Electoral Commission (Limit on Public Awareness Expenditure) Order 2002

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Mr. Tyrie: What proportion of the £7 million will be spent on issues relating to registration?

Yvette Cooper: That will be a matter for the Electoral Commission and the Speaker's Committee.

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The role of this Committee is to approve the order that sets the limit on expenditure. The Electoral Commission is accountable to the Speaker's Committee, not to the Government, for its decision, as is right. The Speaker's Committee was set up to be independent of the Government, and it should decide whether the Electoral Commission is spending the money in the right way. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the proportion of money spent on registration issues, as opposed to postal voting issues or increasing people's awareness of democratic institutions, he should raise those concerns with the Speaker's Committee.

Mr. O'Brien: The tone of the Minister's remarks is unfortunate, because she seems to be making a distinction between the democratic credentials of various Members of Parliament. We each have an equal mandate to represent our constituencies. It just happens that those who form the majority make up the Government, who are accountable and, therefore, must be scrutinised.

I have two deep concerns following on from the Minister's remarks, in which she deflected the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester by referring to the composition of the Speaker's Committee. First, I note that, although that Committee is supposed to be impartial, there is a large number—perhaps the Minister will confirm the precise number—of Labour Members on that Committee. Secondly, the Minister has not, so far, made any link between the atrocious turnout in the 2001 election and the question whether the populace at large, whatever the age range, lacks trust in politicians, in particular politicians in the Government party—or does she think that that has nothing to do with it?

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister replies, I remind the Committee that although these matters are tangential to the order, they are outside its main thrust.

Yvette Cooper: I agree with the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). Of course, there are democrats in every party, as well as people who support raising awareness and measures to increase voter participation, whether through encouraging registration, trying to increase voter turnout or trying to increase the take-up of postal votes. That is why I believe that the hon. Member for Stone does his party a disservice by opposing the measures; there are many democrats in the Conservative party who would strongly support the Electoral Commission's proposals.

Mr. Cash: The Minister can say what she likes, but she will have noted that I said that the Act had been passed by Parliament and that, therefore, the Electoral Commission had a duty to perform, as specified in the Act. The question is whether the amount of money referred to in the order—an increase from £1.5 million to £7.5 million—can be justified under what is prescribed in the corporate plan. I have raised several questions on that matter, and, so far, the Minister has not answered a single one.

Yvette Cooper: As I have said, the original sum of £1.5 million was designed to cover only the

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nine-month period from 1 July 2001 to 31 March 2002, at a time when the Electoral Commission was just getting going and the promotional work that it was able to do was, inevitably, limited.

The strategy explores an extensive range of issues—major advertising campaigns to encourage rolling registration, to promote awareness of availability of postal votes and encourage voter turnout and to persuade voters to complete and return the annual canvass form in the autumn; the provision of information on briefings and other resources; leaflets, fact sheets for the public, teachers and students, British sign language videos, audio tapes and information in Braille; briefing papers for elected and non-elected politicians and an initiatives fund to provide support for new initiatives that aim to increase voter awareness. It also looks at a wide range of research methodologies.

Compared with that for the first nine months, when it was possible to start only a single, limited campaign, the £7.5 million budget seems eminently reasonable. It is important to hold the commission accountable for way in which it spends it. That has to be done through Parliament and through the Speaker's Committee, which will review the way in which that £7.5 million is spent in future.

Given the extent of the disengagement from the political process, about which we are rightly concerned, we must consider measures such as this. They might have a significant impact on small groups of people or on those who are least likely to be aware of their rights. That is worth while. The Electoral Commission's proposals are promising; we should follow them with interest. Of course, we must hold the commission to account, but to vote against the proposals is not to take seriously our obligation not only to give people rights but to make sure that those rights can be exercised in practice.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): Does the Minister concede that one of the main reasons why people do not vote is not that they are not aware of their rights but that they choose not to exercise them, because of disillusionment with the political process and the state of public services? If money were spent on public services rather than on advertising campaigns for the electoral process, they would be much more likely to use their votes. The improvement in public services would—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady is going very wide of the order.

Yvette Cooper: I am aware of your directive not to stray too far from the subject, Mr. Atkinson. However, for an Opposition Member to suggest that we are not spending enough money on public services when her party voted against the Northern Ireland contributions increase that will boost investment in public services is a little ludicrous.

There are many reasons for the fall in voter turnout—although we should take seriously the fact that it increased at the recent local elections—so we should consider the many ways of addressing the issue.

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We must recognise the fact that some of the Electoral Commission's proposals concern research into the reasons that people give and the issues that they raise when they consider whether to vote. The proposals should not be controversial, and I am disappointed that Opposition Members have decided to pray against the order. It is a sensible, straightforward order and we should wish the Electoral Commission well in its important work.

5.38 pm

Mr. Tyrie: I was not intending to say anything today, and I did not want to speak until the Minister had had a go, so that I could hear the Government's reasons for the large increase. However, having heard what she has said, I am imbued with quite deep scepticism about the need for the increase in public awareness expenditure.

We are not debating the principle—that was conceded in the Act. We are debating the amount. There are two questions. Why do we need this extra money? If we think that we need it, are we sure that it will be spent effectively? We have been hearing the same mantra solidly from a large group of academics and superannuated politicians with a vested interest, who justify the money by claiming that there is some great crisis in our democracy because the turnout was low at the last election. The Minister said that there was disengagement from the political process on a large scale. The chairman of the Electoral Commission, who also has a vested interest in saying such things, said:

    ''The decline in turnout at elections, brought sharply into focus in the 2001 general election, is part of a general trend.''

That is complete nonsense. The decline in turnout is not part of a general trend. Only a decade ago, turnout in this country was at its third highest level since the wartime economy was unwound, and was within a whisker of being at the highest level. Nor is there any crisis in participation in this country. Our mailbags and e-mails are increasing steadily, and pressure group activity is at record levels. There is also greater awareness in schools. If we went into schools and asked pupils what they knew about major and international political issues, we would be amazed at how much more they know than pupils did 20 years ago. It is nonsense to suggest that there is a crisis in participation in those issues.

There is, however, a crisis in participation in formal political structures. In other words, it is a crisis for Parliament and us, not for democracy as a whole. Democratic involvement in one way or another is increasing all the time, along with a decline in deference for institutions such as this one. I cannot help thinking that we are creating an institution—the Electoral Commission—and giving it more and more money to try to plug the gaps of our own inadequacies, rather than asking why people have lost interest in Parliament, which is a different question. Huge numbers of people watch political programmes and the news on television and are acutely aware of what is going on.

I will not prolong the discussion, as you will accuse me of straying to other subjects, Mr. Atkinson. It is at

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least highly debatable that there is a crisis in public participation in democratic activity in the widest sense. Hon. Members should return to their constituencies and see how many voluntary associations are actively engaged in democratic pursuits, such as lobbying various parts of the political process, to achieve their objectives. They should compare that with what was going on 25 years ago.

I question vigorously the premise of the argument that huge sums of money should be spent on some crisis in public participation. Let us suppose that there is a crisis. Do we think that spending all this extra money will be effective? The most important point to make is that we cannot judge that, as the information is not at our disposal. The Minister was unable to tell me how much would be spent on the crucial issue of voter registration. She said that it would be left to the Electoral Commission supervised by the Speaker's Committee. We have been given no explanation worth the name of how the money will be spent. That is unacceptable, and is no way for a Parliament to allocate money, whether to the health service or to raise awareness in an election.

Let us suppose that there was a crisis in democracy and that we knew where the extra £6 million was to be spent. Would that £6 million make a difference? Does anyone in the Committee Room believe that 41 per cent. of people did not vote in the general election because they did not know that there was an election? Does anyone believe that those who were unaware had no idea what issues were at stake? The vast majority of people who did not vote in the general election knew very well that there was an election, but chose not to vote. I am sorry that that was made into a party political issue. I had no intention of doing that, and I hope that I have not done that. However, the harsh truth for the Conservative party is that turnout was low because people concluded early on that the result was a foregone conclusion. They thought that the Labour party would win and therefore did not participate.

In 1992, people did not know what the result would be—indeed, they had no idea—and it was an extremely exciting election. Only 10 years ago, there was a massive turnout in this country. Will the Minister and the Government say that, over 10 years, an appalling affliction has somehow got into Britain's body politic and we are now infected with a new disease that has destroyed us all and is going to destroy democracy and all those other things that we hold dear? That is a load of nonsense. If the next general election is close—it may be a foregone conclusion for us—turnout will be extremely high. I do not know whether it will rise as high as it did in 1992, but it will certainly rise sharply.

The £6 million will not make a ha'p'orth of difference. Before forming a judgment on whether it would make a difference, I would have wanted to know about the allocation of the money between the main headings that the Minister outlined, including attempts to increase registration. Incidentally, the argument that registration is a massive and growing problem is unproven for general elections. There is some evidence that there has been an increase in non-registration, but it is relatively modest. I would also

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want to know what proportion would be spent on encouraging postal ballots. Do we really need another £6 million to encourage people to register for postal ballots on top of what is already done at local level through the existing registration system? I doubt it.

Then there is the residual sum that will be spent on general awareness issues, as the Minister put it. We do not know whether it is £1 million or £6 million—£7 million even—and the case for the money is unproven. I dislike it intensely when any party comes before the House wanting to spend a large extra sum of money without having explained exactly what it will be spent on. The arguments for this money have been dressed up in bureaucratic language, without a shred of serious thought or hard evidence to back them up.

I believe that we are creating electoral commissions and other bodies as a substitute for addressing our own failings. We should be finding a way of making this institution more relevant to the British people, rather than saying that the situation is somehow the fault of some vague and stressful problem called ''collapse of public awareness''. There is no such collapse; people are well aware of the political process.

With this increase, we are not only creating an industry of people who tell us how unhealthy democracy is—a dubious enough idea—but giving them more and more money to tell us how to put right a problem that we should be addressing ourselves. I was wary of the principle of a public awareness campaign when I saw it in the original Act, but I was prepared to go along with the figure of £1.5 million. I am extremely reluctant to go along with £7 million and I hope that we divide on the issue.

5.48 pm

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