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4.2 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I should like to concentrate my remarks on the all-postal pilots that took place in the local elections in 2002. My constituency is one of the three component parts of the London borough of Havering, which was chosen as one of the authorities to be piloted. That process gave rise to a range of difficulties, which I hope will be addressed in Committee.

Because what was involved was a new and different way of conducting an election, the local authority faced a challenge in disseminating information in the pre-election period so that people understood what would be expected of them and how voting would differ from the traditional method. They had to understand that everybody was voting by post, not just those who usually chose to do so; that the cut-off date for casting their vote was much earlier than the date of the election; and the nature of the documents that they would receive and how to process them. Many people were unaware that they would be able to vote in person only at the town hall because none of the usual polling stations would be open. Such information had to be emphasised to everybody, especially elderly people, well in advance.

Another problem that arose was the non-arrival of ballot papers: certain electors did not receive them. That posed a series of questions. Had they been lost in the post? Had they been wrongly delivered? Had they gone to the wrong number in the right road or the right number in the wrong road? Had two been posted in the same letterbox? Had neighbours received them by mistake? When they complained to the council, the question, "Are they telling the truth?" arose. The council was satisfied that the ballot papers had been posted, so nobody ever knew what happened to them. Often, it was too late to issue duplicates because the deadline for posting them back was too close. The electors had neither recourse nor a way of obtaining a ballot paper. Some angry people lost their opportunity to vote. The information to electors must make clear the last possible date for alerting the local council of non-receipt of a ballot paper, thus allowing plenty of time for an exchange of phone calls or correspondence and for the duplicate to be sent out and returned to the council so that it can be included in the ballot.

Many residents who had moved into the area since the previous election assumed that the fact that they paid council tax meant that they were automatically on the electoral roll. They were indignant to find that they were not. They believed that paying council tax entitled them to a vote, and I have much sympathy with that. Local authorities have an additional duty to encourage people who have moved into the area to ensure that they are on the electoral roll and not to rely on the fact that they pay council tax.

I am not sure whether the problem that I am about to consider was common to all the pilot schemes, or peculiar to the London borough of Havering, where a one-envelope system was used. Electors had to enclose their declaration of identity and their marked ballot paper in the same envelope, which contained a ward identification mark on the outside. At that point, the ballot ceased to be secret. A basic breach of confidentiality occurred and there was no guarantee that the council received the envelope. At the town hall, the two documents in the envelope had to be separated,

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and it was possible to see how an individual had voted. Indeed, that was difficult to avoid. I am not accusing council staff, who in the London borough of Havering are beyond reproach, or claiming that that actually happened. I am simply pointing out that it was perfectly possible, and that that is an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): Will my hon. Friend clarify whether representatives of political parties were present when the envelope was opened and the declaration of identity separated from the ballot paper? That would reinforce the risk of loss of confidentiality, of trust in the system and of voter anonymity.

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I understand that representatives of political parties were not present, but I am prepared to be corrected on that.

It is also possible for envelopes that are identified by ward on the outside to be diverted or otherwise interfered with. Again, I stress that I have no suspicions that that happened in Havering, but it is possible. Interference could occur for political reasons when the likely voting intentions in a specific ward were predictable or consistent over several elections. It would therefore be possible to affect the outcome of an election.

The system compromises the security of the election in several ways. It involves more people in handling the paperwork at all stages of the election, from the preparation of ballot papers in council offices through their delivery—or non-delivery—by the Royal Mail and their storage for possibly three weeks after their return to the town hall. Ensuring that there is no interference with the accumulated ballot papers is another security issue.

In addition to his call for a referendum on the European constitution, the shadow Attorney-General, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) also refered to the 1,500 items of post that go missing every month in each of our constituencies. In a month in which there would be a large additional number of items—as would be the case when ballot papers were being sent out—it is therefore fair to assume that a number in excess of 1,500 would be likely to go missing.

There is a question here of voter confidence. People want to know that the town hall has indeed received their ballot papers when they have sent them back. Not only are there difficulties with voters receiving their ballot papers, but there is no guarantee, when they have filled them in and sent them back, that the town hall will have received them either. The ballot papers then have to be transferred from their local venue to the Electoral Commission for counting. All these different stages offer additional opportunities for fraud or complications in the electoral process. It is also less convenient for local scrutineers to attend a count in central London, including the London boroughs, than it is for them to go to a local count or to a town hall to observe the counting of postal votes. The whole system is simply not as reliable as the traditional method. In the interests of public confidence, the system has to be seen to be inviolate.

Many people had either not read the instructions that they received before the election, or not understood them properly. Many did not understand that no polling

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stations would be open, but by the time they realised that, on the morning of the election day, it was either too late or too difficult for them to get to the town hall, which was the only option open to them at that stage. If they could not get to the town hall before noon, they lost their opportunity to vote.

I have to confess that there was an increase in turnout at that election, but there were a lot of really high-profile local reasons for people wanting to vote. The local electorate were up in arms about council tax. Historically, the London borough of Havering had been underfunded for many years, and the long-awaited review of local government finance and the way in which central Government funds local government was imminent. People were expecting old wrongs to be put right. Unfortunately, their hopes were dashed, but at that stage they were still hopeful, so there was a very high level of interest in that local election, and it is difficult—perhaps impossible—to know how much of the increased turnout can be attributed to the postal voting system and how much to the high level of interest in council tax and other prominent issues.

The insecurity that I perceive in the system, along with the lack of confidence, the opportunities for interference and multiple voting, and the loss of opportunities for people to vote at all, are too high a price to pay for an increase in turnout. There is already a choice for everyone. Anyone who wants to vote by post can do so. People no longer have to justify their request for a postal vote. At one time, they had to give details of the holiday that they were taking, or state that they were likely to be in hospital or give reasons of employment in order to get a postal vote. Now, all that they have to do is request one, and they get it. Nobody is prevented from having a postal vote.

Furthermore, large numbers of people enjoy going and casting their vote personally at the polling station where they have always voted. There is a certain ceremony attached to it, and it seems to give the activity more significance. For those reasons, I would like to see the status quo retained, so that anyone who wishes to have a postal vote may have one, and anyone who wishes to cast their vote in person is still be able to do so.

Other hon. Members have mentioned internet and telephone polling. Those issues give me enormous cause for concern, because I perceive very high risks and far greater opportunities for corruption and interference in the process.

Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend agree that another point that has not yet been raised is the problem that would emerge if, in a national election, during the period between the closure of the postal voting procedure—which could be about 10 days before the election—and the election date, a significant statement were made that could dramatically affect the basis on which the people voting in person then decided to cast their votes?

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for his profound intervention. Indeed, such a statement could change people's voting intentions significantly. Many people may have already cast their vote but may wish that they had not done so because they have changed their minds. The Minister may like to consider that in Committee.

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The way to increase turnout is to persuade the electorate that there is some point in voting, and that they are voting for candidates who will represent their views, work hard and produce policies that will affect their everyday lives. They would then be far more likely to take an interest in an election. Casting a vote once every four years is hardly an onerous task. Some people enjoy doing it. They enjoy the significance of turning up personally and going through the little ceremony of entering the polling booth and casting their secret vote knowing that no one else knows how they have voted.

I support the status quo. People can ask for a postal vote if they want one, but those who want to vote in person should retain the right to do so.

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