Local Elections: Pilot Schemes

– in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 11th May 2000.

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Photo of Lord Monro of Langholm Lord Monro of Langholm Conservative 3:24 pm, 11th May 2000

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have yet made any assessment of the impact of voting experiments in the recent local elections.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, under the terms of the Representation of the People Act 2000, responsibility for evaluating the recent electoral pilot schemes rests with the local authorities concerned. We have no wish to prejudge this process and we look forward to receiving their reports in due course. I am sure that, once it has been established, the electoral commission will be interested in studying the evaluation reports.

Photo of Lord Monro of Langholm Lord Monro of Langholm Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In view of the substantial drop in the Labour vote in London and elsewhere, will the Government continue with their experiments because they appear to switch off Labour support? More seriously, in a democracy, should we not be encouraging people to visit their polling stations rather than using advance postal votes or other eccentric means which end up producing additional spoiled papers and even raise questions of fraud?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I believe that widespread support was demonstrated in your Lordships' House for the principle of piloting different ways of putting one's cross on the ballot paper during the recent local elections. I think that we should study carefully the evaluation reports that will be returned by the local authorities. People appeared to have enjoyed having a flutter with experimentation in the recent elections. No doubt we shall learn much from this.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may raise a matter that was touched on the other day, but I do not think that the Minister had an opportunity to reply. Why was erroneous advice given to voters in the election of the London mayor? It was stated quite plainly in the instructions to voters that the voter had to exercise a second choice. Who was responsible for that erroneous advice?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, my understanding is that the responsibility for drawing up that advice lay with the Returning Officer for Greater London. If the noble Lord so wishes, we could make contact with the Returning Officer for Greater London and seek further elucidation from him.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative

My Lords, would the Minister agree that one of the more unfortunate impacts of recent experiments has been a certain cooling-off in relationships between the new London mayor and the Government of the day? Would he agree that the governance of London might be better conducted if Mr Livingstone were to be welcomed back into the bosom of the Labour Party? When may we look forward to that happy event?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I believe that that question must be interpreted as being rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Photo of Lord Renton Lord Renton Conservative

My Lords, will the Government consider what should be done in future when only one-third of the electorate casts its vote but that results in one person securing more than 50 per cent of the votes?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, this House has a great tradition of concerning itself over questions of turn-out in elections and is to be congratulated on that concern. However, precisely because of those concerns, the Government brought forward pilot schemes devised in conjunction with local government, to see whether other ways could be found to encourage people to cast their votes in local government elections. We all have our part to play and education is an important element of that exercise. There is much to learn and much to do.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

My Lords, has the Minister given any thought to the reasons for the low polls in the recent elections? At one time it was believed that politicians were interested in the people, but now it appears that the people are expected to be more interested in politicians.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, that is a very entertaining question. I suppose that, as a politician, I am rather pleased that people appear to be interested in politicians. However, perhaps they are more interested in some politicians than in others.

Photo of Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Crossbench

My Lords, was it not a brave experiment of the Government to attempt to run two Labour candidates in the mayoral election in London? Does the Minister think that that was a success? Referring back to the point made by the Minister earlier--that the House welcomed experimentation--does he recall that in fact the House was a little sceptical about the success of those experiments? Although the Minister may not have studied the statistics, I have. It is clear that the majority of the experiments made no impact at all. Is he aware that the only experiment that seems to have made an impact was all-postal voting? Is he convinced that the security of the postal voting system is sufficient to prevent quite widespread fraud were postal voting for everyone to be extended to all local government elections?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I have looked at some of the initial findings on the turn-out question. The noble Lord is right. Where postal voting was conducted, there were considerable increases in turn-out. That is something on which we should reflect. It is encouraging.

There are various reasons for carrying out experiments. We shall need to study carefully the reports produced by the local authorities and try to get behind some of the reasons for low turn-outs where pilots were conducted.

I respect the noble Lord's comments on the question of fraud and abuse in postal votes. It is a concern that we all share. I was grateful to him for his support during the passage of the Representation of the People Bill, enabling us to close off any opportunities for fraud that existed. We shall continue to press on that issue.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there should be a proper, independent evaluation of the experimental voting systems in the recent local elections, preferably by the independent electoral commission, before the Home Secretary is able to roll them out for future elections.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, we debated that issue at some length during the passage of the Representation of the People Bill, and it proved very valuable. We are expecting reports to come initially from local authorities. They may wish to find independent and academic researchers to look at the results of various pilots. I look forward and welcome the role that the electoral commission may well play in the future in evaluating pilots and making recommendations to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.