Previous SectionIndexHome Page

3.20 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): First, I congratulate Conservative Members on both the Front and Back Benches. They have shown much ingenuity in contriving to fixate on all things European, regardless of the subject before the House. However, I shall stick to the matter in hand.

Before I make my main comments, I want to say something about voter registration. I have spoken in the House before about the problem in Glasgow, where one in five adults eligible to vote are not included in the electoral register. That is a scandal, and a legacy of the poll tax. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, people refused to be registered to vote because being registered meant they had to pay that iniquitous tax.

The council tax system also gives people a motivation for coming off the electoral register: when two people share a household, the 25 per cent. council tax discount given to single householders can be claimed if one person does not register to vote. That is an argument not for abolition of the council tax but for a more stringent enforcement of the electoral register. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that into account, as there is no point in encouraging people to vote if they are not on the electoral register already. Too many people believe that enrolling on the electoral register is an option, and not a legal necessity.

Sir Robert Smith: Some of us would like to get rid of the council tax, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that one thing that could be done would be to break the link in the registration office? The biggest damage was caused by the fact that the poll tax register and the electoral register could be cross-referenced. Do not people need to be confident that the electoral register could be used for no purpose other than establishing the right to vote, and that a separate register would be used for the council tax? The two registers would not be linked, and no data would flow between them.

Mr. Harris: That is a positive suggestion, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not wanting to be drawn too far down that road. I wanted simply to mention that matter before I made my main comments. Registration is a concern for all of us, as it does not reach 100 per cent. in any constituency, as far as I know. The situation has become much worse since we stopped canvassing door to door.

People fortunate enough to live in what was once called Strathclyde region will be familiar with a very successful postal ballot held in 1994. At that time, the then Conservative Government were getting impatient with Strathclyde, as people there kept voting Labour. They decided to reorganise local government to create a few more Conservative councils. In the event, the plan did not work, but one consequence of the reorganisation was that something had to be done with the water and sewerage industry. The proposal was to create a quango.

I was working as a press officer for the regional council at the time. The council decided that the people of Strathclyde should be consulted, and it organised a

21 Oct 2003 : Column 554

postal ballot of every elector in the region. The electorate numbered about 1.5 million people, out of a total population of 2.2 million.

The ballot was not an election, and it was not about a major constitutional issue. In fact, given the subject—the future of water services—it was rather dry.

Hon. Members : Oh.

Mr. Russell Brown: My hon. Friend should take that back.

Mr. Harris: I apologise to the House for that.

When the ballot papers were counted, the turnout was found to be 71 per cent. of all electors in Strathclyde. Incidentally, for those who are interested in such things, 2.8 per cent. of voters supported the Government's proposals. That is a real example of how a postal ballot can have a direct effect on voter participation.

It may be helpful to compare that referendum with some others. Turnout in the Scotland referendum in March 1979 was 63.8 per cent. and in the Wales referendum on the same day, it was 58 per cent. In the European referendum of 1975, turnout in Strathclyde was 61.7 per cent. Even in the Scottish referendum of 1997, turnout was only 62 per cent., yet when we chose to ballot people in Strathclyde on an issue that was hardly of overwhelming constitutional importance, turnout was 71 per cent. That speaks volumes for what could be achieved by the pilots.

Mr. Davidson: Can my hon. Friend estimate what turnout might be in Strathclyde were we to hold a referendum on the European constitution? Would he consider the possibility of holding a pilot referendum on that issue in Strathclyde?

Mr. Harris: I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely helpful question. If there were a referendum on any constitutional issue, I would expect turnout to be significantly higher if there was a postal ballot.

Like many of my colleagues from Scotland, I especially welcome the proposal—if it actually is a proposal—for 100 per cent. postal balloting in Scotland. I add my voice to those calling for such a move. In 1999, turnout throughout Scotland and the whole United Kingdom was derisory. As the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) pointed out, part of the reason was undoubtedly disenchantment, or disconnection, with the European political process. That is not solely the fault of the list system. European parliamentary constituencies were so large that disconnection existed even before 1999. I suspect that it was inevitably part of the process. We need to rein in our expectations about what the pilot projects can achieve. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, they are not a panacea.

Three factors cause low voter turnout, two of which are the responsibility of politicians. The first is disconnection from elected representatives at all levels. We have all heard the arguments: all the parties are the same, they can change nothing and politicians are too cynical. Some people even say that politicians are far too dismissive of other opinions, which of course is nonsense.

21 Oct 2003 : Column 555

The second reason, which has already been mentioned, is the electoral system. Earlier in the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) suggested that we should hold an additional pilot for a first-past-the-post system in Scotland, and compare turnout with that for the rest of the UK. However, we have already conducted such an exercise; we used first past the post for the European elections and when we introduced the new proportional system turnout plummeted. The results of that experiment speak for themselves.

In Scotland, there are four possible electoral systems: first past the post for Westminster; the additional member, or hybrid system, for the Scottish Parliament; the list for Europe; and, imminently, the single transferable vote for local elections. My mother is a lifelong voter and has never missed an opportunity to vote, but she told me that if single transferable voting is introduced in Scotland she will not vote in the local elections. I fear the effect on turnouts in future if we further confuse the electorate with all those different systems.

The third reason for low turnout is something that politicians can do little about: the wilful apathy of the electorate. I do not hesitate to put some of the blame for low turnouts on the electorate themselves, although some of it is ours. We are seeing the triumph of the instant gratification society, where promised gains over a long number of years have little or no significance for voters and where participation in our wider community—be it voting or taking part in a public meeting—comes far down in people's priorities, after every soap opera and football game broadcast.

I believe that the postal ballot pilot scheme will result in higher turnouts next June, but I wonder how many right hon. and hon. Members would be willing to bet any of their own money that any of those gains will be maintained in the long term.

Joyce Quin: The experience in Gateshead, where we have had three consecutive years of postal ballots, certainly shows consistency: there has been little decline in turnout even though the system has now been used on three occasions.

Mr. Harris: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Perhaps my earlier question about which of us would put money on those gains being maintained has been answered—perhaps my right hon. Friend would be willing to do so—but my fear is that it is undeniable that turnouts have generally decreased since the end of the second world war. Although there are blips, such as 1979 and 1992, we are in something of almost a post-democratic age, when voting is not the priority that it once was. I agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham that changing the mechanism is helpful, but it might not address that long-term decline, which should concern us all as democratically elected politicians.

If, after two or three such experiments, we see that the gains are reduced—that turnout is reducing to what it was before we introduced postal ballots—what will we have to do? There are gains to be made from such an

21 Oct 2003 : Column 556

experiment, but those gains are finite, and I would not be surprised if, a few years from now, we have to consider not creating further ways to enable people to vote, but making the duty to vote a legal obligation.

3.31 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray): Like pretty much every other hon. Member who has spoken so far, my motivation in discussing the Bill is to consider imaginative ways to make it easier for people to vote and to support any and every fair and transparent measure that will boost turnout. A load of suggestions about how we might ease people's ballot casting are on offer, and I am particularly motivated to support any measure that will improve turnout because there is a disproportionate decline in voting among the youngest eligible people in our society. If that issue is not addressed as a matter of priority, it could well store up grave difficulties for us in the future, as that cohort of younger voters continues in its apathy for whatever reason and does not bother to cast ballots in the future.

I simply believe that the status quo is not sustainable and that it is right to consider imaginative, innovative ways to try to change things. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have not been wrong to point out that, to a certain extent, we may be dealing with the symptoms, not the affliction. That may be a criticism of the workings of the European Union or whatever else. Nevertheless, that does not negate the reasons for considering the way we cast our votes.

My central concern is that if there is widespread change, it should embrace the highest possible standards and safeguards, but the Government have yet to convince me that that is in fact the case. I would counsel caution, in as much as progress should not be pursued at the risk of imperfect pilot schemes that might then slow the speedy introduction of reformed and updated voting methods.

The Government should consider various factors, bearing in mind the central premise that we believe that all-postal balloting assists in engaging more of the electorate—something that I support—and we have had many examples from throughout the UK where that is the case. Incidentally, in my book, anything that increases voting by between 20 and 50 per cent. has to be a success, and it would certainly be viewed as a success by people who found it easier to cast their ballots, so that cannot be discounted. Nevertheless, electoral procedures should be improved in a number of ways, so that people have full confidence that postal ballots are secure, fair and efficient.

I turn first to matters of security, which I and other hon. Members mentioned earlier in interventions. As most Members will be aware, one of the most important measures for detecting electoral fraud is the ability for the public and political parties to inspect the marked-up register of those who voted in an election. Despite current problems in certain local authorities, the public inspection of marked registers is an important safeguard. We need only look at the recent examples of marked-up registers going missing in Renfrewshire, where a number of very closely contested council elections took place recently, and where, curiously, the marked-up register seemed to disappear only in the most closely contested wards. As a result, we know that

21 Oct 2003 : Column 557

people value the existence of the marked-up register as a central control mechanism to ensure probity and the highest standards.

The difficulty at present is that the current law does not permit the marked register to show whether a postal ballot has been returned—that is, whether a vote has been cast. All that a marked register will show is that a postal ballot has been sent. In a recent ward by-election in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), one could see clearly that a third of postal ballots were not returned, but one could not work out which third of the electorate that was. The Electoral Commission has given oral advice to the effect that it is in favour of the introduction of a marked register and would have wanted that in advance of the European elections, should we go forward with the pilot programme outlined by the Government today. There has been no mention of that from the Government, however, and when I intervened earlier the Minister said that that matter would be considered separately. I strongly urge him and his colleagues to examine whether this matter can be integrated as part of the Government's considerations, as that would put many people's minds at ease.

Another matter that is of central importance is the electoral timetable. A number of electoral procedures should be changed to make all-postal balloting fairer and more efficient, and changes to the electoral timetable will be needed should the norm become all-postal voting. The time scale for the issue and replacement of postal ballots, which has not been raised in the debate so far, needs to be addressed. The earliest that an elector can currently receive their postal ballot paper is 10 days before polling day or the close of polling. When a large number of postal ballots have been issued at a traditional general election, those ballot papers can take up to three to four days after the earliest point at which they can be issued. In some instances, an elector then has six working days in which to respond. If, however, an elector declares that they have not received their postal ballot paper, the earliest point at which a replacement ballot can be issued is three working days before the close of polls. With postal services being reduced in a number of areas in Scotland and, I suspect, elsewhere in the UK, that gives insufficient time for an elector to receive a replacement ballot paper and have it sent back by post. I would have thought that one of the central points of any reform is that every elector should have the same guaranteed right to vote. If problems are inherent in the timetabling of the system, the Government must look at that closely.

On the issue of location of delivery points, it has been suggested that each local authority should have a delivery point for postal ballots to be returned in person or by hand. That could be a safety mechanism, as other Members have mentioned, in the case of industrial action. There is as yet no suggestion as to what number of delivery points should be set up in each local authority area. I would welcome the Minister's views on that, since it is an issue of profound importance in a very large geographic area such as the one I represent. If, for example, someone living in Tomintoul had to get to Elgin, that would be a very substantial journey.

In terms of efficiency, there is another measure which has not been raised so far but is not unknown to many Members of the House. Parliamentary candidates and

21 Oct 2003 : Column 558

agents have had experience regarding the efficiency of the Royal Mail in delivering bulk items of post. The experience of the Royal Mail when delivering election addresses in several areas is testament to that. Although postal ballots are addressed items, the Royal Mail gives no guarantee that each elector will receive a postal ballot. I return to a point that I made before: all electors should have the same guarantee of service so that they may exercise their vote. An elector using a postal ballot is in a significantly different position to one who turns up at a polling station.

I shall briefly talk about e-voting. Before I read the Bill, I was worried that pilots might be rolled out meaning that people in some regions could vote electronically while people in other regions would use postal votes. Such a scheme would have been a grave mistake, so I am reassured that the systems will be tried at the same time in the same region. It would be entirely wrong for some people to be able to cast their votes much more easily than others because they could access technology rather than using the post, which is available to all. However, I am worried about past experiences of technological breakdown meaning that, in extreme circumstances, one could not cross-reference and find out whether postal and electronic votes had been cast. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said that that had happened in his area, so the Government must examine the problem closely to ensure that it never happens again.

For reasons of equity, I disagree with a point made by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). He said that it was not a good idea to conduct a pilot throughout a whole electoral region and that it should be more localised. A pilot should take place throughout a whole electoral region rather than in only one part.

The Government should consider a further question, although it does not fall entirely under the scope of the Bill and it has not been addressed by any hon. Member. If ballot papers are to be issued two to three weeks before polling day, as the Minister said in his opening remarks, how will that dovetail with coverage by broadcasters—especially our public broadcasters—and how will it tie in with the Representation of the People Act 2000? If the Government choose Scotland or Wales as pilot regions—although I do not accept the use of the terminology of "region" for Scotland or Wales—they must bear it in mind that Scotland has a seven-party system and Wales has a four-party system. I am sure that the Government are keen to ensure fair and equitable access to the media wherever and whenever an election is held. However, if ballot papers are delivered two to three weeks before an election takes place, at what point will the Act kick in? At what point will the Government and—hopefully—all political parties be keen for everyone to have fair access to the media? Perhaps the Minister did not have time to talk about that during his opening speech, but I would be interested to hear his colleague's view during the wind-ups.

Pilot schemes must be introduced with cross-party consensus. There is a feeling—no one dares speak its name—that one electoral system or another could give a specific party political advantage. I do not share that view because any electoral system on offer gives the same advantages and disadvantages to all. Nevertheless, if we want to go forward, we need to bear cross-party consensus in mind, which is why I strongly urge the

21 Oct 2003 : Column 559

Government to examine the worries that I have raised on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru—the principal opposition parties in Scotland and Wales. If pilot projects were to be rolled out in Scotland or Wales, it would be advantageous to have cross-party consensus.

Next Section

IndexHome Page