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On the right hon. Gentleman's second point about cutting red tape, I have announced today that we mean to go ahead with a small business measure that will make it far easier for businesses to do their VAT and save money at the same time. We are also consideringand we want this to happena means by which tax accounts and company accounts can be reconciled in a way that involves firms in far less bureaucracy. We abolished the audit requirement for many small firms, saving them a great deal of money, so we are doing our best.
The right hon. Gentleman really must look at where the £10 billion that he mentioned comes from. A great deal of it comes from the minimum wage. He must ask himself, as we must all ask ourselves, whether the minimum wage is the right policy or the wrong policy. I believe that even most of the employers who were sceptical at the time of its introduction believe that the minimum wage is fair and has been properly implemented. Unfortunately, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) opposed the minimum wage at the time. He said that it would cost 1 million jobs. He was absolutely wrong1 million new jobs have been created, even with the minimum wage. I hope that we will have some clarity from the Conservative party regarding what they will do with the minimum wage in the future.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I welcome the announcements made this afternoon in connection with manufacturing industry, especially the announcement of further tax breaks for capital investment. Will my right hon. Friend consider possible tax breaks for the services that allow that capital investment asset to be realised? Capital assets are sometimes enormously complex and although small businesses want to take on the new technology they lack the internal intelligence and experience to utilise it fully. If we can afford them some tax breaks in that area, we will increase our productivity rates accordingly.
Mr. Brown: Perhaps my hon. Friend would write to me on the specificsthat seems to be a second Budget representation. There are considerable tax advantages and reliefs at present for businesses adopting information technologygoing online and adopting e-commerce. Perhaps she could advise the small businesses in her community that those advantages are available.
I note that right hon. and hon. Members who have tabled the reasoned amendment have very properly indicated a relevant interest on the Order Paper. The Bill concerns employment rights. As we all know, every Member who has staff in his or her parliamentary employment is an employer, but some Members may also be an employer in a different capacity, by virtue of activities outside their parliamentary duties. In my opinion, there is a risk that if every Member seeking to table amendments to the Bill indicates a relevant interest, based only on their position as a Member, the House, and those outside the House, will not be able to recognise any such additional relevant interests.
I propose therefore that in the case of this Bill, and any others of such a nature that may come before us, the whole House take a common-sense approach and that Members be expected to indicate a relevant interest only where that is plainly additional to their interests as Members of the House.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you clear up some genuine confusion among Back Benchers? The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the Wanless report was looking only at public funding of the health service; but the terms of reference were so differentespecially in the light of the 1998 annual report from NatWest, which shows that Derek Wanless, along with the other NatWest directors, was actually paid private health insurance as a benefit. Was that something that the Chancellor could have looked into in terms of expanding health funding?
Elections are a test of opinion in the country. They are a way of holding politicians to account and legitimising our elected bodies. When the turnout is high, elections are more representative, the elected bodies more legitimate and politicians more accountable.
In addition, if rates of turnout are different between sections of the electoratebetween different communities, or between those on different incomesthere must be a risk of political parties prioritising the concerns of those most likely to vote. We are not at that stage in this countryLabour Members are certainly notbut some commentators certainly believe that low turnouts in America have focused the collective minds of the parties on those who vote regularly and argue, in turn, that the sense of alienation from the political process has increased among marginalised groups.
Some members of the Labour party have asked me to justify proposing compulsory voting when it is possible that, for whatever reason, only a Conservative and a Liberal candidate had stood for election. I would not dream of asking any good socialist to make that appalling choice. Instead, my Bill would require voters to attend polling stations and vote either for one of the candidates on offer, as now, or to register their abstentiontheir protest at the system or the choice before themon a new slot on the ballot paper.
Some people say that compulsory voting would mask wider problems of participation in the political process. Of course, I agree that political parties, we as politicians and other political organisations need to make more effort to champion political debate for its own sake, to promote a sense of citizenship, to engage with those groups least represented in the House and to celebrate the opportunity that politics offers to make a difference to the communities from which we all come, but initiating debate on how to tackle those wider issues should not be used as an excuse to put aside the specific debate that needs to be held again about voter turnout at elections.
I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did when he was at the Home Office to promote a series of experiments to drive up turnout, one of whicheasier access to postal votingwas undoubtedly very helpful to many at the last election. Many people did not vote at that general election because they did not think that there was ever a realistic danger of the Tory party being elected. Nevertheless, the fact that more than 40 per cent. of electors did not vote rightly set alarm bells ringing across the political world.
What are the alternatives to compulsory voting? One alternative is to do nothing and to hope that turnout somehow improves. I certainly do not support that. Another alternative that has been canvassed is to offer people an incentive to vote£10 off their council tax, or 1p off income tax. At the risk of provoking some of those who are genuinely engaged in the debate about turnout at elections, I suggest that there is something slightly odd about paying people to vote. What evidence is there to show that such a move would seriously drive up turnout?
Compulsory voting is not an unproven, alien concept. My hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) and for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), in their excellent Fabian Society pamphlet on this subject last year, highlighted a study of 44 democracies around the world, and an element of compulsory voting was evident in 13 of the 4430 per cent. of those studied. Compulsory voting operates successfully in Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece and, I understand, in four of the eight provinces in Austria, as well as in a host of other countries on other continents. It operates perhaps most effectively in Australia, where turnouts of more than 95 per cent. are regularly achieved and just 2 to 3 per cent. of people abstain, with just the threat of a $20 fine to encourage adherence to the law.
Some argue that appalling breaches of civil liberties would be committed were we to require people to register their abstention, but compulsory voting is surely just a logical extension of the legal requirement to register to vote. Is being asked to vote once every five years any more an infringement of liberty than having to fill out a census form once every 10 years or to do two weeks' jury service at some point in one's professional life? Compulsory voting involves a small decrease in freedom butlet us be honestit is much less of a burden than other obligations that we place on our citizens, such as the requirement for compulsory school education or to pay taxes.
Some argue that a reluctant vote is worse than no vote at all and that those forced to go to the polls against their will be unlikely to cast a well-considered vote. Frankly, that view is insulting or deeply patronising. Indeed, there is absolutely no evidence to justify such nonsense.
Others argue that the enforcement of compulsory voting is a potential nightmare. In Australia, however, compulsory voting has delivered high turnouts without the need for heavy penalties. When a voter is recorded as not voting, the Australian Electoral Commission sends out a letter asking for an explanation. After the 1993 election, the AEC investigated almost 500,000 cases of non-voting. The vast majoritymore than 462,000 peoplegave valid explanations of why they had not voted.
The valid explanations included the fact that people were overseas at the time or that they belonged to a religious order that prohibited voting. Another 23,000 chose to pay the $20 fine straight away. That left a small group of just about 4,000 who went to court, where the fine increases to $50 on conviction. However, not all in that group were convicted.
In general in Australia, the penalties for non-voting are relatively small, as I propose that they should be under this Bill. When there is a wide acceptance of reasonable excusesagain, as I suggest there should bethere has been a marked increase in the number of people voting.
Another comparisona domestic oneis worthy of note. In this country, one can be punished for failing to register to vote. Registration is compulsory but prosecutions for non-registration are infrequent and usually amount to just a handful every year. The power to prosecute, though rarely used, remains a valuable means of achieving a high level of compliance with the registration process.
We have reached the point where a serious debate about the merits of compulsory voting is urgent. Our forebears fought long and hard for the right to participate in elections. After all, elections are a test of political opinion like no other; they are the defining assessment of the Government and the political leadership of our country. Surely it is not too much to ask that we take 30 seconds out of our busy lives every five years to make a judgment on those who seek to lead us.