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Mr. Heath: There has been persistent knocking on the Minister's door to designate Scotland one of the trial areas. As I am arguing against a pilot, it would be difficult for me to say that Scotland should hold the trial. That is a matter for the Minister. I simply say that if there are to be pilots, they should not take place in the most complicated regions.
I echo the point of the hon. Member for Stone about those who are disfranchised by disability. The Bill is the perfect vehicle for dealing with that long-standing problem. I speak partly as the chairman of the all-party group on eye health and I have worked closely with the Royal National Institute of the Blind for some time. I want the Minister to take the matter seriously, and we shall table amendments in Committee on it.
Mr. Leslie: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) mentioned a matter to which I did not refer earlier. The Disability Rights Commission and the RNIB made a joint submission. Although they generally recognise the extra flexibility that an opportunity for postal votes in all elections gives people with disabilities, we clearly need to elaborate on matters such as requesting assistance from returning officers to help in a secret ballot process. I shall be happy to expand on that in Committee.
The timing of the Bill is very suspect, coming, as it does, so late in the Session. It also has a spill-over provision, which we debated earlier. Why on earth we should need simultaneously to have a spill-over provision and a timetable, I do not know. The two seem to be mutually incompatible. We are worried that, even with the best will in the world, by the time the Bill receives Royal Assent, there will be insufficient time for the necessary training for the pilots, especially if we are talking about the very large regions that have a large number of local authorities.
I do not entirely understand why, if the Government were minded to introduce these measures, they could not have been included in the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, which we have already considered in this Session. At that time, the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who was sitting on the Front Bench earlier, spent many happy hours debating with us matters relating to the European elections, without once touching on the issues before us today. Now, suddenly, we have a Bill that must be rushed through at the last minute in order to be put into effect by the time of the European parliamentary elections.
For all those reasons, and for the reasons I have ventilated in terms of the inappropriateness of partial pilot schemes within a single electorate, and because of the practical difficulties that still need to be overcome, my advice to my right hon. and hon. Friends will be to oppose the Bill this evening. If we are unsuccessful in that, we shall try to amend it in Committee to make it a better Bill.
John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): In recent years, Members on both sides of the House, along with countless other people in public life, have rightly complained about the low turnouts in elections. The great virtue of the Bill is that it shows that the Government are willing to extend specific practical and innovative solutions on a large scale. There is no doubt that low turnout must be tackled. In the last general election, turnout was at its lowest since 1918, and in the last European elections, fewer than one in four voters went out to the polling stations. Even more worryingly, low turnouts are noticeably concentrated in the poorest socio-economic groups and in certain geographical areas.
As the Bill is premised on the need to increase turnout, it follows that there should be two criteria for choosing the location of the pilots. First, they should be in areas where the turnout is low and the potential for an increase in turnout is greatest. Secondly, as with any scientific experiment, the variables must be kept to a minimum. Scotland satisfies both criteria. In my own constituency of Glasgow, Anniesland, the turnout in the Scottish Parliament elections in May was 45 per cent., down 5 per cent. on the general election in 2001. Postal votes, however, were returned at a rate of 72 per cent. Nearly 2,500 votes were cast by that method.
Those 2,500 people might not otherwise have votednot out of laziness or even because of any disillusion with politics. Many have pressurised jobs and have substantial family commitments. Many others are among the socially excluded. The provision of postal votes therefore gives a voice to those who have difficulty in participating in something that we all take for grantedthe exercise of their democratic rights. There are about 18,000 over-60s in my constituency who vote, and many of them have great difficulty in getting to the polling stations, especially as my constituency is somewhat hilly, and some of the schools and halls that are used for voting have difficulty in arranging disabled access. We worked very hard to get postal votes for those people and we had a great deal of success. If only the rest of the population had voted at a rate of 72 per cent. Scotland, therefore, has enormous potential for an increase in turnout, and this is proven by the track record of my constituency and others.
There is another factor that must be taken into account. Any psephologist will tell us that a person's decision whether to vote or to stay at home is affected by a whole range of issues. A change in turnout could be affected as much by local matters as by the introduction of different voting methods. In Scotland, there are now four different voting methods. To hold a pilot scheme in an area where two different elections are taking place on the same day would complicate matters further. Not only that, but the European and local elections will be taking place under different voting systems. The multiplicity of variables in the elections in England and Wales next June will, therefore, make any scientific assessment of the impact of new voting methods much more difficult. In Scotland, however, there will be one election under one voting system. It therefore provides the perfect testing ground for the pilot schemes to which the Bill refers. May I also suggest that it would, perhaps, be of benefit to trial the same pilot scheme for the next general election and compare first-past-the-post and PR on postal ballots?
The importance of security, especially locally, has been mentioned by several hon. Members, in the context of the availability of an electronically marked register. I would suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that such a register should be put in place. It should be one that all the parties, and anyone else who wished to do so, could check on a daily basis, and one that could be updated daily. That would allow all the parties to know what the
Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman just mentioned an electronic marked-up register. Will he clarify that he is suggesting that that should be used not only for electronic voting but for postal voting, so that there would be a marked-up register for the voting in its entirety?
When postal ballots come in, they are not all opened on the day of the election. Many are opened the day before, or the day before that, depending on how long they have been coming in. When the returning officer in Glasgow was opening the postal votes for Glasgow, Anniesland, he was somewhat shocked because there were about 600 a day, compared with about six a day for the rest of the Glasgow seats. That was because we had worked so hard, particularly among the elderly people, to ensure that they were not disfranchised. My proposal would help all parties to know where the voters were voting. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was complaining that too many people were knocking on doors and annoying people who had already voted. This register would go a long way towards solving that problem.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned security problems. His was the best speech that I have heard in a long time in favour of the introduction of identity cards. He appeared to be worried about people voting as others, or otherwise misusing the electronic systems, but one of the ways in which the system is misused the most involves personation. One way to get round that problem would be for everyone to have an ID card. Before we know it, we could even be swiping our votes in.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is harder to impersonate someone using a postal vote than under the present system whereby all that someone has to do to get a ballot paper is turn up at a polling station and give a name? To use a postal vote, a person has to have access to the building to which the ballot paper has been sent.