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2.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) for initiating this debate, for his thoughtful comments on the subject and for his kind words to me. In the short time available, it would be difficult to do justice to a very wide-ranging and important subject. Moreover, as he demonstrated again today, my hon. Friend has a long and detailed interest in all aspects of the democratic process. His interesting thoughts about an open day in Parliament and a royal commission on voter turnout were typical of him.

We seem to have something of a turnout problem in the Chamber today, and perhaps we ourselves have something to learn about the need for participation in the democratic process. Nevertheless, it is useful to set the debate in context. The United Kingdom is not alone in experiencing declining turnouts, which are a feature in democracies throughout the western world. Turnout is declining across both Europe and the United States. In some places it is declining from an already low level. In others, such as in the United Kingdom, it is a shock to discover that traditionally high levels of voter participation are being reversed.

Turnouts in the United Kingdom remained remarkably steady until the 1997 general election. However, since 1992, when there was a reasonably respectable

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77.7 per cent. turnout, the decline has been marked. There was a 6.5 per cent. decrease in 1997, and the provisional figures show a 12 per cent. decrease in the most recent general election. Although various pundits have already claimed to know the reasons for the decline, I think that the reasons are complex. Nevertheless, no one with the interests of the democratic process in the United Kingdom at heart can be at all happy about the decline. It seems that something is going seriously wrong in the relationship between voters and the democratic process.

We may not be able to say what causes low turnouts, but we know something about high ones. What emerges from the general election statistics and from similar statistics on local government is that a close contest is a good predictor of a high turnout. In four of the six highest election turnouts since the second world war, the difference in the vote between the two major contesting parties was either 1 per cent. or 3 per cent. They were very close contests. Additionally, Professors Rallings and Thrasher of Plymouth university have worked on turnout in local elections. They have shown that turnout is invariably higher in wards where the result is in doubt and the seat could go either way. We can therefore say both that voters are more likely to turn out if the contest is likely to be close, and that turnouts in safe wards or constituencies are getting lower.

It is clear that voters turn out when they think that the circumstances merit it. Nevertheless, it is arguable that circumstances always merit turning out, that the citizen's first duty is to participate in the democratic process, and that without that participation, the citizen is effectively reducing herself to the position of a serf. She is abdicating responsibility for the decisions taken about her life and future.

Conversely, democracy brings with it the right not to take part. I am not sure that compulsory voting sits easily with that principle. What should concern us is that the legitimacy of any Government is threatened when so many people are turned off and feel that they cannot or do not wish to take part. Ultimately, democracy could become meaningless. What is needed is for civic pride and responsible citizenship to be encouraged and nurtured so that the principle of democratic participation is valued for what it is--not only the most important duty of the citizen, but part of a wider process of personal engagement in the civic process.

My hon. Friend has mentioned several examples of the Government's efforts to encourage people to participate and to revive the democratic process. Indeed, the working party on electoral procedures that the Government set up after the 1997 general election under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) had a remit to review electoral arrangements and recommend changes in electoral practice that would result in fairer and more open procedures, command the trust of the electorate and contribute to democratic renewal.

The working party commissioned papers and received representations, and the result was the Representation of the People Act 2000, which contains various measures aimed at making it easier and more convenient to register and to cast a vote, including the introduction of rolling registration, provisions to help the homeless, postal voting on demand, and provisions to help disabled voters. All those changes make it easier to vote or to register to

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vote, the theory being that the easier and more convenient we make it, the more likely voters are to take advantage of it.

The most significant part of the Act in the context of turnout was the provision for pilot projects to test new voting arrangements, which took place in 32 local authorities and included early voting--opening polling stations at a couple of places in the local authority area for a couple of days the weekend before the traditional Thursday polling day--polling stations in novel places, electronic voting, mobile ballot boxes and all-postal voting.

Each authority was required to set up arrangements to evaluate its projects and make the results publicly available. I have to say that the general results were disappointing, showing only small percentage increases. However, as my hon. Friend said, there were dramatic increases in the all-postal voting pilots. The results should be treated with caution, because the experiments were run in only a few wards in a few local authority areas, and we certainly need some more experiments, perhaps on a larger scale, to see whether they might provide a basis for optimism.

Further pilot schemes are needed to test the new ways of voting more thoroughly. We also need more information about the security aspects of postal voting, and of course there are cost considerations. The Government will soon invite local authorities to submit applications to run pilots at next May's local elections, and I hope that many will do so, in an effort to encourage voter engagement.

It is clear that simply making the process easier to take part in is not the overall answer to falling turnout. Voter disengagement is wider than mechanical failure and, as my hon. Friend said, we must address the underlying factors and the wider issues.

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How do we re-engage the electorate? I referred earlier to the clear indicator for higher turnout: a close contest. The common denominator of all close contests is intense interest, involvement and activity on the part of political parties. Of course, we cannot engineer close contests all the time. It is fair to say that it was not the Labour Government's fault that there was not a close contest at the general election.

Perhaps we are now trespassing on the lengthy debate on voting systems. The Government have given a commitment to keep voting systems under review, in the light of the different systems for election to the devolved bodies. Indeed, we have made a commitment that if proposals are made to change the voting system, we will have a referendum.

A more far-reaching way in which citizens can be re-energised is by their forming part of a community that is supportive, relevant and meaningful to them. I believe that the lessons of devolution apply here. Voters can see that their representatives are acting for them and taking relevant actions that have a local effect.

Local involvement is indeed the key. It may start with youth or voluntary groups, or with neighbourhood watch, but once citizens become engaged, voting becomes the natural thing to do to make the right things happen. We need to focus on making local democracy relevant to the lives of our citizens. We need to make active citizenship desirable, not a duty. We need to encourage supportive communities that people want to support.

Regional government may certainly have a role to play in increasing the relevance of government to the citizen. Our restructuring of local government can play a part by meeting the needs of local populations more closely.

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this subject, which is one that we should not shirk. After all, our presence in the House is only as legitimate as the votes of the people who put us here, whatever party they support.

Question put and agreed to.

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