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Under clause 2, a further order will set out the details of the precise manner in which the elections in pilot areas may differ from the way in which they would be run normally. The Secretary of State will be required to send copies of that order to the local authorities involved in the pilot, the Electoral Commission and the relevant regional returning officers. Local authorities must then publish the order in their area in such manner as they think fit.
In a consultation exercise running until 19 November, the Government are seeking the views of local authorities and other interested parties on the proposed arrangements for piloting. I mentioned that consultation a moment ago. A draft of the order will be given to the Electoral Commission for it to consider and discuss before it is finalised. To expedite arrangements for any possible pilot schemes, the Government have already asked the Electoral Commission to recommend up to three regions that might be suitable for holding all-postal pilots, one of which might be also suitable for including internet and telephone voting options. The commission has already started a public consultation exercise to assist it in making recommendations.
On the specific question asked by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, to minimise complexity and retain clarity for the electorate, London will be ruled out from consideration as a pilot region. In London, elections will be taking place for the London Assembly and the Mayor, which will add greater complexity and complication to the work of regional returning officers and others who are implementing the elections.
Questions must also be asked about what lessons could usefully be learned in the rest of the UK from pilot schemes run using atypical electoral systems. Such considerations also apply to Northern Ireland, which is outside the scope of the Bill, and to the European parliamentary region to be combined with Gibraltar under section 11 of the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). The Electoral Commission recommend that that should be the south-west region in England, and it is hoped that a statutory instrument to that effect will be laid before Parliament before Christmas.
Mr. Drew: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to me again. I am intrigued to know whether there is a mechanism to allow the pilot scheme to take place in the south-west if it includes Gibraltar, because of the different system of elections in Gibraltar; or has that recommendation come from the great and the good, making it easier not to include that region if Gibraltar is within it?
Mr. Leslie: We felt that that matter was so important that we wanted to consult the Electoral Commission, so in no way was there a sense that the Government were simply deeming a certain region to be chosen for combination with voters from Gibraltar. The commission has recommended the south-west, and we shall accept its recommendation. I would not want to pre-empt the statutory instrument that Parliament will consider, but it is fair to say that we do not want to run pilot schemes in regions with an added layer of complexity. We simply need the pilot schemes to run in some regions, not in others, so that we can examine the differential effect of all-postal piloting at regional level.
Avoidance of additional complexity is also why there is provision in the Bill to prevent Westminster by-elections, by-elections for the National Assembly for Wales and mayoral referendums, elections and by-elections from taking place in a pilot region on the day of next year's European parliamentary election, or at any time within three weeks before or three weeks after that date.
With respect to local government by-elections in England and Wales, however, the returning officer can choose to combine them and hold them on the same day, so that they can be treated in the same way as the ordinary local Government elections. If the returning officer chooses not to combine the elections then, the local by-election cannot be held at any time within four weeks before or three weeks after the date of the European parliamentary election, again, to avoid over-complexity. Leaving the decision on whether to combine local government by-elections in England and Wales to the discretion of the returning officer allows those elections to be treated the same as all other local authority elections. That will not add insurmountable complexity, compared with the complexity of including parliamentary by-elections.
Clause 3 will disapply section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, so local authorities will not be able to apply to run separate local pilot schemes under that Act on the same day as next year's European and combined elections. That will help not only to contain costs, but to retain other elections as a control with which pilot results can be compared. It is also important to ensure consistency throughout European parliamentary constituencies and to avoid confusing electors with different voting arrangements in the two different ballots.
Mr. Syms: I thank the Minister for giving way; he has been very generous. If a postal strike took place in one of the cities in a large region with a postal voting pilot scheme, inevitably causing problems in part of the area, what emergency provisions does the Bill contain to get the ballot papers to the electorate? Clearly, if regional quotas were set and thousands of ballot papers were caught in Manchester, for example, that could skewer
Mr. Leslie: In the wider sense of what contingency measures are available, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Ever since postal voting arose, people have had concerns about what would happen if the postal system were unable to cope. For some time, we have had discussions with Royal Mail and had confidence in its ability to conduct postal voting. It prioritises postal voting and the delivery of postal votes in its work, and we will, of course, ensure that we work with regional returning officers to put in place proper and robust contingency plans to cope with all the different scenarios that the hon. Gentleman mentions.
John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): I wonder whether my hon. Friend could clarify something that I did not quite understand. Is he saying that no local experiment can be carried out in a European region if a postal ballot takes place there?
Mr. Leslie: That is right. The point of scaling up piloting to regional level is to achieve consistency in European parliamentary constituencies. It would not be right if a certain corner of a European parliamentary constituency had all-postal voting and another did not, because ballot papers and so on would be available in different formats to people in a similar constituency. Clearly, we need to ensure fairness in each European parliamentary constituency at that level.
John Robertson: Would people vote using a ballot box for local elections in that area, while still having a postal vote for European elections; or would the postal method be used for both local and European elections in the area?
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): May I return the hon. Gentleman to the point that he was making before previous interventions when he spoke about the robustness of the process if the post were disrupted by local industrial action? Will he confirm that during the 2001 borough council elections in Stockport, when there was an experiment with an all-postal ballot, several hundred people in that borough were disfranchised by a postal delivery strike?
Mr. Leslie: I am afraid that I do not have the details of the Stockport arrangements to hand. I hope that the House will forgive me for that omission at present, but I will certainly look again at that matter. I am sure, however, that the Electoral Commission will be fully appraised of the situation that the hon. Gentleman reports from Stockport and about experiences elsewhere. This is a learning process, which is why we are having pilots. If we do not have pilots and gradually increase awareness and capability, we will not be able to
Provision is being made in the Bill requiring the Electoral Commission to evaluate any pilots at the European and combined elections in 2004, in the same way as it is now required to evaluate local election pilots. Any such evaluation will be important in helping to formulate the way forward for future piloting and the development of a strategy for innovative voting.
Mr. Davidson: On the point about evaluation of fraud, the Minister has been confident that there has been no fraud in previous experiments. Can I ask him how he knows that? Does it not indicate merely that fraud has not been discovered? Has the Electoral Commission gone back to check whether the votes that were cast were cast by the people to whom they were attributed, especially given that, for electronic voting, it seems that only the number is needed in order to vote? If those numbers were collected by person or persons unknown they could easily cast multiple votes, and I am not sure how that fraud would be discovered.