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Mr. Cash: I am always extremely interested in any objective information of that kind but I am making a more general point about how the Government have reacted to personation in recent inquiries and, especially, the inquiry by the Select Committee on Home Affairs on personation and electoral fraud.
There is an even deeper problem: low turnout is a reflection of a cynical view of politics and politicians and a lack of respect for the political system. The Government stand condemned for bringing our democratic system of government and trust in the people into such grave decline that it is well said that no one believes a word that the Prime Minister says. Indeed, the fact that he has refused to grant a referendum on the European constitution to which he has agreed in principle is yet another indication of the contempt that he has for the British people. Whatever the merits of trying to increase turnout using postal voting, which I have said should be encouraged along with proper safeguards and changes to the law, that of itself will not remedy the crisis that faces the British electoral system or the lack of faith and trust to which I referred and to which the Minister referred in his opening remarks. I appreciate that he understands that there is a serious problem.
Mr. Russell Brown: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way because he has returned to a point on which I wanted to intervene earlier. He talks about the UK situation but surely, as an intelligent hon. Gentleman, he realises that falling turnout is not only a UK or European problem, but a worldwide problem that must
Mr. Cash: There is truth in what the hon. Gentleman says but we need to improve the situation. My observations, comments and the evidence that I have adduced show that the Government are not dealing with the problem properly at a deeper level in the way in which they should.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that cynicism is keeping people away from the ballot boxes, how does he explain the fact that wherever postal voting pilots have been held, turnout has increased and, in most cases, doubled? In the Chester North ward council by-election that was held using postal voting in my constituency two weeks ago, the turnout was 64 per cent.
Mr. Cash: I can only say that that must prove the hon. Gentleman's enormous influence in his constituency. Having said that, I am bound to point out that although the average turnout in the past general election was 59.4 per cent., the turnout in my constituency was 67 per cent. There is a relationship between the activities of local Members and the outcome of a given election.
Mr. Bercow: Surely an ignorance of the functions of the European Parliament explains, at least in part, people's reluctance to participate in European elections. Would my hon. Friend care to speculate on the proportion of the electorate who could adequately describe the European Parliament's remit? Does he agree that on the whole, whether fairly or unfairly, most voters regard the European Parliament at best as an irrelevance and at worst as a pestilential nuisance?
Mr. Cash: There is no doubt that that view is frequently held and I understand why. However, the fact remains that the incredibly low turnout in European Parliament elections is more a reflection of what people think than of what my hon. Friend, other hon. Members or I might think. The important thing is the way in which people react to what they see in the political arena. The average turnout in the last European elections was 23 per cent., but I think that it was only 9 per cent. in one constituency. My hon. Friend's comment is a reflection of not only what some hon. Members think but what the people think, which is the key point.
Whatever the merits of trying to achieve increased turnout, we must still address the crisis that faces the British electoral system. Conservative Members do not believe that e-voting should be piloted throughout an entire region because the jury is still out on its reliability and security. To be positive about aspects of the Bill, let us consider the differences between all-postal areas and others in the last few elections. The average turnout in all-postal areas was 48 per cent. in 2002, 15 per cent. higher than the average 33 per cent. turnout across England. Average all-postal turnout in the 2003 pilots was 49 per cent. compared to 35 per cent. across England as a whole. There are clear advantages if the system is run properly.
The Electoral Commission recommends that all-postal voting becomes the norm for local elections, subject to legislation to tighten fraud. It maintains that there should be a statutory presumption that all local elections be run as all-postal ballots unless there are compelling reasons why an all-postal ballot would be inappropriate or disadvantageous for a group or groups of electors. Given that all-postal ballots clearly increase turnout, the Conservatives are not necessarily opposed to their more frequent use in elections. However, practical considerations have to be addressed. Against the background of what I am about to say, I invite the House to think seriously about the Birmingham examples, which are hard, factual and raise difficult questions.
There are concerns about ballot security. Checks and investigations into previous postal voting have been piecemeal and inadequate. What reliable evidence there is suggests that the scope for abuse is wider than the Government might care to admit. I have dealt with improved anti-fraud measures. There is also the problem of voter confidentiality. Concerns have been raised about compromising voter secrecy in all-postal pilots. There was a serious problem with the declaration of identity in all-postal schemes. It was attached to the ballot paper and only detached at the count. It would be better to retain the traditional method of placing the ballot paper in a sealed envelope, separate from the declaration of identity. That would help to reassure voters that their ballot would remain confidential during the delivery, handling and counting processes. Those are practical considerations that have little to do with party politics. It is a matter of getting the system as good as it can be.
There should also be more delivery points. Given that the Bill will impose all-postal pilots on local authorities that may not wish to participate, it is important that there are delivery points in each local government ward to allow electors to drop off their ballot envelope by hand to a nearby secure location. Indeed, in light of strike action by Post Office workers in parts of the country, as mentioned by hon. Members, there are genuine concerns about the reliability of the postal service in an all-postal election. Moreover, the postal system has become even more unreliable under this Government. An average of 1,500 items of mail are lost every week across every parliamentary constituency according to Postwatch on 31 January 2001.
A delivery point in each local ward established by the local authority would act as a measure of last resort in the event of industrial action. It would also reassure voters who did not trust the postal service, so increasing turnout. Large rural areas may need to have more than one delivery point per ward. Greater clarification would be needed for voters of their opening times so that the points could be used up to the close of poll.
Proper central funding is needed. Although the Government have promised to fund the cost of the pilot schemes, we want a firmer guarantee in the Bill that all extra costs will be met by central Government. One crucial reason why council tax bills have soared by 60 per cent. on band D bills since 1997 under this Government is the succession of underfunded burdens and regulations that Whitehall has passed on.
Accessibility for the elderly and the disabled also needs to be considered. Although all-postal voting can facilitate voting for those who are less mobile, it is important that pilot schemes recognise the special needs of those with more severe disabilities or impairments. That should include accessible copies of the ballot paper or envelope and of voter information.
There is also the issue of updated marked-up registers. During the pilot schemes, some local authorities provided marked registers at various stages before the final deadline for the return of ballot papers. That helped to increase turnout by allowing local political parties to remind those who had not yet voted of the election. Those who had voted were spared being bothered by political parties. We want that practical, simple and useful practice established in law. Without a statutory obligation, some local authorities will go slow and fail to provide the information. Political parties are facing problems with rolling registration, with some council electoral registration departments failing to provide updated electoral registers on time.
Angus Robertson: I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point about an updated marked-up register, but does he agree that the problem is more fundamental in that there needs to be a marked-up register in the first place? Does he agree that it is disappointing that the Minister said that the issue is going to be "considered separately"? Surely it should be considered now because there should be a marked-up register in those regions with pilot projects.