European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 21st October 2003.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 12:33 pm, 21st October 2003

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.