asked Her Majesty's Government:
Why they propose to consider applications for all-postal pilots at the local elections in May 2005.
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister is obliged by Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 to consider any application from a local authority to run an electoral pilot, including applications for all-postal pilots, at local government elections in May 2005. He will not proactively seek applications from local authorities to run such pilots in 2005.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that, while increasing turnout is important, maintaining trust in the fairness of elections is essential? Does he also accept that all-postal ballots give much greater scope for personation and for pressure on voters to vote in a particular way?
Yes, my Lords, there are concerns, but we have very little evidence of these incidents. Following this year's election—I have just checked this information, so it is as up to date as possible—five petitions making complaints are still outstanding, only two of which were in the pilot areas, Calderdale and Hull. There are three other petitions relating to this issue in Aston and Bordesley Green, Birmingham, and in Flintshire. There are two prosecutions pending in Halton and Oldham. That is the scale of the evidence. We get lots of complaints, leaders, thoughts and worries, but the actual evidence is a bit thin.
My Lords, is not the essential difference that in an all-postal ballot, there is no means of ensuring that every vote cast is secret? Where there is the option of going to the ballot box, there is always the option of a secret vote which is not subject to pressure which can be validated by someone knowing how you voted.
My Lords, I entirely accept that that is a serious issue. But as I said in relation to the Question, we have no plans to invite any applications from local authorities to run such pilots in 2005. Just in case anybody thinks of raising this point, you cannot run the general election on an all-postal ballot. It is not legally possible.
My Lords, in response to an earlier question, the Minister referred to evidence of electoral malpractice. While there may not be much hard evidence and it is not necessarily the same as the general hearsay and circumstantial evidence of widespread electoral malpractice in certain localities in those areas—and I speak with experience of recent events in the north-west of England—does it mean that he does not take the circumstantial evidence seriously?
No, my Lords, it does not. But it is not as though we or the Electoral Commission sit back and wait. I know that the Electoral Commission was proactive after the elections this year in carrying out checks on people who had applied for postal ballots. It was looking for evidence that everything was okay regarding the correct person and the ballot paper. But as I said, the evidence is in short supply.
I entirely accept the concerns that have been expressed in the last few questions. These risks are inherent in choosing postal ballots or any other form of ballot that takes us away from the ballot box. That is why these checks are built in. However, there are no current plans for any pilot schemes in any of the 30-odd elections—the English county council elections and the eight mayoral elections—to be held next year. Those are the only elections, contrary to the erroneous report in the Times on Friday which referred to 166 local authority elections. Nothing like that is planned for next year.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the House of Lords was right in its opposition to the pilots Bill? With the Electoral Commission—the Government's own body—the House of Lords and much of the electorate against the scheme, is it not time to call a halt to this experimentation with our electoral system?
My Lords, the history is slightly different. As I understand it, the Electoral Commission was very much in favour of all-postal voting to start with, and then changed its view. However, the commission's own evidence shows that a large majority of people—59 per cent to 29 per cent—found all-postal voting acceptable. Participation rates increased from 37 per cent to 42 per cent, which is worth more than a million more votes in local elections. There is a large minority who find all-postal voting acceptable.
My Lords, will the noble Lord remind the House why the Electoral Commission, which was set up to advise the Government on these matters, said that there should be no more all-postal ballots?
My Lords, I think that there were several reasons for that. The Electoral Commission is coming back with another plan to widen the scope. It is accepted that there should not be only one means of voting; that is to say, turning up at a polling station, some of which are still inaccessible to people with access difficulties. We understand that, on demand, you can get a postal vote. But other ways of voting, even electronic voting, are being considered. The commission intends to report by next year on a new foundation model of voting. I hope that we will discuss that at some time in the future.
My Lords, given the ambiguous response of voters towards all-postal ballots as opposed to the unrestricted right to apply for a postal ballot, does the Minister not agree that this move towards all-postal ballots seems designed more for the convenience of bureaucrats than the voting public, who like to have contact, in the democratic process, through the ballot box?
My Lords, they might like to, but the fact is that more of them use postal voting when it is available than would otherwise be the case. We know that because the turnout increases. The regional referendum was not quite the same, because personalities were not involved. However, in the earlier pilots that have been running for the past two or three years, turnout for local government elections was close to 47 and 48 per cent. That is remarkably different from the normal turnout in local government elections, so I would not say that there is any ambivalence.
My Lords, why should problems in one or two areas nationally destroy the opportunity for millions of people all over this country to enjoy a new system, which is popular with the electorate and very convenient? It suits the job position of many people in so far as it is difficult for them to vote at other times. Why should we hold up this movement forward in voting practices because of problems in one or two areas?
My Lords, the short answer is that we should not. As I said, there is very little evidence of any incidents and we have to go on evidence and not rumours. However, where irregularities are discovered they must be stamped on very firmly. At the moment there are two prosecutions pending—only two—and five petitions relating to last May's elections still to be heard by the Electoral Court.
Yes, my Lords, because I still carry the baggage of the experience in Birmingham.
My Lords, if an application is made it is at the risk of the authority concerned in terms of funding and other matters. We are talking about county councils and there have been no county council pilot elections because the legislation for pilots was not available four years ago. Any one can work it out. Any city treasurer and chief executive or county council chief executive can look at the cost of setting up such a pilot—we will not be funding it, because we are not inviting it—and then look at the possible risks of what could happen in 2005. However, complications could put all their plans into the dustbin at the cost of the council tax payer. We will not expect any applications from county councils. Under the law they could make an application, but we do not expect to receive any.