The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): The Electoral Commission is evaluating the recent electoral pilots, which included a number of all-postal ballots. We will wish to consider the commission's evaluation and to make any necessary changes ahead of next year's local elections. In due course, we will need to consider the benefits and disadvantages of moving to all-postal ballots for a national electionfor example, elections to the European Parliament to be held in June 2004.
Mr. Tynan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Obviously, any process that would be useful in eliminating voter apathy would be welcomed in all parts of the House, but the recent postal experiment was very small and it is difficult to assess whether it was successful. Does he agree that we should further roll out postal voting in 2003 for the Scottish parliamentary elections, the Welsh elections and the local council elections to obtain concrete evidence about whether it can be successful and remove the problem of voter apathy?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out that the pilot has been small scaleonly 13 local authorities in England opted for all-postal ballots in the local elections in May. The Electoral Commission is considering carefully the experience in relation to turnout and also whether there has been malpractice or fraud. It is very important that those matters are fully investigated by the independent Electoral Commission. We would probably be moving too quickly if we were to adopt all-postal ballots for the Scottish and Welsh elections next year. Once again, we should use May 2003 and the local elections for further pilots. As I said, we might then reach a position in 2004, perhaps in the European Parliament elections in June, in which we can conduct a national postal ballot.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the Secretary of State accept that in conventional voting methods, people's ability to go into a private booth to cast their votes is an element of privacy and confidentiality that is very important? Is he not concerned that the introduction of postal ballots on a mass scale will mean that that element of privacy is lost and that those who wish to vote privately from their own households will not have the same safeguards that people have traditionally enjoyed in casting their votes in the traditional way?
Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to refer to the safeguards that we hold dear in terms of how we cast our votes in elections. That is one of the issues to which the Electoral Commission will want to give proper consideration. We must take this matter slowly and we must get it right; we will not be rushed into taking early decisions. We must use the pilots and learn from them, and we must then make decisions that are in the interests of the democratic process.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I welcome the progress made by my right hon. Friend in this very important area, but is he aware that many people are reluctant to take up their right to a postal vote, even though they may sometimes have difficulty in getting to a polling station? Would he consider it appropriate for his
Mr. Byers: That is something to which the Electoral Commission should again give detailed consideration and I shall draw my hon. Friend's comments to its attention. It will report to me on 2 August on its evaluation of this year's pilots. No doubt, it will want to say something about the question of publicising not only the entitlement to have a postal vote if that is desired, but the process that somebody must follow to use such a vote, which can be rather confusing in some areas. We need to ensure that, in our desire to make voting more convenient and easier for people, we do not disadvantage particular groups. In particular, pensioners may find postal voting more difficult and prefer to exercise the vote as they have done for generations. We need to consider all those factors if we are to move to a situation in which all-postal ballots are held. In practice, that means that people will not have a polling station to go to on what we call polling day, which needs to be explained to them.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Of course, all-postal ballots were used in some of the mayoral elections on 2 May, in which Robocop was elected in Middlesbrough, a monkey was elected in Hartlepool, and the voters of North Tyneside, which covers the Secretary of State's constituency, elected a Conservative mayorperhaps the first sign of the Secretary of State's impact on Labour's poll rating. Does he still intend to impose mayoral votes, by post or otherwise, on certain cities?
Mr. Byers: We have always said that we want to provide communities, cities and towns with the option of voting for a mayor if that is what they desire. They can vote for monkeysperhaps Conservative monkeys, who knows? That is the choice that the people of North Tyneside had, but had there been a Conservative Government they would not have had that choice.
Mrs. May: Postal voting was discussed by the Secretary of State at his lunch with women journalists last week, when he told them, as he told the House today, that postal voting could be used for the European elections. Of course, he also referred to the euro referendum and told them when it was to be held. Since then, the euro referendum has been denied by Downing street, his position on road tolls has been rejected by Lord Birt and his poll rating is sinking fast.
The Secretary of State claims postal ballots as one of his successes, but will he not accept that voter apathy stems from the Government's arrogance, from people's contempt for spin, and from a distrust of politicians who fail to deliver on the issues that matter to them, such as transport? Given his record low rating in the polls, does he take any personal responsibility for that?
I take the fact that turnout doubled in areas such as Crawley, Gateshead and South Tyneside as an indication that all-out postal ballots are welcomed by the electorate as being more convenient and more appropriate to the modern world in which we live.
If the hon. Lady wants to talk about the policies that the Government are pursuing, I simply say thispeople will judge what we have done on the improvements that they see. They understand that if there are to be changes in the transport system, they will not happen in a handful of months, but will take time. What we have done in the past 11 months during which I have been Secretary of State for Transport is to make the difficult changes that are necessary to lay the foundations for a transport system that will go from strength to strength. The improvements will be there for people to see, and they are aware of that. I want to be judged on improving the services that people get, whether in local government, transport, planning, housing, urban regeneration or balloting systems, not on one opinion poll in one newspaper.
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): My right hon. Friend mentioned Gateshead. Will he confirm that there was a turnout of 59 per cent. in the highly successful postal ballot that was held there? In fact, turnout was higherI am not sure whether I take much comfort from this, as the general election candidatethan in last year's general election. Many people told me that postal balloting fits in very well with today's lifestyles, especially for those who do not work in a nine-to-five routine and may, for whatever reason, find it difficult to get to the polling station. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it was possible on the day in Gateshead to hand in a postal vote at the library, the civic centre or any of the other centres that had been arranged, and as had been explained to people during the campaign?
Mr. Byers: My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the benefits that were evident in Gateshead as a result of using all-out postal ballots and providing people with the opportunity on the day to go to vote not at a polling station, as they perhaps would have done in the past, but at civic buildings. The Electoral Commission will want to consider that when it undertakes its evaluation of this year's pilots.
It is rather odd that, at the beginning of the 21st century, we still vote with stubby black pencils in a makeshift booth. Some Conservative Members may be attracted to that, but we need to consider the way in which people cast their votes to make it more convenient for the lives that they lead. That is what we are trying to achieve. We will do it on an all-party basis because we have a shared agenda of ensuring safeguards for the electoral process. However, we cannot get away from the fact that this year's postal ballots have been a success in dramatically improving voter turnout.