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The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Compulsory Voting

31. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): If the Commission has commissioned research into the effects of introducing compulsory voting. [61204]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): I understand that the Commission intends to carry out research into the operation of compulsory voting in other countries. This research project is expected to begin later this year and the results will be published in 2003.

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Mr. Plaskitt: Although it is worth conducting research into compulsory voting, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that it is probably not the solution to falling turnout, because it is incompatible with freedom of choice? Will he concentrate instead on investigating increasing turnout through voluntary processes?

Mr. Beith: The commission has said that the main responsibility for increasing turnout in elections must lie with the politicians and parties themselves. It does not regard compulsory voting as the answer to this problem, but it considers it appropriate to carry out research. I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's views on this subject.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): It is encouraging to hear that response, but will the right hon. Gentleman go further and say that the franchise implies a degree of responsibility and consideration on the part of the person exercising it? If someone cannot be bothered to vote, they should not be forced to do so.

Mr. Beith: I have a similar view, but we probe voters' motives at our peril.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): Has the right hon. Gentleman considered compulsory postal voting, and moving polling day from a Thursday to the weekend?

Mr. Beith: I have never before heard the suggestion that compulsory voting and postal voting be combined, but I suppose that might follow if compulsory voting were introduced. Changing polling day is precisely the sort of issue that the Electoral Commission considers from time to time, and on which it might at some point make recommendations to Government.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one obvious disadvantage of compulsory voting is that it would be not nearly as easy to judge how happy the electorate are with politicians as it is under a system that allows them to choose whether to vote? Is not a bigger priority to concentrate first on making registration—which is already compulsory—work effectively, given that, in many parts of the country, it does not? Should we not also consider providing a financial incentive to vote? Such an incentive might encourage many more people to vote, but it would still leave them the freedom not to do so.

Mr. Beith: Later this afternoon, the Electoral Commission Committee will consider increasing the commission's expenditure on raising awareness of the need to register to vote, which the commission regards as particularly important.

National Assembly for Wales Elections

32. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What discussions the Committee has had with the Electoral Commission on introducing an all-postal ballot for elections to the National Assembly for Wales. [61205]

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Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): There have been no such discussions, but I understand that the commissioners have discussed with the First Minister and his colleagues a range of options for increasing turnout at the Assembly elections in 2003.

Kevin Brennan: Do we not want to encourage maximum possible turnout for elections to a new institution such as the National Assembly? Is it not particularly suited to an all-postal vote, and would not extending that idea to next year's elections ensure a high turnout and thus increase the credibility of the results?

Mr. Beith: All-postal voting in the National Assembly elections would require primary legislation. The commission is evaluating the use of all-postal voting in recent local elections, but because of the time needed to make that evaluation, and to introduce primary legislation, it is fairly unlikely that all-postal voting could be introduced in time for the Assembly elections.

33. Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): What special measures the Electoral Commission is considering to ensure access to polling stations in the Welsh Assembly elections. [61206]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): The Commission will fund the development and delivery of training for electoral services staff in Wales in advance of the 2003 National Assembly elections. The training programme will address how to ensure access to the electoral process for people with disabilities. Later this year, the Commission will also publish a series of "good practice" handbooks, which will include advice to returning officers on this matter.

Mr. Bryant: Are the right hon. Gentleman and the commission aware that many electoral registration officers in Wales are already worried that literally hundreds of polling stations will not meet the legal requirements for disabled access next year? Thousands of people could be disfranchised because of the absence of a local polling station. If the commission will not consider all-postal ballots, will it at least consider requiring local authorities to write to every constituent, suggesting that they might none the less have a postal vote?

Mr. Beith: I shall certainly put the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to the commission, but it should be borne in mind that a long-standing legal requirement exists that, so far as is practical, all electors should have reasonable facilities for voting, and, in particular, that local authorities should designate as polling stations only places that are accessible to disabled voters. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling in the House that every polling station should, if possible, be fully accessible to the disabled. However, when a polling station is changed or removed, local electors can petition against that development, and the Electoral Commission has the power to require the local authority concerned to reinstate the polling station. However, to date no such petitions have been received.

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Election Material (Imprints)

34. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): When the Electoral Commission plan to discuss enforcement of the law relating to imprints on material circulated during election campaigns. [61208]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission): I understand from the chairman of the commission that it has no such plans. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 does not give the commission an enforcement role as regards imprints on election material, although the Government are required to consult the commission before making regulations relating to imprints. In that context, the commission has encouraged the Government to bring in the new requirements for imprints contained in the Act that were suspended by the Election Publications Act 2001.

Mike Gapes: I am disappointed by that reply. Those of us who have been subjected to the distribution of literature without imprint, have complained and had the matter investigated by the police, have found—as in my case—that the Director of Public Prosecutions says that it is

That is even though the people responsible have been warned about their future conduct. How can we enforce the law to protect democracy if people can distribute literature with impunity?

Mr. Beith: I can well understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the experience that he had in his constituency, but such matters of law enforcement are

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matters for the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will—I am sure—be made aware of these exchanges. It is the job of the commission merely to monitor compliance, and it may make recommendations arising from that monitoring.


The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—


35. Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): What responsibilities the Church Commissioners have for the (a) Church Heritage Forum, (b) Cathedrals Fabric Commission and (c) Council for the Care of Churches. [61209]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question and I look forward with great interest to his supplementary.

Mr. Key: Given that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has halved the cathedral grants this coming year, what representations have the Church Commissioners made to the Chancellor in the public spending round to maintain the cathedral grants at least at their previous level?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue with me. We will make a submission to the Chancellor on that subject. I hope that it will become a Budget submission for consideration at the next Budget.

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