Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Joyce Quin: Of course, it is true that people can apply for a postal vote. Sometimes they do not apply, perhaps because they have not got round to doing so. People told me on the doorstep that they very much appreciate the new system. They feel it works well. It means that the postal vote is delivered to them automatically and they find that it fits in with their lifestyle.

The increase in turnout has been particularly gratifying in the north-east, which traditionally, sadly, has been a low-turnout area, on average turning out some 5 per cent. less than the national average. Seeing the increase has heartened many of us. In a telling intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) referred to the results in his area. What I am reporting from my local authorities in Gateshead and Sunderland is true of many other parts of the north-east.

I draw to the Minister's attention the fact that in 2003, of the 39 authorities that piloted all-postal voting, no fewer than 13 were in the north-east of England. That was the highest number in any region, and it was the only region in which a majority of the voters involved voted by post. Again, that shows that the north-east would be a suitable region to show the success of a pilot in the coming elections.

I note from the Electoral Commission's report that all-postal voting pilots seem to have been more successful than the other pilots, but I welcome the Government's continued willingness to innovate and find new ways of attracting people to vote. In some ways, it seems ironic that we are worried about turnout. Most television programmes that one sees these days seem to involve polls of one kind or another, with people being urged to vote and a large number of them taking

21 Oct 2003 : Column 531

part in such votes. The Government are right to analyse such experiences and find ways of increasing turnout. On the evidence so far, the all-postal system seems to have most attracted voters. For that reason, I strongly believe that we should build on it.

I recognise the concerns that hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed about fraud. However, I welcome the fact that the Bill tightens up procedures, and I welcome clause 6. As the explanatory notes state,

I am glad that the Government are responding to those concerns. On the basis of the experience in my local area, I can say that there have not been problems of fraud. I am glad the systems that we have used have been given a clean bill of health.

In conclusion, I would like all elections from now on to become routinely all-postal. I am sorry that it looks as though it will not be possible to conduct the next general election in that way, but in the meantime I am happy to support the Bill, and the Minister's words in moving it.

1.54 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin). I listened carefully to her remarks. It is also a pleasure to spend two consecutive days dealing with Department for Constitutional Affairs legislation, which is always a joy. I was worried that yesterday we would be beset by lawyers, and that today it might be the turn of the psephological anoraks among hon. Members, but obviously that is not the case. The debate is already proving to be interesting and useful.

I understand the Government's wish to pursue innovation in our electoral practice in order to increase turnout. It should concern everybody in this country, not just politicians, if our democracy is allowed to be eroded by low participation rates. If there are simple ways—I suspect that none of the answers is simple—in which we can improve voter participation, we should implement them.

I was interested to see in my constituency that in last year's district council elections, one of the district councils, South Somerset, had a trial for postal voting and e-ballots. Comparing and contrasting what happened in South Somerset with what happened in Mendip, the other part of my constituency, was of great interest. Anecdotally, on the basis of the experience of my constituency, there appeared to be a marginally increased turnout in South Somerset with the postal ballot, which corroborates the views of the right hon. Lady about her area.

By far the biggest contribution that we can make to higher voter participation is to give people the feeling that their votes count, and that they are voting in a real contest in which there is a likelihood of somebody winning and somebody losing by a reasonably small margin. Again, I have experience of that in my constituency. I fought a tight election last time. My majority was 130 in the 1997 election, which happily quintupled at the last general election to 668. One of the

21 Oct 2003 : Column 532

factors involved was that we had one of the top turnout levels in the country—we were in the top 10, because every voter in my election knew that their vote counted.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): My hon. Friend, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) can demonstrate why it is so important that we should identify the relationship between the impact of a vote and turnout, rather than some of the tinkering measures in the Bill. For example, in 1974 the perceptive voters of Bodmin knew that the election would be close. I ended up with a majority of nine and the turnout was 83 per cent. In 2001, unfortunately from that point of view, my majority rose to almost 10,000 and the turnout was reduced to 63 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester demonstrates even more dramatically the importance of a close result. In the preceding general election he had a majority of only two, but could claim a rather larger majority in the subsequent contest.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It looks as though I have assembled colleagues in order to illustrate a point, whereas that was not by prior arrangement.

I repeat that making votes count and having a real issue to vote on is the best predictor of voter behaviour. One of the problems with local authority elections is, sadly, that people do not feel that changing the council will make any difference to the vast majority of council services, because so much control is exercised at national level, including the determination of the level of the council tax, which people probably have at the forefront of their minds when deciding which way to vote in local elections.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The evidence from the pilots that have taken place in the north-east runs completely contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggests. In Chester-le-Street, which had a pilot this year, turnout went up, on average, from 29 per cent. to 50 per cent. It is a Liberal Democrat-free zone, and some wards are far from marginal, but people still turned out to vote.

Mr. Heath: As I said, the pilots have had a marginally beneficial effect; but if the hon. Gentleman believes that bringing turnout up to 50 per cent. is a triumph for democracy, I have to disagree.

Mr. Jones: It is.

Mr. Heath: I am not convinced. The hon. Gentleman has brought it up to slightly below the national average: well done. We should aspire to higher than that.

Local government elections often do not attract high turnouts because people do not feel that their vote makes a real difference to the way that they live. That is doubly the case in European parliamentary elections, where people find it difficult to connect their voting to what happens in the European Parliament or the effect that it may have on their lives. That is partly a result of the absurd closed list system that the Government brought in, against our advice.

Although I am well disposed to the view that it is important to experiment, I am not that well disposed to the Bill—in fact, I have deep reservations about it. As

21 Oct 2003 : Column 533

the Minister will know, prior to its introduction some debate took place about the moving of the local authority election date to coincide with that of elections to the European Parliament. All those who took part in that debate understood that it was not in anybody's interest to synchronise the local elections with a full-scale pilot of a novel form of voting for the European elections. Clearly, the Government have changed their mind. They are entitled to do so, and to introduce legislation as a result, but we are at least entitled to ask why.

Principled arguments are important here. The Government propose pilot schemes within the context of a national—indeed, international—election. That is very different from electing an entire local authority on a new voting system. People in different parts of the United Kingdom will be elected on different voting systems. The counter-argument is that that already happens in Northern Ireland. That is a valid point: Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote system, while the rest of the country does not yet have that benefit. Even so, I find it difficult to accept that some parts of England will have one voting system, while other parts have another, for the same election for membership of the same Parliament.

Angus Robertson: What about Scotland and Wales?

Mr. Heath: Scotland is a single region for the purpose of the European Parliament elections, as is Wales. That being the case, there is no such separation within Scotland and Wales; that is why I did not use them as an illustration.

Next Section

IndexHome Page