involving new forms of voting for more than three years, and, for the most part, they have been successful. I agree with Angela Watkinson that there have been difficulties on occasion, but by and large they have succeeded not just in terms of their operation, but in increasing turnout.
I thought Mr. Cash was a little selective in his analysis of the turnout for postal voting which appeared in the briefing documents. He pointed out that some of the pilots had increased turnout, while others had reduced it. The fact is that, according to the Library, 54 of the 57 instances of all-postal voting featured an increased turnout, and only three featured a reduction—which was in any case a small reduction compared with some substantial increases.
This is the right time to take a further step towards the use of new voting methods, particularly all-postal ballots, and to make them the norm rather than exotic experiments. Of course, I accept the concerns, expressed by several Members, about the possibility of fraud in all-postal ballots and other new voting methods. It is essential that the possibility of fraud be minimised, and the measures that the Minister referred to in his opening contribution will certainly help to reduce that possibility. As has already been pointed out, there are many ways in which the current system is open to fraud. Indeed, if properly introduced the new system could actually reduce the prospect of fraud. Anti-fraud measures can be effective, and at the end of the day the best protection against electoral fraud resulting in an outcome other than that which the voters want is to increase voter turnout by genuine voters. Increasing the number of people voting in elections through the use of all-postal ballots and other new forms of voting will ensure a result that is a fairer reflection of the wish of the voters—a point that certainly outweighs the minuscule number of cases of electoral fraud in traditional or postal ballots.
I welcome the move towards greater use of postal ballots and other forms of voting, but further steps need to be taken if the new system is truly to result in the electorate's greater participation in the democratic process. I hope that the Minister will address some of these points when he replies to the debate, if he has time to do so. I agree that it is essential that the information and instructions given to voters about how to use postal ballots are kept as simple as possible. Examples have been given of people not knowing how to use the postal vote and failing to take advantage of the opportunity given to them; we must avoid such situations. I agree that there should be an extensive advertising campaign at national and local levels to ensure that voters are aware of the new system. That campaign should include not just advertising, but access to telephone helplines and to other ways in which voters' queries about the new system can be answered speedily, so that they are encouraged to use their democratic right.
I agree with the point made about the need to get assurances from Royal Mail about the delivery not just of ballot papers, but of election communications before ballot papers are received. I also agree that it is important that voters have several opportunities to deliver their postal ballot papers by hand, if they wish to do so, to delivery points in the local authority area. In most local authorities, more than just a single central point will be required. Given the absence of any need to provide clerks to issue ballot papers, this is surely the opportunity to provide ballot boxes and places for the receipt of ballot papers in many locations other than the traditional election venues.
I agree with those of my colleagues who have emphasised the importance of ensuring that the electoral register is as accurate as possible. Of course, that should happen anyway, but it is particularly important that the register be accurate if the possibility of postal ballots being sent to the wrong people is to be minimised. The register for next year is already in preparation, but having a rolling register enables us to add or remove names throughout the year. I should still like the Government and local government to carry out an effective, face-to-face, door-to-door canvass, particularly in those parts of the country in which all-postal ballots are used for European parliamentary elections. If that cannot be done for 2004, government at all levels should certainly introduce it for future elections.
In that connection, it is particularly important to make an effort to register, and to provide information to, ethnic minorities, particularly those for whom English is not their first language. I include in that category citizens of other European countries, who can of course vote in these elections, but who frequently do not realise that they can register and vote. My own experience of electioneering has shown that many citizens of other EU countries are not aware of their right to vote in these and other elections.
Finally, I turn briefly to the issue of which areas of the country should be used for the pilot postal ballot schemes and the elections next year. As a Member representing a Scottish constituency, I certainly welcome any suggestion that Scotland should be one of the pilot areas, and I urge the Electoral Commission to recommend it as one of those areas. I hope that the Government will make the necessary order when the time comes.
As hon. Members have pointed out, Scotland has no local elections taking place on the same day in 2004, so there is no risk of confusion. Another argument for choosing Scotland as one of the pilot regions is that it includes many remote and inaccessible areas, so postal ballots will make it easier for voters living there to cast their votes in the important elections next year. I found it hard to follow the bizarre logic of some Opposition Members—that because Scotland is particularly remote and inaccessible, it is the wrong region for a postal pilot. In my view, people in those areas should have an opportunity to cast their votes in next year's elections as a matter of course.
I am only too happy to make my position clear to the hon. Gentleman. What I said is that it would be more expensive to have a pilot in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman alluded to people in rural areas of Scotland having the opportunity to vote by post, but such people can already do so now. They have the opportunity to apply for a postal ballot. It is a straightforward process and they can vote by post.
Of course they can vote by post now. However, I see no reason why we should make it more complicated for them to do so. We were told that some people have difficulty accessing letterboxes, but it is difficult not to believe that a polling station is likely to be even further away. That provides a further reason why Scotland should have the opportunity to use internet and telephone polling so that people who cannot get to a letterbox in the constituency of Mr. Duncan, could use the phone or internet and cast their votes in that way instead.
Above all, it is appropriate to choose Scotland as one of the pilot areas for new methods of voting because it has been fortunate to experience the pushing out of the frontiers of democratic and constitutional reform. I am certainly proud of the Scottish Parliament and of the fact that Scotland has, by having proportional representation in Scottish elections, been at the forefront of the democratic reform of our constitution. I also hope shortly to see proportional representation in local government elections in Scotland. We have already been at the forefront of such reforms and I would like us to be at the forefront in this further respect.
The hon. Gentleman is trumpeting his belief in the Scottish position at the forefront of democratic experimentation, but does he agree that, given that there is a separate Scottish Parliament, we should end the gross over-representation of Scotland in the House?
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the number of Scottish MPs will reduce when the boundary commission completes its work—and there is no dispute about that. The hon. Gentleman should be concerned that, as a result of that process, his party's representation in the House in respect of Scotland might be reduced by 100 per cent.
In conclusion, I want Scotland to take the lead in democratic change, which will allow more people to reconnect with the political process. All democrats in Scotland should support such a move and only those concerned with narrow political advantage could possibly oppose it.
I remember well the original Bill that was the starting point for where we are today. Mr. Straw introduced that change in our electoral system from first-past-the-post to the list system, in his usual genial way. He talked about famous Belgians and we discussed Mr. d'Hondt and how the new system would make every vote count, so that increasing numbers would go out to vote. Unfortunately, he forgot an integral part of our electoral system—the candidate, and the influence of an individual in a general election or other election. That influence is good news for us all.
Most of us grow up in a political environment in which people claim that candidates do not count for much. I think that they do. Although the vast majority cast their vote for the political party that they support, they vest their hopes, support and interest in the individual who represents that party in the constituency. We all work and campaign hard in our constituencies, which pushes many of our supporters out to support us. We also probably push many of those who do not support us out to vote against us, and our opponents probably do the same. The level of activity, including the displaying of posters and cavalcades around the constituency, pushes turnout up all round.
The difficulty with the electoral system that we will have next June is that people will again be asked to vote for a political party rather than an individual, and in such large regions that people do not feel that they can make a difference. Indeed, it is depressing for candidates for the European Parliament to face electorates of 3 million, 4 million or 5 million. The candidates cannot cover the distances and they know that whatever work they do, it probably will not make much difference. The Government have vested their hopes in the system, not in the people who operate it. That is one of the reasons why turnout dropped from 36 per cent. in 1994 to 23 per cent. in 1999.
Although I am sure that postal voting will help to push turnout up, it is a fundamental flaw that people will not have the ability to vote for individuals. If the Government were really radical, they would go back to the first-past-the-post system. The argument at the time was that European constituencies were too large—comprising seven or eight parliamentary constituencies—and that that was not wise. A year later, the Government introduced the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which created first-past-the-post constituencies the size of boroughs, which were almost the size of the old European constituencies.
The Government have missed an opportunity to push turnout up in the most fundamental way by going back to first-past-the-post. A postal voting system will help turnout, but legitimate concerns arise, which have been expressed in the debate. My hon. Friend Angela Watkinson mentioned the concerns raised by not having two envelopes and questioned the security of postal ballots in her borough. We have already heard about the problems of houses in multiple occupation, or flats, which can lead to fraud. Fortunately, incidents of electoral fraud are rare in this country, but when they happen they almost always involve the operation of postal votes. Someone harvests postal votes in a particular ward and suspicion is aroused. The Government must continue to reassure people that the operation of postal votes will be arranged so as to minimise fraud.
The hon. Gentleman makes some good points. He is worried about the prospect for fraud, but we must recognise that the potential for fraud exists in any system. Whatever system is adopted, someone will always try to cheat it. I can reassure him that a postal voting system has been used in two local elections in Chorley, and turnout in the first was more than 60 per cent.—the highest in the country. The next time, turnout was the second highest in the country. The system was successful and I welcome the opportunity to try to increase turnout and encourage more people to exercise their franchise. I am sure that we would agree about that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and Chorley was mentioned earlier in the debate as an example of successful postal voting. The briefing paper from the Library shows an increase in turnout in local government elections of more than 15 per cent., sometimes more, sometimes less. So postal voting has led to higher turnouts, which is why the Conservative party will support an increase in it. People casting votes must believe that secrecy is being maintained, and that the system is being operated fairly.
Does my hon. Friend agree that an opportunity for fraud will arise if areas or regions are asked to adopt multiple voting strategies? For instance, where e-voting sits alongside postal voting, returning officers may be asked to monitor two or three separate flows of ballots as they come in. Does my hon. Friend agree that, under those circumstances, the job of policing fraud will become much harder?
That is a very good point. The Conservative party's position with respect to e-voting is much more reserved. As has been noted, there are concerns in the US about the security of such votes, and similar concerns have been expressed here.
The pilots that have been held show that postal voting pushes up turnout. I do not think that we need look to other systems of voting, although we should make it easier for people to get postal votes at general elections. If the Government were to say today that the whole of the European election was to be decided by postal vote, I believe that that would be legitimate. However, I am not so sure of the validity of the argument that part of the election should be conducted by postal vote.
A number of pilots have been held, and most have happened where councils have volunteered to conduct the experiment. We are now moving into very different territory. After consultation, the Government will tell certain regions that they will have to adopt the new system, and that causes me certain problems.
Electoral registration departments in many authorities have not received much investment in the past. Many struggle, on limited resources, to carry out their tasks. Some authorities are very good. They are switched on and efficient when it comes to dealing with votes and delivering the count, but other authorities are less so. Introducing a new system on a region-wide basis will mean that there is variety in the delivery of service.
As we have heard, it is very important, when moving to a postal voting system, to be able to inform the parties of what is going on. The experiment earlier this year in Guildford was quite successful in pushing up turnout, but every day the borough's returning officer told the political parties who had voted. The game, therefore, became a giant knock-up exercise, as parties determined who supported them.
I have no strong view one way or the other. What is important is that all parties are treated the same. I am concerned to ensure that all authorities in regions with postal voting are efficient enough to be able to tell the political parties about the returns in a particular constituency or borough. That should be the model. We know that provision varies, and that is one reason why the Electoral Commission has been looking into how returning officers provide their services.
The point was made by the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Moray (Angus Robertson) that postal voting makes for a different type of election. A problem arises that has to do with how political parties time the climax to their campaigns. A mixed system causes difficulties in that respect.
In the normal run of things, the vast majority of voters—90-odd per cent.—go down to polling stations. However, some postal voting takes place even then, and people are able to vote a week or 10 days before the final poll. Broadly speaking, the parties know their expenditure limits and the point in their campaigns when they want to get their message across so that people go out and vote for them. A system that means that the important date is a week or 10 days before polling day for one chunk of the country, when the vast majority of people in the neighbouring region will turn out to vote on polling day, will cause problems in respect of advertising, television and the delivery of a particular message.
That adds to the complications, and we are already confined by the fairly strong straitjacket imposed by the legislation on political parties and referendums.
Is the hon. Gentleman not in danger of saying that elections should be run for the convenience of political parties rather than of voters?
It is important, as long as we are sensible, that political parties should be happy with the arrangements, too. If I have a criticism of the Government it is that they have not always consulted widely on some of the changes that they have introduced. It is important that those who operate the system should be seen to be fair as we deliver our message. There is no reason not to take into account the concerns of all the political parties in setting up the arrangements.
We are in favour of postal voting, although we have some concerns about security. We are more anxious about e-voting and some of the newer systems. However, if we are to reconnect with people we must make fundamental changes rather than merely tinkering with the arrangements. We need to get back to individuals and candidates, because they matter more than systems.
I am not a pessimist about turnout. At present, everyone involved in the political process seems to be terribly depressed because turnout is down. However, the Library briefing shows that turnout did not change much between the second world war and 1997; it bobbed up and down during the 1970s, and at some points people had a stronger wish to vote than at others. In the February 1974 election, when I was still at school, there was a high turnout, owing to the miners' strike and the three-day week. Television broadcasts were reduced and there was a sense of crisis, so many people voted, although I would not argue that that was a successful way of getting people to vote. The rise in turnout compared with 1970 may have been a material factor in the Conservative defeat in February 1974. People wanted to express their concern about the state of the country.
In 1992, turnout was high because many people wanted to get rid of the Government and many people wanted to keep them. There was pressure from both ends of the political spectrum, so turnout was high.
Several years before the 2001 election, opinion polls had been telling people that the result was a foregone conclusion, which had a material effect on turnout. Opinion polls influence behaviour, so it would be a perfectly respectable argument that banning them for a period could change the nature of elections and get people to vote. My only reservation would be that if official opinion polls were banned, people might move into the vacuum and make them up, as the Liberal Democrats did in their little newspaper during the Brent, East by-election. However, opinion polls do sometimes depress turnout.
A new question in opinion polls is, "Do you intend to vote at the next election?", so does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the media constantly report the fact that fewer and fewer people will turn out to vote, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—and the media should take some of the responsibility for lower turnouts?
We want to raise turnout in the elections next June and some of the Bill's provisions will be helpful. One can be genuinely critical of the fact that we are not going entirely one way or the other. There are problems in focusing on particular regions, as is currently being proposed. We need to consider what has not been included in the Bill, because the Government could have done much more to encourage turnout in general elections.
I hope that turnout will rise in June. As the turnout in the previous European election was so appallingly low, there is a chance that it may be higher next time. There are signs from the last two local elections that turnout is rising. If people thought that elections would be more competitive, turnout would start to increase.
Mr. Harris made a good point about the attitude of the public: if there is full employment, when there may be fewer dragons to slay, people may have less motivation to turn out. However, that may not last for ever.If people care passionately about things, they may be more determined to vote. I am not convinced that we shall have ever-lower turnouts. I am sure that in future there will be issues that regenerate people's interest in democracy. It is a pity that we have been landed with this awful list system for the European elections next June.
I welcome the Bill. I see it as a very important way to introduce innovatory voting methods that could reinvigorate democracy. This is a complex debate and what I say may be full of ifs and buts, but I believe that we need to consider how to reinvigorate democracy.
In my early days, in my first election in 1955, my father fought the seat of Vale of Glamorgan, and the percentage vote cast was 89 per cent. It was a Conservative seat, with a 20,000 majority. It is now a Labour seat, and I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr. Smith will ensure at some stage that he too may achieve a 20,000 majority, but the point is that all of us hang so much on the argument about turnout. How many people vote indicates to us all the sense of importance or value placed on politics, legislation and government. We underestimate or undermine the argument if we do not see the value of turnout—it shows people's trust and their confidence in voting.
The Bill is important, but re-engaging people with politics is not solely about persuading them to vote. We have to persuade them that the political discussions that we are involved in are real and valuable to them. We have listening schedules and on-street surgeries. We all use questionnaires. We do an awful lot to engage with the wider population—with our constituents—to persuade them that there are real debates here. Sometimes, some of us feel overwhelmed by the robust nature of our constituent's opinions. We have only to listen to them talking about hunting with dogs, third world debt or the controls that they want on fireworks to know that they are very engaged with the political debate. So if people are involved in political debates, it is important for us to ask why they find it so much more difficult or impossible to vote in the great numbers that voted when I was a child.
I was singularly depressed in 2001, when the number of people who turned out in Stockton, South went down by 11 per cent. In 1997, 72 per cent. voted. In 2001, 61 per cent. voted. I believed that I had energetically and robustly engaged with my electorate in all manner of ways, persuading them that political discussion—political challenge—is valuable. I was seriously depressed so I carried out a survey. A small team and I spoke to 500 people—not thousands, I know—so I do not necessarily suggest that the analysis has to be accepted by all. We asked people why they had not voted. Was it because they could not be bothered? Were they not engaged in the political process? We got a very clear response. Yes, some of them said, "You're all the same. You don't deliver on your promises", but overwhelmingly, people said, "You changed the date of the anticipated election. It was not May, as we thought, but June, and we were too late to request a postal vote."
Mr. Cash asked why the 2001 election bucked the trend, when the number of people who did not vote doubled. We were very concerned about the foot and mouth episode, so the election was delayed. Let me tell him what my small survey shows. People were caught off guard and had not asked for a postal vote.
Other answers were given to me. People work shift systems, and many work offshore and are not available to vote during their normal working activity, as they are away for six weeks at a time. Many of my 18 to 21-year-olds told me that they were in the middle of their final examinations and had no time to consider voting in an election. It is therefore important for us to understand that people have complex lives, which are not run according to a normal 8 to 5 day.
The hon. Lady will of course be aware that it is open to any elector to choose a permanent postal vote. They do not have to ask for one for a specific election—they can have one for every election, and that arrangement can be made well in advance.
The hon. Lady is correct, but when unpredictable things happen, people do not have the opportunity to apply, and the time intervals are too tight. Many people felt that they were disfranchised because the election was moved from the anticipated date, not the stated date.
Having done a small piece of research to try to understand why my electorate had dropped, in turnout terms, from 72 per cent. to 61 per cent., I became much less depressed about my ability to engage with people locally. I began to believe that perhaps the electoral system was far too inflexible and rigid for people who perhaps go into hospital or go on holiday at the last minute, who cannot vote in the normal way at a polling station and who require the option of a postal vote. I therefore concluded that we must consider people-friendly voting activity, and pilots of postal voting seem to be an appropriate option.
In the northern region, there have been 13 pilots of postal voting. From my knowledge, the pilots to date have been successful if we consider the one measure on which many of us hang our coats again and again—the number of people who express their voting preference. To date, in all-postal ballots, upwards of 50 per cent. of the population have voted. In fact, the increase in the number of people voting has been 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. My right hon. Friend Joyce Quin stated her case about Gateshead, but it is also the case for Sunderland. In fact, in some wards in Sunderland turnout was more than 60 per cent., and in my area of Stockton it was well above 50 per cent. That pilot is being used to persuade others to come on board to say that they have the opportunity to express their opinions and that we are giving them a flexible option to do so.
I am keen to say to the Minister, as many of my colleagues have said this afternoon, that because the northern region has had 13 different pilots, we have a great deal of valuable experience. Consequently, that leads me to persuade him that we should be one of the pilots chosen for the 2004 European and local elections. Across the region, we would see Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats as well as Labour seats involved in pilots of postal voting. I also say to him that many people in my constituency who have voted by post once, found that it was so user friendly that they believe that the opportunity will be open to them on all future occasions. It will be very difficult for me to explain to them that it was a one-off pilot and that it will not be available in the future. It is therefore important for the Minister to understand that people adapt quickly to new ways of doing things, and that this has been such a valuable experience that many people, if not the majority, would want to have that opportunity again.
All material published to date by the Electoral Commission, and some published by the Hansard Society, shows the worry about how to get people-friendly politics to work in our community. The assessment of voting pilots to date clearly shows what people think about voting by post because they use words such as "easy", "convenient" and "popular". The system gives people the opportunity to express their vote in a manner that references their lifestyles and home lives.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a world of difference between voting by post out of choice and being compelled to vote by post? People who are compelled to vote by post are deprived of the opportunity to cast their vote in person at a polling station.
The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. I listened with great care to the part of her speech about how we can secure the system and ensure that fraud is minimised. However, she described a quite different situation from the way in which the postal vote system operated in my constituency and region, so I quickly wrote some comments down. I could well be wrong but I think that we operated a marked register somewhere in the northern region, if not in Stockton. All parties knew who had voted and at what stage that had happened throughout the process. Secondly, and valuably, voters in Stockton, South could take their postal ballot by hand to a polling station on the day of the election. As the hon. Lady rightly said, we believed that it was important to give people the widest and most flexible possible opportunity to express their vote. People had two options: they could post their vote or take their postal vote to a polling station, so a safety net was established.
It is crucial that we get the system right because many hon. Members have expressed the fear that fraud will occur. I read all the reports on the northern region's pilot studies because, naturally, we do not want to be part of systems that reduce politics in any way. Politics is reduced enough by far too much unscrupulous press coverage, so I do not want any more of the same. I tell the hon. Lady that I know of no concerns about, or evidence of, serious security issues during the pilot studies and that no challenge was made on the basis of fraud. That was said by all participating parties, which included the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative and Labour parties. We were all involved in watching and scrutinising how the 13 constituencies operated postal voting.
My worry is the potential for fraud and whether safeguards have yet been fully worked out to police fraud so that it cannot take off. When we pass legislation, our worry is about how people will respond in the long term, not necessarily during the first trial.
I would not undermine that statement for one minute. Each and every one of us wants to scrutinise the whole system so that we can be reassured again and again that fraud will be minimised.
First and foremost, I believe that we want to reinvigorate democracy and measure democratic involvement using the one method that we have always used—voting activity. However, equally, while invigorating democracy, we all want to ensure that we keep up to date with methods to the same extent as people throughout the country. Time and time again young people say to me, "What about e-voting?" I am cold to that method. I do not want to e-vote because I like going to the ballot box in a polling station, but young people press the case. They ask about text voting. I have no sense of involvement with that either, but it is clear that young people do. It is important for this legislature to have a wide-ranging discussion on possible pilots, as we have done today. We must also acknowledge the views of people outside the Chamber who think that we are not as up to date as they are and do not give them the opportunities to which they believe they are entitled. We are discussing one small pilot. It does not answer the whole case. We are not going to reinvigorate democracy simply by introducing this small measure, which I support.
I stress to my hon. Friend the Minister that the northern region has had 13 successful pilots, in which the turnout increased by 20 to 25 per cent. It is an obvious place to locate pilots for the European and local government elections in 2004.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in support of the Government. I always wish to do so, but sometimes they let me down.
I support what is proposed because we must do everything we can to improve turnout at elections. Getting people out to vote is important. I draw lessons from the Library report, which surveys the various experiments that took place. I note, however, that extending voting hours reduced the turnout in every case: the logical conclusion of that is if we allow people 20 minutes to vote at some point during the day, virtually everyone will make it. I see that the Government have not been sufficiently bold to pursue that.
I support the aim of making it easier for people to vote, but that does not address all the issues. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Parliament is not adequately tackling our failure to interest enough people in politics. There are many problems that the Bill and the Government do not address. The first is the culture of the yah-boo politics of confrontation, which undoubtedly alienates young people. My children and their friends frequently comment on our behaviour. They think we behave like young children in a minor English public school as we shout back and forth at each other across the Benches. I have occasionally indulged in that myself, Mr. Kettle, but none the less I recognise the need to repent, and I am willing to do so if others are willing to do likewise.
I will come to that.
The second reason why we are losing public support is the culture of spin and over-presentation. Politics as a brand of show business has been introduced to a great extent by some members of the Government. We must consciously break away from that. Spinning the end of spin is not sufficient—genuine recantation and reform are needed rather than just the presentation of them.We should consider seriously the way in which we balance the need to end the excessive rigidity of the whipping system and the need to ensure that parties and groups are not over-divided. That balance needs to be struck in a way that enables us to engage more with the public, who on the one hand do not like clones but on the other do not like undue splits and divisions. It is a question of managing to strike that balance in a mature fashion.
I should like to touch on the serious matter of low turnout, which is politically malign. People who do not vote are usually those who need politics the most, including the poorest and the least educated. Those who most need the state's efforts are often those who make the least effort to influence affairs of state. Politics therefore increasingly becomes a contest for the votes of the prosperous—it is a bidding contest for the votes of the articulate middle class. However, many of the people I seek to represent find themselves neglected and ignored. I do not believe—in this I support the views of one of the Opposition speakers—that that decline is inevitable. It depends on whether or not we can engage with the population as a whole. Had we had a general election or an opportunity for the expression of popular support during the Iraq war, there would have been a tremendously high turnout, particularly among young people, because they engaged with the issue. But there is a disconnection between the issues about which they feel strongly and the ways in which they can express their views.
As always, I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that if the Government allowed a vote and referendum on the EU constitution—an issue on which he and I would be campaigning on the same side—there would be a large turnout and a decisive rejection of the constitution?
I believe that that is an issue with which the public could engage. Because they would be engaged with it in a way that the Government do not want, the Government are declining to allow a referendum. The reason why we have not joined the euro is that a commitment was made some time ago to have a referendum, which the Government have declined to hold as they know that they would lose. Similarly, they are resisting a referendum on the new European constitution because they believe that they would be defeated. Some people in favour of the new constitution have argued that the only way in which change will be achieved is to engage the public by putting the issues before them through the forum of a referendum, from which a genuine decision will flow. I support that position. We cannot continue to have a political elite leading us further down a particular road in European decision making and politics without the people's consent, which is almost deliberately designed to increase alienation, discontent and unhappiness. When that alienation and discontent cannot find legitimate political expression, there are swings to the extremes, of the kind that have sadly taken place in some parts of Europe in recent years.
However, I digress, and shall turn to the European elections themselves. There are a number of reasons why European turnouts have been so low. First, as many Members have mentioned, there is the question of proportional representation. Undoubtedly, the introduction of huge constituencies with list members with whom virtually nobody can identify has driven down voter turnout, engagement and participation. I fail to comprehend why the Government are not prepared to recognise that. I admit that Europe will probably not allow us to change our electoral system, but the Government ought at least to acknowledge that and say honestly, "We would like to change the system. It is not our fault. We recognise that first-past-the-post Members would allow more of you to be adequately represented, but this is one of the prices that we have paid." A straightforward admission would be helpful.
The closed list system and the jiggery-pokery that has gone on not only in my party, but in the Conservative party and others, whereby people have been selected for lists for various reasons, not all of which are publicly available, has undoubtedly reduced the attraction of participation for many.
The third reason for low turnout is the dislocation between the British public and the great European adventure in general. We must look for ways of re-establishing contact. It was suggested not long ago by one Minister that the European elections should be turned into a referendum on the European constitution. If the Government were prepared to accept that the European elections would be a referendum on the European constitution, I can see that that would be helpful in terms of driving up turnout. However, it would not be helpful to my party's cause, so I very much hope that the Government would not take that course of action, and would seek by any means possible to avoid the European elections becoming a referendum on the European constitution.
The best way of doing that is by holding a separate referendum on the European constitution, thereby parking the issue on one side of the European elections, so that the elections can take place in the context of the European constitution, yea or nay. It would be immensely helpful for the engagement of the British public in politics if spokesmen, of the Government in particular, did not make the entirely false assumption that anyone who wants a referendum on the European constitution ipso facto wants us to withdraw entirely from the European Union. That is a foul slander from which, in the interests of honesty and openness in politics, I hope the Government will refrain in future.
I turn to the provisions for the checks on fraud. Many of the earlier speakers mentioned points that I would otherwise have made. I want some explanation of the process whereby the Electoral Commission came to the conclusion that all the pilots have been acceptable and free from fraud. I wonder how many members of the Electoral Commission have ever stood in a tight selection in a political party context or in a trade union election. That might be a valuable learning experience, which would demonstrate that the theory of elections is not always the practice.
In council elections, wards can be won when there are relatively small amounts of fraud. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Lazarowicz that the best way to defeat fraud in large elections is to bump up the turnout. However, in elections for individual wards, fraud can significantly affect the result. I seek the Minister's clarification of the amount of back-checking that has been done. The fact that there have been no complaints does not necessarily mean that there has been no fraud.
With reference to postal voting, for example, how many signatures accompanying the ballot paper that came in have been compared with the signature on the application form? How many ballots have been ruled out because the two did not match? If there are no examples of checking and no examples of ballot papers being ruled out, I find it difficult to believe that there has been no fraud whatever. My only significant experience of postal voting was an internal Labour party election in Glasgow, where it was run so inadequately that the whole ballot had to be re-run. It is impossible to believe that that has not happened elsewhere. Those ballot papers were ruled out for a variety of reasons, some of which were innocent: for example, people had rushed their signature on one occasion, but not another; or people whose first language was not English had expressed themselves slightly differently on two separate occasions. Nevertheless, it raised enough doubts in my mind to make me somewhat cynical about the merits of postal voting in small electoral divisions.
On e-voting, would the mere possession of a number allow someone to cast a vote on someone else's behalf? The United Kingdom is now a multicultural community, and different attitudes to democracy are found among many of the groups that make up our country. I am not certain whether the traditional view is necessarily the only correct one. If, say, a godfather collects numbers from an extended family, or on the basis of comradeship or commercial links, should that be condemned in every case? Are we right to say that there should be individual, rather than collective, voting? [Hon. Members: "What's the answer?"] I think I know the answer, but I want to know what steps the Government are taking to ensure that what we might see as malpractice is being stamped out. All the evidence—anecdotal, not from the Electoral Commission—shows that such malpractice is occurring.
I am not convinced that the Government are taking that issue sufficiently seriously. I have argued that they should be bold and experimental in several respects, but in some areas more caution is required: we must retain people's trust in the electoral system by ensuring that its integrity is beyond doubt. Can the Minister tell us how many reverse checks have been made? How many people who voted electronically were subsequently approached and asked whether they voted, or whether other people, by a variety of methods, cast votes on their behalf? Let us check whether the system is foolproof.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not having been present at the start of his comments. Does he agree that one of the most simple and effective safeguards in making such checks is a marked-up register, and that it is essential to have such a register in any pilot region where postal voting takes place?
I was about to come to that point, but I shall deal with it now. I am not entirely familiar with the details of the marked-up register system, but hon. Members on both sides of the House have made valuable points about it. So far, the Government seem to have provided the strongest possible assurances that as much as possible is being done, and I look forward to the Minister's confirmation that that will be adhered to.
I want to ask the Minister about recounts. Having participated in elections where recounts have been necessary, whether to save a deposit or to determine who has won, I have never been entirely clear about how a satisfactory recount can be conducted where there is electronic voting. The old paper piles have the merit that they can be stacked up and looked through one by one. I am not clear about the electronic voting equivalent. Unless the system can demonstrate beyond peradventure that the votes have been cast and counted accurately, there will always be a suspicion that those who know how to manipulate the technology have rigged the results.
Like many others, I was interested to read in a national newspaper reports of anxiety in the United States about the possible misuse of electronic voting. The Americans cannot run even a mechanical system properly, and it is unrealistic to expect them to run anything more complicated more coherently. We should not simply jump into something that is perceived to be technologically at the cutting edge.
I apologise for missing my hon. Friend's opening remarks. When I was a party agent in Ealing some years ago, there was a recount and genuine difficulties arose because some of the bundles of paper had been lost; they were misplaced under another table. The joy and advantage of electronic voting is that such a problem simply would not occur. It is much easier to compile the information and it should be quicker to count the votes in the first place.
Gosh. I am not sure what constitutes the electronic equivalent to being lost under a table, but if it can be done with bits of paper, I am sure that it can be done with gee-whizzery. I find it difficult to operate my computer and I cannot believe that everybody else operates theirs to the highest possible standard and that there is no scope for jiggery-pokery. It is not clear how we could be confident that a recount was being conducted according to the highest standards.
My hon. Friend's argument reminds me a little of that of a constituent, who explained carefully, in a seven-page letter, the reason for voting in pencil. He argued that it was so that "they" could alter the results. I asked him how I got elected when "they" altered the results. My hon. Friend is presenting conspiracy theories.
I can give my hon. Friend's constituent a simple explanation: I always thought that he was one of "they". I rest my case.
Let me remind the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr. Lammy, of the saying that we are at our best when we are at our boldest. I hope that when he sums up, he will be a little bolder than his fellow Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie, who opened the debate. [Interruption.] I am an optimist. Nobody is beyond redemption. My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham is too young to be completely institutionalised.
We should consider a pilot for first past the post. As I said earlier, I do not understand why we cannot hold a first-past-the-post pilot in Scotland in the European elections to ascertain whether the turnout increases drastically.
How is it possible to hold a first-past-the-post election for the European Parliament in any region, given that under treaty obligations, the United Kingdom and every other European Union member state must have the same or a similar proportional representation electoral system?
The hon. Gentleman does not appreciate the extent of the Prime Minister's influence with our European partners. I am convinced that if we had the will, we could debate with our European partners and tell them that we were being bold. We could say, "We are at our best when we are at our boldest and we call on you to agree to the experiment." There would be something in that for many of our European colleagues, because if we managed to find a method of increasing people's connection to the European Parliament, they might want to copy it. The falling turnout in European elections is happening not only in the United Kingdom but everywhere else in the European Union.
It is no coincidence that in virtually every referendum held in the European Union, "they"—whether it is my hon. Friend Mr. Miller or his colleagues—lose. Those who are running the system lose referendums. It is only when they have to re-run them—as in Ireland—that they occasionally win them.
I notice that the Minister has had to bring in reinforcements now that we are discussing the question of boldness. My second point about boldness was also raised obliquely by my hon. Friend Mr. Harris; it concerns the question of compulsory voting. Have the Government considered looking at the Australian example? I was in Australia recently and I was struck by the fact that, over there, compulsory voting, which would seem contentious in the extreme to us, is now accepted as part of the furniture. This raises the issue of people's rights and responsibilities. All the citizens of this country have rights—quite rightly so—and we are seeking to expand them. There is also an issue of responsibilities. In Australia, people have the opportunity to go along and not vote, but they actually have to make the effort to make that decision, as it were. We ought at least to be seriously considering that option.
My third point concerning boldness relates to a referendum on the European constitution. I have already touched on whether we could have a pilot on this. We could ask people whether they would like to have a referendum. Public opinion indicates overwhelmingly that people wish to have a voice on the new European constitution. I am not entirely familiar with the position taken by all the Irish parties, but I think that every party bar my own, which is split on this question, is now in favour of a referendum on it. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to increase interest in politics and get himself on the news tonight by announcing that we are to have a referendum on the European constitution.
The final point about boldness that I would like the Minister to consider is the question of the simplification of the electoral system. As has already been mentioned, in Scotland, we are in danger of having four different levels of government with four different electoral systems. That is clearly a recipe for confusion. The European Union might well not allow us to consider anything other than proportional representation at European level. However, we are still open to having a similar or equivalent system across the three other tiers. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to say that the Government will introduce positive proposals in due course for a first-past-the-post system for the Scottish Parliament. In consequence, we could then ensure that first past the post could be retained for Scottish local government as well.
I would like to say how grateful I am that the new sitting hours of the House have the last speaker finishing at 7 o'clock rather than 10 o'clock. Given the lack of interventions, I am not sure that, if we had had to continue until 10 o'clock, I would have been able to abide by the Whips' exhortation to keep things going as long as possible.
I support the Government in this matter. What they have done is necessary but not sufficient, and I hope that when the Minister comes to his summation, he will be bold and take up some of the very positive suggestions that have been made by my colleagues and me.
This is quite an important debate. [Laughter.] Opposition Members may laugh and Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members chuckle, but some of us have experience of pilot schemes for postal voting. I shall explain what has happened in Chorley in the past two years. It may be a lesson for the Liberal Democrats, but that is never hard. It is important to discuss previous experience.
We were lucky in Chorley. Two years ago, not just the Labour group that runs the borough council—far from it—but all three political parties and the independent councillors wanted to encourage the good electors of Chorley to exercise their franchise again. The Liberal Democrat vote collapsed in the local elections, and we felt sorry for them. We felt sorry for all political parties. Once the vote goes below 30 per cent. in certain wards, the problem must be addressed. One of the ways to deal with the problem of people not voting is to give them more time and more opportunity to vote. We believed that the right thing to do was to apply for a pilot in postal voting.
Two years ago, the leader of the council, Jack Wilson, the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and a couple of Independants agreed to work together to try to persuade more people to vote. They said that if someone objected they would not proceed. It is important that the political parties work together to ensure that more people use their democratic right.
Will the hon. Gentleman advise his hon. Friends on the Front Bench that any pilot in any electoral region in the UK should have the support of the main political parties in that region?
I am talking about Chorley borough council. The council felt that that was right. If the hon. Gentleman welcomes the position of the Labour leader of Chorley borough council that is fine, but I want to explain how it worked in Chorley. It is up to the people to decide how it should work in the hon. Gentleman's own country. It is not up to me to decide what is good for Scotland. It is up to the Minister and the hon. Gentleman to negotiate and discuss that. It is not for me to influence the views of the people of Scotland. I have no wish to do that, because I do not want my postbag to be full of letters from Scotland. I shall concentrate on the experience of Chorley.
Leaders of all the political parties in Chorley worked together. They wanted to encourage more people to vote, and they wanted to be in the first pilot scheme. The chief executive, Jeff Davies, who has been there a long time, had seen a declining turnout at every local election. In the general election, there was a 62 per cent. turnout. I was asked why I could bring in 62 per cent. whereas in wards the turnout was down to 24 per cent.
It was decided that an application should be made for Chorley to be in the first wave of pilot schemes. That application was successful. Thankfully, it went very well. Councillors had to change the way in which they canvassed. They had a new system to work with, and all political parties were sceptical about whether it would work. We wondered how we would let the public know that there was a new scheme and a new way to vote. We got the newspapers involved, because the media have a role to play. They are good at persuading people not to vote by condemning us and showing us up. However, the local newspapers were helpful and urged their readers to get behind this new idea.
On the side of the town hall and the council offices was a thermometer, and each day as the votes came in the thermometer rose nicely. It worked. People were engaged with the new way of voting. It encouraged people who had never voted before, who did not like the system or were afraid of going into the polling station. I do not know whether it is agoraphobia, but some people have a fear of the ballot box. They were able to vote at home and post their ballot paper to the town hall.
Royal Mail played its part. This is about partnership. We had the co-operation of the media, the council officers, who had a new system to work with, the political parties and Royal Mail, which emptied the postboxes and made two deliveries a day to the town hall. The advantage was that representatives from each of the political parties watched the ballot papers being opened, checked, bundled and put away. The bar codes were also checked, so we knew that the ballot papers were correct. That system was very successful.
At the end of each day the turnout was shown, so that, as was the case when people stood outside polling stations and asked voters for their card numbers, the candidate knew the percentage and where the votes were coming from. Of course he would have to decide for himself whether those votes were for him or for someone else. No doubt someone as popular as the hon. Gentleman would assume that they had all been for him.
People's imaginations were caught. They were asking each other "Have you voted?" Not wanting to trust their votes to Royal Mail, they were arriving at the town hall to deliver them in person. There was a ballot box for those who wanted to use it, which had to be emptied four or five times a day. That shows how successful was the pilot of two years ago. Indeed, it produced the highest local-election vote in the country. Chorley has a lot to shout about—although I will always shout on its behalf, for I am very parochial and very proud of Chorley.
My hon. Friend speaks on the basis of great experience—experience of possibly just one election in Chorley. Does he agree that postal voting is often confusing, especially for older people? That applies not least to my area, in which next year not one, not two but three elections will take place—European, local and parish, each featuring a different system. For that reason Newcastle borough council, on a cross-party basis, recently urged the west midlands not to be part of a pilot next year.
Does my hon. Friend not think, notwithstanding his experience in Chorley, that if we do have pilots it will be best to go for the best of both—
Should the postal vote not serve as a supplementary to the tried and trusted method of the ballot box, the difference being that people could take their ballot papers along with them on the day?
I am interested to learn that the west midlands have opted out. That leaves a few of us who can bid. I hope that the north-west will again be one of the chosen areas, so that the people of Chorley can benefit.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend wants to express his views, and to exclude his own authority from the postal vote. That is fine, for this is really about what we believe is best for our areas. I can only describe the success we have experienced in Chorley—and it was not just in one election. Far from it: there were two. I was going to come to the second later.
Claustrophobic people who do not like going into polling booths, and indeed agoraphobic people who do not like leaving their houses, have always had the option of a postal vote. They can have a permanent postal vote if they like. It is not a new option; it is the compulsion that is new.
That is true, but there has not been much take-up in the past. People have had to apply, and there have always been restrictions. Until recently, reasons for being allowed a postal vote were limited. Some doctors were unwilling to sign the form allowing such a vote, while others wanted to charge a fee. That was one of the problems. Now people are being offered a golden opportunity. Some regions may not want it, but others, such as mine, are saying, "We want to go ahead. We want to be part of the new trial." That is what Chorley wants: all the political parties have agreed that they want to take part for a third time.
Those parties were making a voluntary decision. In this instance, the UK Government are deciding which region will take part in the trial. Should not the financial burden therefore fall on the Government?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that point, which he keeps trying to get across. In fact, the matter went before the full council, so the full council took the decision. In effect, the hon. Gentleman is saying that this House should take such decisions, and I welcome that view. I totally agree: let us put the question to the House and accept the House's decision. That is exactly what happened with Chorley town hall, which took the decision. The hon. Gentleman is taking a very good line that we ought to encourage.
The hon. Gentleman is so generous in giving way. The point was made earlier about the confusion caused by long and complicated ballot papers, with which people can get assistance at polling stations, if necessary. However, there is also the question of those who spoil ballot papers and have to get another paper from the returning officer's desk. What provision is made for that problem in postal voting, and for fraud, impersonation and the stealing of other people's ballot papers?
The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points, but those who lost ballot papers or made mistakes filling them in applied for new ones, which were duly issued. We can overcome that problem, but I should point out that this great belief that fraud does not occur under the old system is a little naive. Part of the problem is that under the old system we do not know that the person who goes into the polling station and puts a vote in the ballot box is the person who should be voting. Nor do we know how much fraud goes on. We have heard many stories about people who have impersonated others and voted five or six times, so there has always been fraud. However, you are right to raise the point, and I can tell you that when Chorley undertook the trial, the postal vote—
Of course he is an hon. Gentleman—is that better, Madam Deputy Speaker? We are all hon. Members, which is why this is an important debate. I am pleased that we can get a little humour into the Chamber now and again; nevertheless, this is an important subject.
What is crucial is how many additional people will vote under the new system. I agree that no system can be 100 per cent. right, but in the case of the first trial in Chorley, when we franchised the postal vote system, a security check was carried out afterwards. Certain people were picked off the register, their votes were checked and they were all correct. As with everything, there will doubtless always be some fraud somewhere, but in fairness it should be pointed out that a security check was carried out, and that the electoral returning officer, the council leaders and everybody else were happy with the system.
Because of the success of the first year, Chorley's political leaders decided to put the matter before the full council, and the town hall decided to apply for the second wave. That happened for two reasons. First, the Government provide a subsidy to pay for elections; secondly, the town hall's electoral system had been modernised. For the following election, not only postal voting but texting and computers were used, so votes could be e-mailed. Following the huge success of the first wave—the voting figure was 62 per cent., just 1 per cent. behind the general election figure—we wondered whether the second wave would repeat that success or fall back to 25 per cent. The key point was whether, after the novelty of the first year, the figure would fall right back. So it was crucial to have a two-year trial to discover what people thought of the system. In fairness, the figure did drop in the second year, but not significantly so. It was still well over the magical 50 per cent. figure, which was important. Interestingly, during the first trial the figure for one particular ward was 78 per cent., so there was some enthusiasm in certain wards. People wondered, "Can our ward be better than another ward?"
It is interesting to hear that the beaming light of democracy is strong and vibrant in Chorley, but does my hon. Friend agree that if we take postal voting away from constituencies such as that of my right hon. Friend Joyce Quin, where postal voting has been used for three years, the situation will seem strange and turnout might plummet dramatically? That might even prove true in bastions of democracy such as Chorley.
I welcome my hon. Friend's contribution. He highlights a problem that could emerge if we are not careful. It is the Chorley experience that we are worried about. We built up the vote over two years. Did it fall away in the second year? No, it did not. People still welcomed the opportunity of having different days on which to vote. That was important. The danger now is that people have got used to postal voting. If that is taken away, would the vote collapse back to what it was previously?
The hon. Gentleman is generous in allowing me to intervene. He paints such an exciting picture of elections in Chorley that I almost wish I lived there. Is no one in Chorley unhappy about the removal of choice in how to cast their votes? Do no Chorley electors wish that they could still cast their votes in person? Does no one object to compulsory voting?
That is a very good point. There will always be someone who argues against any system. Some people argue against the system that we have now. I would say that it was only a minority of people who did not like the new system, but in democracies we must talk about the majority. I hope that we are all democrats here and accept the majority view. That is what happened in Chorley. It was about the majority of people accepting the new system.
It is important to realise that if people wanted the ballot paper to go into the ballot box, that option was available to them, because they could troop down to the town hall with their envelopes. The ballot box was there and they could put their ballot papers into it, just as under the old system. That choice was still there, which is important. If people wanted their votes to go into the ballot box, that was still available to them. That was crucial. Even on the closing of the polls, the town hall's ballot box was still open. If for some unknown reason people missed the mail on the day before or forgot to take the vote in, they could still dash down and vote at the town hall until the close of the poll. That is important when we are talking about systems and it explains why I welcome the system. All we can talk about is experience, and the experience in Chorley shows that the system worked. I hope that the north-west will benefit once again when we franchise the new system and pilot it.
Other hon. Members have quite rightly spoken. Some Members from the west midlands have said that they do not want the system. That is fine; that is their choice. I am pleased to say that I believe that it would be good for the north-west. I would like to see a franchise for the north-west and other colleagues here think the same. Some Members from Scotland said that they would like to try the new system.
It is important at the end of the day that the whole of the country is not trying this. We are going to have pilots. That is why it is called the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. If people want to opt out, let them say so now, and they will not be considered. Those who want to opt in should put that view forward and rightly say that the Bill is important to them. I know that there are exceptions, but I will be pleased if the north-west goes ahead, because it will do well out of postal votes. All political parties will do well because the groundswell of support and the number of votes cast will ensure that we do not collapse to some of the European levels of the past. I believe that people in this country will benefit from having an extra franchise in the way that they vote. We will benefit and democracy will be the winner when the new system comes in. I welcome it for the north-west.
Conservative Members will not support the legislation this evening. We have substantial concerns and, if I may say so, they have been only exacerbated by some of the arguments made on both sides of the House—from all parties and including Government Back Benchers as well as Conservative Back Benchers. In particular, we strongly oppose the Government's plans to carry over the legislation, and decisions will be taken separately later this evening. We believe that carry-over is wrong in principle and Conservative Members feel very strongly about it. If the Government are allowed to get away with carrying over Bill after Bill, particularly when matters have been consulted on only at short notice, it will be bad for democracy. According to the Government, this legislation is supposed to be about increasing democracy. The proposal to carry the Bill over has nothing to do with that.
I propose to set out some of our concerns, and then I shall seek to summarise some of the important contributions that we have heard from both sides of the House. We are concerned about the Government's proposals for e-voting, especially because the jury is still out on its reliability and security. I shall return to the issue of the concerns that have been expressed by the most senior IT professionals about the lack of security.
I shall do so in a moment. The hon. Gentleman may wish to intervene when I come to the detail of our views on e-voting.
If e-voting is to be piloted at all—we have many doubts about the wisdom of doing so—any pilot scheme should not cover a whole region, given the concerns of the IT profession. Further, the pilot schemes that the Government intend to implement will not address the real, underlying causes of low turnout, especially in European elections. Those underlying causes are, principally, a flawed electoral system, the abandonment of first-past-the-post voting for European elections—we would like to return to it—and a distant and unaccountable European Union, as perceived by the electorate.
If pilot schemes are to be set up, there is a strong case for the Electoral Commission to choose regions in which most of the local authorities are willing to conduct a pilot scheme. Regions should not be compelled to be pilot areas if the majority of local authorities are opposed to it. If necessary, there should be fewer than three pilot areas. In the speeches by Labour Members, we heard strong calls, especially from Scottish Members and Members from the north-east and north-west, for their areas to be pilot areas. If by some magical means—what Mr. Davidson memorably called gee-whizzery or jiggery-pokery—the three chosen regions are Scotland, the north-west and the north-east, we would know that the fix was in, in the way of the old Chicago elections.
Has the hon. Gentleman examined the results of last May's elections in Vale Royal, which were conducted using an e-facility? That e-facility substantially increased turnout. It also resulted in a swing to the Conservatives, who took control of the authority. Why would the hon. Gentleman deny Conservatives in that area the ability to enjoy that facility?
I am delighted to congratulate the Conservatives in the Vale Royal area, but it would not be wise to choose one particular small area and generalise its results to the whole country. We have a proper caution about e-voting in the light of the severe warnings that we have received from senior people in the IT industry.
I will come back to that issue, as I told the hon. Gentleman I would do, at the appropriate point in my speech. If necessary, the hon. Gentleman can intervene again then.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong statement about the potential for fixing, which—to some extent—is a slur on the Electoral Commission. If he examines the election pilot schemes in last year's local elections, he will see that the other parties—including independent candidates, in those areas where they stood—were represented more in the pilots than was the Labour party.
I am not sure about the slightly confused latter point, but we are not casting any slurs on the Electoral Commission. We are concerned to ensure that if no good grounds are found for having three pilots, we could have fewer. We will continue to make that case. An area should be chosen for a pilot scheme only if a substantial number of local authorities are in favour of that.
No, I want to make progress. I may give way to the hon. Gentleman later.
The Electoral Commission has already recommended that all-postal voting should become the norm for local elections, subject to legislation against fraud being tightened. It has maintained that
"there should be a statutory presumption that all local elections be run as all-postal ballots unless there are compelling reasons why an all-postal ballot would be inappropriate or disadvantageous for a group or groups of electors."
That observation comes from the Electoral Commission's paper entitled "The Shape of Elections to Come", which was published in July.
We have concerns about that, and will be very interested to see how the pilots proposed in the Bill work out. As a party, we are not in any way opposed to pilots of further postal elections, and we have recognised that in some areas—but as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone remarked, by no means in all areas—postal ballots have increased voter turnout. However, concerns persist about ballot security. Investigations into the postal voting pilots that have taken place already have been piecemeal and inadequate.
What reliable evidence there is from objective sources suggests that the scope for abuse of postal ballots is wider than the Government care to admit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone pointed out, senior police officers have raised concerns that the greater use of postal voting, including postal votes on demand, in normal elections could lead to suspicions of vote rigging.
Detective Chief Inspector Dave Churchill of the West Midlands fraud squad has remarked that
"the current election system is based on trust and that trust is being eroded. That is why some form of identity is needed from voters, both at polling stations and for those who vote by post. The new postal voting system provides an opportunity for malpractice".
We think that what is proposed in the Bill by way of increased powers of arrest for personation is important, but that it is not sufficient in itself. We are very concerned about the proposed removal of the countersignature by a witness from postal ballots, as happened in many previous pilot schemes. We are worried that the Electoral Commission appears to support that removal. It could encourage fraud, as many hon. Members of all parties have noted, and especially in areas with a large number of houses in multiple occupation.
Although we recognise that the countersignature is not a foolproof method of ensuring the identity of the person completing the ballot paper, it is an extra safeguard that does increase confidence. The countersignature requirement has remained the norm for postal voting in normal elections.
We strongly support a limit on the number of ballot papers that may be sent to an address that is not the registered address of the voter concerned. That would help to increase the public's confidence in postal voting by making large-scale abuses more difficult. We believe that some of the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission could have been introduced in the Bill. We will explore that further in Standing Committee, as we try to improve the proposals. The recommendations include clarifying the law on undue influence and specifying a secrecy warning to be included in postal voting literature.
On voter confidentiality, concerns have been raised that voter secrecy has been compromised in all postal pilots. In some past pilot schemes, the declaration of identity was even attached to the ballot paper, and only detached at the count. We believe that it would be better to retain the traditional method of placing the ballot paper in a sealed envelope, separate from the declaration of identity. That would help to reassure voters that their ballot would remain confidential during the delivery, handling and counting processes.
If it remains unamended, the Bill will impose all-postal pilots on local authorities that may not wish to participate. In such cases, we believe that it would be very important to have delivery points in each local government ward. That would allow electors, if they so wished, to drop off their ballot envelopes by hand, at a secure location convenient for them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone made clear, we are very concerned, in the light of current and likely future strike action by Post Office staff in various parts of the country, that there might be a doubt about the reliability of the postal service in an all-postal election. Independent organisations such as Postwatch have commented that since 1997 the postal system has unfortunately become increasingly unreliable. As my hon. Friend Angela Watkinson pointed out, on average 1,500 items of mail are lost each week in every parliamentary constituency. That is a lot of misdelivered or lost mail, which is of great concern if there is to be an increase in postal pilots.
A delivery point in each ward, arranged by the local authority, would act as a measure of last resort during postal industrial action. It would reassure voters who did not trust the postal service, thereby increasing turnout. Large rural areas may need more than one delivery point per ward. Greater clarification of opening times would also be helpful for voters.
I realise that, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that when we propose to change the system and are setting up pilot schemes it is important that we take every possible safeguard. We have referred to the importance of the proposals in restoring faith in democracy, so we must ensure that voters have confidence that the system is as safe and secure as possible.
Although the Government have promised to fund the pilot schemes, we feel especially strongly that there should be a firmer guarantee in the Bill that all the extra costs that may fall on local authorities will be met by central Government. One of the main complaints from local authorities in my area is that the Government constantly lay greater and greater burdens on them without providing the money to deal with those burdens. One crucial reason why council tax bills for band D properties have soared by 60 per cent. since 1997 is the succession of underfunded burdens and regulations placed on local councils by the Government.
During the pilot schemes, some local authorities provided marked registers at various stages before the final deadline for the return of ballot papers, an issue raised time and again today by Members on both sides of the House. The provision of marked registers helped to increase turnout by allowing local political parties to remind people who had not yet voted about the election. As several hon. Members have pointed out, people who had already voted were thus spared from being bothered by political parties. We should like the provision of marked registers established in law, under the Bill, as without a statutory obligation there is a danger that some local authorities might go slow and fail to supply the information.
All political parties already face problems with rolling registration, and electoral registration departments in some councils fail to provide updated electoral registers on time. I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs would deal with marked registers in detail in his response to the debate.
I promised Mr. Miller that I would return to our concerns about e-voting. If the Bill is passed in its current form, e-voting in the 2004 elections might entail remote voting by telephone, text messaging—SMS—digital television or the internet. As the region adopting e-voting will also be an all-postal one, voting electronically in a polling station will not be relevant. We are not convinced of the merits of conducting an e-voting pilot throughout a whole region, rather than setting up e-pilots, if one could devise a secure system, in local authorities that had volunteered to hold them and understood the complexities of the scheme.
We are extremely concerned about the Government's suggested target of offering e-voting at the general election after next. If e-voting is rushed and bungled in the 2004 elections, the whole method could fatally lose credibility and create a Florida-style, hanging chad-type debacle in the High Court.
I have some details for the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston on the concerns of experts about e-voting. Dr. Ben Fairweather, a research fellow at De Montfort university's centre for computing and social responsibility has said:
"I have seen most, if not all of the pilot schemes demonstrated, and have spotted substantial flaws with some of them . . . There are serious worries about SMS voting. Operators can discard text messages if their systems are busy. Also people are obliged to key in long sequences to vote by text. It's a pale imitation of a cross on a piece of paper. Electronic voting in general has not reached maturity."
The Foundation for Information Policy Research has asserted that election integrity can be assured only if e-voting machines produce a paper audit trail that can be verified by voters and, later, by election scrutineers. It remarks:
"The only safe way to allow electronic voting is through machines controlled by election officials that produce an auditable paper trail. Anything else is an invitation for fraud to hackers and virus writers around the world, and could destroy public confidence in our elections. It's always a bad idea to look for technical fixes for social problems. Election turnout would be increased if citizens were convinced that their vote would make a difference. Simply computerising the current system is unlikely to achieve this."