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Mr. Duncan: The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I have not, but I understand the difficulty of returning postal ballot papers in rural areas. It is difficult for people living 15 miles from the nearest post box to receive ballot papers, let alone return them.
It is important for people to be able to return their papers at the last minute, just as they are able to vote at the last minute at polling stations. That will make postal ballots in Scotland disproportionately expensive. Although I do not oppose the principle of all-postal ballots, but it is as well to be aware of the implications of selecting Scotland as a pilot area.
John Robertson: Is it not the case that any member of the public in Scotland can demand a postal ballot? A system already exists in councils for the counting of postal ballot papers. All that this means is that there will be more to count, and the new arrangement may even prove cheaper.
Mr. Duncan: I must contest that. As I have said, voters across the three trial regions must be able to vote at the last minute, as easily as they can under the regular direct voting system. That will be expensive, as I hope the Government realise.
Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing that Scotland should not be used as a pilot area because of the problems of postal ballots. At the same time he is arguing that the system should be developed on a UK-wide basis if it is introduced. Is that not a contradiction in terms?
Mr. Duncan: I try to be. As I said at the outset, I do not oppose all-postal ballots in principle, but I feel that the selection of only three areas has the potential to produce a skewed result, and that the selection of Scotland as one of them has the potential to create a very expensive postal ballot trial. It will also be expensive to arrange a contingency arrangement for distributing ballot papers in the event of a postal strike. We must have an assurance from the Government that any extra expense will be funded by the UK Exchequer rather than being passed on to regional and local government, which is already hard pressed.
I will leave it to others to consider what has already been said, and what will be said, about the security number e-voting system. As one who has had some experience of e-commerce, however, I feel that the system is wide open to abuse.
I welcome the extension of personation measures beyond polling places, which I consider logical, but I am worried about witness signatures. We must be careful not to expose ourselves to the risk of fraud. In some past trials, witness signatures have been attached to ballot papers. As the Bill progresses, we need to see evidence
Mr. Russell Brown: The hon. Gentleman was probably present for the opening of some postal ballot papers at the time of his election. When such papers are opened, the separate pieces of paper bearing witness signatures are discarded. Not only is that almost a waste; it has the potential to disfranchise elderly people who may be scurrying around wondering whom to get as a witness.
Mr. Duncan: The hon. Gentleman has illustrated the delicacy of the balance between security and encouraging the return of ballot papers. I am merely saying that we must be careful not to expose the system to further fraud.
In an intervention earlier, I raised the subject of marked registers with the Minister. That subject must be considered in Committee, for it is an important part of the self-policing way in which elections are conducted that representatives of candidates standing for each political party can visit polling stations and establish the percentage of the electorate who have cast their vote at particular times during the day. If we are to adopt all-postal ballots, and if the Government value that processas I doconsidering it to be an important element of scrutiny, they must assure us that a replica will be applied to such ballots. Candidates and their representatives must be shown a marked register during the voting perioddaily, I would suggestso that they can have confidence in the system and see things move forward in a structured way over the two or three weeks involved. Such an arrangement may please those who have campaigned to improve disappointing turnouts, but above all it is a key part of the transparency on which we must not compromise.
In recent years, even since my arrival, the House has taken steps to modernise its procedures and change timings in order to increase scrutiny by the wider public. For instance, Prime Minister's Question Time has moved from 3 pm to noon. One argument for doing soother than convenience for the Prime Minister's diarywas that it enabled further scrutiny of the system: it would set the agenda for the day and return politics to the heart of the political process. It is arguable whether that has been achieved.
Before moving towards all-postal ballots, we have to think very carefully about the consequences of doing so. What is the potential result in terms of the way in which elections are covered? How will the media cover an all-postal ballot, and will it excite the electorate? Will the election crescendo be the point at which ballot papers are issued, or on the last possible date for returns, in which case most people will have voted anyway? This is an important issue. If we are trying to expand turnout and to increase the number of ballot papers returned, we must take into account ways in which to excite the electorate. I accept that the electorate need to be excitedas I have said, the Government have obviously failed to excite them so farbut we have to take into account the manner in which they will be informed about this election process.
As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, most of the electorate are gasping for the opportunity to pass their verdict on the manner in which their European affairs have been dealt with in recent years, and next June will provide their opportunity to do so. I want above all to see a higher turnout, through which we can put our Conservative case in Europe once more.
The essence of my case is that we have to be very careful before we dispense with the ultimate confidentiality afforded by voting at a polling station. It is the absolute pinnacle of confidentiality: voters can go into the booth and put a cross in whichever box they like, and no one will know. That principle is accepted universally, across the political spectrum, and we must be very careful before moving away from it. I accept that the huge benefits that postal voting could bring may well be a positive factor, but we must be very careful about the detail in which the devil may lurk.
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): I want to restrict my comments to postal voting, largely because I am computer illiterate and have very little experience of e-voting in my constituency or any other parts of the north-west. I am a little disappointed in the Bill's title and content, as we have had more than enough pilot schemes to make it absolutely clear that postal voting does increase turnout. Instead of e-voting pilot schemes, I would much rather that we opt for a scheme that allows postal voting throughout the UK for the forthcoming European and local elections.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that in no previous election have certain parts of a constituency used one system and other parts a different one, but that is not so. When my borough used postal votingthe only time that it did sojust three of the 24 wards used that system. The result was the same as others have described: an increase in the postal vote in those three wards of between 25 and 50 per cent. Also, there was no appreciable difference between the results in those three wards and the results in any of the others. Postal voting seemed to make no difference in terms of the choice that people made from the parties on offer; it simply ensured that many more people voted in those three wards than voted in the others.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) and others have highlighted the fact that past postal voting pilots have hugely increased the number of people wanting and able to take part in ballots, and who have actually done so. As I have said, we should have opted for a postal vote throughout the country, but I accept that that is not on offer, and that we must go along with what we have.
The Electoral Commission has looked at past postal voting ballots over several years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) mentioned some of the difficulties that have arisen. All-postal ballots have been held in places in the north-east such as Sunderland and Gateshead, and in Trafford, Oldham and Chorley, in the north-west. If we do not allow them to have all-postal ballots
The Electoral Commission has also looked at the very important issue of fraud in postal voting ballots, which several Members have already mentioned. We need to ensure that we reduce as much as we can the possibility of fraud in postal ballots. However, the commission's expert view is that postal ballots lead to little increase in fraud, and that individual results are not affected. And even if a slight increase does occur, it must be considered in the light of the overall increase in turnout. A single vote in a 50 per cent. turnout, for example, is proportionately of less value than a single vote in a 25 per cent. turnout, so an increase in fraud does not of necessity mean a change in the result. That is not to say that I am endorsing fraud in any way; on the contrary, I want to stress that the legitimacy of the ballot should be paramount. We should ensure in every way possible that fraud is reduced.
The Minister said in his opening remarks that he has already received a bid from Scotland for one of the all-postal ballot pilots. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West made a bid for the north-east, and I now want to make a bid for the north-west. I take issue with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who said that the many local elections that will take place in the north-west at the same time as the European elections will cause some problems. That is not my experience. I was a local councillor in 1979, when a general election and local council elections took place at the same timeindeed, the same thing has happened sinceand the fact that the returning officer for the two elections was the same person, and that the elections were held at the same time, caused absolutely no difficulty. The votes were put to one side, and the general election votes and then the local election votes were counted. The only difficulty that arose was that it took an extra day to get the results.