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Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My authority was one of those that undertook trials of both e-voting and the wider use of postal voting. After holding pilots, we need to analyse what happens when we return to traditional voting methods and I should welcome my hon. Friend's views on that. Given that, for good or bad, my region, the south-west, will include Gibraltar, we are likely to be excluded from future pilots under the Bill. As several local authorities in the south-west volunteered to take part in earlier pilots, is it fair that we should have to go backwards? What are the implications of that?
Mr. Leslie: I hear what my hon. Friend says. However, we now need to scale up pilots from the local authority level to a wider area and the European parliamentary constituency basisthe regional and national basisprovides that opportunity. In a moment, I shall talk about the consequences of that and about which regions might be eligible. I hope to touch on some of those points in more detail later in my speech.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): May I test the Minister's confidence in the transparency and openness of the new systems of election? Traditionally, our electoral system has been self-policing; in effect, the participants in an election keep an eye on each other and on the electoral process. The new systems are far less open to the scrutiny of the participants, so where does the Minister find his confidence that there will be the same degree of scrutiny?
Mr. Leslie: A massive body of work and evaluation has already been undertaken by the Electoral Commission on the local pilots that have taken place. Obviously, we want to make sure that scrutineers from political parties can also have confidence in the process. That is an important issue to which we might return and examine further.
At the local elections in May 2003, there was widespread use of electronic or postal voting, which proved most successful. Sixty-one local authorities, with about 6.5 million potential voters, held electoral pilot schemes. There were 17 e-voting pilots and 33 all-postal schemes. In the 17 e-voting areas more than a quarter of all votes were cast electronically. The all-postal pilots were also a great success. In the all-postal areas turnout was impressive, averaging more than 49 per cent. The average turnout in the same local authority areas for previous comparable elections was about 33 per cent.
Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Does the Minister agree that one important way for the participants to self-scrutinise the process is to check on turnout during a normal polling day? Does he agree that key to that is the provision of a marked register during the period when ballot papers are out in the wider electorate? Could not he resolve the concerns by undertaking that a marked register should be available after each day on which ballot papers could be returned?
Mr. Leslie: The Electoral Commission has reported on that issue and the Government will be responding to its recommendations on marked registers. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examines the commission's report, which will interest all those in the Chamber who are aficionados of the electoral process; they will want to study carefully the commission's proposals on marked registers.
Angus Robertson (Moray): Many people's minds would be put at rest if one of the central ways in which political parties and citizens could check that the electoral process was above board was through a marked register, so does the Minister concede that we should ensure that marked-up registers are available after postal and electronic elections and that we should introduce such a measure now rather than after holding pilots?
Mr. Leslie: Any changes that we make to the marked register arrangements will be considered separately from whether we should hold all-postal or e-voting pilots in some regions during the combined European and local elections next year. We need to examine that principle separately from the fundamental issue set out in the Bill.
Given the success of the pilot programmes so far, both in making voting more convenient and, as a consequence, in raising turnout, we are keen to see piloting continue next year and to extend its scope.
Mr. Allan: I observed the pilot in my Sheffield constituency this year. For much of the day anyone in my constituency could have voted twicein person at the polling station and electronicallybecause the hardware and software for checking the two systems failed and there were technical problems for most of the day. Fortunately, the result was clearcut with a large majority, but had the result been close I am confident that the losing party would have mounted a challenge. What I am not so confident about is whether we could have resolved the problem; we would still be trying to sort it out because the systems were too opaque.
Mr. Leslie: The Electoral Commission has looked particularly into the experience in Sheffield. As has already been pointed out, we rely in this country on the public to abide by electoral law and to realise that duplicate voting and so forth are offences. It is important to compare conventional voting mechanisms with new ones. There is a certain level of security and we need to ensure that people are aware of offences that take place. We hope to provide the same degree of security and prevention of fraudulent activity in the new voting mechanisms.
Mr. Miller: I wholly agree with my hon. Friend: our country's record is superb. Even allowing for the conspiracy theories suggested by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), there is no reason to suspect that modern systems would result in an increase in fraud. However, proper checking mechanisms are important so that the public can be confident. Is not there an argument for strengthening the powers of
Mr. Leslie: I have no doubt that the security and safety of the voting arrangements under the new mechanisms will be a feature of our debate. Two clauses specifically relating to tightening up security arrangements for all-postal balloting were inserted to reflect some of the concern that we anticipate, although I reiterate that the Electoral Commission has indicated that it sees no greater opportunity for fraud in all-postal balloting or electronic voting than in conventional mechanisms. We rely on the commission's professional advice, which is for the whole House and not just for the Government; it is an independent organisation.
The eventual aim is to hold a general election at which voting is available in a number of ways, using both conventional and new technologies. We have said that our aim is to achieve that some time after 2006, which means that the next general election, whenever it may be, will not be run in that way. It is only right, however, that we should prove the success of new voting methods and electoral procedures consistently on a larger scale before we take that step. That is why we are legislating nowto take the next step forward for larger-scale voting pilots.
As the House is already aware, following a consultation exercise and with the passing of the Local Government Act 2003, next year's local and European elections are to be combined in England. Combining those two elections is another important measure aimed at encouraging more people to take part in the democratic process, making voting more convenient by avoiding electors having to vote on two separate occasions within a matter of weeks.
Piloting at next year's elections will be a useful and significant step along the path to a general election that will offer voters the chance to choose from a range of new voting methods. The Bill is necessary to allow that to happen; currently, there is no legislative provision for piloting innovative voting at European parliamentary elections and the Bill is intended to fill that gap.
Clause 1 provides a power for the Secretary of State to make an order that will specify which region or regions are to pilot innovative voting procedures in combined European and local elections. After consulting the Electoral Commission, the Secretary of State may make an order setting out the region or regions in which piloting is to take place. That order will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure so as to give proper opportunity for parliamentary scrutinya concern that often arises during debates. We hope to outline in December what the order will contain. Any order made by the Secretary of State will also apply to any local elections combined with the European poll that takes place in the region or regions chosen.
Chris Grayling: I have two questions for the Minister. First, why does the Bill exclude London? Secondly, what consultations will the Government carry out with returning officers in the areas that may be covered by pilot schemes to ensure that they also support the
Mr. Leslie: Two forms of consultation are already being undertaken: the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is consulting local authorities on the piloting procedures and practices and information will be gathered in that way, and the Electoral Commission has already commenced a consultation process to consider the selection of which regions might be recommended to the Secretary of State. I have forgotten the hon. Gentleman's other point.