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3.44 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I welcome the Bill. I begin by echoing the opening comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) about the number of people on electoral registers because that point was raised in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on 4 June. The debate was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and he talked about our experiences in Scotland during the local elections and the Scottish Parliament elections. There was a significant decline in the number of people registered. The number of people registered in Glasgow, Maryhill between 2001 and 2003 dropped by 13 per cent.. That is a significant amount. If the 2001 figure had stood, the number of people turning up to vote would have been significantly worse.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall tomorrow on electoral registers. We need to do something. We have passed legislation and numbers have fallen. We need to back that up by carrying out checks at vacant addresses, as some local authorities already do.

John Robertson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the pilot scheme must also deal with electoral registers? We should not wait two years for a register to be updated. We need a rolling register instead. In Glasgow, Anniesland, for instance, where there is a high turnover in council housing, the register is out of date by between 20 and 30 per cent. every election.

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right. There are significant problems in parts of the country. We cannot sit back and be complacent. Although the issue he raises is important, we must also encourage the electorate to go out and vote. The responsibility for that lies at the door of each and every one of us. No one can run away from the fact that we have a major part to play.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) commented on dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes. We need to get to the bottom of why people are not voting. There has been a steady decline in turnout. The 77.8 per cent. turnout in the 1992 general election fell to 71.4 per cent. in 1997. The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan), in his excellent contribution, tried to lay the blame at the door of the Government. His party was pushed to one side at the 1997 election when the number of people taking part in the process fell by more than 6 per cent. There was a further and more drastic decline in 2001 when turnout fell to 59.4 per cent. It is not good news for us if we, as politicians, who have a role to play in society, cannot engage with people.

Perhaps the problem is the lack of an alternative on the Opposition Benches or the general dissatisfaction at the pace of reform, for which the people in the UK are

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crying out. Perhaps the problem is our colleagues and friends in the media breeding criticism and dissatisfaction. Although that is sometimes justified, all too often people are only interested in the headlines. So when politicians speak to the general public, what we hear is, "You're all the same. You're all in it for your own ends. Why do you bother?" We need to turn the clock back.

When I intervened on the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), I explained that the problem is not confined to the UK or the EU. In Canada in the 1970s, 74.6 per cent. of people turned out to vote. By 2000, that had dropped to 61.2 per cent. I may regret mentioning Europe, but the turnout in France was 76.5 per cent. in the 1970s. By 2002, that had dropped to 64 per cent. There are, however, some European countries in which that trend has been bucked. The trend in Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland is against the decline experienced elsewhere.

We are looking at the European Parliament elections today. There was a 63 per cent. turnout across EU countries in 1979, which fell 10 years later to 58.5 per cent. and a miserable 49.4 per cent. in 1999. Even though I have categorised that 49.4 per cent. as miserable, it was double the turnout in the United Kingdom. Political parties and politicians must try to widen their appeal and engage with those who turn out to vote. However, a revival in civil society making it easier to vote can help, which is why I am very much encouraged by the fact that three areas are being considered for postal ballot pilots. In 2003, we can enjoy the advances of the electronic age, including e-commerce and e-voting, yet it has been in the old idea of postal voting that there has been significant progress, and that is to be applauded.

Mr. Cash: I hope that, in connection with the issue just raised by the hon. Gentleman, I may vicariously invite a response from the Minister in his summing-up speech. Can the Government explain why, between 1997 and 2001, there was a 12 per cent. drop in turnout compared with the figure of approximately 75 per cent. in the entire range from 1945 to 1997?

Mr. Brown: I am obviously keen to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say, but I am not sure whether his question is directed at my hon. Friend the Minister or me. However, I am happy to give my tuppence-worth. There is a problem with people becoming disillusioned. Our friends and colleagues in the press and media hype up the situation, and say that none of us is worth voting for or supporting. However, I wonder where they would be if we were not here.

John Robertson: The media have taken over the role of the Opposition.

Mr. Brown: Indeed. I hope that the hon. Member for Stone agrees to a certain extent that that is what the media have done in recent years.

In 2002, there were 30 postal vote pilots involving 2.5 million electors. The average turnout at all postal elections was about 47.5 per cent., well above the average of 33 per cent. for traditional voting methods.

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On polling day for the Scottish Parliament this year, I met people who had already voted through postal voting. They said that it was the first occasion on which they had done so, and they were pleased to have been able to seize that opportunity. They said that in future they would not use any other way of voting. Of course, there are anxieties about the use of postal votes, and the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and others have advanced an argument about security and the need for a secret vote.

The Bill will allow three regional pilot schemes for elections to the European Parliament to be held. I appreciate the anxiety that the hon. Member for Moray experiences when some of my colleagues and I talk about Scotland. However, I am sure that at the end of the day he respects the fact that although Scotland is a nation, it is also a European parliamentary region. The Bill does not specify in which areas the pilots will take place, but Scotland would be a good area. The Electoral Commission will make recommendations, and I hope that the Minister, as well as listening to what it says in mid-December, will listen to what Members of Parliament have said.

Angus Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to impress upon Ministers that it would be a tremendous advantage to introduce safeguards, in particular with regard to a marked-up register, and that that should happen before any pilot project is undertaken?

Mr. Brown: Yes, that has come across loud and clear this afternoon. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have strong reservations about a marked-up register, as do Conservative Members.

I shall briefly consider three previous postal pilots in Scotland. In April 2002 the first pilot took place in a ward of Stirling council. The turnout was more than 63 per cent., far higher than the turnout at the other council by-election held on the same day. In September 2002 there was a by-election in Durn ward, Aberdeenshire. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) has left the Chamber, but he will know about that one. The turnout in a postal ballot was 66 per cent, the highest ever in a postal pilot. That was in contrast to another election that day to the same council, in which the turnout was a mere 36 per cent. In November 2002 in a ward in the Scottish Borders, there was a turnout of 65.8 per cent., which was up 3.1 per cent. on the turnout for the 1999 election.

Three schemes in Scotland's 32 authorities are far fewer than those that have taken place elsewhere in the United Kingdom, such as the 33 schemes held in the 43 local authorities in north-west England. The time is ripe for a widespread scheme in Scotland. As I said in an intervention, the European elections in June 2004 will be the only elections to be held in Scotland, so no comparison can be made with any other European parliamentary region. Scotland's rural nature provides an opportunity to reap the greatest dividends from a postal ballot, which will benefit people living in rural areas. I understand the comments made by the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, but such an election could turn out to be less expensive than

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would otherwise be the case. He mentioned that there are more than 5,000 polling stations, but there will be no need to open them.

The electorate of an average-sized European constituency is 3.8 million. Although Scotland has a larger population than that, it would provide a clear indication of the success of postal voting. On the question of how we cover the election and promote the idea of a postal ballot, I hope colleagues would agree that press, television and radio in Scotland are unique. Through those means we have an opportunity to promote the excellent idea of a postal ballot.

We heard from the hon. Members for Moray and for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale their reservations about a full postal pilot being carried out in Scotland. Some of the arguments have already been made as to why such a pilot should be held. I share the concern about fraud, but I am fairly relaxed with clause 6, which covers that. The House of Commons research paper makes excellent reading and highlights some of the problems that have arisen in the past and ways in which they can be dealt with.

The issue of the witness to a postal ballot causes me some concern. When the ballots are returned, we see those who open the ballot papers discarding the witness form. One wonders whether anyone would take any notice if voters had got Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck to countersign their ballot papers. It is important that we ensure that people cast their vote.

I have come across elderly people, in particular, who did not return their postal ballots, even after having requested one, because they had no idea about whom they should secure as a witness or whether it mattered.

The Electoral Commission has indicated that it would not wish parties to be heavily involved in collecting postal votes once cast. There is some justification in that. Although we are all supposed to be right hon. and hon. Members, we are not held in the highest esteem. Sometimes the fraud element is there to be abused by individuals and, dare I say it, parties. Serious consideration must be given to the marked-up register. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is able to say something positive about that—if not today, at a later stage.

Some hon. Members are concerned about moving the local authority elections in England and Wales to coincide with the European Parliament elections. In 1999 and 2003, Scotland experienced the marked difference that resulted from combining the two elections and getting people to come out to vote in more than one election on the one day. It is difficult to judge whether the knock-on effect came from people who normally vote at local elections suddenly deciding to cast a vote in another election on the same day, or vice versa, but it is clear that combining the two elections in 2004 will be helpful.

The Minister still has a lot of work to do. I am not sure that I would want to serve on the Committee, but it will be interesting.

None of us should run away from the problem: we all have a job to do, whether by engaging more closely with the electorate whom we are supposed to represent or through the proposed pilots. We must unite and say with one voice that we wish the electorate to play a far greater part in elections.

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