I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing amendment No. 4, in
clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
'(3A) Before including in a pilot order provisions for voting at places other than polling stations, the Secretary of State must consult all affected local authorities, and must not make such an order about a place in a local authority area if the local authority affected objects to it.'.
When we adjourned part of the way through our debate, we were focusing our attention on amendment No. 3. If my guess is anything to go by, the Government may respond by saying, as they did in the previous debate, that to have all normal polling stations available for handing in postal votes would be excessive and the cost would not be justified. That argument was used earlier and I suspect that it will be used again. I have some sympathy with it and see the logic of it, but I am concerned that the Government believe that it is necessary to make provision in the Bill for the use of places other than polling stations.
As I understand it, the traditional arrangement for postal votes is that they are put into a postbox and sent to the returning officer at the council offices, or elsewhere. If it is possible to deliver one's postal vote somewhere else without such legislation, the only query that I have for the Minister is why we now find it necessary to make the arrangements in the Bill. What does that say about the traditional arrangement? If we are going to spell it out here, is there a need to do something to avoid a challenge elsewhere?
Is the Minister minded to urge the Committee to vote against the amendment? If I remember rightly, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said that it was a probing amendment that had been tabled to see what the Government had to say, rather than something about which we are desperate to go to the stake. I still find it difficult to say that one can vote in a place that is not a polling station when a definition of a place that one can vote is a polling station, but I have been around that course so I shall not go around it again. If the Minister insists upon that arrangement, I would like him to give an undertaking that information about all places where
votes can be delivered will be published so that there can be no doubt whatever about the arrangements. If it is not, some candidates will complain that they did not know what was going on.
Such places must be identified in the public domain so that everyone involved in the election knows where they are. On the day in question—or on more than one day, as the Minister says can happen—the places should be identified to avoid a situation in which people know that they can hand their vote in somewhere along this street but not know where. Assurances would be useful if the Minister wants us to consider withdrawing amendment No. 3.
I worry about the Bill, and something along the lines of amendment No. 4 would be very valuable. I draw on my experience over the years as the chairman of a planning committee, where one could only too readily get locked into committed development orders, which dictate what one can and cannot do. To save having to go round the course of saying, ''Let's have one here and let's have one there'', any Government could say, ''We believe that any supermarket over X sq ft is a suitable place, and therefore all supermarkets, or alternatively all Crown post offices, will be suitable places.'' A general pronouncement from the Government that does not make any reference to the suitability of supermarkets, post offices, council offices or whatever else could be used.
Even if we adopt a way of giving returning officers the ability to say to the Government, ''No, we don't think that in our case this supermarket or that post office is suitable'', I fear for the chaos and difficulties that might break out. If the Minister is going to urge his colleagues to oppose amendment No. 4, would he give the Committee an assurance that care will be taken, advice will be sought and that the Government will not insist on the use of places that local knowledge suggests would be thoroughly unsuitable?
Good morning, Mr. Cook, and welcome to the Committee.
I would like to disabuse the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) of his notion. I am afraid that we are going to resist his arguments and ask the Committee to reject the amendments. Amendment No. 3 would not allow a pilot order to provide for polling at places other than polling stations, and amendment No. 4 would allow local authorities a complete veto on the choice of places for any non-conventional polling station arrangements. Effectively, the amendments would give local authorities the chance completely to prevent remote voting if they objected to it in any way. The ability to have all-postal voting and electronic voting in pilot schemes is important in principle. We have already discussed the wider context under the amendments to clause 1, and it is necessary to make the legislative provisions to enable such voting to take place. The provisions in this clause are identical to the provisions in the Representation of the People Act 2000 that enabled local piloting to take place.
One needs the scope and flexibility to nominate places other than polling stations for all-postal voting
not only for the wider purposes of allowing the casting of ballots in people's homes where they are received, but to ensure that we have specified delivery centres instead of polling stations so that people can return their ballots if they so wish, albeit to fewer places than the conventional number of polling stations. We need the scope that was provided for in the 2000 Act to enable that to take place.
I hope that the Minister will explain the balance between local and central decision making. I envisage that decision making will primarily be a local matter because the local returning officers know the most appropriate places for the delivery centres. There is a balance to be struck and I would be grateful if he addressed it.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. There will be a dialogue about specified delivery points between the regional returning officer, who is the key official overseeing the orchestration of the poll in a region, and local returning officers. It is very likely that each local authority area will have at least one specified delivery point for the return of ballot papers. If it were an all-postal ballot, there would not be the same number and frequency of polling stations. It is a matter for the regional returning officer to deal with at a local level.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne asserted that the Government would have a blanket designation and place lots of dots on local maps, but that is not our intention. We want to leave it to the discretion of the returning officer as far as possible. In that context, the two amendments would effectively wreck the opportunity for the next stage—the scaling up of regional piloting. At a regional level, we cannot rely on the unanimous consent of all local authorities to pilot the arrangements because piloting will take place across such a wide area.
There are concerns about compulsory piloting rather than retaining the voluntary arrangement that we currently have. As we move away from local voluntary piloting to the regional stage, we must be certain that we can make the arrangements apply equally and fairly across the designated region.
Widespread involvement of all local authorities is necessary not only for economies-of-scale purposes but to avoid voter confusion in the region, given that there will be communication across the constituency. It will also avoid complications for regional returning officers. If they were to have pockets of local authorities that chose not to operate all-postal voting, for example, it would be tremendously complex for them to administer the return.
There are lessons to be learned from wider-scale regional level pilots. Even those councils that have not yet volunteered or are not yet convinced can learn lessons from new techniques as their local returning officers inevitably become involved in the new voting arrangements. I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will agree to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Wilshire rose—
I did not interrupt the Minister because I wanted to hear the whole of what he had to say before I came back in. I should be grateful if he would reflect on what I have said about delivery centres being identified and specified publicly so that people know where they are. He did not cover that point. I assure him that I am not attempting to wreck anything.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify the point. Clearly through the regional returning officers, just as is currently the case with the skill and ability of local returning officers, we will ensure that there is clear identification of any specified delivery points sufficiently in advance of an election and polling day for people to know where they are.
I am grateful for that clarification. I am sure that that will help when the arrangements are put in place.
I press the Minister further on amendment No. 4. I assure him that in supporting the principle of allowing returning officers or local authorities to have a major input where suitability is concerned, I am in no way seeking to undermine the principle of postal votes. Postal votes are going to happen across a whole region, and I am not trying to table an amendment that seeks to wreck provision for that by saying that they will not happen in a certain area. My concern is that, in a general or local council election held in the traditional way, the Government do not specify where the polling stations will be. That is down to the individual returning officer. Although I would not wish to put my name to any amendment that gave local authorities a veto that could be used as a wrecking veto, I still believe that we should look for a way of allowing the regional returning officer to be the final arbiter of the suitability of an individual place.
That is the point on which I want to press the Minister. If he says that regional returning officers cannot have the final say because that could wreck the system, I put to him a thought to which we can perhaps return on Report. The Government could insist, everywhere that there is a postal vote, on specifying the number of places in a particular local authority area. They might say that council area A must have four places and council area B two. If they instructed councils on the number and then left it to regional returning officers to identify the places, might that not meet my worry without undermining the Minister's concern over wrecking arrangements?
I realise that there has been some confusion because I moved the amendment in the previous sitting. There can be slight confusion after a break over a weekend. However, this has been an extremely useful debate and I am glad that we probed the Government on the issues. The exchange between the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne has been interesting and constructive. Having got those points on the record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 44, in
clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
'(3A) The pilot order must make provision for the ballot paper to give electors an opportunity to demonstrate that they do not wish to vote for any party or candidate.'
It is a great pleasure to speak to the amendment. I hope that hon. Members will listen carefully to the arguments. I have a particular point to make, especially for younger Members. We have sat in Committee for two days and not a single amendment has been accepted—not one. So why the blazes are we in Committee? Are we here just to let off steam, or to say that we think the Bill is rubbish? Are we here just to say, ''Nasty Labour'', while Labour Members say, ''Nasty Conservatives''? Surely Committee members should be trying in some way to improve legislation. I hope that as the amendment does not attack the Government or the Opposition, but is trying to help democracy, Members will listen to the arguments and agree that it could be a good idea.
Why am I bothering with the amendment at all? We should remember that the basic principle of democracy is to give power to the people. We elect a Government and, if we think that they are making a mess of things, or if we think that our MP is rubbish, we can vote them or him out every five years. The only alternative is mass meetings of people who sit and make decisions. We have decided that we will appoint people to decide things for us. If we do not like what they do, we can get rid of them. Do we honestly think that the Bill without the amendment makes any provision for that?
Let me give a brief example. I make a habit every morning of reading The Independent, which is a good newspaper. I do not know whether other hon. Members read it. It contained some depressing information this morning. Labour's poll lead has doubled, for reasons that I do not understand. Another story reports that Eurofanatics—supporters of Europe—have been brought into the shadow Cabinet, but we cannot discuss that. The article that I wish to point out is on page 11. It is a terrible story about the European Union and is headed: ''Patten contracts queried as MEPs investigate scandal''. It states:
''A series of investigations have revealed how Eurostat colluded with companies, fixed bogus or inflated contracts and channelled cash into unofficial bank accounts, using some of it to fund staff perks.''
People would want to express an opinion about that through the ballot box.
Most certainly, Mr. Cook. I am trying to do that. If you thought that such incidents were shocking and disgraceful—I am sure you would, because you are a decent, honourable person—what would you be able to do about them when you voted in a British election? The answer is nothing; it is a matter for the European Union. How could a voter express an opinion in European elections? He cannot vote for a Member of the European Parliament, because we do not have them. He must vote for a party. How can he express an opinion?
Most people in Britain think that that is all irrelevant, anyway. They recognise that, apart from the taxi-drivers of Strasbourg, no one would notice if the European Parliament were to close its doors tomorrow. We cannot vote for a party, because that does not help. We cannot vote for an individual because we are no longer allowed to pick an MEP. MPs at Westminster are elected to represent an area. If the people in that area thought they were doing a bad job—I am sure they would not—they could get rid of them. In European elections, voters cannot do that. They vote for a party, and the party bosses decide who is No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3.
The amendment would give people a chance to express an opinion. If they think that the European Union is a rotten, corrupt organisation that wastes public money, they want to be able to say so. They do not have a chance to do that at present.
Let me give another example from The Times. I do not usually read that paper, because it often publishes articles of doubtful accuracy. It had a story about a clergyman from Essex who said that he wanted to do something to help prostitutes in Hungary. He asked the European Union for some money and was given a cheque for £160,000. He used the money to buy two new cars and a new house. He did not help the poor prostitutes in Hungary, but what could we do about it? Nothing.
I simply want to give people a chance to say, ''I am fed up. That is wrong. I shall express my opinion by voting for no party or individual.'' People may ask why the amendment is necessary when people can already do that. How can they do it? It may be that my constituency is not as extreme as others.
Am I to understand that the hon. Gentleman is calling upon voters not to vote for Conservative candidates in next year's European elections, but to abstain? If so, that should be put clearly on the record.
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is a new chap. How can one vote for a Conservative Member? There is no way to do that in the European elections. One can vote only for a party. It is not democracy if one cannot vote for an individual. I bet the hon. Gentleman does not know who his MEP is, as he does not follow matters to do with Europe. The plain fact is that he probably has seven or eight MEPs, depending on the region, who have been chosen by the
parties. There is no point in saying that people can vote for individuals when they cannot.
On the wider issue, this simple amendment would allow people to say, in effect: ''If I don't want to vote for any of them and I am fed up to the teeth, I want to have an the opportunity to express a view.'' People may say that one can do that anyway. How? One can certainly use bad language, and people sometimes do. I have seen ballot papers on which people have written bad words. We do not want to encourage bad language, but people do use it. They say, ''I want to say something, so I'll write a bad word.'' I will not mention the word in Committee because it would shock some Members. Alternatively, one can score through the paper or do nothing at all.
That is the present arrangement, but things are changing under the Bill. People who do not want anything to do with the elections will receive ballot papers through the post. They do not want those papers and have not asked for them, but they will get them. In our civilised society, people will probably feel that they have to send the papers back. Alternatively, someone may have a strong view, and five ballot papers may be sent to the five members of his family. Under the new arrangement, he could fill out the five ballot papers. That would be wrong, scandalous and contrary to our democracy, but it could happen.
People may feel an obligation to do something. If they do, we should give them the opportunity to say, ''I do not want any of you. I am fed up to the teeth.'' Would that achieve anything? It might convince the politicians of Britain, including members of this Committee, that something is terribly wrong with the arrangements in the European Union and with these elections.
Taking away people's power to control things is bad. Having the proposed provision could be good discipline for Members of this House. They would see that the people are fed up to the teeth. What the Government are doing instead is rather pathetic. People are showing their opinions by leaving only 25 per cent. to vote in a poll. Come the next European election that figure will probably be down to 15 per cent.
The Government are trying to sort that out by spending a great deal of money and forcing everyone to get ballot papers, whether they want them or not, by sending them through the post or using a ridiculous, expensive form of electronic voting, which is an outrageous piece of expenditure. If the Government want to do that and are going to spend all that money, they should give people the chance to say, ''I don't want any of this lot.'' That is all that I ask. At the foot of every ballot paper, we should have a box saying, ''I don't want any of you. I think that all your parties are rubbish, and even if they were any good, they haven't any power to do anything. The European Parliament is a joke.'' If I wanted to express such an opinion, how could I do it?
This provision would also be good for our democracy. If we had such boxes and allowed people to express that opinion, they might win the ballot. That may seem ridiculous, but I have a funny feeling that if we had such an option for the European parliamentary elections, the majority of people might vote for it. That would give us a message. What worries me is that most MPs do not seem to worry about the situation. They do not worry that only 25 per cent. of the electorate vote. They do not worry when I read out scandalous stories, such as the one in The Independent about €38 million being wasted scandalously and fraudulently and no one being able to do anything about it.
We should wake up and give people the power to say, ''We don't want any of you.'' I would not propose that as my point of view, because it is known that I am a loyal Conservative and usually vote for the Conservative party, unless it makes mistakes. However, we should realise that we have an obligation to the people. If we are going to force people to receive ballot papers solely for the purpose of increasing the percentage of people voting in the ballot—that is all that it is about—we should give them a chance to say, ''I don't want any of you.'' What is wrong with that? What is the argument against it? People can say that anyway by using bad language or putting a stroke through the ballot paper. The argument is reasonable. If there is an argument against it, let us hear it.
I hope that the Minister will think about the issue, instead of engaging in discussions with the people behind him. It is important for democracy. Please think about it. If the Government do not want to do what I propose, please will they tell me why? This is not a battle between Conservatives and Labour. It is an argument about democracy and people's rights. People have no rights at all just now. In our democracy, their rights have been thrown away when it comes to the European elections. We should do something to give them some power back. That is all that I ask. I hope that the Government will do that. Please will the Government think back? They have not accepted one amendment or argument. Why not think about this argument carefully? If they accept it, my confidence in democracy may be slightly restored.
The hon. Gentleman made a specific plea to those of us who oppose the ''none of the above'' amendment to stand up and explain why we oppose it, and I am happy to do so.
I was not previously a proponent of compulsory voting, which is not the subject of the Bill. However, in a recent conversation with a colleague I said that I was coming round to the idea provided, of course, that we do not put an extra bar on any voting paper that would encourage people to abstain. That principle is fundamental. What is the point of our spending hours of debating time in Committee and the House examining new ways to encourage people to come out to vote, and then including an extra panel on every ballot paper offering people the opportunity to abstain? People can abstain at the moment, but the
amendment would encourage people to make the effort to vote for none of the candidates or parties.
I could regale you, Mr. Cook, with a number of stories, which I have passed on through various diary columns in Scottish newspapers, about the wit and wisdom of Scottish voters in their attempts to abstain and spoil ballot papers. However, they all involve language of which you would not approve, so I will not repeat any of them on the record. People already have the opportunity to abstain. If they are going to make the effort to come along and vote, they should—in a phrase that resonates with Conservative Members—put up or shut up.
I hold the hon. Gentleman in high regard, but he is advancing a scandalous argument. If I were a voter in his constituency who felt that it was shocking, scandalous and disgraceful that we spent money last year destroying 122,000 tonnes of cauliflowers under the common agricultural policy, for whom should I vote? There is nothing that any of the parties can do. Who is in charge of the European Parliament? It is a joke and a fraud, and we must give people the chance to say that. There is no way that people can say that, because their powers have disappeared. They can control some things in Parliament—for example, if they want to vote for the war in Iraq they can do so—but we must give them the chance to say that the European Parliament is a joke.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, which he has made powerfully. My comments were made against the principle of encouraging people to abstain in any election.
My second argument relates directly to the hon. Gentleman's point. We go to great lengths in this country to try to tune in voters to particular issues in particular elections. In next year's European elections, I should like to think that voters will go to the polls to vote on specifically European issues. I should also like to think that the next time that voters in my constituency go to the polls in local elections, they will concentrate on local issues, and the same is true of the Scottish Parliament election and the general election.
The hon. Gentleman's amendment seems to be focused on allowing people specifically to object to what he sees as European corruption at every election that comes up. Surely we should not encourage people to vote on European issues at every single election, which is exactly what his amendment would do.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) about Committees. A confident Government can deal with debates in Committee, are open to suggestions put forward by Government and Opposition Members and can consider amendments on their merits. A weak Government feel that they must deliver the Bill as it
arrived in Committee. I hope that the Minister will pay attention to my hon. Friend's strictures, with which I entirely agree.
I have listened to my hon. Friend's arguments carefully and have some sympathy with them. The amendment has merit in so far as it tries to encourage people to vote by giving everyone the opportunity to use the postal vote. I do not entirely agree with him. His arguments would have force if there were a compulsory ballot. In a sense, we are going from an entirely voluntary ballot, for which people must make the effort to go to a polling station—
Thank you, Mr. Cook. I am sorry that I do not have the attention of the entire Committee, but I am grateful that you have addressed the matter.
If the ballot were to become compulsory, I would agree with my hon. Friend. There would have to be a ''none of the above'' choice on the ballot paper. However, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) said, while the ballot is not compulsory, people can choose not to vote, thereby making the same public judgment.
If we were to go down that route, it would deprive the Liberal Democrats of their raison d'être. [Interruption.] Would my hon. Friend like me to explain that? I have always regarded a vote for the Liberal Democrats as being a ''none of the above'' vote for those citizens who are unable to make up their minds between the two great parties in our country.
Of course, I did. It is a fair point to make, because our two parties have competing philosophies at the heart of our beliefs. It is difficult to find anything in the blancmange that is Liberal Democrat policy that is identifiable as a core set of philosophical beliefs. Their recent success, which is related to the crisis in representative politics, as are the amendment and the Bill, partially reflects the fact that the electorate feel increasingly disengaged from the political process and representative politics. My hon. Friend's amendment is designed to address that, as is the Bill.
It is a symptom rather than a cure that we are debating measures such as these. We would be better off considering more fundamental questions about the crisis in representative politics than trying to address the issue with the measures in the Bill, such as various pilot schemes that try to increase voter turnout.
A fundamental problem is that both the major parties have been more successful at attacking each other than at promoting their own philosophies, beliefs and policies to the public. One only has to remember the Labour party when it was in opposition between 1994 and 1997, and its successful campaign about sleaze in the Conservative Government, which was non-existent. Not a single Minister was accused or convicted of taking money to promote different points
of view. I am talking about the crisis in representative politics. The amendment goes straight to the heart of that issue. I assure you, Mr. Cook, that I will not repeat this speech later, or when we are discussing another amendment.
The Conservative Government's reputation was demolished extremely effectively, not least by the sleaze issue. New Labour then came into power. Part of its presentation to the public was that new Labour was not old Labour, hence the change of name and the presentation of a fundamental change in what the Labour party stood for—to be taken seriously as a guiding philosophy—the end of clause IV and the end of the objective of redistributing wealth. It was a change from a socialist party to a modern social democratic party.
Since then, the electorate have begun to realise that all is not quite as it seems and that, as Labour Members will be only too painfully aware, there is a crisis of confidence in their party because of what is seen as spin and the elevation of presentation over substance. If we politicians are to address the crisis in representational politics, we must treat each other and each other's policies with respect, so that we do not repeat what happened between 1994 and 1997. We should promote each other's virtues in order to juxtapose the two competing philosophies with which we are trying to engage the attention and support of the public.
If we are able to do that, we shall not need Bills such as this to increase artificially voter turnout, or amendments such as this—which give people the opportunity to say ''a curse on all your houses''—because we shall have gone a long way towards addressing the crisis in representational politics.
That would be destructive in every possible way. If my hon. Friend or any of his constituents wanted not to vote for anyone, how does he suggest that they might do that? Does he think that the right way is not to go to the ballot, or to scrawl a bad word across the ballot paper? How, in the absence of the amendment, does he think that they would be able to say that they do not want to vote for anyone?
As things stand, such people do not turn up and they do not vote; that is how they abstain. We should take falling turnouts as representing abstentions—there is a proper way for people to abstain.
In a non-ideological age, we have seen a wholesale change in the public attitude to politics. People are as interested in politics as they ever were. The problem for the major parties is that, whereas 30 years ago some 80 per cent. of the population would have identified themselves with one of the two major political parties, these days that figure is down to about 20 per cent.—about 10 per cent. for each party. Voter turnout has fallen because people, although as interested in politics as ever, do not identify with the major parties. That partly explains the rise of the Liberal Democrats. However, as they come under the
microscope and people look for their philosophical coherence, the Liberal Democrats will run into the same difficulty as the two major parties.
What is the solution? I do not think that it can be found in the Bill or in this amendment, well intentioned as it is. We can only offer overt choice if we decide to make voting compulsory, and that would be a mistake. We have to address the fundamental problems of voter disengagement from the major parties in a different way, and that is for parties to acknowledge the strengths of each other's arguments and to present their alternative visions alongside each other.
I appreciate that Labour Members do not go into politics for any reason other than to try to do good. They are, in the main, motivated by the wish to address the inequalities and injustices that they see in society; that is a perfectly respectable reason for going into politics. However, their means of doing that is to use the state—taxation or legislation—and Conservative Members would point out that, in the main, that does not work very well. Experience points to the merits of capitalist economies over socialist ones. The philosophy, however meritorious, that drives people into politics from the left tends in the end to crush the human spirit and, if taken to extremes, leads to the reduction of entrepreneurship. Sitting at the heart of such politics is an uncomfortable core of the politics of envy. That is perhaps how we should deal with the arguments between the two major parties. Conservatives should point out that, in the main, the politics and philosophy of the centre right have tended to work, and that, whatever the merits of people who come into politics from the centre left, they must in the end face the fact that it is difficult to use the state as a vehicle for making the maximum improvement to society for the majority of the people.
If we can conduct the political debate between the parties with respect, we shall reinforce the standing of us all as a profession. The Bill is intended to deal with the crisis that faces us, and I hope that, in pursuing the debate as it has been pursued in relation to innumerable other Bills and statutory instruments, we shall deal with the fundamental question: the status of representative politics as a whole, in a new, much less ideological age—one which has been much more comfortable and secure since the Berlin wall came down in 1989. If we do that, we may find that our respect for each other means that the electorate will respect us more and will want to take part in the affairs of representative democracy in increasing, rather than decreasing, numbers.
I want to take issue—but briefly—with the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). I found some of the points about philosophy quite interesting, but it was a pity that he interjected into them some political comments. They were unnecessary.
To turn to the amendment, first and foremost we should treat the voters with respect. That point comes before anything—certainly before treating politicians with respect. Making arrogant comments does nothing to prop up a party in terminal decline. I have always been tempted by the argument that there should be an
extra box on the ballot paper—if the ballot were compulsory. However, I have recently become convinced that compulsory voting would not work, because we would then run into the problem of people not registering. Once the idea of compulsory voting is dismissed, there is no case for the amendment.
Furthermore, I should be deeply concerned about issuing, under the Bill, different ballot papers in different parts of the country. We must remember that we are considering elections throughout the country and a proposal for different methods of voting. We will strongly object to what is proposed if it does not cover the whole election area, as for the European elections. Different ballot papers in the chosen regions would be very bad for democracy.
I was relieved when my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East said that he was a Conservative who usually voted according to the Whips' instructions. That cheered me no end.
I was not sure what to make of my hon. Friend's idea, but the more I have thought about it, the more I have warmed to it. I was tipped over the edge into finding some enthusiasm for it by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart, who fed me justifications for the principle that my hon. Friend has outlined.
It has always been possible to make one's views known on a ballot paper. I learned the lesson in 1987 at the first general election that I fought, when I succumbed to the temptation to put the family photograph in my election literature, and the family cat got in, quite accidentally. When I arrived at the count, one person, whom I am sure my hon. Friend would have warmed to, had taken the view that everyone on offer was unsuitable. All the names were crossed out, and on the ballot paper was written, ''I want to vote for Mr. Wilshire's cat.''
It has been possible, for ever and a day, to protest on the ballot paper, without using obscene language—I, too, will not recount any anecdotes about that—and I do not think that that is a bad thing. I have much more respect for an elector who, instead of not bothering—perhaps because they are lazy or for other reasons—is sufficiently annoyed with all of us to get out of his armchair and go down to the polling station to write ''Up yours'' on a ballot paper. That is democracy and I would encourage it, and that is the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart that put me over the edge.
I do not see anything wrong with encouraging a positive abstention if the person concerned does not want to vote for any of us. That is an expression of opinion, and I am not sure whether it matters one way or another whether we make that easier, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East will refine the amendment before Report so that it appeals to more people.
I was coming to that and was about to suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East that the matter must be addressed. I am not ducking the issue and will return to it.
The amendment says:
''The pilot order must make provision for the ballot paper to give electors an opportunity''.
I need to know what that opportunity is before I can say yes or no. Will the box say, ''none of the above'' or will voters be able to say, ''none of the above parties'' and so on? It is not enough just to refer to ''an opportunity'' and we must be clear about what we are suggesting for the ballot paper.
My other specific concern about the amendment flows from the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) that this is a provision for areas of postal voting and not for others. That is a fair point, but it is not a reason for turning the idea down as the provision could be extended to other parts of the European elections. What concerns me about the amendment are the words
''they do not wish to vote for any party or candidate.''
The problem with the amendment is that it is difficult to find a mechanism for a closed list objection. It is easy enough to find a mechanism for
''none of the parties above'', but it is not easy with a closed list to provide people with an opportunity to say that they want to vote Labour or Conservative, but not for the person on the ballot paper. That difficulty must be addressed. Closed lists work against that and I have never been in favour of them or proportional representation, but if we must have proportional representation, a closed list is the worst of all worlds because it puts all the power in the hands of the party and not the individual.
The meaning of ''opportunity'' in the amendment must be spelled out before we can say yes or no to the suggested approach. I am sure that we can find a mechanism to give electors the opportunity to indicate their views on the party and the individual. They are not always one and the same thing, as my hon. Friend knows only too well.
If the number of people ticking the box saying ''none of them'' is more than 50 per cent., we must accept that that is the verdict on all of the candidates in that election. The difficulty is that one must know what people are objecting to and whether it is the individual, the party or something specific. When deciding how to give the elector the opportunity, we must invite them to indicate why they wish to say, ''A plague on all your houses'' and, before we know where we are, we shall have a ballot paper for candidates and a referendum attachment so that if someone says ''none of the above'' we try to establish why.
One cannot assume that if 51 per cent. of voters say, ''none of the above'' that is a united view about an individual or party. Some people might think, ''none of the above until such time as the euro is introduced.'' Others might think, ''none of the above until somebody promises to scrap the European
Parliament.'' If one were to continue that process, one would not find that 51 per cent. of voters all prefer something in particular to the candidates on offer.
Furthermore, if people say, ''none of the above'' and then give their reasons, we move into the realm of it being possible to mandate candidates as well as saying ''none of the above''. People could say, ''I will vote for the above on the condition that'', in which case the ballot paper would be about 3 ft long because people would have to go down it indicating what they wanted to mandate a person for.
My hon. Friend is on to something and I encourage him to keep working at it because he could do democracy a service. I am not sure what Strasbourg's taxi drivers have done to upset him, but they figure large. Having been to Strasbourg a number of times, I am not sure what its people would do without the European institutions.
My hon. Friend said that trying to persuade Government Members to listen to us, so that we can improve the legislation is the right thing to do. That is one thing about which I fundamentally disagree with my hon. Friend. The only way to get decent legislation is to get rid of the Government and replace them with Conservatives.
I will be relatively brief in speaking to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. As a number of my hon. Friends have pointed out, an American-style ''none of the above'' box at the bottom of the ballot paper might appeal to many members of the electorate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne and others have pointed out, many people try to create such a box for themselves whenever there is an election by scrawling rude words or comments across the ballot paper. In general elections, candidates see those comments when we go to the count, which affords some amusement in what is sometimes a long evening. By doing that, voters are, of course, spoiling their ballot papers.
The amendment would allow people to cast positive abstentions. That would lead to the difficulty, which my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne just pointed out, that they might have all kinds of different reasons for doing so that could not be identified if the box at the bottom of the ballot paper simply said, ''none of the above''.
I hope that the Minister will briefly address this point when he replies to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East: if the matter is to be considered seriously—there is undoubtedly a case for such consideration—when the Electoral Commission examines the proceedings of the Committee, as I am sure that it will, it could do some research.
In Committee and previously, I have expressed my concerns that, because we have an Electoral Commission, it will always be promoting some kind of change—there is no longer an argument for sticking
with the status quo, which many of my hon. Friends and I would prefer. The difficulty with a body such as the Electoral Commission is that it constantly wants to do things, which fits in with the Government's obsession with so-called modernisation.
For as long as we have the Electoral Commission, which is a bureaucracy that wants to find things to do, let us get it to conduct detailed research into the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. If we were to proceed with the proposal in future legislation, we would need to commission independent objective research. The research would not necessarily need to be conducted by the Electoral Commission. If there were no Electoral Commission, I would be happy to see the Electoral Reform Society, which has done valuable work over the years, conduct the research.
On later groups of amendments, I shall refer to the Electoral Reform Society's strong views about the Government's proposals elsewhere in the Bill. I agree with it that a lot of their proposals are misconceived and premature. Nevertheless, whether the Electoral Reform Society or the Electoral Commission—for as long as there is one—conducts the research, the matter should be researched.
There is a serious debate to be had. After the Bill has been enacted and whatever its final form, I hope that the Government will be able to tell the Electoral Commission that we had a serious debate in which views were expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, and that research should be done. In any future research, it will be worth considering the issue and all the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Rochford and Southend, East, for Reigate and for Spelthorne, and by the hon. Members for Glasgow, Cathcart and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole.
I would not want the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East to labour under the false idea that the Government are not open minded and willing seriously to consider amendments that are well framed, well targeted, thoughtful and helpful solutions to particular problems. His suggestion of the possibility of positive abstention, or a ''none of the above'' box on the ballot paper is not a new idea; it has been around for a long time. The hon. Member for Reigate observed that the Liberal Democrats have, in effect, undertaken that role on the ballot paper for some time, although it is for others to judge whether that is the case. However, the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East is worth airing and debating, and I commend him for having found the opportunity to table the amendment. It also provided him with a useful opportunity at the end of his contribution to give a somewhat faint-hearted rallying cry to vote Conservative at the next European elections, but I shall let that pass.
As all members of the Committee know, the notion of positive abstention, or a ''none of the above'' vote, is not part of the tradition of the British electoral system. I must say to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that the Electoral Commission has already considered the issue, consulted on it and found views to be very mixed. It is not currently persuaded of the
merits of having a ''none of the above'' box on the ballot paper, but has said that it has not yet drawn any conclusion. I am sure that the Committee's debate will contribute to its thinking on the issue. Having said that, we need to think much more about how to motivate people to vote.
As the hon. Member for Spelthorne put it, albeit slightly inelegantly, an abstention is not always a way of saying, ''Up yours'' to the establishment. Who is to know, or to say, what it means? It could mean all sorts of things. It could mean that the voter wants more pro-European candidates than the number appearing on the ballot paper. The reason for an abstention will not always accord with the views of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East. I am not convinced that this is a strong solution.
The Government believe that elections need to result in a firm outcome, not in void indecision, which would be my worry if abstentions prevailed. The spectre arises of continual re-elections, non-representation and constant rejection of all candidates—an unattractive prospect and the potential outcome of such an innovation.
I am fascinated by that explanation. I have heard some good reasons why the amendment could be pursued and some arguments why it should not. I have just heard a thoroughly undemocratic argument that it is proper to tell the electorate that we will not allow them to take certain decisions but will continue to ensure that they do what we want. That cannot be democratic. If people do want to say, ''I do not want any of the candidates,'' surely that is their democratic right.
I disagree. I believe that a fundamental part of democracy is people's responsibility to choose how they should be governed and who should represent them. I do not believe that to abdicate that responsibility and descend into some kind of anarchistic arrangement is a proper reflection of the democracy that we should live within. There is a clear choice: all people are capable of standing for election at any opportunity and will continue to do so whenever elections take place. A vast number of candidates have appeared on ballot papers in recent years representing all sorts of views—some rational and logical, some those of the Natural Law party, and some those of the SNP. People express different views in different ways.
I am not sure that ''vast number of votes'' is the right way to characterise the current position of the Liberal Democrats, who should be less complacent about their electoral position. People would regard that as a rather foolish assertion to make.
The Government believe that it is not right to have a ''none of the above'' box at this time. That said, we should not reach a completely fixed view, given that the Electoral Commission is considering the matter and will report on it. I am interested to see what it reports.
I am still concerned about the Minister's thought that it is right to insist that people vote. Is he saying not only that it is wrong to have a ''none of the above'' box, but that, if someone at a ballot station gets the voting paper and goes into the booth, they must be forced to vote for someone, rather than not marking it for anyone? Is that the sort of democracy he advocates?
Not at all. We have no proposition for compulsory voting, or to require people to mark their ballot papers correctly. People can spoil their ballot papers or choose not to vote when they come to the polling station. People are not forced to go to the polling station. However, I do not believe that interpreting a positive abstention is as easy as interpreting a vote for a candidate or for a political party. That can result in a decision, but there is no outcome where ''none of the above'' is chosen, which is the fundamental problem. I want to conclude, but I shall give way finally to the hon. Gentleman.
I hear inconsistency. First, the Minister tells us that it is wrong for people not to vote for someone—it is the ducking of responsibilities—but he then agrees with me by saying that people can go to the polling station and vote for nobody. That is totally inconsistent. Which does he prefer?
The hon. Gentleman clearly cannot discern between somebody choosing a ''none of the above'' option on a ballot paper, which might ''win'', and the perfectly reasonable arrangement that currently exists where people are not obliged to cast a vote for any particular party or candidate. However, fundamental problems would occur if we institutionalised that abstention ability on the ballot paper. As I say, we do not have a final view on the matter, the Electoral Commission is still considering it, and I am interested to learn what it will say. Given that that study is being undertaken, and in the spirit of wanting to see its conclusions, I hope that the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East will withdraw the amendment.
I appreciate the courtesy everyone has shown in dealing with the amendment, but I do not seem to have convinced anyone at all. I am not arguing that every ballot paper should include such a category. In European elections and local government elections, where we are bringing in artificial means of boosting the poll, we should give people an alternative. What worries me is that I have not seen any arguments against that: everyone seems to oppose it but what are their arguments?
We have had a lovely argument from the Minister that I used to hear from the Conservative party in the good old days, saying that it is not part of our tradition. Even if it is not part of our tradition, surely we can still consider it. The Minister also said that the voters have a responsibility to decide who should represent them. How does one decide how one is represented in a European election? One does not decide that at all. One votes for parties that the nasty thugs in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal central offices decide to be one, two and three. Democracy has
died, and we should wake up to that. We must restore the power to the people.
Members in this Committee and in the House are not prepared to face up to the appalling fact that we have 25 per cent. turnouts in European elections. People are trying to say something. We still have 60 per cent. turnouts in parliamentary elections, although they are going down fast. Should we not respond in some way?
Members who are voting against the amendment are terrified of what would happen if it were enacted. The possibility is that the majority of people would say, ''That's what I want. I think that the system is rubbish. It is terrible that I should not have an individual representing me. It is terrible that we have all these scandals and there is nothing anyone can do about it.''
Although I am a lone hand, I would rather have a vote on the amendment, so that hon. Members could at least think about the issue carefully.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 57, in
clause 4, page 3, line 8, at end insert—
'(c) making arrangements for the inspection of ballot papers or electronic voting to ascertain whether there is evidence (even where no allegation has been made to that effect) of impersonation or other electoral offences or malpractice.'.
Order. I am sorry to disturb the hon. Lady but I am partially deaf and I must be able to hear that what she says is relevant, so if she could speak a little louder please.
Amendment No. 49 is designed to permit further measures to prevent fraud and malpractice. It may well be accepted, as there is a great deal of concern about the potential for greater fraud that more widespread postal balloting and new electronic voting might bring.
The Electoral Reform Society, which is very concerned about the scale of the pilot, believes that it is coming in advance of ballot integrity measures. If the Government are determined to go ahead with the pilot, it is important that people have confidence in it. The point about postal balloting is not that there will be more corrupt people as a result of it but that it will inevitably bring an increased risk of undue influence and bribery. We need to protect against that.
The Electoral Reform Society is concerned about the potential loss of privacy that accompanies the move away from polling station voting and that corrupt practices could manifest themselves on a scale that we have not known for more than 100 hundred years. The proposals bring risks and other measures may well evolve as we work through the process. It is sensible to include an amendment that ensures that more measures to prevent fraud can be flagged up after enactment.
The best way of summarising amendment No. 57 is that it provides for an audit without requiring a complaint or a request for one. When considering the amendment, I was minded of when I buy a household product and it breaks down and one discovers that the customer is carrying out the quality control. If one is unlucky enough to take delivery of a dud product, one becomes the quality control manager who makes the complaint. Most of us would prefer quality control to be an ongoing process and for samples of the products to be pulled off the production line and tested.
I had not reached that point, but I want to expand on what we mean by having arrangements for inspections of ballot papers to check for evidence. There are all sorts of ways of sampling to see how the processes are being undertaken at any point in time, such as talking to people. Of course, there would have to be clear-cut practices before the sampling were set in motion, but it is so important to accept that there is an increased risk and that there is no point investigating only after the processes have taken place. We need preventive measures in place, and some means of looking at the processes in particular authorities would be helpful.
The Electoral Reform Society has flagged up that it is a poor attitude to say that if no one complains and nothing is brought to our notice, there is no problem. There could well be a problem, and I do not think that it is beyond the Electoral Commission to come up with clear procedures if the Government suggest that that should happen. They should respect a secret ballot, but still tackle what to my mind is one of the greatest fears with the expansion of alternative voting methods. There is not confidence at the moment that they are risk-free—well, I do not say that anything is risk-free, but there is certainly more security and confidence in current voting procedures. As we change and move to a larger scale, it is important to put safeguards in the Bill.
We are dealing with the very important issues relating to the risk of electoral fraud. My party takes a slightly different view on the amendments, but we agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole about the serious concerns expressed by the Electoral Reform Society. Although I agree with what she said on that subject, she put those concerns too mildly. I shall refer in some detail to the very strong views that the society has expressed.
The Government have undoubtedly pushed ahead with these measures without sufficient safeguards. The fact that the Electoral Reform Society has used such strong language in its brief to Committee members when saying that the necessary safeguards are not in place shows once again that the Government's indecent haste has got in the way of proper electoral security and safeguards.
We think it right to have a provision along the lines of amendment No. 49, although it might have been better to propose a specific safeguard instead of providing an open-ended power. However, we think that the Liberal Democrat proposal in amendment No. 57 goes too far in the direction of over-regulation.
I stress how strongly the Electoral Reform Society feels about the Bill, which reinforces the need for a provision along the lines of amendment No. 49. It says that it
''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.''
Having discussed its concerns about increased postal voting, the problems with Royal Mail and the lack of any guarantee of delivering postal votes during times of industrial strife, which we should particularly consider now, the Electoral Reform Society says:
''In its recommendations regarding postal ballots issued in March this year, the Electoral Commission said that parties and candidates should refrain from handling ballot papers (presumably other than their own). Candidates from a number of parties failed to heed this advice and there were a number of accusations made.''
The society believes that it is incumbent on the Minister to respond to that.
The Electoral Reform Society is also concerned about e-voting security, and asks:
''Is the Minister aware that in previous e-voting trials a double identifier was used (ie a user name and a password) and that''—
to the society's amazement as well as mine—
''these were sent out together on one postcard which could be seen by people other than the addressee and consequently led to the vote being stolen before the voter even received the ballot package.''
The society therefore wants a guarantee from the Minister, as do we, that the system of sending a double identifier but putting them both on one open postcard will not be used.
I received the same letter from the Electoral Reform Society. Does the hon. Gentleman know what evidence it can bring forth to sustain its argument that postal ballots are, by their nature, more likely to be subject to fraud? Does it perhaps suggest that some of the ballots that it has conducted have indeed been subject to fraud? If not, I do not know where its evidence comes from.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not read the national press as carefully as the Electoral Reform Society or I did at the time of the postal pilots, but a number of allegations that malpractice had taken place were made, including some, which may not have been well founded, against Cabinet Ministers. The Electoral Reform Society therefore does not need to go
beyond the huge amount of column inches in the national press about the allegations that postal ballots were misused. Allegations were made against people from all parties, so I do not suggest that they were only against people on the Government's side, although those allegations got more prominence and headlines for that reason.
Was there not a case of electoral fraud in Guildford? The hon. Gentleman often refers to the local elections there, and I seem to remember that there was such a case.
The hon. Lady is right, but happily it was in not my constituency but that of her hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty). In that case, the allegations were against a member of my party, but not from my constituency.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole is a little unwise to refer to what happened in Guildford, however, because in all the areas where there were no allegations of electoral fraud the Liberal Democrats were wiped out. In the three wards in my constituency that were the subject of an all-postal pilot, the Liberal Democrats lost every seat to the Conservatives—there was no Labour representation and there is no Liberal Democrat representation now. Only a few years ago, the Liberal Democrats had a majority even on the local parish council, but 12 Conservatives were voted to the 12 parish council seats and the 12 Liberal Democrats were defeated. The hon. Lady should therefore be a little wiser before she starts mentioning Guildford, particularly in relation to my constituency, where there was no allegation of any suspicious.
''Could the Minister confirm that there will be a declaration of identity and that this will fulfil the criteria recommended by the Electoral Commission of being single signature (ie with no need for a witness signature) and using a double envelope system to protect the privacy of the ballot.''
It has particular concerns, as I do, about houses in multiple occupation. In my constituency, as in many others, a lot of properties are houses in multiple occupation. Those include care homes, old people's homes and so on.
Many senders will not entrust business packages containing other security sensitive items, such as bank cards, credit cards, and the like, to the Royal Mail for delivery to a house in multiple occupation, because of the danger of fraud and of credit cards and bank cards falling into the wrong hands. I endorse the view of the Electoral Reform Society, which wants the Minister to confirm that some safeguards will be introduced, so that
''the ballot paper reaches the person for whom it was intended.''
Does the Minister have any evidence of post-electoral verification work, or is he saying that not much fraud was reported at the time? Is he saying that, because he might think that not much fraud happened last time, it will not happen in June next year?
The Electoral Reform Society's concerns about ballot integrity lead it to say that it would like all the security measures proposed by the Electoral Commission in March implemented
''before further widespread use of alternative voting methods can be contemplated. Whilst some of the proposals are simply for more vigilance by those involved in the electoral processes, we view the key recommendation as being a move to individual registration of electors in order to provide a signature and other key identifiers.''
In its view, that is essential. However, it would not be possible to implement the change in procedure before the European elections in June 2004.
The Electoral Reform Society's conclusion is that it does not believe
''that all the integrity measures that are necessary for the safe conduct of an election can be put in place''
before next June, and that although that does not guarantee
''that fraud will happen or that it will not be spotted if it does, it does lessen the probability''
of the fraud being spotted. The society also had significant concerns about the e-voting pilots, the lack of security and dangers of fraud. It says that
''An e-voting pilot is unlikely to bring any significant rise in turnout, is vastly expensive and relies on unverified software.''
I raised that issue in some detail on Second Reading. The society strongly recommends against any e-voting pilot in 2004. That is an issue on which I hope the Government will be forced to give way because of views in another place. I hope that they will drop the idea of e-voting for any of the pilots.
The Electoral Reform Society recommends that
''the next stage in piloting all-postal ballots should wait until those changes recommended by the Electoral Commission in registration and fraud prevention have been put in place. At that time it may be appropriate to look for a large scale pilot but this should ideally be at a single election.''
It believes that
''e-voting technology has not yet been sufficiently tested at the small-scale level and would urge that a technology task force be established under the auspices of the Electoral Commission in order to validate the software being used.''
Once that has happened, we might go back to a pilot.
The Electoral Reform Society feels strongly that all the safeguards need to be developed first. They will not be ready for June 2004, and the Bill is therefore premature. However, if we are to have an Act arising from the Bill, it ought to have some fraud protection measures along the lines of those put forward by the Liberal Democrats in amendment No. 49. Although looking at all the ballot papers afterwards, as suggested in amendment No. 57, is perhaps over-regulatory, I can see the direction in which they are going. I would certainly put the Electoral Reform Society's concerns even more strongly than the hon. Lady did.
Amendments Nos. 49 and 57 would expand the anti-fraud measures that the piloting order could include, and would ensure that local authorities assist the Electoral Commission in the inspection of
ballot papers and so on to check for personation and evidence of fraud.
I am already well aware that there is a widespread desire that we eliminate the opportunities for fraud, personation and malpractice. We must take those issues exceptionally seriously. We discussed many of them on Second Reading, and have added two clauses, which we shall discuss later, to improve security. They will lengthen the time limit for prosecution for malpractice and extend the offence of personation to outside the polling station. I hope that the Committee will welcome those steps.
Other security measures are desirable, but they can be introduced without primary legislation. Much can be done through the piloting order or other secondary legislation, such as making provision for water marks and the under-printing of ballot papers to ensure that they cannot be replicated. There is no need for extra powers to bolster measures that can already go into the piloting order. Clause 10(2) allows for the piloting order to cover consequential matters in respect of anti-fraud measures, reflecting the change in the electoral mechanism, and there are sufficient anti-fraud measures within electoral law to ensure that postal voting can be undertaken with confidence and that it is no more prone to fraud than conventional voting methods.
Amendment 57 is not necessary. The Bill is already sufficiently explicit in that clause 4(3) says that the local authority should give the Electoral Commission any assistance that it might reasonably require, and clause 4(6) states that the Electoral Commission's report must include an assessment of the incidence of malpractice, personation or other offences.
The hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and for Surrey Heath touched on a number of points, which were also raised by the Electoral Reform Society in its submissions to Committee members, regarding previous pilots at local authority level and those who supply e-voting software. The Government have used a variety of methods to investigate fraud—we do not look at reports and allegations about fraud only when they are brought to our attention, we proactively test whether systems are prone to malpractice or fraud. For example, the Electoral Commission, returning officers and others contact people who are shown on the marked register to have voted to question whether they actually cast their votes. We check samples of signatures given on declarations of identity to see whether they match those on record. We review the logs produced by the electronic voting system to identify suspicious activity, such as large numbers of votes from a single server, and we have used quality assurance experts to explore the risks arising from different voting technologies. The Electoral Commission evaluates all the aspects of the pilots, as it has in the past.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath echoed the comments of the Electoral Reform Society about how the identity details that are sent out for the purposes of e-voting might be made secure. It is important to strike the right balance between security and usability and convenience. We do not want to make it so difficult and complex that voters are completely put off. The
purpose of the changes is, after all, to make voting easier and more convenient. I hope that the Committee will see that a balance needs to be struck. We must consider not only the costs but the administrative and bureaucratic obstacles that would be put in place for returning officers by continual triple or quadruple checking mechanisms. However, it is fair to ask for countermeasures against fraud. In previous pilot schemes, identification numbers were printed on secure stationery, similar to the way in which banks mail personal identification numbers to their customers, so that any tampering with the numbers is obvious.
The Electoral Reform Society, an important body on which MPs of all parties and the general public have relied for objective advice for many years, says that there is no point in pressing ahead with e-voting because of technological failures. It says that e-voting has not increased turnout in the pilot areas. Indeed, the methods used were clearly not secure, two numbers being sent together on one postcard. Does the Minister not think that that is a good argument for scrapping e-voting? We could have more postal pilot schemes if the Government insist on doing so, but we are not ready for e-voting.
I do not agree. We have not given that role to the Electoral Reform Society. It rests with the independent Electoral Commission, which is better placed, sufficiently funded and accountable to the House, to come to its own conclusions and to make its own recommendations. We shall be better guided by its comprehensive judgment on many such factors.
Sufficient countermeasures have already been trialled and could be included in the pilot order. We will also consider hand delivery to houses in multiple occupation to mitigate against the risk of votes being harvested, and hand delivery to other addresses. A number of other checks could be included in a wider use of electronic voting, in order to ensure that systems are properly scrutinised and are not prone to fraud. In previous pilots, we used technical and security assessors to undertake quality assurance of the technology and the procedures that were used by the various e-voting suppliers.
These are crucial matters. The Minister will be aware that none of the software providers has yet allowed independent verification or validation of their software by the Electoral Commission, the body on which he places so much faith, or by anyone else. I rely on the Electoral Reform Society for that information. The society says that it is not good enough for the software providers to say that it works and is secure because they say so. The Opposition say that e-voting should not go ahead unless and until there is independent verification of all the software that is to be used.
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the existing arrangements in respect of the independent quality assurance of the software for e-voting. I assure him that the software arrangements have been verified and assessed by the Electoral Commission and our own information security specialists, to ensure that they are capable of meeting our technical and security standards. We want to ensure that the systems are as
secure as possible, that they cannot be accessed by unauthorised personnel and that the security functions work properly against all actions that might be taken by those who seek to infiltrate or to abuse the system. Good project management provisions are in place, and security procedures are clear. Independent verification is going on all the time, and the regional returning officers will need to be confident that we will respond to their suggestions and requirements.
I want to talk about the double envelope system mentioned by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.
Surely the Minister realises that, in the United States of America, even the most expensive systems—ones involving millions or even billions of dollars of investment, that are thought to be completely secure—have been penetrated by hackers. In a recent case, a man from the UK was acquitted on a charge of penetrating an incredibly important system in the port of Houston in America. It was clear from the trial that somebody—obviously not the person from the UK according to the jury's verdict—had penetrated that incredibly expensive and supposedly secure system.
Does the Minister not recognise that, faced with those realities, his words about the software being secure sound unbelievably complacent? Conservative Members think that the system will go wrong if the Government insist on pressing ahead with it. When it goes wrong, we will be saying loudly and clearly, ''We told you so.''
The Opposition live their lives hoping to use the mantra, ''I told you so'' whenever they get the opportunity, which is why we spend so long in Committee. I repeat my assurance that the Government have very capable information security specialists, who will ensure that we have approved expert assessors qualified to undertake information assurance activities on the e-voting software. The Electoral Commission, regional returning officers and I have confidence in that level of assurance in the system.
Double envelopes are a matter for the detailed order and we are considering it carefully. The Electoral Commission will be consulted on the pilot order. Although it found no evidence of increased fraud in previous schemes, it is important that we learn lessons from previous local pilots—that is the point of having them—and that we take on board the relevant aspects of the lessons learned. I will keep an open mind on the points that were made about double envelopes.
I have answered most of the comments relating to amendments Nos. 49 and 57, which I hope will not be pressed.
I am pleased that the Minister acknowledges the concerns about the potential for fraud, but less pleased that he does not intend to accept the amendments. Given that he did not say that they would cause any detriment, that is rather a pity. At the very least, the amendments would give people a great deal more confidence in the system. It is undeniable that there is enormous concern about the
potential for corruption and fraud with the changing system, and, in particular, uncertainty about e-voting. It would be fairly simple to agree the amendments.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath suggested that I did not make the arguments particularly forcefully. I am aware that every Member in the Room has the briefing, and I give credence to the idea that they have all read it. Sometimes, by expressing one's argument briefly, one stands a greater chance of holding the attention of one's listeners. That was my rationale for picking out the few key points, but it does not mean that I do not believe strongly in the amendments.
The briefing from the Electoral Reform Society contains many pertinent points. I believe that we should not rush ahead with the pilots. However, the Liberal Democrats thought it would sensible to include a provision in the Bill to show respect for the concerns of a major specialist body in the area. As we want to return to the matter on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 51, in
clause 2, page 2, line 22, at end insert
', and must ensure that the order is made available in a form accessible to those with disabilities.'.
Amendment No. 58, in
clause 4, page 3, line 18, at end insert—
'(f) facilitated voting for those with disabilities, having consulted such organisations or individuals representing disabled people as the Commission considers appropriate.'.
I feel much more confident that this group of amendments will be accepted. I am amazed that the clause contains no reference to the needs of people with disabilities. We must bear in mind that the United Kingdom has 8.5 million disabled voters. That is a very large number of people, with many different needs; they cannot be dealt with under a single label. Next year is a special year in which we shall, I hope, address many of the difficult issues that face those with disabilities. If we are considering a special pilot in 2004, that is the time to put right some things that have been wrong for a long time.
I shall deal first with amendment No. 52. Current electoral law and regulations, including those covering pilots, fail to safeguard many disabled citizens' basic right to a secret ballot. There are advantages in some of the pilots, because access has been opened up, as I am sure the Minister will tell us, through the variety of methods. However, surveys of the 2001 general election give incredible results—for example, that 69 per cent. of polling stations were inaccessible to disabled voters.
I am sure that many hon. Members will have witnessed, as I have, someone in a fairly large wheelchair coming to a mobile polling station, where the polling officer had to come out and the voter had to cast their vote in the street. I have seen that happen many times in my constituency. It is appalling. Today the Minister has a great opportunity to mark the important point that has been reached, and begin to put right things that have been wrong for so long.
Access is relevant to the criteria for the design and approval of pilot schemes. Access standards must be in line with good practice guidance. We need monitoring and enforcement, and we need to ensure that the human rights of voters with disabilities are respected.
I think I am losing my voice, Mr. Cook, because of the bug that has been going round. I apologise if my voice is getting lower, but I feel that I have a problem with it.
Amendment No. 51 would require the order to be available in a form accessible to those with disabilities. Surveys have shown that in 2001, key statutory requirements, such as the requirements for tactile voting devices and large-print notices in every polling station, were ignored by a sizeable majority of returning officers. That is very sad. It is essential—a basic requirement—that everyone should have appropriate access to information. Related to that are features of the ballot paper, such as format. The forms with tactile details sometimes do not even line up with the ballot paper. Many such features have been wrong in the past. The amendments would put them right.
Finally, in clause 4(6), amendment No. 58 would add to the long list of matters that the Electoral Commission must consider:
''facilitated voting for those with disabilities, having consulted such organisations or individuals representing disabled people as the Commission considers appropriate.''
Who better to advise the Electoral Commission on such special issues than people who have disabilities, or who represent those people? That is vital.
In the electoral pilots of 2002 and 2003, the Royal National Institute of the Blind disseminated best-practice guidance to local authorities, and produced tailored voter information packs in preferred formats for visually impaired voters. Feedback from such a study is valuable. We need change to improve matters, which is why consultation is so important. No process has been set up for the rigorous scrutiny of accessibility arrangements at the application stage, or to check standards before pilots have gone live. We need professional bodies with a thorough knowledge of disabled people's access requirements to scrutinise the pilots.
I will leave it at that, as I am sure I will want to make further points later. Presumably the Government go ahead with the changes, many of which we disagree with. The amendments are some of the most important ones before us and give us an opportunity to put something positive in the Bill.
In light of the implied rebuke to me by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, I am sure that I will please her by briefly supporting
her three amendments. We are happy for the amendments, or something akin to them, to be inserted in the Bill. We will listen with interest to the Minister's comments on whether he is prepared to accept the spirit of the hon. Lady's proposals. He may table some revised wording on Report.
In reply to the hon. Lady's implicit rebuke I say that, for the benefit of those observing the proceedings from outside, we must voice our full concerns, whether they are based on representations that have been made to us by organisations, or on our own views. That especially applies to those of us who are Front-Bench spokesmen. If we do not put those concerns on the record in full, no one can know that we were thinking about them. When the Bill goes to another place, its Members will be able to read the full views of the Electoral Reform Society, and which parties agree with what. Only the Hansard record reflects the whole debate.
I hope that the hon. Lady and other members of the Committee realise that we also tried to recognise the concerns of the disabled in our amendment No. 24, to which I cannot refer because it was not selected for debate. Because we had tabled our own amendment, I did not add our names to the hon. Lady's amendments. It was only when we knew that our amendment had not been selected and that the hon. Lady's amendments had been that we were able to pursue the debate. I agree with the spirit of what she is trying to do, which is to look after the disabled in the course of any electoral changes that are made.
One of the reasons for using remote voting and all-postal elections more is to benefit those people who find it inconvenient or difficult to go to the polling stations to vote conventionally. It will particularly benefit the many people who have disabilities, who may find it hard to vote in the conventional way. We want to extend the pilots, because all-postal elections will be more convenient and more beneficial to them than the existing arrangements.
We have already discussed in great detail issues such as ballot paper design with organisations that represent disabled people, to ensure that the interests of those people are best represented. We shall continue to strive for accessibility in the piloting process.
Amendment No. 51 is about the piloting order, not about information in the general sense. It deals specifically with how accessible the legislative instrument would be to persons with disabilities. First, we can trust local authorities to publish the piloting order in the most appropriate manner, based on their knowledge about the local media and so on. It would be perverse at the national level to prescribe in detail how the piloting order and its arrangements should be publicised locally.
Secondly, it is fair to say that the piloting order has not been designed for easy public consumption. It is a legislative document and not something that we would want used as the main instrument for conveying information about the new voting mechanisms to people with disabilities. Nevertheless, we shall examine
in much more detail we can distil and publicise in accessible forms the key elements and a summary of what the piloting order changes would do.
I give the hon. Lady an undertaking that my Department will produce words for an executive summary that local authorities can use to publicise such matters with greater ease. My Department will also put details of the piloting order on its website to enable large-text reading, and will seek to make them available on tape form for those who suffer from visual impairment. The details will be available to people who are interested in them.
Amendment No. 52 would include in the Bill provisions for secret voting for disabled people. I am glad that this important question has been raised in the Committee. I assure the hon. Lady that the piloting order will include provision for secret voting for disabled and visually impaired people. Tactile voting machines are already in use, and we want them to be employed in this case as well. There is likely to be a freephone helpline in piloting regions so that people with disabilities can request assistance in casting their vote. Returning officers and electoral officials will be able to assist them in person. We shall endeavour to provide an effective system.
Amendment No. 58 would ensure that the Electoral Commission reports on the impact of piloting on the disabled, and that it consults with organisations that represent disabled people. The commission already considers the impact of piloting on those with disabilities as part of its standard evaluation proposals and assessment arrangements. We have not explicitly underlined it in the Bill because it is a fundamental, integral part of what the commission does. It will have a dialogue with organisations that represent disabled groups.
The drafting of clause 4(6)(a), which is about the impact on facilitating voting, is very wide. It gives ample provision for ensuring that the needs of those with disabilities are fully taken into account. The amendments are unnecessary, because we are already committed to doing much of what the hon. Lady seeks. However, it has been useful to air the issues. I hope that she will welcome my assurances and withdraw the amendment.
I take comfort from the Minister's comments about the publication of the order. He answered some of my points.
I would like to put a further consideration on the table. Whatever voting form we have for people with disabilities, if blind people are to participate in a postal vote, it would make a great deal of sense to use standardised kits. I do not usually argue for centralisation, but there is a case for using the best format, if we find one, across the country and in all regions.
There is a lot more to be said on that whole issue, and it is a pity that we cannot have the point enshrined in the legislation. I strongly believe in local decision making, but in some cases in this sphere central direction is a good thing, because it achieves equality in a way that different systems in different places cannot. The Minister picked up on that point when
discussing the order containing the instruction, but there are a few more ways in which we need the advantages of centralisation.
The Disability Rights Commission takes the view that specific access rights for disabled people should be enshrined in electoral law. That is a big issue, which we have not been able to discuss here because we are considering detail rather than principle. I shall not press the amendments today, not because I have any doubts about them, but because I should like to return to these points on Report. Hon. Members will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on visual impairment, and he will want to speak on these issues at much greater length. I have received a little reassurance from the Minister, although not enough, but there is another day for the rest of the argument. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 5, in
clause 2, page 2, line 22, after 'area', insert 'within 14 days'.
I shall be brief. The amendment would insert ''within 14 days'', because we feel that a local authority should publish the order in its area as soon as possible. Rather than saying only
''in such manner as they think fit''
without including any time constraint, it would be sensible to put a duty on local authorities to publish quickly.
As the Minister and other hon. Members will recognise, I usually argue that new duties should not be placed on local authorities, especially if they have financial implications, because the Government have a history of placing new burdens on local authorities without providing the funds to enable them to carry out the duties. However, this proposal would not prove very expensive, and would simply require any local authority that has one of the pilots—should the Government's plan to put this law on the statute book succeed—to publish the order in 14 days. We want that to happen as soon as possible, and 14 days seems a reasonable amount of time.
I shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say, but the amendment is a genuine attempt to improve the Bill by saying that the order should not be left to wide discretion, as a local authority thinks fit. It should be made quiet clear that local authorities have a duty to publish the pilot order as soon as possible, and 14 days is a reasonable time frame.
I have a brief question. Some people think that publicising the orders is very important, but I hope that the Minister bears in mind the fact that the general public do not usually read things that are published in that way. Notices are put up all over the place, but unless they relate to a planning application on a piece of open ground the majority of people are not interested and will not read them at all. Whether the period is 14 days or not, will there be an opportunity or obligation to put
statements in local newspapers to explain matters? We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that people are well informed about everything when they are not. If a new system of voting is to be introduced, would subsection (5) give councils full authority to put adverts in their local paper explaining exactly what is happening and how it will affect people, and would the Minister encourage that?
The amendment would ensure that local authorities not only publicise the piloting order but do so within two weeks of receiving it from the Government. The piloting order contains the detailed mechanics of the voting process, not the broad principles concerning which regions are selected and the manner of voting. We have discussed much of that already. The Bill already explicitly requires local authorities to publish the piloting order provisions. Government Members prefer to trust local authorities, which have local knowledge, on how best to do that.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East asked whether we would seek to ensure that local media were used to advertise those provisions. I prefer to leave that to a local decision, because the local authority is best placed to know whether the ''Rochford Advertiser'' or the ''Southend Gazette'' has the best contact with the public and is the best way to convey information to people in his constituency.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to say that the discussion on how to publicise the pilot order should be left to local authorities. Nevertheless, does he want to put on record a recommendation that local authorities be as imaginative as possible in publicising the new proposals and also take particular account of the needs of those whose first language is not English?
Indeed. Any responsible local authority would want proactively to ensure that it was effectively publicising the fact that arrangements have been changed to draw it to the attention of all those who need to know. As I said, the Department will supply local authorities with the order and an executive summary in an easily understandable form, so that they have a better template to supplement the order should they want to publicise the details in a concise and readily understandable form.
I am sorry to interrupt again. Who will pay for that? Will the local councils or the Government pay for it? If local councils are paying, they will be cautious about the amount that they spend on full-page advertisements and billboard posters. On the other hand, if the Government are paying, there is no problem and we can spend as much as we like. Who is responsible for the publicity?
We will come to the issue of how local authorities fund and finance those arrangements in amendment No. 27. The Government believe that, although they normally fund the conventional voting mechanisms, they will support local authorities with extra finance for the extra effort of undertaking those pilot arrangements so that they are not burdened unnecessarily. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks.
There is a precedent for not having a 14-day requirement for publication. The Representation of the People Act 2000 states that local authorities shall publish orders in that area in such a manner as they think fit. There is no 14-day limit in the 2000 Act, which has worked sufficiently well. We do not therefore believe that a 14-day requirement is necessary, and with those assurances I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
It has been helpful to put on the record not only the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, but his wider comments looking forward to the debate on amendment No. 27. Amendment No. 27 addresses the point, which I have touched on, about whether local authorities should have burdens placed on them that the Government are not paying for. I look forward with some pleasure to the Minister's comments when we reach that debate.
It was well worth tabling the amendment, but I understand that the Minister wants to keep the phrasing in the 2000 Act. I still think that it would be better to have a 14-day time frame in the Bill, but at this stage I do not seek to prolong the argument. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.