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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Not for the first time, the Minister's position can best be described as studiously opaque. On the one hand, he tells my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) that he has made a good point and expressed himself forcefully, but, on the other hand, he fails to tell us whether he agrees that the removal of the link between the individual Member and the constituency is regressive. What is the Minister's view? Will he explain himself?
Mr. Leslie: I am not sure that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) made such a good pointthe hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was the more eloquentbut I believe that having a relationship between a constituency and an elected representative is important. That continues at a European level, just as it does at national and local level, because we still have European parliamentary constituenciesalthough the Opposition do not seem to have noticed that.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Is it not time for the Government and the Minister to be bold? Given the discussion that has taken place about different electoral systems, it would be the essence of boldness to conduct first-past-the-post elections to the European Parliament in one region and in other regions to operate a system of proportional representation. I would be willing to volunteer Scotland as the area that should have first-past-the-post elections.
It may be helpful if I outline briefly, in very broad terms, how all-postal pilots and electronic voting pilots work, based on the experience gained so far. The key element of an all-postal election is that every person registered as an elector in that election receives a ballot paper through their front door, or wherever they have registered to receive their ballot paper. That means that the election is instantly accessible. Everyone who is registered to vote is given the means to vote without having to do anything at all, except fill in the ballot paper and return it.
Mr. Leslie: The Royal Mail has to deal with that matter frequently when delivering post to persons who live in such houses. We always need to ensure that we have the most effective delivery systems. I have confidence in the Royal Mail's ability to cope in such circumstances, and we already have much experience from the all-postal elections that have already taken place.
At all-postal elections, the ballot papers are delivered no later than one week before the close of poll, and usually between two and three weeks in advance. An elector may then choose to do one of two things. Votes can be completed at the voter's convenience, and then cast simply by posting the completed ballot to the returning officer. Alternatively, votes may be delivered
I shall now explain how an electronically enabledor e-enabledregion's voting pilot would work. At any e-enabled electoral pilot we would providein addition to postal votingopportunities for voters to cast their ballot via the internet or by telephone. In any e-enabled pilot area, each registered elector would receive a postal ballot paper in the same way as for an all-postal election. However, at the same time as the ballot paper was sent out, details would be given about how to vote using the electronic means on offer. That would include a unique personal identification number to allow the elector to access the voting website or telephone system in order to cast their vote. Typically, a remote electronic voting channel would be open for use a full seven days before the close of poll. When a vote had been received, whether by post or by an electronic channel, the voter would be marked as having voted on the register of electors, and no further votes from that person would be accepted.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Can the Minister give the House some assurances about the audit trails for the electronic system he proposes? He may be aware of the heated debate that is raging, especially in the United States, about the companies that supply the technology, and whether voters can verify that their votes were cast as they intended. Those debates have not been resolved and I would be extremely concerned if we were to adopt that approach in a large public election until and unless those questions have been answered.
Mr. Leslie: That precisely why we are extending the next step in the piloting process and why the Electoral Commission will oversee such matters. The Bill contains provisions to allow the commission to scrutinise and monitor the process. It can report back, and consequential changes and improvements can then be made. In this country, there has been the most widespread use of electronic voting so far. In the view of the Electoral Commission, there are no grounds for worry about fraud or security.
All-postal voting and e-voting have both undergone widespread trials at a local level and a great deal of history and experience has already been gained in the electoral pilots programme so far. The Government remain keen, therefore, to ensure that piloting can continue, and expand, next year.
The pilots programme began at the May 2000 local elections. At those elections, the convenience of having available for the first time early and all-postal voting, and small-scale electronic pilots, was welcomed by voters.
Chris Grayling: Given the size of the areas covered by the European elections, will the Minister assure the House that any decisions to mix the various alternative methods of voting will not encourage turnout disproportionately among different elements of the
Mr. Leslie: We have considered that point very carefully. We have concluded that, if and when an electronically enabled pilot is held in a region, we must also offer people in that region the simultaneous opportunity to vote by post by means of an all-postal ballot. The task is to open up new channels and avenues for people to cast their votes. What we are discussing is the next step in piloting new voting mechanisms.
David Hamilton (Midlothian): Will not local elections take place in England in the same period, and might not that be confusing? In light of that, may I suggest that, as no elections are scheduled in Scotland, that would be an ideal place for such an experiment?
Mr. Leslie: That is like seeing the first swallow of spring: I have just received the first bid for a regionand nationto hold a pilot. We must wait for the Electoral Commission's recommendations as to which regions or nations should be eligible for the pilots.
The programme of local piloting continued in the 2002 local elections, with 30 local authorities holding pilots. That included 13 pilots running all-postal schemes and nine involving electronic, including telephone, voting. Around 2.7 million people were eligible to vote in those 30 pilot areasthat is, 7.4 per cent. of the English electorate. Surveys by the independent Electoral Commission, which has a statutory duty to evaluate each pilot scheme, and by the local authorities running the schemes showed that people again found the new methods of voting easier, more convenient and quicker to use. Postal voting was popular, securing significant increases in turnout in some areas. The substantial number of e-pilots provided a vital building block in establishing public confidence in e-voting. In all the e-pilots, the hardware and software performed successfully without any significant problems.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): In connection with the question about software asked by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), there are considerable concerns in the US that the companies providing the software are all closely aligned with the Republican party, yet no one is allowed to see the software. Does the UK Electoral Commission have the in-house expertiseor access to external expertise that could be bought into examine the software to ensure that it works accurately?
Mr. Leslie: I have full confidence in the Electoral Commission's ability to monitor and scrutinise the veracity and validity of electronic voting software and the means by which e-piloting can take place. I have no evidence to suggest that any problems have been encountered so far, but we obviously keep all such