Previous SectionIndexHome Page


4.16 pm

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): Last week the Sunday Herald published the results of a survey of attitudes of young people in Scotland. It provides information that has a direct bearing on the debate. The survey was encouraging. When young people are asked what they think, rather than having views imputed to them, the findings show that they have a socially responsible attitude. However, the results of the survey of the attitudes of young people to voting were of concern. A question about the most important things that make someone a good citizen offered a number of options, and for the group aged 11 to 25 the lowest of all was voting in elections. Only 17 per cent. thought that voting in elections was important if they wanted to be a good citizen.

I am sure that that does not mean that the actual turnout for that group when they come to vote will be as low as 17 per cent. There is no immediate election—no general election is in the offing. Nevertheless, that low figure should worry us all, as it shows how little young people identify with the voting process. It does not suggest that the recent reductions in voter turnout will improve in the future when these young people come to vote.

We have had a mature debate, with only the occasional lapse into a more partisan argument. I accept there are a host of reasons why voter participation has declined. I do not believe that the problem of declining turnout will be solved only by technical solutions—some quick fix that will make things better so that more people vote. However, there are a number of ways to make it easier for people to vote, and they have a role in encouraging people to engage more in the electoral process.

I accept that people's alienation from the political process is part of the reason for a decline in turnout. However, before hon. Members get subsumed under a pall of doom and gloom, there is evidence to show that many other factors contribute to lower voter turnout, which we can address more easily than some of the more fundamental problems that have been referred to.

One of the biggest factors, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) mentioned, is the change in people's lifestyles. The traditional election day picture that is painted is one of people going along to vote in the morning, walking down to the polling station after they have done their shopping or at 5 o'clock on their way home from work. That picture does not reflect the

21 Oct 2003 : Column 567

reality of how many, probably most, people now lead their lives. They travel many miles to out-of-town shopping centres, and they return from work at all times of the day. Members leaving this place in the evenings must notice how many people are going home, clearly from work, at 8, 9 and 10 pm. We must not fall into the trap of self-righteously criticising the electorate for deciding that, having got home at that time of night, the last thing they want to do is go down to the polling station to exercise their democratic rights.

It may seem odd to those of us whom the Minister described earlier as aficionados of the electoral process—others might describe us as obsessives—that people do not necessarily want to do that, but we should not say that they are guilty of wilful apathy because they choose to lead their lives as we might not. I say that with respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), who has just returned. If people want to go late-night shopping on a Thursday—Thursday being the traditional polling day—we should not tell them that they are not fulfilling their duty to society because they do not rush out to vote at 9.59 pm.

Mr. Peter Duncan: Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that, as well as a change in lifestyles, there is disenchantment with the electoral process and the way in which elections are conducted. As he will know, in the recent Scottish parliamentary elections things changed in all too many constituencies: the constituency Member became a list Member, and the list Member became a constituency Member. Did that lack of change not affect the electorate? Such arrangements will disenchant the vast majority of those about whom the hon. Gentleman is talking.

Mr. Lazarowicz: I said earlier that many factors were involved in lower turnouts. I am merely suggesting that we should not fall into the trap of assuming that all those factors explain the drop, given other important factors such as changes in lifestyle. June elections provide an example. Many people now go on holiday at all times of the year, rather than restricting their holidays to the traditional trades fortnight when towns and cities empty. We must not try to fit the voters into our preconceptions of how they should behave; we should make it easier for them to take part in the electoral process.

I mentioned young people's attitudes earlier. We must begin to consider such issues comprehensively. The more voters—young or old, new voters or people who have voted in many elections—become used to not voting, the more the idea that casting a vote is a civic duty will be rejected, by increasingly wide sections of the population.

That is why I believe that the time is right for the Bill. We have had local pilots involving new forms of voting for more than three years, and, for the most part, they have been successful. I agree with the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) that there have been difficulties on occasion, but by and large they have succeeded not just in terms of their operation, but in increasing turnout.

I thought the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was a little selective in his analysis of the turnout for postal voting which appeared in the briefing documents. He

21 Oct 2003 : Column 568

pointed out that some of the pilots had increased turnout, while others had reduced it. The fact is that, according to the Library, 54 of the 57 instances of all-postal voting featured an increased turnout, and only three featured a reduction—which was in any case a small reduction compared with some substantial increases.

This is the right time to take a further step towards the use of new voting methods, particularly all-postal ballots, and to make them the norm rather than exotic experiments. Of course, I accept the concerns, expressed by several Members, about the possibility of fraud in all-postal ballots and other new voting methods. It is essential that the possibility of fraud be minimised, and the measures that the Minister referred to in his opening contribution will certainly help to reduce that possibility. As has already been pointed out, there are many ways in which the current system is open to fraud. Indeed, if properly introduced the new system could actually reduce the prospect of fraud. Anti-fraud measures can be effective, and at the end of the day the best protection against electoral fraud resulting in an outcome other than that which the voters want is to increase voter turnout by genuine voters. Increasing the number of people voting in elections through the use of all-postal ballots and other new forms of voting will ensure a result that is a fairer reflection of the wish of the voters—a point that certainly outweighs the minuscule number of cases of electoral fraud in traditional or postal ballots.

I welcome the move towards greater use of postal ballots and other forms of voting, but further steps need to be taken if the new system is truly to result in the electorate's greater participation in the democratic process. I hope that the Minister will address some of these points when he replies to the debate, if he has time to do so. I agree that it is essential that the information and instructions given to voters about how to use postal ballots are kept as simple as possible. Examples have been given of people not knowing how to use the postal vote and failing to take advantage of the opportunity given to them; we must avoid such situations. I agree that there should be an extensive advertising campaign at national and local levels to ensure that voters are aware of the new system. That campaign should include not just advertising, but access to telephone helplines and to other ways in which voters' queries about the new system can be answered speedily, so that they are encouraged to use their democratic right.

I agree with the point made about the need to get assurances from Royal Mail about the delivery not just of ballot papers, but of election communications before ballot papers are received. I also agree that it is important that voters have several opportunities to deliver their postal ballot papers by hand, if they wish to do so, to delivery points in the local authority area. In most local authorities, more than just a single central point will be required. Given the absence of any need to provide clerks to issue ballot papers, this is surely the opportunity to provide ballot boxes and places for the receipt of ballot papers in many locations other than the traditional election venues.

I agree with those of my colleagues who have emphasised the importance of ensuring that the electoral register is as accurate as possible. Of course, that should happen anyway, but it is particularly

21 Oct 2003 : Column 569

important that the register be accurate if the possibility of postal ballots being sent to the wrong people is to be minimised. The register for next year is already in preparation, but having a rolling register enables us to add or remove names throughout the year. I should still like the Government and local government to carry out an effective, face-to-face, door-to-door canvass, particularly in those parts of the country in which all-postal ballots are used for European parliamentary elections. If that cannot be done for 2004, government at all levels should certainly introduce it for future elections.

In that connection, it is particularly important to make an effort to register, and to provide information to, ethnic minorities, particularly those for whom English is not their first language. I include in that category citizens of other European countries, who can of course vote in these elections, but who frequently do not realise that they can register and vote. My own experience of electioneering has shown that many citizens of other EU countries are not aware of their right to vote in these and other elections.

Finally, I turn briefly to the issue of which areas of the country should be used for the pilot postal ballot schemes and the elections next year. As a Member representing a Scottish constituency, I certainly welcome any suggestion that Scotland should be one of the pilot areas, and I urge the Electoral Commission to recommend it as one of those areas. I hope that the Government will make the necessary order when the time comes.

As hon. Members have pointed out, Scotland has no local elections taking place on the same day in 2004, so there is no risk of confusion. Another argument for choosing Scotland as one of the pilot regions is that it includes many remote and inaccessible areas, so postal ballots will make it easier for voters living there to cast their votes in the important elections next year. I found it hard to follow the bizarre logic of some Opposition Members—that because Scotland is particularly remote and inaccessible, it is the wrong region for a postal pilot. In my view, people in those areas should have an opportunity to cast their votes in next year's elections as a matter of course.


Next Section

IndexHome Page