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Angus Robertson: If, in their infinite wisdom, the Government decide that pilots should take place in Scotland and Wales, there will not be different electoral systems in England.

Mr. Heath: That is precisely why I phrased my comments to exclude Scotland and Wales. The hon. Gentleman is making my point for me.

A fundamental objection to having two different systems for the same election arises in terms not only of the outcome, but of the campaign. Unless the parties entirely change their views on how they fight such elections, we are talking about national campaigning. Therefore, people in different parts of the country will vote at different points in the campaign—those who are in a postal ballot region will vote before its completion.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is very persistent. I am happy to take another intervention from him, but I do not want to turn it into a dialogue.

Mr. Jones: Perish the thought. Is it not the case that if one applies for a postal vote now, one votes at a different time from someone who votes on election day?

Mr. Heath: But that is not the general case: it is for a specific reason of incapacity or absence. [Hon. Members: "No."] I accept the hon. Gentleman's point.

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The closed list system is problematic. Liberal Democrat Members have long argued that if we are to have a list system, it should at least be an open list. A closed list closes down the options of individual electors, who effectively vote on a party ticket, as parties have complete control over who their candidates will be and in which order they will be elected. That exacerbates, not ameliorates, the problem.

Practical issues are involved, too. We have already had a brief discussion about security of delivery during which the subject of houses in multiple occupation was raised. I was recently involved in campaigning in north-west London, where there were many houses in multiple occupation, some of which had a single letterbox. That means that an unscrupulous individual could scoop up any number of ballot forms and use them for nefarious purposes. It is extremely important to have a better method of verification for the postal ballot. We cannot be complacent. Judging by his earlier comments, the Minister seems to have a faith-based system whereby because he believes that the situation is all right, it is. I do not accept that. Much better safeguards are required for verification of identity—an authorised signature, for example. I accept what the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) said about maintaining the secrecy of the ballot, but the two things are not incompatible.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I understand the hon. Gentleman's reservations about the postal voting system and the need for security measures. Why, therefore, cannot he bring himself to agree with the Government's proposal of a pilot scheme in order to find out what the pitfalls may be?

Mr. Heath: Pilot schemes for local elections are beneficial because they involve the whole electorate for the given local authority area, not just part of the electorate on an experimental basis. That is not the right way to do it.

Mr. Leslie: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if we are eventually to move to nationwide new and innovative voting channels—which he may believe to be worth while—we need gradually to scale up the piloting, testing and trialling of those techniques? If he accepts that that is the best way in which to proceed, how on earth are we supposed to do so without piloting at a regional level?

Mr. Heath: There are several ways, and the Minister restricts his approach unnecessarily. For example, it would be possible to hold the entire municipal elections for a year on the basis of a postal ballot. That would provide experience of a nationwide ballot in an election other than a general election. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) says from a sedentary position that that is not a ballot.

Mr. Davidson: I said that it would not be a pilot.

Mr. Heath: I am sorry that I misheard him, but of course it is a pilot if it does not apply to a general election but is conducted on a sufficiently wide scale to satisfy those who need to consider the matter. The Bill describes precisely that process when it refers to three regions of the United Kingdom holding a national election. I have suggested a more satisfactory approach.

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We need a better system of verification. There is also a case for a receipt system for postal ballots to advise those who have voted that their vote has reached the returning officer. If those people know that they have not voted, they have the opportunity to make an early application for investigation. A receipt system is a way round the problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said that we needed some sort of sustainable audit of the e-vote system. Clearly, that is a deficiency in the American system, to which several hon. Members referred. There are even more deficiencies in the Tallahassee method but I would be worried if a form of audit could not be established.

We also need a system that allows for a recount. There is currently no effective method for that and I shall revert to the subject shortly. I agree with hon. Members who said that we need a marked register that is statutorily available on a clear basis so that political parties know what is happening.

I do not discount the comments of the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West about experience in her constituency. However, there are many instances of malpractice or alleged malpractice, albeit minor. All parties throughout the country have made complaints.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the majority of disputes about votes cast in elections have involved postal and proxy votes and that we must be sure that a vote is cast in the way in which the relevant person wishes?

Mr. Heath: I agree. The hon. Gentleman knows from his constituency that there are all sorts of dangers in allowing malpractice to continue unabated or to remain possible in future. We must make the systems as watertight as possible. I make that point notwithstanding the Electoral Commission's comments. It said that there had been complaints of irregularities but that they had not distorted the outcome of elections. That may be correct, but they undoubtedly compromise the integrity of the electoral system and we should be aware of that.

It could be argued that the massive electorates for European elections mean that the distortions are less likely to have an effect. However, not every result is so clear cut. In the previous European parliamentary elections in the north-west region, the difference between ninth and 10th place was decided by 2,500 votes in an electorate of 5.5 million. That was therefore a close race, and similar to the result for the fourth and final seat in the north-east region. Under the current system, there is no recourse to a recount at constituency or borough level. If our system is to have integrity, we must introduce such provision.

Earlier, I referred to the difficulties with postal delivery and delay. The hon. Member for Stone spoke about the volume of misdirected mail. I tested the Minister on Stockport, which he treated with some levity, as though he could not be expected to know what was happening there. He should know what has happened in pilot areas. In Stockport, clear evidence

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showed that a postal delivery strike meant that some electors—probably hundreds—were disfranchised. That is unacceptable. The Government have introduced new proposals to deal with personation, but increasing the penalty will not deal with the basic problem of the capacity for personation that the postal vote system introduces and is less obvious, although it exists, in direct voting systems.

Let us consider the regions that are to be chosen. The Minister explained that London is discounted because of the mayoral elections. We have been told that Northern Ireland is discounted because of the different voting system there. However, the ground for discounting the region that we assume is the south-west and will include Gibraltar is less firm. I do not fully understand why Gibraltar is a barring factor. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has said that the population of Gibraltar is slightly smaller than the town of Stroud, which he so ably represents. I strongly supported giving the franchise to the people of Gibraltar, but I do not understand why they cannot use a postal vote as well as anybody else in the United Kingdom.

Once the regions that I mentioned are removed, few are left from which to choose three. I have a practical worry. It would be unwise to use as a pilot one of the regions that has a high preponderance of local authority elections on the same day. Wales holds elections for 100 per cent. of local authorities on that day. In the north-west of England, 76.7 per cent. of the electorate will have local authority elections. Most of the large metropolitan areas of the north-west—33 councils—hold elections on that day. It is asking for trouble to use the north-west as a pilot with that scale of overlap of different elections and electoral systems.

Mr. Russell Brown: I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments. Given that no other elections will take place in Scotland on that day, does he agree that Scotland is the ideal place to conduct one of the trials?


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