The Temporary Chairman:
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 5, in page 14, line 26, leave out from 'to' to end of line and insert—
'one or more electoral regions as defined for the purposes of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 (c.24)'.
Amendment No. 6, in page 15, line 1, leave out subsections (10) and (11).
Amendment No. 7, in clause 16, page 15, line 40, leave out
'local authority in response to whose proposal' and insert
'local authorities within the region or regions in which'.
Amendment No. 8, in clause 16, page 15, line 43, leave out
'local authority in response to whose proposal' and insert
'local authorities within the region or regions in which'.
Amendment No. 9, in clause 16, page 16, line 1, leave out first 'The' and insert 'Each'.
New clause 5—personal identifiers: supplemental provisions—
'Sections 13 and 14 shall not be brought into force otherwise than for the purposes of an order made under section 15.'.
We move on to the vexed question of pilots, which the Government have given rather a bad name. Pilots are the Government-speak equivalent of mañana: if one does not want to do something quickly, one runs pilots, pilots and more pilots, after which one can assess the pilots for a while, review the assessment and then run more pilots. However, the alternative is to roll out the whole scheme within a few weeks of installing the pilot scheme without any assessment of the evidence. Those are not appropriate ways of dealing with what many commentators have described as a matter of some urgency, particularly in the case of postal votes.
I have already conceded the point that individual registration raises some issues, and we must examine the matter carefully. My preference is for an individual voter registration scheme, which is a view echoed by Mr. Betts, who sees that as the direction in which we should be going, but also recognises the practical difficulties along the way.
I have given the Government credit for introducing new offences in the Bill in order to tighten up on fraud. If we are to make those offences bite, however, other than making threats that are never brought to court, we must provide the means by which returning officers and registration officers can detect fraud, otherwise we are simply rattling sabres without any expectation of success. That is particularly the case in terms of postal voting fraud, which we know has occurred because there have been successful court cases. We heard quoted on Second Reading what the learned judge in one such case said about the inadequacy of the current systems. If we accept the Government's proposed pilot scheme, we will not have these precautions in place by the time of the next general election. If that happens, we should hang our heads in shame, because this House will have failed in its primary duty of ensuring the integrity of our electoral system. We need an alternative to the Government's proposals.
When he was responding to the previous group of amendments, the Minister suggested—although he recanted when I intervened on him—that I had said that a full system of individual registration and personal identifiers should be rolled out across the country at a single stroke. I have not said that. I have said that the Government's scheme, which they have identified as being appropriate in the pilot areas, is appropriate across the country because it is a minimal scheme with very little likelihood of having a significant effect. If it were to have a significant effect, we have a fall-back position, which has already been described by the Electoral Commission.
The Government were wrong to suggest pilots in the first instance. People in the Whitehall Departments should be taken away and given some elementary scientific training as to how to conduct a controlled experiment. Too often, we have pilots that tell us practically nothing, and this is a case in point. The Government propose that local authorities opt in by offering the opportunity to run pilots in their local authority area. That gives us a self-selecting group of local authorities, no control over the kinds of authorities that are being used because they are self-selecting, and, with no control authority, no ability to make proper comparisons of what is happening. What is observed in the experimental conditions might be entirely random instead of helpful in ascertaining any sort of trend.
If the Government are insistent about going ahead with pilots, the very least that we can expect is that they identify a region and run the registration experiment across it. That would mean, first, that they have a suitable size of response in order to get meaningful results; secondly, that they can compare one region with a similar region, thereby providing the control that I suggest; and thirdly, that they have sufficient data to recommend changes in the future. None of that is accomplished by the Government's proposed pilot scheme.
There is a better solution. The Government do not propose to go as far as the Northern Ireland experiment because—I agree with them on this—they want not to use the Northern Ireland system of personal identifiers, which includes the national insurance number, but a basic version based on a signature and date of birth. That is not such a drastic step as suggesting a catastrophic reduction in registration but it is the minimum required to maintain the integrity of the voting system, especially for postal votes. Amendment No. 4 would set aside the concept of the pilot and go for a change in the law to provide basic protection.
Later amendments propose an alternative sort of pilot, which would be based on a larger area—an electoral region. Of course, we held such a pilot for the European parliamentary elections because that was believed to be appropriate. It was not based on one region—we had to go much further and half of England was used for the experiment because the Department took a completely different view of what was appropriate then. We had the Dane law, which covered an experimental area rather than a few local authorities dotted around the country.
Let me consider the so-called transitional arrangement that the Electoral Commission proposed. It is a pity that Barbara Keeley is not in her place, because she so strongly advocated never disagreeing with the Electoral Commission's proposals. She suggested that it would be outrageous to disagree with them and I should therefore have liked her to be here to endorse my comments. The Electoral Commission has made it clear that it does not agree with the Government about the piloting approach. I have a letter from Sam Younger that outlines the Electoral Commission's reasons for that. I received the letter at 6.15—the Minister obviously received it first, which is right and proper.
The Electoral Commission has proposed a transitional approach. It does not give me everything that I want—it is a compromise—but its great merit is that it does two things. It enables the Government to behave cautiously, as they say they want to do on the introduction of the overall arrangements and towards the normal voting procedure, but it ensures that minimum standards for postal votes are in place long before the next general election. That meets the Government's objection to my position and my objection to theirs. That is a strong place to start. The Under-Secretary shakes his head. He obviously has a preconceived view that he will not find the approach acceptable. That is a shame because, on Report, it might form the basis on which we wish to proceed. If we cannot do that, the measure will, unfortunately, go to a non-elected House for arbitration.
I am struggling a little with the hon. Gentleman's fall-back position. It appears that he does not object to the principle of pilots but simply to the areas in which they will take place. He argues that such an area should be a Government region, for example, the constituencies for European parliamentary elections. That would preclude the method that we use for conducting pilots on other matters such as electronic voting, whereby some wards in a local authority area are designated for the pilot and others are not. One can then compare what happened in the same local authority area. The hon. Gentleman would prevent such pilots from being conducted for those purposes, yet they might lead to some interesting results.
All sorts of things might lead to interesting results. However, I see no inconsistency between saying that I do not agree with a piloting approach but also that, if there is to be one, it needs to be on a quantum of local authorities that is sufficiently large to produce results, instead of the hotch-potch approach that has been used previously. Although we had some "interesting"—to use the hon. Gentleman's word—experiments on novel voting methods, what have we learned from them? We learned precious little because we had insufficient material to make a conclusive determination about the way in which we would like to progress. The end result was an election that inspired the least confidence of any in living memory. That is the environment in which we are addressing the issues in the Bill.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. We had some interesting pilots in Sheffield on electronic voting, in which some wards had electronic voting and others did not. We learned that having electronic voting made virtually no difference to voter turnout, so the idea that it was going to provide some kind of panacea to get thousands more people to vote proved not to be the case. So pilots can prove that things will not work, as well as proving that they will. That is the idea of a pilot, and we should set out with an open mind as to what the result will be.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We should set out with an open mind. We had a similar situation with electronic voting in south Somerset. It was not the preferred voting method of the people there; more were interested in personal voting. However, that is an aside, because we are not talking about a revolutionary change to what the Government are proposing. We are simply talking about providing a signature and a date of birth. I really cannot get my head around the idea that that is such a difficult thing for people to provide in order to ascertain that they are who they say they are for the purpose of electoral registration. People sign on the dotted line every day for things that they wish to receive. They might be asked to sign when the postman comes. They do not say, "Oh, no, Mr. Postman, I cannot sign to receive this package. It is too difficult." They say, "Of course I will." They sign, and they receive their package, or whatever.
This proposal involves a basic, elementary approach, and we are making far too much of an issue of it. We are making it an obstacle to registration, which it simply is not. It involves a basic precaution to ensure that, the next time we have an election, we do not have the sort of headlines that we had after the last one, with electoral courts in session and people being accused and convicted of electoral fraud, simply because our returning officers and registration officers do not have the mechanisms to prevent that fraud from happening. That is the responsibility of the House and of the Government, and that is why I have tabled these amendments today.
I should like to start by agreeing with Mr. Heath. Not to tackle the public perception of postal voting fraud and the inaccuracy of the registers would be a recipe for disaster. We talk a good deal in the House about trying to connect with the public, and about public confidence in the voting system. We are right to do so, because there is a disconnection there, and to fail to tackle a problem of such importance to this place would be wrong. The serial piloting approach is a hopeless and pathetic response to it. This is an urgent problem and it needs urgent action.
Everyone will know by now that I support the tried and tested system in Northern Ireland. It has created security and there are still high levels of registration there. However, I am prepared to consider measures such as those proposed by the Electoral Commission for a transitional approach. The proposal that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has come up with in amendment No. 4 is worthy of support because it does not involve a potty pilot. It involves rolling out personal identifiers, which will provide real protection, and it involves doing so now.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants to reach out and involve as many people as possible in voting, why on earth has he tabled amendment No. 23, which rules out all modern types of voting such as electronic voting, telephone voting and text message voting? Surely that amendment contradicts what he has just said.
I am sure you would be very tough on me, Mr. Conway, if I strayed too far down that road, because it relates to the next group of amendments, although I will refer to the point made by Mr. Betts: when pilots involving electronic voting and the like were tried, they had no discernible effect on turnout. That has influenced me, as have my concerns about fraud, which I will refer to later, if I may.
The point I want to make is that it is right to be constructive when the problem is so important. I am prepared to be constructive, as is my party, so we will support amendment No. 4. I do not agree with the regional approach, because piloting is not the answer. A national approach is needed, and it is needed now.
I sat through all the debate on Second Reading, and I have sat through a large chunk of the debate today. If any evidence were needed as to why we have to have a pilot, it has been provided by those debates. There has been a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing among Members on both sides of the Committee over whether one system will work and another will not; whether there should be household or individual registration; what the identifiers should be—for example, national insurance numbers; and whether those identifiers will act as barriers.
That is exactly why we need a pilot. We need to find out what does and does not work, and whether it is possible—particularly in terms of the personal identifiers—to give a choice. Despite what Mr. Heath says, some people find signing their name difficult, particularly in a consistent way. I give the example of my father, who has recently lost his eyesight. He is finding it extremely difficult to continue to sign his name in the way that he previously did with ease.
Provision for setting aside the personal identifier in such circumstances has already been made by the Government, who foresaw the problem. My amendment would not change that; it would simply introduce the provision across the country rather than in some parts of it.
But earlier the hon. Gentleman described exactly what the barriers are. Which personal identifiers will be easiest? That is probably where we are looking to pilot. Should we use date of birth? I would go along with that; it is probably an easy identifier. Should we use a signature? Most certainly it would be easy for most people, but we might use the mother's maiden name or a range of other things that will be easier for an individual to remember than things that we might think are easy to remember. That is why I said in a previous intervention that using the national insurance number might be difficult. Remember, the purpose of this measure is to encourage more and more people to register. For people with a learning disability, for instance, something we have not thought of might be an easier personal identifier than the ones we have come up with.
I also referred earlier to the point made by Scope, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Royal National Institute of the Blind, as well as other disabled organisations: whether it would be more successful to have individual registration with identifiers or household registration, also with identifiers; whether distributing the forms by household would make them too complex, too difficult to read and too difficult to access; and whether using an individual form would lead to a huge drop in the number of people who register. Nothing I have heard during our debates makes me think that we have the answers to those questions, which is why we need a pilot.
On Second Reading, I also made a plea for consistency across the different electoral regions. I might seem to be contradicting myself, but I think that we need pilots to find out what is easy and what is accessible. Having been registered in more than one electoral district—indeed, for a short time I was registered in three—I know that the variety of information and the differences between information that one receives in different areas can make it either easier or more difficult to work out how to register and what the form says.
I have puzzled over the exact meaning of a number of forms, especially in relation to declaration of citizenship, as it is not always clear whether that is mandatory. In one electoral register, one must declare one's nationality, while in my home register in Aberdeen, one does not have to do so. There is still confusion about exactly what is needed, and that is why the Government are right to pursue pilots. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the pilots must ultimately come up with a final solution. I hope that, as a result of the pilots, we will find out what works, what does not work, what is easy, what is accessible, and above all, what leads to security of poll and cuts out fraud to make sure that everyone has confidence in the electoral system.
To pick up the point about pilots, I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Heald that we seem already to have had a pilot of sorts in Northern Ireland, from which we learnt some things. We should pay attention to the Electoral Commission, which recognised that there were some negative effects on registration, and advised that to tackle that we should couple a move to individual registration with other measures such as campaigning and publicity work.
I am not sure how far forward the running of pilots will take us. One of two things will happen. The use of basic identifiers such as a signature and date of birth will not show a significant drop, which I am not convinced will satisfy some Labour Members—who have already seen examples of a drop in Northern Ireland—that there will not be a problem in rolling that out across the country. Alternatively, it will show a significant drop, but the reasons for that, and the reasons why there are such barriers, will not necessarily be clear.
In relation to the reasons why people do not register, the Committee chaired by Mr. Beith stated in its report on page 26:
"Most of the figures quoted are from data collected in 1991."
It mentioned that the Government were conducting
Will the Minister tell the Committee what progress has been made on that, and whether that information will be available? Clearly, if some of what seem to be relatively straightforward identifiers act as significant barriers, we need to know why they are acting as barriers. I do not see how we can get much more straightforward identifiers than signature and date of birth for most people. If the introduction of such identifiers causes a massive drop in registration, I am not sure what other sorts of identifiers would not have a similar effect. We therefore need to be clear about why a drop in registration has been caused.
If a signature and date of birth is that off-putting, that either reflects levels of education among some of the groups who are not registering to vote, or, as I have said previously, the extent to which they could care less about voting. I accept the point made by Miss Begg that for some individuals a signature might be a problem, and the Bill provides for that, but if most people are so disinterested in voting that asking them to sign a piece of paper and give their date of birth will cause a catastrophic drop in registration—as some Labour Members were saying—it strikes me that we have a more serious problem with voting and democracy in this country than is recognised.
If the Minister could answer my key question about some of the research on barriers to voting, that would be helpful.
Before I move on to new clause 5, I want to pick up a few points mentioned by other hon. Members.
Mr. Heath said that he would like to see a pilot in one region. We have already had that—that region was Northern Ireland—and we have seen the results. He said that he could not get his head round the idea that people are not prepared just to sign their name and give their date of birth. The hon. Gentleman cannot get his head around that notion. He is a well-balanced Liberal Democrat, a professional politician. Obviously, he sees no problem. If he lived in a house of multiple occupation, if he were unemployed or on the minimum wage or if he were part of an ethnic minority—obviously he is not—perhaps he would see that there are problems. There are problems for those people who are not registering under the current system. Any other measure that is put in their way will act as a disincentive to register.
We have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland, where the figure went down to 84 per cent. Mr. Harper said that we needed a registration campaign in conjunction with advertising, but that was undertaken in Northern Ireland. The figure went from 86 per cent. up to—according to Mr. Heald—92 per cent, a figure with which he said he was satisfied. I certainly am not. I do not represent Northern Ireland, but I am a democrat and I do not believe that democracy should be functioning on the basis of 92 per cent. of the population being registered. If we want an efficient and effective democracy with all sectors of society catered for, we need 100 per cent. registration.
I also wanted to speak about the timing of any pilots, which is key. I would urge the Minister not to start any pilot in any area of the UK until we have the 3.5 million to 4 million missing people on the register. If pilots go ahead, we should have it at that point. The people missing from the register are the most sensitive to any change. If we introduce pilots before they are on the register, we will not get a true reflection of the impact.
In 1997, there 55,000 voters, which went down to 48,000. I raised the issue in the House two or three years ago and, lo and behold, an extra 2,000 to 3,000 voters were put on the register. Currently the figure stands at about 52,000 electors, 3,000 down on 1997. In the last 10 years, the population of my county—my constituency makes up 65 per cent. of my county—has gone up by 4 per cent., while registration has gone down by about 10 per cent.
Whatever the percentage is, it will be a lot worse—[Interruption.] I think that I have given enough statistics about my constituency and I hope that hon. Members have statistics of their own. I have also supplied every Labour MP with their percentage fall since 1997 for 2001 and 2004. I have also cross-referenced that with the census database and supplied that information. I have given enough information about voting populations in my constituency and, indeed, 300 or 400 other constituencies.
New clause 5 would ensure that this House was properly consulted, through primary legislation, before any national scheme for national identifiers was rolled out as a result of the pilots. The very fact that we are debating these matters on the Floor of the House gives an indication of how important we feel this Bill is. Important changes that could result from a pilot scheme should not go through on the nod but should be properly and fully debated in this House. I oppose any measures that would further reduce the size of the electorate in my constituency and those of other Members. We must be very careful about the way in which we implement pilot schemes involving personal identifiers and signatures, and even more careful when deciding what will happen when the schemes have run their course.
The Bill had its genesis in the furore and fallout from a number of high-profile postal-ballot fraud cases during the 2004 local elections. There was wall-to-wall coverage of those cases on television and radio, and in the press. The Government, being a listening Government, decided to act on the concern. The initial thrust of that action was to secure the votes. When the Government listened further, especially to representations from Labour Members on the other issue, widening participation, they realised that it was a question not just of security but of ensuring that people were on the register.
I believe that, since the Bill's inception, its balance has been evened out. I believe that there has been a trade-off between securing the vote and widening participation. Pilots will show us what impact additional security initiatives will have on voter registration and participation. As I have said, my main concern is the widening of participation. I would oppose an automatic roll-out as a result of any pilot studies that might be undertaken.
Members may be tired of hearing a statistic that I have already mentioned, but I think it essential to repeat it until people know the true figures. According to the Electoral Commission, between 3.5 million and 4 million people are missing from the electoral register under the current rules. Had the Government listened to the press, had they listened to the Opposition and, dare I say, had they listened initially to the Electoral Commission, we would be implementing a system that could lead to a drop of a further 10 per cent. in the number of electoral registrations if the Northern Ireland pattern were repeated. Given an electorate of 44 million, that could constitute 4.5 million missing voters. There could have been a total of 8.5 million missing voters had Labour Members not intervened.
Some people are concerned about security. Let me put the matter into perspective. Replies to a parliamentary question that I tabled about postal-ballot fraud suggested that there were no prosecutions in the case of general elections, and only one or two per year in the case of local elections. That is one or two too many, but I feel that the greater evil is represented by a potential 8.5 million voters missing from the register. I realise that pilot schemes were introduced in an attempt to compromise, but I think that the results should be carefully monitored. Each and every one of us should have an opportunity to comment. If there is cause for concern, primary legislation should be initiated, and should be fully debated in the Chamber before any permanent national changes are made. I do not want such legislation to go through on the nod.
Nothing is so precious to a Member of Parliament as his boundaries and the size of his electorate. To me, as a Labour Member, size does matter: the bigger the better. If any changes made in my constituency or others would have a negative impact on an already diminished electorate, I want a say in them. As a democrat, I believe that if changes that might affect 8.5 million of the most disadvantaged people in society are to be pursued, they are worthy of a debate, a vote and primary legislation.
The debate is yet further evidence of the lack of consensus on individual registration and personal identifiers. Amendments Nos. 4 to 9 would put pilots of personal identifiers on a compulsory and regional basis. New clause 5, as my hon. Friend Chris Ruane said, would prevent the rolling out of personal identifiers on a permanent and nationwide basis without further primary legislation.
Let me deal first with amendments Nos. 4 to 9. The Government believe that, when a new system is tested, there is a balance to be struck between ensuring that it is tested on a large enough scale for the results to be meaningful and not taking unnecessary risks. Members will be aware that, for previous electoral pilots, we initially conducted tests at voluntary and local level. When we were confident that the system was ready to be used more widely, we scaled it up. What we have not done is to move to a regional scale without being clear that the benefits outweigh the risks.
The potential benefit of personal identifiers is an increase in the security of the electoral process. We are doing much to address this issue and personal identifiers may help us to do more. There is a risk of a significant drop in the number of people registered to vote. As we have heard repeatedly, in excess of 3.5 million people already cannot vote because they are not registered and we do not intend to exacerbate the problem.
Through pilots, we hope to measure the impact of identifiers in terms of both benefits and risks. We believe that a voluntary and local scheme will allow us to do that effectively. In our view, a compulsory regional scheme would attract an unacceptable level of risk, while not providing significantly more information about how the new system would operate.
If voluntary pilot schemes are to rely on local authorities coming forward, how can we ensure that such schemes are piloted in regions where there are significant numbers of people who are not registered? In order to tackle some of the issues that we have discussed today, we need to pilot areas where significant numbers are not registered. Moreover, if we discover that there are barriers and a drop in registration occurs, what are we going to do to find out why?
Those are two perfectly valid questions and I am literally just about to address them in turn.
I was about to say that it might be useful at this stage if I gave more detail on how we intend to take the pilots forward. We believe that they should last for at least two years, and that shorter tests would not be sufficient to provide the evidence that we need to make a decision on rolling out. We intend to create one generic scheme—in consultation with the Electoral Commission and volunteer local authorities—and to pilot this same scheme across a variety of areas. In this way, we will be able to test the impact of personal identifiers simply, without the confusion that would be caused if we tested a variety of slightly different schemes.
In selecting local authorities, we will ensure that local elected representatives are consulted. My briefing note says that there will be no question of a Member of Parliament being taken by surprise by a pilot in their area. That rather brings to mind the image of a British Airways captain leaping out on us from a darkened doorway, but the point is made.
In response to the argument that regional pilots would be preferable because they encompass areas with different social and demographic profiles—the point alluded to by Mr. Harper—we will seek to hold our local pilots in a wide variety of areas with different make-ups. The Office for National Statistics has grouped local authorities into seven classifications, some geographical and others more widespread. They are London centre, London suburbs, prospering UK, coastal and countryside, cities and services, and mining and manufacturing. There are also a number of sub-groups. We will seek to pilot in areas in each of these classifications in order to learn lessons from different areas with differing circumstances.
We have not yet issued a prospectus seeking volunteers, but we intend to do so shortly. Even in the absence of such a prospectus, a number of local authorities have already informally expressed an interest in piloting. I therefore foresee no problem in gaining enough varied volunteer local authorities to carry out a full and thorough test of the new system.
I mentioned earlier that I felt that the risks of regional registration pilots were too high. Let me explain why. The smallest UK electoral region is the north-east, which has some 2 million electors; the largest is the south-east, which has approximately 6 million. At the top end, a pilot covering two or three regions could cover a population of as many as 10 million to 15 million electors. A 10 per cent. drop in registration in such areas, as seen in Northern Ireland, would equate to the disfranchisement of between 1 million and 1.5 million people. Some Members may be sanguine about the prospect of disfranchising 1 million people, but we are not. If a local pilot had such a negative impact, the Government and the local authority in question could work together to rebuild registration rates. With a regional pilot, however, the catastrophic scale of the drop in registration would make such rebuilding far more difficult to achieve.
The purpose of holding pilots is to test a system that we feel is not yet ready to be rolled out. Here, there is a clear dividing line. We are testing the system because we are uncertain whether the benefits will be delivered without a catastrophic drop in the register; indeed, that is the whole principle behind piloting it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd spoke to new clause 5, which would prevent the rolling out of the use of personal identifiers on a permanent and nationwide basis without further primary legislation. As I said, there is no consensus on that issue. The Electoral Commission tells us to roll out personal identifiers now. My hon. Friend, who has tabled more parliamentary questions on the matter than anyone else—more perhaps than is altogether healthy—believes that, following pilots, a new Bill should be required to provide for national implementation.
Our position, as I have explained, is an attempt to respond practically to both sides of the argument. We will hold pilots that will be thoroughly evaluated—and they will be evaluated, to answer the second point of Mr. Harper, by the Electoral Commission. The Secretary of State will then take a decision as to whether he believes that the system is ready to be rolled out nationally.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd made a strong and powerful case, asserting the key role that the House must play if we are to institute such a far-reaching new scheme throughout the entirety of the UK. He clearly believes that it would be more appropriate for such a fundamental shift to be occasioned by primary, not secondary, legislation. The interest shown in the debate so far suggests that he advanced a powerful argument. However, my right hon. and learned Friend and I would like to reflect further on the implications of such a move. Given my assurances on how we are going to conduct the pilots, I hope that my hon. Friend is not minded to press the new clause.
I am grateful to all those who participated in this brief debate, but hearing the Minister say that it was outrageous to suggest that an electoral experiment—a pilot—should be extended to anything as large as a region when the Government had no compunction about forcing four regions through an electoral experiment only a little while ago against the express views of the Electoral Commission and every single party represented in the House other than the Government takes the biscuit.
We did not move immediately to all-postal regional pilots. They were piloted at a local and voluntary level and lessons were learned before the regional voting pilots that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It would help if he were to clarify that that was the point that I was making.
The hon. Gentleman again attempts to clarify what he said, but the fact remains that, following that election, we had the biggest crisis of confidence in the electoral system of this country that we have ever seen. For the first time, we had people genuinely doubting whether the election in which they had just taken part was conducted freely and fairly. We should not tolerate that. What is the Government's response? Are they prepared to go into the next general election with the same postal voting precautions in place? Yes, they are. Their answer is, "We'll do something, but mañana—tomorrow, whatever." That is not a satisfactory position. We need to do something urgently. The Electoral Commission has given us a clear steer about how we should go forward and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 15, line 24, at end insert—
"(1A) No pilot scheme shall take place by all-postal voting or involve sending ballot papers to electors who have not expressly and explicitly requested to vote by post.".'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 23, in page 15, line 24, at end insert—
"(1A) No pilot scheme shall include provision for remote electronic voting, telephone voting, text message voting, internet voting or voting by analogous electronic means.".'.
No. 24, in clause 16, page 16, line 9, at end insert—
'(9) In section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 (Pilot schemes for local elections in England and Wales), after subsection (1), insert—
"(1A) No order is to be made containing provisions authorised by any section of this clause unless a draft of the order has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House.".
(10) In section 11 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 (Revision of procedures in the light of pilot schemes), after subsection (1), insert—
"(1A) No order is to be made containing provisions authorised by any section of this clause unless a draft of the order has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House.".'.
Amendment No. 21 provides for no pilot schemes by all-postal voting. As Members on both sides of the Committee will be aware, the Electoral Commission has twice said that there should be an end to all-postal voting. It is clear—[Interruption.]
It is clear that the public value the tried and tested ballot-box polling station—the traditional British way of voting. They should not be forced to vote by other means such as postal voting if they do not want to do so. That is the recommendation of the Electoral Commission; it has been restated twice and it is time that the Government agreed to it.
Amendment No. 23 deals with pilot schemes for local elections and states that they should not include
"electronic voting, telephone voting, text message voting, internet voting or voting by analogous electronic means".
The point was made by Mr. Betts that such pilot schemes have shown no sign of increasing turnout in the past. The concern with electronic voting is that there is no proper way to establish an audit trail, so we propose in amendment No. 23 that we should not introduce such measures when there is no justification for them.
As for the experts, the Foundation for Information Policy Research has warned that
"the only safe way to allow electronic voting is through machines controlled by election officials that produce an auditable paper trail. Anything else is an invitation for fraud".
Let us not have that invitation. Mr. Ben Fairweather—a research fellow at De Montford university—has said:
"I have seen most if not all of the pilot schemes demonstrated, and have spotted substantial flaws . . . How do you know who's in the room with someone when they vote and how can you be sure they are not trying to influence someone's vote? . . . There are serious worries about SMS voting."
He goes on to describe all the difficulties with that. Let us take the same cautious approach to those issues as the Government claim they want to take.
We are concerned that piloting is becoming a serial occupation of the Government. They pilot and pilot and pilot, and then they pilot and pilot and pilot. That has been said before in the debate, but it is getting to the point where some controls should be put in place, so we suggest that Parliament should approve the pilot schemes.
The hon. Gentleman describes the current position with electronic voting or text messaging, but five years ago, I could not even text: the technology is moving at an incredibly rapid pace. Those types of voting could be secure in five years' time, but they would be ruled out if we were to agree to the amendment. It is very narrow minded and backward looking to rule out those innovative ways of voting.
The hon. Lady cannot have it both ways. We have tried an accurate system of voter registration in Northern Ireland. The Government have lauded it to the skies, but they will not introduce it in England. She is now saying, "We've tried electronic voting. It's failed. Let's introduce it." She cannot have it both ways.
The hon. Gentleman is accurate in saying that the Government's intention is to pilot and pilot and pilot, given that the Minister seemed to postulate a three-stage pilot process, with a local, then a regional and then a supra-regional pilot scheme. So none of these things will ever be put in place.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is right. I think that we both heard the rustle of the long grass, as the Minister kicked these proposals well into that territory. He then thought that that was perhaps not far enough, so he kicked them a bit further. In fact, piloting is a method of delay: the Government will not grasp the nettle.
I disagree most profoundly. As I said earlier, I have experience of a number of successful all-postal pilot schemes. We had great success with them in Trafford and in Salford. Piloting is important because we are changing a system that people have used all their lives. If they are middle aged or older, they may have been voting in a certain way for a number of years. It takes a fair amount of work to make pilot schemes successful. I agree that some local authorities did not get together and work hard enough to make them a success, but some of them have been successful. The reason why the Government keep supporting pilots schemes is that we are changing the way that people vote. That is a profound change for a lot of people, and we need to try out different ways of doing it.
It is becoming an abuse—that is the truth of it. We were happy to agree to some pilots in 2000 to try ideas out, but here we are, five years later, still piloting. The Minister seems to want to carry on with pilots for another five or 10 years. This really will not do. If we are to have pilots, we ought to have proper parliamentary approval. I see that Mr. Skinner agrees—[Interruption.]
The amendments relate to pilot schemes for local elections in England and Wales under section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000. Amendment No. 21 would prevent local authorities from making applications to the Secretary of State to conduct pilots of all-postal ballots.
In 2002, there were 13 all-postal pilot schemes. Those pilots secured significant increases in turnout in many areas. There was a 38.7 per cent. turnout on average in all pilots, compared with a national average of 32.8 per cent. In 2003, 33 all-postal pilots took place. The average turnout was just under 50 per cent., compared with the general picture of around 33 per cent.
Subsequently to those first two trials—this is the point that I was making earlier, although I think that Mr. Heath mischievously chose to misrepresent me slightly—all-postal pilots were held in four English regions: east midlands, north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber. Some 14.1 million electors were involved. At that election, turnout more than doubled in the pilot regions from the 1999 levels. In 2004, turnout in the pilot regions was 42 per cent., compared with 37 per cent. elsewhere. It is performance such as that that has led to many local authorities supporting all-postal ballots, as they keep turnout up.
Clear and sincere concerns have been expressed about how we can tackle fraud in the midst of all that. I outlined earlier the fact that there are anti-fraud measures in the Bill, albeit only in brief because the matter was not especially germane to that group of amendments. Further measures to combat fraud in postal voting will follow in secondary legislation. The measures include a requirement for the address of the electoral registration officer to be on the postal vote application form and will require a reason for redirecting a postal vote. All applications for postal votes will have to be confirmed in writing and replacement postal voting papers will be available up to 5 pm on the day of the poll. Some of the learning and development that supports those changes has come from pilots in which specific problems have been highlighted.
The Government believe that those measures will support all-postal pilots in the future, but we want them in place before any further pilots are carried out. As a result, the prospectus issued by the Department for pilots for the May 2006 elections specifically states that the Government are not seeking applications for all-postal pilots. While we have no intention to roll out all-postal voting as the default position for local elections in general, there might be instances in which such a pilot can be conducted effectively without any security concerns. In order to consider whether there is a case for allowing such elections to continue on an all-postal basis, we need to ensure that pilots of voting in such a way can be run to test and improve systems before any wider implementation.
People are worried about changing the electoral system and pilots because of the possibility of abuse through fraud. However, if anything illustrated how seriously electoral fraud is taken, it was the court cases that resulted from the 2004 local elections in England. If anyone thought that such fraud would be treated lightly, they were soon disabused of that view because of what happened to the councillors who took part in it.
Let me say this clearly: the Government condemn fraud wherever it occurs and whomsoever is guilty of it. If the people who commit fraud are members of the Labour party or Labour councillors, that in no sense diminishes our outrage. In fact, it increases our outrage that such practice takes place. I utterly condemn fraud and the people who attempt it. We are introducing measures through the Bill to minimise the risk of fraud. My hon. Friend was right to say that the judgment was serious. We are learning the lessons from that and making it absolutely clear that there will be zero tolerance of fraud, irrespective of who commits it.
The night is getting late, my mind is slowing down and the Minister speaks very quickly. Did the Minister say that there would be postal voting pilots for local council elections? If so, will he give a commitment that he will allow local government to decide whether or not it wants that pilot, or will it be done by Government edict?
No, I specifically said in the prospectus for the next local council elections that we are not inviting invitations for all-postal pilots, although there will be other pilots to test various locations where people can vote and so on. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we will put anti-fraud measures in place, along with the other measures that I outlined. He might ask Sir Patrick Cormack why I am speaking so quickly to this group of amendments.
We see merit in all-postal voting. There is a clear difference between our position and that of the Electoral Commission, as there is on several other issues. I remind the Committee that the vast majority of the recommendations in the Bill were made by the Electoral Commission, and we listened to it carefully on a range of issues. However, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State said on Second Reading, it is for the commission to make recommendations to the House, but it is for the House to decide how to implement those recommendations. On this issue, we do not agree with the commission, but we accept that additional anti-fraud measures must be put in place before we proceed any further.
Does the Minister accept that there are two principal objections to all-postal ballots? One is the requirement that there should at least be an opportunity for people to vote in person if that is their preference, and the other is the fact that identifiers are not in place to allow an all-postal ballot to be conducted without threat of fraud. QED, such arrangements should be made sooner, which is why we do not want the pilots to be long-haul.
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to revisit a discussion on a previous group of amendments. Let me reiterate that we are concerned to put anti-fraud measures place before we proceed with further all-postal ballots. It will be appropriate to hold such ballots when there is a minimal security threat. An example is the recent Downham Market parish by-election, which passed off entirely without fraud.—[Interruption.] If Mr. Heath is casting aspersions on the voters of Downham Market I am outraged, and I disassociate the Government and myself from those allegations. We do not want to paint ourselves into a corner and say that we will never hold a postal ballot again, because that is not wise.
May I share with my hon. Friend the real dilemma about piloting? What happens if all the local authorities that wish to participate in pilots have high registration in middle-class areas? What if, for example, none of the London authorities offer themselves for pilots, because they think that the response will be negative for them? Would the Minister roll out the scheme, knowing that certain areas of the country did not believe that the pilot would be successful for them?
I am not certain whether my hon. Friend was in the Chamber when I addressed that issue in relation to a previous group of amendments. In relation to the pilots for individual identifiers and registration, I gave a clear commitment that we would seek to draw from as wide an area as possible within the seven categories outlined by the Office for National Statistics. Postal balloting is a different issue, but I take the point that my hon. Friend is making.
Amendment No. 23 seeks to place a ban on the piloting of electronic voting. Research for the Electoral Commission released in 2003 shows that there is significant demand for electronic voting and that it may help to stem the declining turnout at elections. The research reveals that more than half—55 per cent.—of adults in England said that being offered electronic voting in some form would encourage them to vote at the next local election. We are all safely outside the youngest demographic group, 18 to 24-year-olds, who are most keen to try the new methods, with three-quarters of them saying that e-voting would encourage them to participate.
The electoral process must fit with modern lifestyles, because many people spend little if any time in the locality of their polling station in the course of their working day. As my hon. Friend Miss Begg has said, as the population in general becomes more comfortable with conducting transactions electronically, enabling e-voting could promote increased participation in elections. Local authorities have also demonstrated an interest in using electronic voting as an option in local elections. In recent years, a number of pilots have been conducted, and they have provided some important lessons, which were outlined in various contributions earlier in Committee.
Piloting electronic voting in local elections allows new technologies to be tested and the identification of ways in which the security of the vote may be improved. While the Electoral Commission has identified areas in which previous electronic voting pilots have needed improvement, it also sees such developments as important in increasing future participation in elections.
Finally, amendment No. 24 proposes an additional parliamentary layer in the sign-off process for pilots run under section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which allows local authorities to propose innovations on how they run their elections. Those proposals are based on local experience of what might work in local elections as well as local expectations about what might work better. The proposals are currently assessed by the Department, and the Secretary of State determines which pilots should proceed following consultation with the Electoral Commission. Pilots are assessed for suitability against a framework of criteria that takes account of the Electoral Commission's recommendation and Government policy on electoral modernisation.
This is not a great issue of principle for the Government—it is an issue of process. The argument advanced by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire was slightly disingenuous, because he was trying to scupper the whole notion of pilots, both now and in the future, whereas we are trying to improve the process.
Although I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Heald on the Front Bench about ruling out all-postal pilots completely, the Minister has not addressed the importance of allowing electors to choose how they want to vote. If the Government want to pursue the concept of all-postal pilots, will they consider giving electors the option of voting in person? At this year's election, a number of my constituents who had previously registered for postal voting contacted the council to deregister, because, among other reasons, they were concerned about fraud and wanted to vote in person because they thought it more secure.
I hear the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is axiomatic that if people take their ballot paper to a polling station, it is not an all-postal pilot. However, no immediate plans exist for any further all-postal pilots, which are not included in the prospectus for the local elections in 2006. We want anti-fraud measures in place before we consider any further such pilots.
Returning to amendment No. 24, it is not clear how an additional level of parliamentary oversight of such pilots, particularly when they are already independently assessed by the Electoral Commission, would automatically add value to the process. If we were to move towards the system outlined by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, we would be concerned about placing any additional constraints on an already tight timetable for proposing, approving, establishing, conducting and reporting on those pilots. However, the Government acknowledge the importance of Parliament having the final say on whether any local government pilot scheme should be adopted on a permanent basis, which is why section 11(3) of the Representation of the People Act 2000 includes an affirmative resolution procedure. As that is already law, amendment No. 24 is unnecessary.
I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is satisfied and that he will withdraw the amendment.
I am not satisfied, but I intend to make that request to the Committee.
On the parliamentary scrutiny of piloting, when piloting was originally agreed, we did not get the sense that the process would involve piloting, piloting and piloting for ever and a day, allowing Ministers in effect to choose the arrangements in any particular area for elections over a sustained period. There is the risk of abuse in the long term if that continues. We believe that it is a good idea to have that parliamentary protection.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 16 and 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.