Electoral Systems (Review)

Constitutional Affairs – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 5th July 2005.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 2:30 pm, 5th July 2005

What plans her Department has to involve the public in the Government's review of electoral systems.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Officials in my Department are carrying out desk research to review the experience of the new voting systems that we have introduced.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Will she consider the fact that, with turnout at the last general election at just over 61 per cent.—the second lowest turnout since 1918—we face a real problem of disconnection and disengagement from the political process? We need to consider what the causes of that may be, including any contribution by the electoral system itself. What role will the public have in contributing to that process proactively, as well as reactively, because it should not just be left to us—after all, we have a vested interest in one system or another?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

None of us should have a vested interest in one system or another: the point is that we need to get the right system. I agree that there is disconnection and disengagement—all of us must be concerned about that—but as for the idea that the single way to address the problem is to change the voting system, all I can say is would that it were so easy. As my hon. Friend will know, we have introduced a great deal of constitutional reform, including different electoral systems, many of which include a measure of proportionality. We are reviewing those systems, and officials in my Department are doing desk research. Obviously, if we were to introduce any proposal to change those systems, let alone those for the House, there would be full consultation.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Is there not a great deal to be said for considering the suggestion made by the Leader of the House yesterday in his very thoughtful speech of a move towards compulsory voting?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

For a start, we do not have any proposal on the table to introduce compulsory voting, backed up by criminal sanctions, but we must all think very hard about how we ensure that people are on the electoral register. A major problem is the near 3 million people who do not even get to the starting point because they are not on the electoral register. We must make absolutely sure that everyone is confident in the result of the election because it is free from fraud, but we must also ensure that people feel like turning out to vote, that they are committed to voting and that they vote. We need to address a range of issues—not just as the Government, but as individual politicians and members of political parties—although I am not sure that forcing people by law to go to the polls is the way to do that.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Labour, Livingston

As the review is considering the experience of Scotland, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider writing to all Scottish Members to tell them who is carrying out the review, when they will visit Scotland and who they will talk to there? Will she explain to all Members, from whatever part of the House, what opportunity there will be in the review for the public to express a view?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As I have already explained, the review is desk research to examine the experience of the systems that we have already introduced. If we were to come forward with proposals, obviously there would be an opportunity at that point for everyone, including my right hon. Friend, who has a great deal of experience of these things, to put forward their views, as they do continually as part of the debate. We are simply examining the experiences of the changed elections for the European Parliament, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Greater London authority and Mayor. We are examining a range of material and considering the effect of the considerable constitutional reform that we have already undertaken.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

Will this desk-bound research take account of relevant facts, such as the fact that it took 44,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP at the last election, 96,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP and only 27,000 votes to elect a Labour MP? Ought not the message to the public be that their votes count and will be counted fairly, rather than that they will be fined if they do not vote, which would be a real surrender to the nanny state?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Sometimes there is an assumption that there is a direct relationship between the voting system and people's preparedness to turn out. In other words, it is sometimes thought that under proportional voting, every vote would count, so everyone would thus go out to vote. I understand that line of argument, but if hon. Members look at the evidence from the turnout in different elections, there is not an automatic correlation between the type of electoral system and turnout. Turnout is influenced by what people think about their individual MPs, political parties, institutions and other matters, so a whole load of things aside from the electoral system affect turnout. People who propose change, as the right hon. Gentleman does, should not rest their entire case on a factual assumption that is not correct.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend

The Minister will be aware that during the recent election in Bridgend, we had several problems due to the electoral registration office's failure to deliver postal votes and poll cards to a number of households. Does she have any plans to make it a requirement that post codes are contained on all electoral registers?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend refers to the variation of the ways in which the register is presented in different constituencies. Some show full addresses and post codes, which makes it much easier for the Post Office to deliver election addresses, yet others are not compiled according to postal address at all, but by the alphabet. It is important that we have consistency and high standards in all the different electoral registration areas, but, obviously, electoral registration must be conducted independently, so it would not be right for us to try to control the process. People should have their independent sphere of influence, but it is important for us to have good standards throughout the country. Colleagues with constituencies that cover two electoral registration areas often tell hair-raising tales of different standards in different areas.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

But does the Minister agree with the Leader of the House that there should be compulsory voting and will she consult the public about that? In fact, will there be consultation before the Government make proposals on electoral systems? Surely it is contrary to liberty to force a person to vote. With turnout especially low in Labour constituencies, surely the onus is on the Government to raise their performance and give the people reasons to vote. At a time of rising violence, the police should be protecting the public from crime, rather than chasing non-voters and fining them £100 a time.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As I have said, we have no plans to introduce compulsory voting. If we did have plans to do so, there would be full consultation. Since the hon. Gentleman asked, I personally do not think that compulsory voting is the way to increase turnout. It is not just the Government's responsibility to encourage people to turn out because if his party wants to get elected, it must encourage people to turn out to vote for it. We must all address the problem.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Has my right hon. and learned Friend noticed a massive campaign to change the voting system, because I have not? Will she bear it in mind that as far as compulsory voting is concerned, it is not an accurate description of what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House proposed? No one would be forced to vote. It would simply be an obligation on the part of the citizen to vote, to abstain in person or to indicate beforehand that they have no intention to vote. The system is used in other democracies, such as Australia. Why not here?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

All of us who are in this place because of the electoral system have deeply held views about the voting system and what makes people turn out to vote. As I said, my preference is not to have compulsory voting backed by law.

As for whether I have noticed a massive campaign to change the voting system, we do not necessarily have to wait for such a campaign before we have a sensible debate. We have to give acute attention to the voting system, the system for getting on the electoral register, how we tackle fraud, how we ensure that people have confidence in this House of Commons and what we as individuals do to ensure that that confidence is sustained. We do not need to wait for a massive campaign. A debate is going on and we listen to it.