New Clause 14

Political Parties and Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 7:00 pm on 18 November 2008.

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Moratorium on electoral modernisation pilots

‘No electoral modernisation pilot scheme which uses electronic voting and electronic counting systems under section 10 (pilot schemes for local elections in England and Wales) of the 2000 Act shall be commenced for a period of five years beginning on the day on which this Act is passed.’.—[Mrs. Laing.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss

New clause 15—Review of electoral modernisation piloting

‘(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint a Committee to conduct a review of electoral modernisation piloting.

(2) The Secretary of State shall appoint no fewer than five and no more than ten members of the Committee, who have, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, relevant knowledge and experience.

(3) The Committee shall complete the review and report to the Secretary of State no later than five years after the commencement of this Act.

(4) The Secretary of State shall lay a copy of the report before Parliament as soon as is reasonably practicable.’.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

The new clauses propose a moratorium on a review of electoral modernisation pilots. The point is that it is wrong for the Government to continue to bring forward gimmicks to try to encourage people to register, to vote and take part in the democratic process. Gimmicks are wrong. Those who are looking at electoral reform need time to consider the sort of matters that we dealt with in the last group of amendments. That is why we have proposed a moratorium on electoral modernisation pilots and review of them.

One need look no further than last year’s Gould review of the Scottish elections, which came up with so many criticisms of the system that was piloting electronic voting and counting. For the sake of time, I will give just one example. In Airdrie and Shotts, Labour’s majority of 1,446 was less than the 1,536 rejected ballots under a very complicated system. Our electoral and voting systems must be simple, straightforward, and understood by every member of the electorate and all the candidates. It is wrong to mess about with gimmicks, saying that they are to modernise the system. The system does not need to be modernised in that way. It needs to be reformed in the way we have discussed.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Having achieved a large degree of consensus on the principles on which we should move forward in reforming our electoral system, it saddens me to have to resist the new clause. It is entirely unnecessary and would fetter our attempts to make our democracy more accessible and improve the efficiency of electoral administration. That is not an alternative to the sorts of reforms that we were talking about earlier—it is something that we should be considering anyway.

As it happens, the Government have no plans at present to conduct further pilots at this stage, and none was conducted in 2008. None the less, it would be wrong to place a limit on the Government’s ability in future to test pilots promising new technologies or new techniques. Governments must be free to investigate possible innovations and pilots when appropriate. Pilots allow for new technologies to be tested in controlled environments and in real-life situations. Incremental testing over time permits issues to be identified and solutions to be adapted as a consequence, with retesting to prove that the issues have been resolved. That is a matter of prudent process, and to fetter it in such a way is quite wrong. If new clause 14 were to be approved, it would only prevent piloting from taking place from under the provisions of the Representation of the People Act. It would do nothing to prevent the London mayoral and assembly elections from being electronically counted again, as they were this year, or Scottish local authorities from continuing to count their elections electronically. It would serve only to prevent the Government from taking the lead, as they should, in improving electoral administration.

New clause 15 would establish a committee to review electoral modernisation piloting. Well, sometimes committees are a very good idea, but it is difficult to understand what value that committee would bring  over and above the rigorous processes that are already in place to ensure effective oversight of the piloting process. The Government take into account the concerns of electoral administrators, local authorities and the Electoral Commission. To date, all the electoral modernisation pilots have been overseen by project boards and programme boards with the involvement of the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and others. All those different perspectives and insights from outside the Ministry of Justice and the Government have therefore informed and underpinned the piloting programme. That the boards are not currently meeting reflects the fact that no pilots are planned, but the intention is to restart that process if we were to resume pilots.

We proceed with pilots only following consultation with the Electoral Commission. All pilots are evaluated after the event by the local authorities that ran them, and by the Electoral Commission. The commission’s recommendations are taken into account when considering further pilots and moving forward. We already receive expert advice on piloting programmes, and we are considering whether to establish a panel of recognised and respected experts from the academic, technical and electoral administration fields to advise on policy, technical issues and testing and, indeed, what we should be piloting, should we decide to do so in the future. With a combination of such issues, there is no need for the new clause.

It is worth pointing out that we in the UK are far from alone in piloting new systems in electoral administration, and testing their benefits. Many countries do so. We have heard about international comparisons, and I can give some to the Committee. Australia has piloted e-voting for specific groups, such as service personnel on deployment, which I know will be of interest to the hon. Member for Chichester. The system has been piloted for visually impaired voters. Other countries have made e-voting more generally available, and some have rolled it out more widely following pilots—in Estonia, for example. Others have decided to discontinue e-voting following problems that led to a loss of public confidence.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I had not wanted to take up the Committee’s time at this late stage, but the Minister will appreciate that even the Electoral Commission has said that we should not move ahead on e-voting projects at this time, until we generally have a handle on an electoral system that is not seen to be working as it should.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

As I said, we are not currently conducting any pilots and we have no plans to do so. The whole point about the pilots that took place last year was that we are learning lessons from them.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The hon. Gentleman characterises the pilots in a rather misleading way. Their whole purpose was to learn lessons for the future. Never to try to learn lessons for improvement in techniques would be wrong. Other countries do it. We have just seen an extraordinary election in the United States.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

The Minister is talking about learning lessons from innovations. What lessons did he learn from the Scottish parliamentary elections last year?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am conscious of the clock. With regard to the extraordinary American election, some estimates suggest that 30 per cent. of people cast their votes early. That is a way to move forward with an electoral system that we can see produces benefits. It demonstrates the potential for modernising electoral processes. On the basis of what I have said, I hope that the hon. Member for Epping Forest will withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 7:15, 18 November 2008

I appreciate that the Minister has been genuine in his explanation why he cannot support the new clauses. I am pleased that no pilots are in the pipeline at present. It is wrong to spend taxpayers’ money on gimmicks when we need to concentrate on real reform. Given the time and the will of the Committee, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.