This large group of amendments brings the Bill up to date. Apart from the issue dealt with in our amendment, we agree with their lordships on the need to name in the Bill the regions to pilot all-postal voting. The amendments negate the need for an affirmative order by naming all-postal voting as the method of piloting and specifying the choice of pilot regions. That has allowed greater parliamentary scrutiny and means that electoral administrators will be able to plan with certainty without having to wait for an order to be brought before both Houses.
Government amendment (a) reinstates Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west as pilot regions, supplementing the north-east and the east midlands as the Government's preferred four regions for piloting, as I announced in January. Although their lordships opted for only two regions, I shall explain why I hope that the House of Commons will settle on four regions and why this can be the final word on the matter.
Is my hon. Friend perfectly satisfied that there is sufficient time for the regulators to ensure that the machinery is in place in the north-west, because it was thought that we would not be included in the pilot scheme? Although many of us approve of postal voting, we are worried about people acting fraudulently to change the results in those constituencies where, for one reason or another, the vote is close.
I hope to put my hon. Friend's mind at rest by quoting the regional returning officer for the north-west. I shall come to his specific comments and how he is content to have all-postal voting in the north-west shortly. However, it will help if I first remind the House why we are considering the issue.
Turnout in local and European elections has been low for some time. As society evolves, it is important that our democracy can also evolve to match the lifestyles and needs of the public. We have a responsibility to make the process of casting a vote as convenient and simple as possible. The more obstacles in the way, the fewer will cast a vote, and the less likely it is that elected politicians will receive a resounding mandate if turnout continues to weaken.
One of several reforms that could help is improving the physical mechanisms of voting. Taking the choice to the elector instead of always requiring the elector to seek out the polling station is a tactic worth trying. I emphasise that that is worth trying because we are talking about pilots.
It is a tactic worth trying. The independent Electoral Commission agreed with that. Irrespective of the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber, the commission
"felt unable to make a positive recommendation in respect of those regions" in the pilot exercise. As recently as last week, it was still saying that it felt that those regions were unsuitable to run postal pilots. Why will the Minister not take seriously the independent advice of the Electoral Commission?
I shall come to that point. The hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting the Electoral Commission's position. It is not saying that Yorkshire or the north-west are not suitable. On the contrary, it is saying that they are potentially suitable. It has said that all along. I shall deal with these points in more detail later in my remarks.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister has accused me of misrepresenting the views of the Electoral Commission, yet I have a letter dated
"The remaining four regions (excluding London and Northern Ireland who were not part of this exercise) we felt were unsuitable to run all postal pilots."
I ask the Minister to apologise to me for the allegation that he has made.
It is always the last refuge of the hon. Gentleman to resort to a point of order to make his political point. However, he is wrong about the Electoral Commission so I shall not apologise. I shall read from the letter that he quoted. The commission states:
The other four regions were those that were deemed to be not potentially suitable. I hope that that clarifies the situation for the hon. Gentleman.
This is not good enough. I had the opportunity last week to talk personally to Mr. Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission. Among other things, I discussed this matter with him. He made it plain that he thought that two pilots were enough. He accepted three at a stretch, but certainly he preferred two. He made his advice unequivocal and plain. The Minister has decided to discard that advice. Why?
The hon. Gentleman is more circumspect in the way that he describes the position of the chairman of the Electoral Commission. I, too, had discussions with the chairman last week. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is disagreement about how we define a pilot—whether it is two, three or four regions.
I return to the letter. The commission writes:
It felt unable to make a positive recommendation in respect of those regions, but it stated that they were potentially suitable. It is wrong to say that the commission was saying no to Yorkshire or no to the north-west. That is not the right characterisation of the commission's position.
We shall have plenty of opportunity, if I might make some progress, to delve into some of these issues. I will certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.]
Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman. I shall do so later.
We want to be sure, through piloting, that we can both increase the convenience of casting a vote and maintain public confidence in the security of our voting systems. That is what we are talking about. Piloting is about learning lessons. The more experience we have, the better will be the final outcome of policy. Pilots so far have been small in scale. We have always said that the Bill is about scaling up to regional level.
What representations has my hon. Friend had from local authorities, either through the leaders of those authorities or through the chief executives within the north-west, in support of a pilot scheme?
Later, I shall quote at length to show that we have had positive support, especially from authorities in the north-west of England, in favour of all-postal voting. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome that.
It is important that we underline the view of the Electoral Commission, which advised us about which of the regions would be the most suitable candidates. It did not merely recommend two regions that it considered suitable without referring to anywhere else. The commission made a number of recommendations and, broadly speaking, they were split into three categories. First were the regions that were positively recommended, second were regions that were potentially suitable and third were regions that were not suitable. We accepted those regions that were described as positively recommended back in December—the north-east and the east midlands. We then worked through those regions that were described as potentially suitable in the order of ranking as set by the Electoral Commission.
As the Minister has thrown the main conclusions of the Electoral Commission into the dustbin, why is he wasting the time of the House telling us other things that the commission has said when he obviously does not believe in much of its views anyway?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is listening to what I am saying. I do not follow his intervention. Perhaps it will become clearer later.
What my hon. Friend Sir Michael Spicer says goes to the gravamen of the issue. Many of us are unhappy about the entire proposal. We think that, if people do not vote, it is because they think that the operation of the local authority is not sufficiently interesting to them, not because they cannot find the polling station. We are prepared to go along with the Minister to some extent if the independent Electoral Commission made the suggestions to which he referred. However, if he undermines what the commission has said, many of us who have been prepared to give the proposals a try will say to ourselves, "It has ceased to be an independent operation. Once again, it has become something manipulated by the Government for reasons which sometimes we do not understand but no doubt there is some reason for it." The Minister could say, "This is what the commission suggested. It has said that that is not suitable. Therefore, let us move forward on the two suggestions that it has made."
The right hon. Gentleman would be the first person to chastise the Government if we abrogated our responsibility and passed decision making to the Electoral Commission, rather than having the buck stop here with decisions being made in the House. Ultimately, the commission gives advice. We listen to that advice, but we have a responsibility to make our own decisions, for which we are accountable to the electorate. That is an important principle—I know that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to disagree with that.
There is a reason why matters of electoral reform should be decided as independently as possible. It is because no Government can pretend that they are not party politically pressed. When they make a change of the sort that is proposed, it must lead people to believe that the Government have done it for party political advantage. That is what Governments are about.
I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman's approach. The Electoral Commission has said that it does not wish to make final decisions. It gives advice but it is ultimately a matter for Ministers and Parliament to make decisions. That is a sensible constitutional approach.
Does my hon. Friend accept that we should all come to the debate troubled, in that an ever increasing number of voters are totally uninterested in what we and other representative organisations do? Does he also accept that we should seriously turn our minds to how we might bridge the gap between our electors and ourselves? As the Government have made the decision, regardless of whether it was exactly what the Electoral Commission said or whether it extended that advice, some local authorities have already begun to plan for the elections on the basis of what the House said would be the basis on which the elections would be held. It should trouble us all that perhaps next time a majority of voters will not even turn out to elect us. Would it not be good for the Opposition on this issue to accept that we are searching for different ways to engage with them?
My right hon. Friend articulates the position relatively well. We must all, regardless of party, be conscious that the lower turnouts in local and European elections are a matter of concern.
Indeed. One way of addressing that is through all-postal voting, and it is worth piloting that to try it out, which is what the Bill seeks to do.
I should like to make some progress.
We considered the Electoral Commission's recommendations on which regions were potentially suitable in the order in which they were recommended. We considered Scotland in some depth, and held meetings with the regional returning officer and electoral administrators with a view to allaying the concerns that they had expressed. Unfortunately, and despite Government assurances, Scottish administrators were not convinced that effective pilots could be held there, so the decision was taken not to impose a pilot in Scotland. Meetings with the regional returning officers and senior electoral officials from Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west, however, showed that both regions felt operationally capable of running a pilot.
We are disappointed that there is not to be a pilot in Scotland. In a recent by-election for South Ayrshire council at which there was a postal vote pilot, the turnout was higher than 60 per cent., more than twice what it was in the previous year's council elections. That by-election was a Conservative win because of the way in which the vote went on that particular day, and I make no protest at that, however foolish the voters may have been. However, we should all be pleased that more people voted in that pilot scheme. To hear Conservative Members say that we are carrying out the scheme for party political advantage is rich, coming from them. They want to stop people voting, for their party political advantage, and it is about time we shouted that from the rooftops.
I know that my right hon. Friend is disappointed that we are not proceeding with all-postal voting in Scotland, but we would have been wrong not to listen carefully to the views of the administrators on the ground—the regional and local returning officers. It was on that basis that we decided not to proceed in Scotland. However, following discussions with officials in Yorkshire and the Humber and in the north-west, we decided after much thought that all-postal voting should be tested in those regions. We have worked as hard as we can to address some of the concerns of members of the Electoral Commission and others to make certain that we can proceed safely with all-postal voting pilots in Yorkshire and the Humber and in the north-west.
I am following my hon. Friend's arguments carefully, and I shall vote in the same Lobby as him this evening. However, since the original debate in the House, the Disability Rights Commission has presented evidence to the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, showing its extreme concern that all-postal ballots are discriminatory unless specific alterations to the process are made. Has my hon. Friend had time to consider its recommendations?
I have had time to consider representations from various disability rights organisations. Some are keen on all-postal voting because there are physical impediments that make it difficult for some people with disabilities to go to polling stations. There are pros and cons on both sides, but the Government feel that to try out all-postal voting is a good way to proceed.
On that point, many people in Yorkshire welcome this initiative, particularly those who represent coalfield areas. In my constituency, which is at the heart of the former Yorkshire coalfield, two out of five households include at least one person with a long-term sickness or disability. Those people want to be treated the same as the rest of the population, not differently, and it seems to me, speaking on their behalf, that an all-postal vote for everyone is the best way of removing discrimination. Does the Minister agree, and will he accept my assurance that we in Yorkshire are willing to proceed as quickly as possible?
Postal voting is popular for various reasons, some of which my hon. Friend articulates. I believe that it is now right to scale up piloting from local authority to regional level, which is, precisely and simply, what we are trying to do.
Given that, to most casual observers, a postal vote must necessarily constitute a vote cast by post—presumably on that, if on no other point, there is unanimity in the House—can the Minister tell us, with reference to proposed new subsection (4) in Lords amendment No. 1, in what circumstances one would use
"other such means as is specified in a pilot order"?
According to what criteria would such methods, rather than the conventional postal method, be chosen?
I can tell Mr. Bercow that the draft statutory instruments that we have already published, and on which we consulted the Electoral Commission, specify that although the elections will be all-postal, there will still be opportunities for people to leave their postal votes at designated drop-off points in a local authority area. I suspect that proposed new subsection (4) in Lords amendment No. 1 refers to that means of supplementing the postal system.
Will the Minister turn his attention to the concern that many of us feel about the integrity and security of the electoral register and, what is more, to whether that integrity and validity would be subject to abuse in a postal vote? According to a conversation that I had with the chairman of the Electoral Commission, he is concerned that a system is not in place to prevent fraud and the abuse of the electoral roll and the postal voting process.
I am glad that Conservative Members have had conversations with the chairman of the Electoral Commission, which is heartening. The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points, the first of which concerns the electoral register. That is an important issue, regardless of whether we are talking about an all-postal or a conventional election. His second point, however, relates more directly to postal voting: concerns have been expressed about whether all-postal voting is more prone to fraudulence or malpractice.
I want to consider the Electoral Commission's views. It has stated that the two additional regions of Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west are "potentially suitable", but that it does not feel able
"to make a positive recommendation" on their suitability. It would therefore be useful to examine what held the commission back from making those positive recommendations, and what has now been done to address those issues. Starting with Yorkshire and the Humber, the commission noted positively that the region has "solid piloting experience", that it has
"no particular barriers to service delivery and is served by good transport links", and that it has a
"strong daily and weekly press . . . coupled with a clear regional identity".
However, the commission raised queries about the fact that
"some parts of the region have reported that fraud and the perception of fraud has risen since the introduction of postal voting" on demand, and said that
"it is clear that Returning Officers would strongly prefer not to be involved".
That is how the Electoral Commission explained why it held back from making a positive recommendation on Yorkshire. Its points are valid, and we have been working hard to address them. Much is being done at a national level, but it may be worth while to illustrate what is being done locally in Yorkshire. I recently wrote to its regional returning officer, as well as the regional returning officers in the other pilot regions asking them to update me on their preparations. On the subject of fraud, Paul Rogerson, chief executive of Leeds city council and regional returning officer for Yorkshire and the Humber said that
"discussions between the Region's electoral administrators have been held regarding anti-fraud safeguards. The provisions within the Bill have been noted and welcomed and a number of specific measures are being considered for adoption, including sample checks of those shown as having returned ballot papers, the mounting of local elector awareness campaigns, the establishment of hot line contact points, regular liaison with the Police and the Electoral Commission, the training of staff in supported delivery points, arrangements for the safe delivery of papers to electors in houses in multiple occupation, and checks to be made where multiple requests for the redirection of ballot papers are received."
Given that the Minister is quoting extensively from a letter that the House has not seen, will he undertake, particularly in light of the fact that he has already been caught out this afternoon indulging in selective quotation, to ensure that the full text of all correspondence on which he seeks to rely is placed in the Library, together with the full minutes of any meetings that he or other Ministers have had with any returning officers or the Electoral Commission?
I shall certainly make available to the hon. Gentleman the letters from which I am quoting, as they are useful to my case. Indeed, I wish I had time to circulate them to hon. Members during our debate.
If I place them in the Library, perhaps hon. Members will be able to go and read them before we vote. I am not sure how efficient my officials will be, but we shall see what we can do. The important point, however, is that the regional returning officer in Yorkshire addressed concerns about fraud. In relation to the commission's point about whether returning officers were willing to participate in postal votes, he said:
"I can report that preparations for the proposed pilot are well underway and that, as might have been expected, electoral administrators from across the region have responded to the challenge presented to them by last month's announcement with their usual diligence and commitment. Indeed, in this regard, I can advise you that, whereas the region's electoral administrators were not initially supportive of an all-postal pilot (for reasons with which you are familiar), the view of a significant majority of the same administrators today is that they would prefer to be allowed to proceed with arrangements for an all-postal ballot in June, than now be constrained to revert to planning for a conventional election."
When discussing its recommendations, the Electoral Commission clearly does not rule out Yorkshire and the Humber as a pilot region and, indeed, has since said in discussions that the region and others marked as "potentially suitable" could deliver an effective pilot. In short, it is quite clear that any doubts about Yorkshire's suitability, whether over fraud or returning officer enthusiasm, have now been overcome.
As for the north-west, the commission noted positively that
"there is a strong record of piloting in the North West—18 of 33 authorities have piloted".
It also noted that the north-west returning officer
"has submitted his view that the North West would be well placed to hold an all-postal pilot, and that he would ensure that appropriate resources were put in place to deliver the pilot scheme"
It also noted that the region is diverse, has a strong daily and weekly press and ranks highly for the distinctiveness of its radio services. The commission had several worries however, and said:
"There have been several allegations of electoral fraud in the North West in recent years . . . Some of these investigations could proceed to court in early 2004; this would be likely to produce unfavourable publicity about the security of postal voting".
It was concerned that
"the support for a pilot scheme does not extend across the whole of the region, given the high number of local elections scheduled for 2004".
Given that large number of elections, it was therefore concerned that
"the complexity of the region would be a disadvantage".
As the Minister has partly suggested, 80 per cent. of the north-west has atypical elections using two different electoral systems, so their council elections are not characteristic. Is it not perverse to choose the north-west, as the complications are surely greater there than anywhere else?
As I shall seek to explain, if we shy away from complexity and conduct pilots in simple areas with single elections, we avoid the purpose of piloting, which is to learn lessons and build on experience. Complexity can therefore be useful to piloting.
As for the fraud issue raised by the Electoral Commission, it will be useful to quote Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester city council and regional returning officer:
"We are committed to taking every possible step to preserve the integrity of the postal ballot. As I have indicated before, Local Returning Officers are keenly aware that the potential for fraud is something which must be managed irrespective of whether a pilot takes place or not. The police have indicated to me that additional vigilance and early intervention are essential to reduce the opportunities for fraud. We are therefore all working hard with colleagues from the police to develop protocols and programmes on how best fraud can be prevented; this will include checks on returned envelopes and any additions to the electoral register; systems to alert us to a proliferation of proxies or changes of address, and special delivery arrangements to houses in multiple occupation."
As for whether or not there was widespread support from local returning officers, Sir Howard Bernstein wrote:
"I have been very impressed by the consistent and positive attitude all Local Returning Officers have shown to the proposed pilot here in the North West . . . we convened a meeting of all LROs towards the end of last year to discuss the principle of a pilot and everyone present (42 of 43 local authority areas) committed themselves to work to a successful outcome . . . Since your announcement that this region should be a pilot we have met all LROs at a sub-regional level, and their positive approach to the issues has again been demonstrated. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the pilot is a complete success."
I apologise for the length of the quotations, but I think that they are important, as they record the views of independent returning officers, who are responsible for administering all-postal voting in those regions. I have every confidence and faith in their ability to deliver and do the job that they have done in the past. As for the point about complexity, if all-postal voting is ever to move on from a pilot stage, we must be prepared to test in areas that are complex as well as those that are simple.
On a connected issue, is the Minister convinced that the postal services are capable of coping with the increased amount of mail that they will have to deliver? There is evidence in my area that they have not been able to do so in previous elections.
We have been in close dialogue with Royal Mail, and have had a number of assurances in writing, both at regional and national levels, from its officials that they are capable not only of living up to the challenge but of exceeding expectations. They have given a guarantee to run the scheme as efficiently and effectively as possible. The Bill, however, allows the Electoral Commission to study the pilots after they take place to make sure that they can verify exactly what happens in the June elections.
I am still concerned about houses in multiple occupation, particularly groups of old people living together, and should like reassurance about the collection of those votes. Of course, Sir Howard's returning officers will commit themselves to a positive reaction—they would hardly commit themselves to a negative one.
My hon. Friend is right. I am glad that there is enthusiasm on the part of returning officers, and it is helpful to ensure that they are keen. My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about houses in multiple occupation, an issue that we considered in Committee and on Report, and which was also dealt with in another place. We have been able to give assurances about delivery mechanisms and the extra attention to be paid to those issues. I will certainly make sure that we continue to monitor the plans that regional returning officers have for people living under one roof or in houses in multiple occupation.
If I may make a little progress, it would help.
"it was open to Government to have further discussions . . . if they were minded to designate additional pilots".
The House will be aware that there is a disagreement between the Electoral Commission and the Government over the definition of a pilot and whether a pilot can extend to four regions. It is important to examine the issue, as it quickly becomes clear that there are no substantive grounds for opposing four pilot regions.
The scale of piloting that we propose is not too great or excessive. The four regions represent 31.6 per cent. of the UK electorate. I do not agree with those who say that that is too large-scale. The UK is made up of 12 electoral parts, of which we are choosing to pilot in four. That is a minority of the country and cannot therefore be caricatured as national roll-out. Nevertheless, it is a significant pilot, and rightly so—it needs to be, because this is the next stage after the local government pilots in the process of piloting.
If we pilot in only two regions, that would not be scaling up. Previous pilots, which included all-postal voting as well as e-voting, have been going through a process of scaling up for a number of years. Pilots in 2002 were available to about 2.5 million electors. Experiments were scaled up in 2003 to make them available to an electorate of about 6.5 million. Were we to exclude Yorkshire and the north-west, as the other place suggests, pilots this year would be available to only just over 5 million electors—a smaller number than before. If we are to learn lessons about the scalability of all-postal voting, we must test on an appropriately large sample. Larger- scale pilots are a means of testing the co-ordination and interoperability of suppliers and proving the capacity needed to support wide-scale all-postal voting. Only through this proper, reasoned, step-by-step process will we be able to gain the experience that will inform future policy.
In any case, postal voting on demand is scaling up. The introduction of postal voting on demand in 2000 vastly increased the popularity of postal voting. More than 1.7 million postal votes were issued at the 2001 general election—an increase of roughly 87 per cent. on 1997. Some constituencies showed even more striking increases. Were such an increase to continue, we could almost see a de facto rolling out of all-postal voting in some elections. Clearly, the sort of testing of the postal services and other suppliers in a structured and ordered way that these pilots will allow is vital if that is to be achieved safely.
Piloting in four regions is no more risky than piloting in three or two regions. It is a curious argument advanced by some that because all-postal voting is being piloted, it must necessarily be limited in scope to a couple of regions. Pilots should be held only where, after careful assessment, it is the judgment of those who are responsible on the ground that the election can be successfully delivered. Where that judgment is made and where resources are available, we should be able to pilot. To the extent that regional circumstances would allow the delivery of successful pilots, we should have as many pilots as our resources permit. In this way, we achieve the greatest benefit for voters now, for democratic engagement now, and for democracy in the longer term through the pilot outputs of lessons learned and confidence built.
The Electoral Commission has not identified to us what the risks of scaling up from two or three to four regions would be. If, as the commission accepts, each region individually can deliver a successful pilot, there is no reason to think that each will not be successful if all four regions are chosen.
In many ways, there is virtue in recognising that the increased scale will enable us to learn more from the different parts of the country. I know that the hon. Member for Southport is concerned about complexity and would shy away from piloting in the north-west. It is important to deal with some of those challenges and recognise that if the Electoral Commission itself recommends that in future all local elections should be on an all-postal basis, we must test postal voting in areas that present complexity.
Increased scale underlines the importance of protection against fraud, just as it would in relation to voting in person. Can the Minister tell the House what is the mechanism to prevent someone from voting by post in two areas?
The same arrangement applies as in conventional elections. The electoral registration process is the bedrock upon which a ballot paper is issued in a conventional election or in a postal election. If people are registered incorrectly or improperly, that is clearly a matter for the regulations that relate to registration, not for the all-postal piloting arrangements.
Hon. Members will be aware that in three of the four regions that we have selected, there will also be referendums on regional assemblies on an all-postal basis in October—a decision welcomed by the Electoral Commission. This is a relevant factor that should be borne in mind and which it would be odd to ignore. It cannot be thought helpful for major polls to be held four months apart on a differing basis. That would not benefit the electorate or the election administrators.
I shall close with two further quotes from regional returning officers. In my letter I asked each of the RROs whether they had any concerns that they wished to raise. Paul Rogerson from Yorkshire writes:
"Unsurprisingly, the earnest wish of all of my Local Returning Officer colleagues across the region is that there should be certainty about the basis upon which the June elections are to be conducted, as soon as ever possible."
Sir Howard Bernstein from the north-west writes:
"I realise that due process within both Houses must be undertaken to formalise the pilot, but I know I speak on behalf of all my colleagues when I express the hope that these are concluded as quickly as possible so that we can plan with certainty, and in so doing, feel even more confident in delivering."
I urge hon. Members to listen to these concerns and to recognise that we have painstakingly sought to allay worries wherever genuine concerns have emerged. I hope the House will allow pilots to take place in all four regions that are now willing and prepared.
Parliament needs to settle the matter. If the Government are now decided on the issue and the Commons makes up its mind, we must be able to get on with planning and preparations. It is important for this elected House of Commons to take a view—a final view, I hope—on which regions should have electoral all-postal voting pilots. Hon. Members of this House are best placed to make decisions on elections policy. Although we must listen to the views of the other place as a revising Chamber, we must also weigh up the fact that we are accountable for Parliament's decisions and they are not. The House of Commons needs to make clear its views on improving our democracy and electoral systems. I commend the Government amendment to the House.
Having listened to the Minister for 40 minutes on the first group of amendments, all I can say is how wise we were to vote against the programme motion. I know that he was generous in taking interventions, but the time that we are left with will be wholly inadequate to discuss these important matters.
We are defending what another place rightly decided to do. On this day, on which constitutional matters, the role of the second Chamber and the Government's threats to indulge in yet more constitutional vandalism are much in the public eye, it is well worth noting that another place defeated the Government on two key parts of the Bill by very substantial majorities. Those were not merely narrow defeats by one or two votes. On the first issue dealt with in this group of amendments, the Government lost in the other place by 169 votes to 111, and on the next, by 157 votes to 110.
Why was that so? Why did so many peers—Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and a substantial number of Cross Benchers—feel that the Government had got it so wrong, and why will the veiled threats in the Minister's last few sentences fail to work when the matter returns to another place? Part of the reason, at least, is that the Government have so clearly ignored the firm views of their own Electoral Commission—a body intended to advise on these matters, which the Government created but choose to ignore. The Electoral Commission clearly recommended that there should be just two regions for all-postal pilots, but the Government seek to impose four regions against their own commission's advice.
Another part of the reason is that the Minister's repeated statements to the House have been contradicted by the Government within just a fraction over four weeks. Let me refer to what he said not once, but on a number of occasions, as recently as
"We remain keen, however, to proceed with all-postal voting in three regions."
He also said, using a phrase of which we have made much mockery:
"In scaling up towards a multi-channel general election"— he indulged in an equal neologism this afternoon in talking about scalability, whatever that is—
"after 2006, we believe that pressing ahead with a wider range and variation of piloting provides the best opportunity to learn lessons and to develop capabilities in new electoral techniques . . . The Government will consider in more detail each of the potential candidates with a view to announcing the location of the third all-postal pilot in the coming weeks."
As recently as
"we can conclude which third all-postal voting pilot will proceed."
Apparently, he hoped to come to a conclusion soon on
"which region or nation should be the third choice".
Clearly, he was trying to hold out hopes to all his hon. Friends, who gave him such a hard time and so much friendly fire in pleading the cause of Scotland. He told us:
"I intend to make a decision relatively quickly on which third region or nation we wish to select."—[Hansard, 16 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 1511–1514.]
Later, he said that the Electoral Commission had recommended that there should be three all-postal pilots. Of course, it did not make such a recommendation; the Minister himself made a mistake. The commission was asked to recommend three regions, including one for an electronic pilot, and it recommended only two, for very good reasons.
Thus, as recently as
"I can today announce . . . that two further regions will also hold all-postal pilots. These regions will be Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west."— [Hansard, 21 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 64WS.]
It was announced that, effectively, a swathe of the country—half of England—would be involved. That is hardly a pilot.
What caused the Government to ignore what the Electoral Commission had said about the proposed all-postal pilots for Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west, and what was the reaction of the Government's own Electoral Commission to that snub? We must now turn to what will undoubtedly become known as the Younger letter—a letter that has already been referred to in several interventions and that was drawn to the attention of the House earlier by my hon. Friends the Members for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who answers questions on behalf of the Electoral Commission.
I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but only after I have referred to the Younger letter.
In an astonishingly strongly worded letter to the Minister, sent as recently as last Thursday, the chairman of the Electoral Commission says, among other things:
"We felt unable to make a positive recommendation in respect of those regions", meaning Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-west and the west midlands. That was the quote that we eventually extracted from the Minister when he was trying to indulge in selective quotation. Sam Younger goes on to state:
"The guidance we were given by Government indicated that you wanted to run with three pilot regions and this view was re-inforced by the statement issued in response to our report which accepted the two regions we regarded as most suitable, but added that you would look for a third from those who were potentially suitable."
I shall do so when I have finished referring to the Younger letter, as I have already said.
The chairman of the Electoral Commission also states:
"We always recognised that it was open to Government to have discussions with those regions falling into the 'potential' category to see whether the reasons we had identified for not making a positive recommendation could be satisfactorily resolved. We understand those discussions took place, although the Commission was not involved in them."
The Opposition are very concerned to hear that the commission was not involved in those discussions, and we are suspicious about their nature and extent. That is why I have asked the Minister—he noticeably failed to answer me—to place in the Library the full minutes of all meetings that took place involving him, the Deputy Prime Minister or any other Ministers. We believe that it is implicit in what Mr. Younger is saying that the Government have leaned on returning officers.
I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment: I have not forgotten him.
Sam Younger's next passage is the most significant of all:
"However, it does not follow that the Commission would be unconcerned about the number of pilot regions. As I have mentioned, we expected the Government to nominate three regions and were surprised to learn that the Bill was to be amended to name four regions.
You are aware of our view"— the view of the Government's own Electoral Commission—
"that the rollout of all postal elections needs to be underpinned by a more robust statutory framework. We have recognised at the same time that pilots provide the means by which we can test and learn from new ways of voting and that of necessity they have to be conducted without the full range of new measures we would wish to see, in particular individual registration"— an issue to which we will certainly return this afternoon. Mr. Younger continues:
"To date piloting has been on a limited scale, but you are aware of our view that so far as all-postal elections are concerned, most of the lessons have been learned. Nonetheless, we welcome their use on a regional basis in order to test issues of scalability"— the Minister's word. Mr. Younger also says:
"But in our view pilots that cover over a third of the English electorate in June go further than we think necessary in order to address those issues".
The Government's own Electoral Commission, through its chairman writing to the Minister, has said that holding pilots in June covering more than a third of the English electorate goes further than it thinks necessary. The letter is very strongly worded, and it goes on to say:
"especially in the absence of the underlying legislative change we consider necessary. There is also in our view increased risk, with combined elections and in some cases new boundaries, in running on such a large scale and we are not persuaded that the risk is outweighed by what we might learn from four regional pilots as opposed to two."
I shall do so only after I have given way to Mr. Foulkes in a moment.
The letter concludes:
"It is of course for Parliament to decide the number of all postal regions. But we urge that this matter is resolved as quickly as possible."
The matter could be resolved very quickly if the Government returned to what the Electoral Commission itself recommended—just two electoral regions, which is what the other place voted for, as I believe it will do again.
I despair of this pettifogging nit-picking from the Opposition. Why does the hon. Gentleman accept the views of an unelected Chamber rather than those of an elected one? Why does he not want to make it easier for people to vote? Why does he not move into the 20th century, let alone the 21st? Is he aware that in the next general election in India, almost 700 million people will vote electronically? When will we catch up with that?
We debated extensively in Committee the rejection by the Government's own Electoral Commission of their proposal to have electronic voting. I do not think that I would be in order if I went back over the ground that was covered in Committee in that regard, as it is not relevant to the amendments. We believe that the Government are behaving quite wrongly in overruling the clear and strongly expressed view of the Electoral Commission that they set up.
I invite my hon. Friend not to listen to the right hon. Gentleman who interrupted him and who misses the point entirely. It is not that we do not want more people to vote—
The right hon. Gentleman may keep his own ideas, silly though they are, and leave me to express mine.
My hon. Friend may accept that we are concerned that we should constitute these changes in a proper way that deals with the dangers and is serious in its intent. If the Government want to have an independent Electoral Commission, would not it be better to take its advice rather than overruling it behind closed doors or listening to the silly views of the right hon. Member for the three Scottish places?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend.
Let us consider the detail of what the Electoral Commission said about the first of the extra two regions that the Government propose to add, Yorkshire and the Humber. At paragraph 2.117 of its December report, it said—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr. Foulkes appears to be developing a career as a sedentary sketch writer. For the sake of good order, I ought to persuade him to desist.
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The Electoral Commission said:
"Returning officers would strongly prefer not to be involved in any all-postal pilot."
That is repeated and stressed again at paragraph 3.9, which says:
"The Commission notes the distinct preference among returning officers and their staff to run the elections on conventional lines."
That is why the Electoral Commission ruled against Yorkshire and the Humber being suitable, and why the Government should take its advice on the matter.
The hon. Gentleman rightly sets out what the Electoral Commission says, but will he not give any weight to what the chief executives of all the local authorities in the north-west said? Unanimously apart from two, they consider that it would be beneficial to the region to have a postal vote pilot scheme there and ensure a franchise for those who wish to vote by that method.
I was referring to what the Electoral Commission said about Yorkshire and the Humber, but as the hon. Gentleman has introduced the subject of the north-west, let me remind him of what it said about that region. Its concerns are different from those that it expressed about Yorkshire and the Humber. In saying that it could not make a positive recommendation in relation to the north-west, it said, at paragraph 3.10:
"Firstly, we are concerned that the support for a pilot scheme does not extend across the whole of the region, given the high number of local elections scheduled for 2004."
A much bigger concern was raised in relation to fraud. Paragraph 2.84 of the December report says:
"There have been several allegations of electoral fraud in the North West in recent years. These have centred around interference with postal votes or intimidatory procurement of proxy votes in conventional elections. Some of these investigations could proceed to court in early 2004. This will be likely to produce unfavourable publicity about the security of postal voting."
That reinforces the concerns raised by a truly independent body, the Electoral Reform Society, which said:
"The Society also notes the removal of some of the safeguards first introduced by the 1872 ballot secrecy legislation with regard to undue influence and bribery. Whilst these risks have always existed with postal votes, until now they could only affect a small minority of votes. Corrupt practices on a grand scale have become feasible again for the first time in 130 years. Of course, this is not a guarantee that any such events will occur, but the risk is increased."
The Minister should take more notice not only of what the Electoral Reform Society said in its briefing to all hon. Members but of what Lord Greaves said—he is a man not of my own party, but one who spoke splendidly and in great detail in another place about exactly what had been going wrong in the north-west in his personal experience. He prefaced his remarks by saying that he was not being partisan, because in two cases at least, in Hackney and Havant, councillors of his own party had been convicted.
Responding to what a Minister had said in the other place, Lord Greaves said:
"I have to say that his basic thinking in relation to the North West and, indeed, in relation to Yorkshire, is wrong."
He went on to talk about some of the corruption that had taken place in areas such as Bradford, and quoted Mr. Rooney. He said:
"Mr. Rooney said he believed abuses of the system meant it was impossible to say that the poll was free and fair."—[Official Report, House of Lords,
He talked about how things had gone wrong in Blackpool, Oldham, parts of Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne, Bury, Rochdale, Blackburn, Burnley, Pendle and certain other places.
Lord Greaves said that many elections in the region would be rigged.
On the second day of Grand Committee in the other place, Lord Greaves went into a great deal of detail about what had happened in Pendle. He talked about what went wrong in terms of the delivery of postal votes to the home of a Labour candidate's cousin in a different town: 61 postal votes were sent to two addresses in Rochdale. He said that there had been television documentaries and articles in The Guardian about postal vote fiddles in various areas, including East Lancashire. "Channel 4 News" had interviewed a voter whose vote had been stolen, as well as a young Asian man whose voting papers had been delivered along with 44 other postal votes to 126 Chapel street, which it claimed was the home of a Labour candidate's brother-in-law. That year, a lot of complaints were made at polling stations, and Pendle borough council's returning officer made a report.
In the case of one family living at Fir street in Nelson, none of whom had applied for a postal vote, six votes were sent to 77 Barkerhouse road. Lord Greaves set all that out in tremendous detail in another place, describing precisely the dangers of electoral fraud that the Electoral Commission referred to in its report as the main reason why it felt that the north-west was unsuitable. We agree with Lord Greaves in thinking that there are very good reasons why Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west are completely unsuitable for postal pilots.
The hon. Gentleman might have considered giving way, because he might have been able to tell us which of those examples of fraud took place where there were pilots for the proposals, and which took place under the existing system. I would suspect that 90 per cent. of the examples that he gave took place under the present system.
I should make it absolutely clear to the House that I am speaking now because it is very important that my constituents be able to vote in this summer's elections by post. I have been encouraging people in my area to register for postal votes under the current system, and it has been very hard work. Mr. Blunt complained about one of the ways in which I have been doing so, and I should make it clear that if I have thereby breached any of the rules of the House, I unreservedly apologise. But I make no apology for wanting my constituents to be able to vote by post, because I firmly believe that it is essential in a democracy that we achieve a high turnout.
I was obviously very pleased with the result of the last general election, but I was horrified to find that less than half the people in Denton and Reddish had voted. That problem affects not just local and European elections, but elections such as general elections, and in many ways the issue is the way in which the campaigning is conducted. I want briefly to illustrate the point by explaining what happened to me on the Tuesday before the Thursday's general election poll. I went to an area that was probably fairly strong for the Labour party, accompanied by a significant number of canvassers. We walked down the streets, and for me, as a candidate, it was brilliant. People came out of their houses and they wanted to shake my hand, and they wanted posters and autographs. We felt great.
That was a marvellous experience, but when I went back down the same streets on polling night with a loudspeaker, no one emerged from their front doors and there was no sign of anyone going to the polling station. On reaching the count, it was very obvious that we had put up more posters in those streets than we had gained votes. So far as the people of that part of my constituency were concerned, there was no contest. They had listened to the media and they knew what was going to happen nationally. They had received no literature from the other political parties, and they felt no excitement and no pressure to vote. One can well understand why it was easier for them to stop at home—easier, for example, not to put their small children into the pram and take them to the polling station. It was better to stay in, have tea and watch the television than to turn out, because they assumed that the election was a walkover, which, in effect, it was. That is one of the problems: in terms of local electioneering, less and less is happening in many parts of the country. People do not get the feeling that the election is close and that their vote will make the difference.
If we move to a postal voting system, many people will be able to vote at a time that suits them. They will not have to worry about the baby that is crying or the meal that must be prepared, so there are very strong reasons why we should move to such a system.
If people are affected by a measure of inconvenience, they have to weigh up the importance of their vote and consider whether it will make a difference. If we make it easy for them to vote—as postal voting would—the question of the pressures caused by other activities does not arise. It should be easy for people to cast their postal vote at some point in the week or so in which they would be allowed to do so, whereas having to visit a polling station can cause more of a problem.
I want to make it clear that I recognise that the possibility exists of malpractice in postal voting. Indeed, the argument in favour of the pilots is to make sure that such a system is as reliable as the polling station system. But let us be clear: there has been some fraud at polling stations, and in some parts of the United Kingdom it still goes on. We need to ensure that we develop a postal voting system that is as fair as the current one.
The hon. Gentleman is the distinguished Chairman of a Committee of the House—a Committee that has produced written evidence that should be read by every Member taking part in this debate. I do not want him to pre-empt the views of his Committee, but does the evidence it has received lead him to the view that there are serious electoral fraud issues that need to be addressed as part of the pilot process?
Yes, and I was about to come to that point. I want my constituents to be able to vote by post, but I do not want the system to fall into disrepute as a result of the introduction of fraud.
I have seen no evidence to suggest that more fraud has occurred in the pilots conducted so far than is already possible under the postal voting system. We have published the evidence to which Mr. Heath and my hon. Friend the Minister referred, and we will take oral evidence tomorrow morning. I want to encourage anybody who has a view on the possibility of fraud to let us have such evidence. However, we should be able to design a postal voting system that is at least as good as the current system, and hopefully we can design one that is better. Disabled groups have advanced arguments about the problem of disfranchisement. I have always accepted that problems arise with postal votes in old people's homes, because it is difficult to ascertain whether the vote is being cast by the old person in question, or by someone who is assisting them. But that problem is not confined to the new proposal; it already exists.
My plea to this House and to the House of Lords is to let us have some more pilots, and to let us learn from that experience. I hope that I can present to the House a Select Committee report that makes recommendations on some of the things that need to be done to ensure that we have a secure and fair voting system.
I excuse Andrew Bennett from what I am about to say because he has made a very important contribution to the debate, but I should say that I find this debate and the circumstances in which we are holding it profoundly depressing. The more I listened to the Minister, the more I felt that a measure of shabby expediency was being dressed up in matters of high electoral principle. I am afraid that that simply will not wash.
Setting aside for the moment the Minister's overruling the independent advice of the Electoral Commission—I shall return to that because it is absolutely crucial to our deliberations—I find particularly offensive the continuing misrepresentation of the commission's views by Ministers in this House, either directly or by partial quotation. During Question Time earlier today, I drew that point to the attention of Mr. Viggers, who answered questions on behalf of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. I also drew attention to the comments of the Leader of the House, who said that the Electoral Commission
"has said that we should go ahead with two schemes and, if we judge that there are sufficient resources and so on to enable four pilots to be held, that we should go ahead and hold those as well. That is exactly what it said."—[Hansard, 4 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1066.]
That is exactly what the Electoral Commission did not say. It said anything but that it wanted to go ahead in the other regions. It said that there were significant problems with doing so, and that it could not make a positive recommendation, as has repeatedly been pointed out.
There has been a process of partial quotation of the letter from Mr. Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, to the Under-Secretary, most of which has been read out today. However, it is worth drawing attention to its opening sentence, which states:
"When we met earlier this week with you and other ministers, concern was expressed that the Commission's position on the pilot regions was being misinterpreted".
That is not what the letter suggests. It suggests that we know only too well what the Electoral Commission was saying, and that the commission is seriously put out by the fact that Ministers insist on saying that it included in its recommendations matters that it clearly did not.
I have already said clearly that we have a disagreement with the Electoral Commission about the definition and scale of a pilot, and that the commission made a positive recommendation for two regions. My point was that there was a middle category of recommendations, with some regions that the commission said were potentially suitable, but that that was being misrepresented to suggest that it had said no to Yorkshire and the north-west, which is not the case.
I hope that hon. Members who intend to take part in the Division later will go to the Library and read the letter from the Electoral Commission, because it is incapable of the interpretation that the Minister is putting on it. Mr. Hawkins has already pointed out the declaratory statement in the letter, which cannot be interpreted as the Minister has interpreted it. In the view of the Electoral Commission,
"pilots that cover over a third of the English electorate in June go further than we think necessary in order to address those issues, especially in the absence of the underlying legislative change we consider necessary."
May I ask the hon. Gentleman, who is making an excellent speech and referring to the letter accurately and truthfully, what the legislative programme is that needs to be in place before a new system of all-postal voting could be more appropriate? To my mind that is a critical factor. Are there sufficient safeguards, some of which may need to be implemented by legislation, to ensure that an all-postal voting system will be fair, and will not be subject to massive fraud?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I shall not go into the totality of the Electoral Commission's proposals to reduce fraud, but it drew attention to a number of ways in which electoral law needs to be improved to satisfy the requirements for a fair election.
I entirely accept that, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said, those strictures apply equally to postal votes under the current arrangements. However, the problem with all-postal ballots is that they multiply by a considerable factor the capacity for fraud to have a significant impact on the electoral outcome. Perhaps that is not the case with European parliamentary elections, because of the extraordinary mechanism that we have for them, but the European elections in June will be combined with those for many local authorities, and the capacity for the outcome of local authority elections to be distorted on that basis is considerable. Hon. Members should be aware of that danger.
The Government's position has changed almost continually. When the idea was originally proposed, they simply wanted, for obvious administrative reasons, to bring together the date of the local government elections and that of the European parliamentary elections, so as to maximise the turnout for both. That seems an entirely laudable aim, and that was the limit of their expectations. Then we heard the suggestion about the three pilots. It was repeated again and again that the Government were looking for three pilots; indeed, that was the advice that they gave the Electoral Commission.
I understand that there may have been some disappointment in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister when the Electoral Commission said that there were only two, rather than three, regions that it could positively recommend. On Report, the Minister said that he thought that the Government would consider a third region with a view to bringing it into the net. I do not think that anybody who contributed to that debate or listened to it thought that that meant anything other than that the runner-up would be considered.
As we know, the Electoral Commission judged that the next most suitable region was Scotland. Scottish Members argued strongly that Scotland should be included. Instead, however, the extraordinary and shabby outcome is that the northern English regions will be included, with no apparent logic, ahead of Scotland. I strongly suspect the involvement of the Deputy Prime Minister here. I suspect that he has insisted that, for what purpose I do not know, he will have an all-postal ballot in his part of the country—Yorkshire and the Humber. That is probably the single determining factor.
In taking that view, the Government have set aside their own original criteria. The Minister said that he disregarded complexity, and did not believe that it was an issue that needed to override other considerations. Indeed, he thought that there was a positive benefit to including a complex region. If so, why on earth did the original criteria given to the Electoral Commission expressly say that regions that were over-complex should be omitted, because so many local authority elections were happening on that day? If those are the criteria that the Electoral Commission was asked to consider—they were the Government's idea, not its own—why are the Government now taking a different view?
I understand that some Members are keen to have all-postal ballots in their areas. We all want innovation that really increases voter turnout, but we have to ask ourselves: when is a pilot not a pilot? The answer is: when the pilot includes almost half of England, and almost half the local authorities that will hold elections on that day. Those with an historical bent might recognise that the whole of the Danelaw will have all-postal ballots but that no part of Wessex or Anglia will have that benefit.
I do not suppose that ethnic considerations from the middle ages have come into play, but I do wonder why an all-postal ballot is considered appropriate for areas that the Government feel have a higher propensity to vote for the Labour party, but not for areas that tend to vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Conservative party.
In an earlier intervention it was suggested that postal voting was an important issue for coalfield communities. If the issue is important for retired coal miners in the north, why is it not so for retired coal miners in the Rhondda, or in Kent, or in my constituency? Why are they not to have postal voting? If the logic is that we can extend the pilot to any level, why not include the whole country? Let us have a single electoral system for the whole country.
That view is not being taken, however. We are to have one law north of the Trent and another south of it. That cannot be an acceptable way to run an election in which the campaigns will be conducted on a national, not a local basis. Those are the considerations that lead me to recommend in the strongest possible terms that my right hon. and hon. Friends hold firm to the position of our noble Friends in another place and resist the Government's blandishments—not because we do not want electoral practice to be reformed, but because the Government are making the changes for their own ends, not for the stated objectives.
I took great exception when Mr. Hawkins said that Yorkshire and the Humber should not have the right to hold an all-postal ballot in June because of the stream of wrongdoing and breaches of electoral law that he read out. I suppose that such things do not happen in places like Surrey or Somerset, or anywhere else. I take exception to that being cited as the reason for opposing the idea.
If Opposition Members are relying on arguments about fraud and breaking electoral law, it would be more consistent if they argued not that two regions should have the systems proposed for the east midlands and the north-east in June, but that no regions should have them. To my knowledge, that position has not been put in this House or in the other place, and there would be greater consistency if it had been. I find it difficult to accept that that position is being put in the Lords amendment.
One reason why we have gone from two assemblies to four is that in October this year there will be an all-postal vote for a referendum on whether there will be regional assemblies for the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber. That is why the Government have acted and I support them—that is a sensible way to approach the issue, and I am in favour of it. Many things have been said in this House and the other place about fraud and the breaching of secrecy. Given the arguments that we have heard in the past hour, it would be more consistent to argue for stopping all postal voting, never mind all-postal votes. However, those arguments are wrong.
The other issue I want to take up is what the Electoral Commission said about Yorkshire and the Humber. Returning officers prefer not to change conventional methods of voting, but that is not peculiar to Yorkshire and the Humber. I have stood in five general elections, and in the first three of them the returning officers in Rotherham borough said that it was impossible to count the votes from the Rother Valley and Wentworth on the Thursday night of the general election. They used to leave us until the next day and just count the votes from Rotherham on the night. I had to run a campaign to get that changed in 1997, but the returning officers said that it could not be done. In the public sector—and, indeed, the private sector—if people are asked to change how they work and interact with one another, the first thing that they always say is, "We cannot do that. It cannot be done." I understand that the returning officers in Yorkshire and the Humber have changed, and that pleases me. There is no reason why we should not pass legislation to improve turnout at elections, and at local government elections in particular.
The right hon. Gentleman should know that some Conservative Members think that postal voting will increase turnout, and if all things were equal we would recommend it. However, such a widespread experiment cannot proceed until the real issues of impersonation, pressure and fraud are dealt with. That is our case tonight; we are not against postal voting in principle.
The Electoral Commission published a report in July last year called "The shape of elections to come", which covers the local government election pilots that took place last May. It states that fraud is no more likely in an all-postal vote than it is under the current system where people go to the polling station. I do not have the report with me; it is in my constituency office.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath shakes his head, but I read that report and I shall tell him why I read it. Last May, Rotherham metropolitan borough council had an all-postal vote for local government elections for the first time in the 25 years that I have been involved in politics. The all-postal vote was the best thing that has ever happened to local elections because it improved the turnout to more than 50 per cent. In one of my wards, turnout was just over 20 per cent. in 2000; under the all-postal vote, it more than doubled to over 53 per cent.
After the publication of "The shape of elections to come" and before a decision was taken on whether there should be all-postal votes for the local government and European elections this year, I wrote to the Electoral Commission to say that it would be completely consistent for it to extend its pilot scheme in Rotherham last May to this year's local government elections. I said that for numerous reasons, but one of them was that the Electoral Commission itself was saying that the future of local government elections is likely to be all-postal ballots. Indeed, the executive summary of "The shape of elections to come" states:
"Our evaluation of the all-postal pilot schemes suggests that this approach is effective in boosting participation rates at local elections—to an extent that was largely underestimated when the pilots process first began, and which appears to be sustainable."
If hon. Members do not support the amendment in lieu, turnout in my constituency will be knocked back and it will be a retrograde step for this year's local government elections. It makes sense to use all-postal voting in June and in the referendum vote later in the year. I do not say that for party political reasons but to get people actively to participate in local government elections. All hon. Members know that there have been by-elections in some parts of the country where turnout has hardly reached double figures, and we have seen reduced turnouts in local government elections year upon year. If we do not start to get serious about increasing participation, people will not bother to vote.
I have read all the arguments put in the other place on
I believe that Lord Rennard is a Liberal Democrat—I looked him up in "Dod's"—and he gave three reasons why we should not get involved in all-postal votes. He said,
"First, concerns about lack of secrecy and privacy in voting, which some people believe undermine the basic principles of the Secret Ballot Act of 1872. Secondly, there are considerable concerns about potential fraud with all-postal voting, particularly in relation to homes in multi-occupation . . . There are also concerns about the timing of all-postal voting mechanisms. We now understand that in these all-postal voting pilots in June, the ballot papers will be delivered between 25 and
Ballot papers are, of course, delivered between 25 and
Lord Rennard went on to say that notwithstanding those reservations it is right to have all-postal votes in two regions but not in four. If he believes that all-postal votes undermine the Ballot Act 1872, lack secrecy and privacy and raise concerns about potential fraud, why does he believe that they should happen in two regions only and not in four?
In "The shape of elections to come", the Electoral Commission states that all-postal votes are no different from the current system. One cannot argue that all-postal votes should not happen in the north-west or Yorkshire and the Humber because of the potential for fraud. That is an argument not to have all-postal ballots at all.
I mention the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber because of the referendum that will happen later this year. The Bill will introduce an all-postal ballot, which makes sense. I do not know why the Electoral Commission does not see that. Its document about all-postal voting, published in July, states:
"Indeed, there are real risks that if Returning Officers in areas with repeated experience of all-postal elections are obliged to revert to use of polling stations alone, voters will express considerable frustration and disappointment."
The point is that we cannot keep chopping and changing. Rotherham has had one all-postal vote that doubled the turnout in local government elections. Going back to using polling stations in June—I know that the elections are also European elections—could decrease participation by half. It would be nonsense then to change back in October.
Conservative Members know that they are playing party politics, and that is also what is being played in the other place. I hope that they lose, because they are wrong to use the issue for party political reasons. This is about more active participation in elections and nobody who is elected to this House should vote to discourage that.
As for those non-elected people in the other place, I shall not express what I feel about them, except to say that they are playing the issue for party politics. The debate on
I sincerely hope that all-postal votes will not become the norm. It is certainly a novel concept that only the Labour party is approaching the issue from a non-partisan point of view—pull the other one!
The Minister was allowed to range widely on the issue, and I trust that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will allow me to do so also. On the specific issue of the Electoral Commission, it is a great pity that the Minister has reacted as he has. It is a good thing if those who determine the way in which elections are conducted are kept at arm's length from this place and from politicians of all parties. That is why I have always supported the strictly impartial position of the boundary commissions. Sometimes they have made inconvenient recommendations. One such report was extremely inconvenient for me personally in 1997 because it took away the best part of my former constituency. I was left with a lovely area, which I am delighted to represent, but the area that I lost—it is now represented by Mr. Kidney—was the best bit, electorally speaking. I make no complaint about that and I did not contest at the inquiry the boundary commission's right to recommend it. However, I slightly regret that the Electoral Commission does not follow more closely the boundary commission model in its responsibilities and its constitutional relationship to the Government. I accept that this House determined otherwise—indeed, with the Government's vast majority, what else could we determine?
I have known Sam Younger for a long time, and long before he became the chairman of the Electoral Commission. Indeed, his late father, Kenneth Younger, was a distinguished Labour Member of Parliament for my home town of Grimsby, and he was one of my early parliamentary idols as well as a rival. I had a very high regard for him. Sam Younger is a man of total impartiality and integrity, and nobody would dispute that. I have met most of his fellow commissioners, and I believe that they are of similar quality and calibre. It is regrettable that when the commission made it plain that it wanted two pilots—
Yes, it did. It is pure sophistry and untypically disingenuousness of the Minister to pretend otherwise. Mr. Heath and my hon. Friend Mr. Hawkins have made it plain—and I have talked to Sam Younger about the matter—that the commission was happy to recommend two pilots, but it was not happy with more. It conceded that the Government would want a third pilot, but it certainly did not expect the Government to propose four. Mr. Younger has made his position plain beyond any equivocation in the letter that is now in the Library. The letter has been quoted extensively in the debate, so I shall not quote it again.
I have talked to Sam Younger about the wider issue involved and I shall put it to the House. Mr. Barron said that he had fought five general elections, but I have fought 11—nine of them successfully. When I started fighting general elections in 1964 it was difficult to get a postal vote. For some time, the categories of people entitled to a postal vote were very limited. It was a Conservative Government who allowed those who were going on holiday to have postal votes. At the time, there was some opposition from the Labour party because it was thought that Conservatives went on more holidays than Labour people and that it therefore was a party political move. I do not believe that and, indeed, the change was wise.
Postal votes should be available on request, without having to prove that one travels on business, will be on holiday on polling day or is sick—all the criteria with which we are familiar. I am much less happy with the idea of compulsory postal voting. I would personally prefer compulsory voting. We all want to increase the turnout, and that is the method that is used in some other countries. Making voting compulsory does not mean that one has to cast a vote for a party. An option on the ballot paper could allow voters to say, "A plague on both your houses", or words to that effect. However, everybody would have to vote, either by post or in person.
If we look back at history, we can see how people struggled to obtain secret ballots and then to extend the franchise. Women in particular struggled to get the vote. The right to vote is precious and it should not be too lightly taken for granted. There is much to be said for making going to the polling station or applying for a postal vote a conscious act. It is not wrong for the House to consider alternatives. We are talking about pilots, although they would cover a third of the United Kingdom and almost half of England. That is a massive amount of people who would have to vote by post. I ask colleagues on both sides of the House to consider what that would mean if it was extended to a general election. I concede that the argument is different for local elections, but if extended to general elections, it will mean the abolition of polling day—[Interruption.] Yes, it will. People have to vote by a certain date—perhaps
We all know from our experience of fighting elections that, whether it be the result of a Sheffield rally or some other event, opinions can be swayed and people can be persuaded to change their minds. They may either stay at home in greater numbers or even switch their votes. Abolishing polling day—that is effectively what it means—will change the whole way in which elections are conducted. It will change how we all campaign, and in general elections—again I concede that it is different for local elections—it will mean much more voting for the party, or perhaps for the potential Prime Minister, rather than for the individual local Member of Parliament.
I believe that there is not a single Member—either present tonight or not—who fails to cherish and relish his or her relationship with that part of the United Kingdom that he or she has the good fortune to represent. We all like to conduct our campaigns in our own way, and I am sure that we all like to tell electors that they are not voting for Sir Alec Douglas-Home or Mr. Wilson, "but for me". We take pride in that, but it will be a casualty of any decision to move towards wholly postal elections—it truly will.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about compulsory voting. I remember arguing the same point from the Opposition Benches back in the early 1980s, and there were few takers, when the example was a country such as Australia. He says that postal voting will abolish general election day, but it will not. Depending on the sort of pilot, it is not compulsory postal voting. People in my constituency who wanted to vote in a ballot box for local government elections last year could go along on the day and deliver their vote in the polling station as they had in the past. Not every polling station was open, but the votes were taken to the count and counted in the same way as the others. It made no difference to the final result. It will not result in the abolition of how things were done in the past.
I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman and I will have to disagree. If we move towards all-postal elections, that is what will happen. I must tell the House that we should examine our elections on the merits of individual cases. I can concede that there is a case for a postal ballot in local elections. I am much less happy when it comes to European elections, and I am deeply unhappy about the current conduct of such elections where we vote for a party rather than an individual. The old European constituencies were large, but people nevertheless identified with an area and different parts of the country were represented. Now, however, there are many MEPs for the west midlands, but not one has a specific commitment or responsibility to any particular area. I do not like that system at all, and it will be made worse by having compulsory postal ballots in half of England or a third of the UK.
Every Member present should be thinking about the impact on general elections. The next general election will not be affected, because there will not be enough time. However, if we move down this road—I have already said that it will mean the abolition of a set polling day, because most people will have voted, 10, nine or seven days beforehand—we will change the whole nature of campaigning and of democracy in this country. Before adopting that course, I beg the House to think seriously about the better alternative of compulsory voting.
I end where I began with the merits of the specific amendment before us. Many disparaging remarks have been made about Members of the other place, but I believe that they bring knowledge and objectivity to the debate—[Interruption.] They certainly do. After all, electoral registration officers, whom the Minister prays in aid, are just as unelected and unrepresentative as Members of the other place. Those Members bring objectivity and knowledge—in some cases based on years of service in this House—to debates, and I believe that that they cast their votes wisely and that this House would be ill advised to reject what they have recommended. I say that for two reasons: first, for the reasons advanced in the other place; and, secondly, because we would be backing the Electoral Commission, which the Government, sadly, are not.
There has been much talk about corruption in elections, and Mr. Hawkins specifically mentioned my city of Bradford. I should like to highlight a few incidents that have taken place under the present system, but we should also acknowledge that corruption in elections is perpetrated by political parties and by people acting on their behalf. If we got to grips with certain types of people in political parties, we would not have these problems.
One candidate in the 1992 general election—I stress that it was not connected with my campaign—was offering £5 for a polling card. When that was brought to my attention, we encouraged people who were going to vote to retain their polling cards. After they had voted, they delivered their cards to that candidate and collected their £5. It must have cost him about £2,000, but he did not get a single vote out of it. That happened under the present electoral system.
More recently in Bradford, large gangs of thugs—perhaps 50 or 60 people— have congregated around several polling stations in the inner city area. They have intimidated electors, telling them how to vote and threatening them with physical violence if they do not accept their advice. That is what is happening on the ground under the current system.
In 2001, the first election for which the new system of postal votes was in place—and bearing in mind that it was not necessary to have a medical or other specified reason to apply for a postal vote—there was a 500 per cent. increase in the number of Bradford electors using postal votes. What were the problems and difficulties experienced in Bradford in 2001, that drew national attention at the time? The problems were mainly connected with registration for postal votes, which does not happen in all-out postal votes where there is no application stage. In 2001, we once again had gangs of thugs going around collecting signed application forms for postal votes, then redirecting where the votes were sent to. One gentleman—I use the terms loosely—was arrested. He had 31 blank ballot papers in his pocket, but the police said that he had not committed any offence. That is happening under the current system.
In Bradford, four wards out of 30 had problems, and I am talking about the general election and two subsequent local elections. In Yorkshire, nine wards out of 400 experienced difficulties. That is no reason to deny the vast majority of the population the right to an all-out postal vote. Some argue that, the greater the turnout, the more the impact of fraudulent practices is diluted. There is a ceiling to how many people can be conned and corrupted, and a big turnout helps to overcome the problem.
I have said it to the Minister before, but the police and returning officers must take fraud and corruption more seriously. On numerous occasions over the years, West Yorkshire police have not regarded such incidents as a priority. That is a fault of the system; it is not to do with an all-out postal vote. It is a problem with applying the law, taking action, prosecuting people and, if necessary, sending them to jail.
As we all know, the root of democracy is the right to vote. The real issue is the absolute sanctity of the secret ballot. People who try to abuse that should spend a long time in custody at Her Majesty's pleasure. Such offences should be a priority for the police and returning officers. If the law needs amending, let us amend it.
A great deal of the debate has concentrated on how to increase turnout, whether in referendums, local government elections or at European parliamentary elections. I pose the following question to the House: is achieving an increased vote what we are about? Is an increased vote achieved merely by increased convenience? Does an increased vote mean that there is increased interest in politics and what is going on in the local council, in Westminster, in the United Kingdom or in the European Parliament? I wonder whether an increased vote indicates an increased interest and an increased desire to be involved.
I disagreed with the hon. Member for Bradford, North when he said that if we move to an all-postal electoral system, the limited amount of current fraud will not be multiplied. In that regard, I associate myself entirely with the comments of Mr. Heath, who made an excellent speech that reflected what will happen in an all-postal system.
As somebody who has fought 10 parliamentary elections—one fewer than my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack; I associate myself with the totality of his remarks—I have some understanding of what makes the electorate tick and what encourages them to turn out. I have great admiration for the Minister, who is one of the most able and articulate Ministers in the Government. I do not say that lightly; I have listened to many of his speeches and he has sought to advance his case in an able, constructive and articulate way. However, I happen to have reached a different conclusion from his. I believe that fewer and fewer people have voted in recent elections because they no longer believe that Parliament is relevant.
Shall I tell the House why? It is because successive Governments—including the current one—have sought to bypass Parliament. Indeed, many Labour Members are concerned about the way in which their Government are trying to diminish the relevance of this place to debate legislation. If this place is deemed irrelevant, people will rightly ask why they should vote for those who stand for election to it. I refer to the Executive of the day and not just the present Labour Government. In some ways, although not quite so blatantly, my party when in power sought to abuse, undermine and bypass this place in order to get on to the statute book the legislation that it required. We have only to look at the way in which Select Committees are appointed—
Indeed; that is why I believe that the other place was right to reduce the number of pilot projects from four to two. I accept that their lordships expected the Government to increase the number proposed by the Electoral Commission from two to three, but they are certainly most unhappy about the increase from two to four—for the reasons that so many hon. Members have given during this debate.
I hope that you will allow me a little discretion, Madam Deputy Speaker. In addition to the Government's bypassing of this place, which makes people not want to vote because they do not think that the House is relevant, the political parties have played a part. The parties have sought to take away the independence of Members of Parliament in genuinely believing in or opposing an issue and in seeking to represent the best interests of their constituency or constituents. Given that the Executive of the day bypass the House and that the political parties seek to dominate and use their members merely as cannon fodder, why should people vote?
Therefore, I disagree with some of the views of the hon. Member for Bradford, North, as I did with those expressed by Mr. Field, for whom I have the highest regard. Let us consider why people are not voting instead of trying to make it more convenient for them to vote, especially given that an increase in voting is not an indication of more interest in politics and in what is going on in this place, in local councils and in the European Parliament.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, I am concerned that the Government have sought modestly to misrepresent the views expressed by the chairman of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, who is clearly not happy that a third of the United Kingdom should be involved in a pilot scheme. Almost half of England is to be involved. That can hardly be described as a pilot project.
I am not sure whether the Minister is winding up the debate, but I hope that he is and that he will respond to my intervention on what positive steps are being taken to ensure that there are adequate safeguards not only to minimise any abuse of the postal voting process, but to guarantee the integrity of the electoral register. In doing so, we must bear it in mind that the incidence of abuse could dramatically increase in an all-postal election and that there could therefore be major distortion of the results in some parts of the country.
Many people are concerned that it is now very easy to get a name on an electoral register for an address. No such person lives at that address, but they have been registered by the individual who completes the form each year. Surely we want honest, fair and transparent elections. We do not want just to try to make it more convenient for people to vote. What thought has the Minister given to the valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire about the impact of the new system on campaigning? As there will be a period between when postal votes have to be sent back and the actual polling day, at what stage will it no longer be worth while for a candidate to continue campaigning? I am deeply worried that our unique system—the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituents—will be broken—
I greatly respect you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and will seek to honour your ruling and your request.
The electoral system has a bearing on the matter. Because the Electoral Commission was concerned about the impact of the change, it wanted to limit the pilot project to two regions rather than extending it to almost half of England. There is a grave risk—
When the European elections are held under the proposed system, I should not want the hon. Gentleman to feel that he was redundant. I am sure that he will be happy to continue knocking on doors for the Conservative candidate in those elections right up to polling day, to ensure that all the postal votes are returned.
That is one of the friendliest interventions that I have taken in almost 33 years in this place. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and am only sorry that he is standing down at the next election. No doubt that will give him an opportunity to come to Macclesfield to encourage whichever of his party's candidates stands against me.
I am not sure.
I believe fervently in the personal relationship between the elected and the electorate and I am worried that a system of all-postal elections will break that down. I am particularly concerned about the security and integrity of the electoral register because of the fraud that may arise under the new process. If the Minister can give me some assurances I shall be grateful, but as things stand I shall most certainly vote to uphold their lordships in their amendment.
My remarks will be brief. I have a strong sense of déjà vu. On a previous occasion, I suggested that choosing the north-west as a pilot area was not a good idea and I suggest the same today.
Returning officers in the north-west certainly have concerns, not about their own efficiency but about the confusion that will be created in the mind of the electorate. In the north-west, we have 80 per cent. voting on atypical, all-up local council elections—not by thirds and not on the usual boundaries in every case—while the European elections are held according to a completely different system. That is complication upon complication, which in normal circumstances would create a lot of extra work for polling clerks. It is innovation piled on innovation.
The Government expect that people receiving a mountain of paper—explanatory notes and so on—will feel more motivated to vote and more confident in doing so. However, a sane person would predict much confusion and a high number of errors. The system will give no assurance to the electorate and it will certainly not reassure candidates in tight contests. The Government have put forward a new argument today—developed for the purpose—that complication is actually an advantage and can help the pilots.
The Electoral Commission agrees fundamentally with me and Opposition Members. It has serious concerns about fraud and said that the north-west was not ready for such a pilot. In our last debate on the measure, I concluded my speech by observing that, given the evidence and the comments of the Electoral Commission, anyone who went against its views would seem to be acting purely from naked party political objectives. That is still how it seems.
During our previous debates, I was—strangely—impressed by Mr. Forth who, like some Government Members, argued that decisions about the voting system are properly the matter of Parliament, not of the Electoral Commission. He drew the logical conclusion that there was little point in the Electoral Commission at all—there was no point in its making recommendations or even existing.
There is a serious weakness in the Government's position, because they allow the Electoral Commission to make recommendations so that any proposal will be free from the taint of party political advantage and will have a degree of independence, yet when push comes to shove and those independent recommendations are not to their liking, they overrule them for—it is suggested—party political advantage. If that is the case, the Electoral Commission is simply being reduced to a fig leaf for straightforward brutalist politics. If I were the chairman of the Electoral Commission I should be considering my position. A resignation would certainly force the Government to come clean on the issue.
Some Labour Members suggest that the all-postal system does not so much help Labour but shores up the democratic vote against the likes of the British National party, to prevent it from winning a Euro seat, and that could be the hidden plan, for all I know. Stopping the BNP is a laudable objective, but an all-postal ballot is no more likely to achieve it than other means. The defeat of the BNP in the north-west will be secured neither by that means nor by taking a media circus to confront it in Burnley. To defeat the BNP in the north-west, we need to out-campaign it, as the Lib Dems largely do in Burnley. I was privileged to assist the Lib Dems there recently when the BNP had a seat taken from it by good old-fashioned campaigning; the BNP was defeated at the ballot box.
I suggest to Labour Members that they will not defeat racism by skewing the voting system; we defeat racism by winning the arguments against it.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about taking on any party—that is what campaigning and politics are about. However, it is fundamentally wrong to say that an all-out postal ballot would skew politics. My experience is the opposite; such ballots encourage participation. Of course, we shall have to wait and see, but if the tide is running against a political party—no matter which one—a higher turnout means that it will be drowned faster.
I agree that an all-postal ballot would not actually skew politics, but to go against the advice of the Electoral Commission looks like strange and shameful shenanigans. Equally, there is a certain degree of feebleness in believing that one cannot beat the BNP in any other way.
In conclusion, we may—oddly enough—need the non-elected Chamber to uphold democratic values in this case.
With permission, I should like briefly to respond to the debate. I apologise to the House for having spoken at length in opening the debate, but I thought it important to set out in detail the Government's case and I sought to give way to a number of hon. Members. I hope that that was a useful process, even though I may well not have persuaded some Opposition Members, but I live in hope.
Mr. Hawkins reiterated his opposition to all-postal piloting. I explained the rationale behind selecting the four regions that we have chosen. We very much followed the ranked order of the potentially suitable regions suggested by the Electoral Commission. He also repeated a number of allegations that were made in the other place about impropriety in the north-west, many of which are unsubstantiated. Certainly, no convictions have resulted from any all-postal piloting experience. That is also an important point to put on the record.
My hon. Friend Andrew Bennett said that he is a keen advocate of postal voting. He made his views loud and clear, and they are now on the record. It is useful that his opinion has been aired in the debate.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Barron made an important point in quoting the Electoral Commission's opinion that there is no evidence that postal voting is any more prone to fraud than conventional voting.
Sir Patrick Cormack made an interesting and wide-ranging speech. He mentioned his possible attraction to compulsory voting, which, compared with all-postal voting, seems even more radical, but his views are also on the record.
My hon. Friend Mr. Rooney highlighted again the flaws of the conventional voting system. Indeed, postal voting will continue to be part of the conventional voting system. He also highlighted some of the possible advantages that may well flow from all-postal voting.
Sir Nicholas Winterton thought that we should consider other ways to encourage participation in our democracy. For example, he wanted to assert the House's importance to the wider world. If the House reaches its own decision on all-postal voting tonight, I hope that the other place will allow the House to have its way. That is an important part of the process.
With that little footnote to Hansard, I am sure that the House will note that view.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned his concern about the need for anti-fraud measures. The new offences that we have included in the Bill—for example, extending the offence of personation outside polling stations for the first time—will go some way, with the extra efforts that regional returning officers are making, to ameliorate concerns about fraud.
Dr. Pugh said that he had a sense of déjà vu about his own speech—so did other hon. Members. It is a pity that he feels that the Electoral Commission should be the decision maker in this matter. It advises on such matters, but Government and Parliament make the ultimate decisions. We are accountable to the electorate, and the Electoral Commission is happy with that situation.
All-postal piloting is worth while. We are trying to make participation easier for all electors. None of the obstacles that hon. Members have raised about Yorkshire or the north-west seems insurmountable, and regional returning officers there are now keen to proceed. The point of extending the scale of the pilots is to test systems and capabilities and address some of the security concerns. There is no evidence at all to suggest that including Yorkshire and the north-west as pilots will cause any risk or harm.
I hope that we can resolve this matter today, and allow regional returning officers to get on with the job. The elected House of Commons should have the final word on which regions to pilot, and I urge hon. Members to support Government amendment (a).