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Mr. Cash: I have great respect for what the hon. Gentleman says on many things, although I do not agree with him politically. I agree with what he proposes and it will have to be pursued in Committee.

Chris Grayling: The Minister said that there will be a uniform approach to voting across regions, but does my hon. Friend accept that local authorities in some areas that have adopted one of the new means of voting, such as all-postal ballots, may have to change their systems back again if their region is not deemed eligible for an entirely postal-based experiment? The impact of the measures could be increased as a result.

Mr. Cash: My hon. Friend also makes a valuable point. I hope the Minister takes it on board the fact that we are making a serious and useful contribution.

E-voting in the 2004 elections could entail remote voting by telephone, text messaging, SMS, digital TV and internet. As the region adopting e-voting will also be an all-postal system, voting electronically in a polling station will not be relevant. We are not convinced of the merits of conducting an e-voting pilot across a whole region as opposed to holding e-pilots in local authorities that have volunteered. The Government have a target to offer e-voting at the general election after next—2009–10—but if e-voting is rushed and bungled in the 2004 elections, the method will lose credibility and create a Florida-style "hanging chad" system, resulting in a debacle in the High Court. We have to be careful because we do not want that situation to arise in the UK.

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Electronic voting has not had a significant effect on turnout in past schemes. The Electoral Commission's evaluation of the 2002 pilots noted that the findings suggest that the advent of new technology did not inspire the electorate to vote in significantly greater numbers than would otherwise have been the case and that there is no strong pattern of improved turnout. The Electoral Reform Society observed that it merely increased the convenience of voting rather than making people more likely to vote.

On security concerns, we believe that more local trials are necessary before the widespread adoption of e-voting. Dr. Ben Fairweather, a research fellow at De Montfort university's centre for computing and social responsibility, and the Foundation for Information Policy Research have carried out useful research. The Government will know of it and I hope that they are taking on board their useful and objective advice.

The ERS said that e-voting does not raise turnout in any significant way. The Local Government Association said that it had concerns about e-voting on a regional basis, particularly in the short space of time between now and the next elections. Similarly, an IT journalist, Bill Thompson, said that it was not possible to design an e-voting system that could be guaranteed secure against a concerted and well-funded attack. That is serious stuff from people who understand the nature of these modern systems.

The problem that we face is not confined to the issues that I have raised, as there are also difficulties relating to Scotland and Wales, which I shall summarise. There are significant reasons for opposing an all-postal ballot in Scotland. In particular, there are many rural and island communities there, and we are concerned that it is simply not practical for an individual to deliver a last-minute postal ballot to the returning officer. To ensure that that does not happen, in many areas receptacles for last-minute votes would have to be in the same places as polling stations to ensure equality of opportunity for last-minute voters, which would greatly increase the costs of an all-postal ballot for Scotland. Indeed, in previous all-postal ballots, a marked register has not always been available, and the democratic legitimacy of an election is undermined if political parties do not have the opportunity to view the full marked register after the election. Likewise, to ensure transparency for the electorate, political parties are allowed to monitor turnout throughout polling day. It therefore follows that all political parties should be furnished with a daily marked register from the first returns of postal ballots until 10 June if they so request.

Sir Robert Smith: As someone who has participated in elections, I understand how useful it is to encourage people to vote. However, how will our constituents feel about certain information being available to participants in an election? They may wish to abstain, but there is scope for someone to come round and badger them to vote. The hon. Gentleman was worried about the fairness of a postal election. If people make a conscious choice not to participate in an election, that will be in the public domain for a full four weeks.

Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman may recall that I specifically referred to the problems that I anticipate with regard to undue influence. The fact is that unless

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the Bill is amended to deal with such questions, there will be problems. Assuming that the Bill completes its Second Reading, the Committee and Report stages will be particularly important because serious questions pertaining to the hon. Gentleman's concerns will arise.

There are problems in rural areas in Wales. Given concerns about postal services, postal votes may not be received or sent in time. Indeed, people in Wales have voiced similar concerns about personation, and adjustments to the electoral laws are required. The bottom line is that there is a serious problem in the way in which this country's democratic system operates. It is not merely a question of increasing postal votes, important as that is if it is done properly. The way in which we conduct our business in the House is also affected—that is a much bigger question to which we must all pay attention. As the Conservative spokesman on constitutional affairs, I assure the House that Conservatives, and myself in particular, are giving a lot of attention to those questions. It is no good our talking to our constituents or making speeches about the desirability of increasing turnout if we do not address the problems inherent in the way in which we conduct our business in the House. Notwithstanding my determination not to strain the limits of debate to cover the European issue, that, too, is a serious problem. The Prime Minister's refusal to hold a referendum on the European constitution demonstrates the need to take the measure seriously. I shall await the outcome of this afternoon's speeches before a decision is made about what we will do about the Bill. It does have some merits, but the question has yet to be weighed in the balance.

1.45 pm

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): Unlike the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), I will not be tempted to say anything about the EU constitution. I should like to begin by welcoming the Bill and putting my cards on the table by urging the Minister, on the basis of our beneficial experience of postal voting in the north-east of England, to include the north-east in the pilot regions for an all-postal ballot in the elections.

To support that, I simply refer to the marked increase in turnout in my constituency, which includes parts of Gateshead and the City of Sunderland local government areas. For example, turnout increased in the Leam ward in the Gateshead part of my constituency from 21 per cent. in 2000 to 53 per cent. in 2002. In the Felling ward, it increased from 24 per cent. in 2000 to 53 per cent. in 2003. Last year, the City of Sunderland had an all-postal ballot, and the turnout in one of my wards there went up from 17.51 per cent. to 42.77 per cent., and in the other from 18.73 per cent. to 42.66 per cent. That shows a spectacularly successful increase in turnout. I have deliberately chosen as examples wards with no new political or local controversy that might have explained a sudden increase in turnout. None of the wards that I have mentioned could in any sense be described as marginal, so the only explanation for the marked increase in turnout was the switch to postal voting.

Some areas of Gateshead borough have had all-postal elections for three years running. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made the point that once people get used to that kind of voting it will in practice be difficult to turn the clock back. I should like to tell the Minister that if my area is not one of the pilot

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areas there will be huge disappointment among voters who, for a period of more than three years, have grown used to all-postal voting and believe that it suits them. They would be disappointed to go back to a method of voting that they consider old-fashioned. Indeed, many aspects of our voting system are old-fashioned. For a long time, polling day has traditionally been Thursday, but I am not at all convinced that that fits in with people's lifestyles today.

People in Gateshead who welcome the postal system have repeatedly told me on the doorstep that it fits in with their lifestyle much better than the traditional polling on a Thursday. In a typical household, there may be two working partners, perhaps with different work patterns, who are unable to spend much time together. When they come home in the evening they will be tired after a day's work. If the weather is inclement and if they do not live in a marginal area, they may not feel a burning desire to vote in person, given all those constraints. However, they find the postal system, in which they can vote over a period of time, much more voter and democracy-friendly.

Mr. Peter Duncan: I am following the right hon. Lady's argument carefully, but surely it is an argument for optional postal voting, not for compulsion and not for all-postal ballots. Although I remain to be convinced, it may well be that people will only vote if they are presented with a postal ballot paper, but they can still apply for that, as they could in the past.


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