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Mr. Duncan: I am only too happy to make my position clear to the hon. Gentleman. What I said is that it would be more expensive to have a pilot in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman alluded to people in rural areas of Scotland having the opportunity to vote by post, but such people can already do so now. They have the opportunity to apply for a postal ballot. It is a straightforward process and they can vote by post.
Mr. Lazarowicz: Of course they can vote by post now. However, I see no reason why we should make it more complicated for them to do so. We were told that some people have difficulty accessing letterboxes, but it is difficult not to believe that a polling station is likely to be even further away. That provides a further reason why
Above all, it is appropriate to choose Scotland as one of the pilot areas for new methods of voting because it has been fortunate to experience the pushing out of the frontiers of democratic and constitutional reform. I am certainly proud of the Scottish Parliament and of the fact that Scotland has, by having proportional representation in Scottish elections, been at the forefront of the democratic reform of our constitution. I also hope shortly to see proportional representation in local government elections in Scotland. We have already been at the forefront of such reforms and I would like us to be at the forefront in this further respect.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The hon. Gentleman is trumpeting his belief in the Scottish position at the forefront of democratic experimentation, but does he agree that, given that there is a separate Scottish Parliament, we should end the gross over-representation of Scotland in the House?
Mr. Lazarowicz: The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the number of Scottish MPs will reduce when the boundary commission completes its workand there is no dispute about that. The hon. Gentleman should be concerned that, as a result of that process, his party's representation in the House in respect of Scotland might be reduced by 100 per cent.
In conclusion, I want Scotland to take the lead in democratic change, which will allow more people to reconnect with the political process. All democrats in Scotland should support such a move and only those concerned with narrow political advantage could possibly oppose it.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I remember well the original Bill that was the starting point for where we are today. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) introduced that change in our electoral system from first-past-the-post to the list system, in his usual genial way. He talked about famous Belgians and we discussed Mr. d'Hondt and how the new system would make every vote count, so that increasing numbers would go out to vote. Unfortunately, he forgot an integral part of our electoral systemthe candidate, and the influence of an individual in a general election or other election. That influence is good news for us all.
Most of us grow up in a political environment in which people claim that candidates do not count for much. I think that they do. Although the vast majority cast their vote for the political party that they support, they vest their hopes, support and interest in the individual who represents that party in the constituency. We all work and campaign hard in our constituencies, which pushes many of our supporters out to support us. We also probably push many of those who do not support us out to vote against us, and our opponents probably do the same. The level of activity, including the displaying of posters and cavalcades around the constituency, pushes turnout up all round.
The difficulty with the electoral system that we will have next June is that people will again be asked to vote for a political party rather than an individual, and in such large regions that people do not feel that they can make a difference. Indeed, it is depressing for candidates for the European Parliament to face electorates of 3 million, 4 million or 5 million. The candidates cannot cover the distances and they know that whatever work they do, it probably will not make much difference. The Government have vested their hopes in the system, not in the people who operate it. That is one of the reasons why turnout dropped from 36 per cent. in 1994 to 23 per cent. in 1999.
Although I am sure that postal voting will help to push turnout up, it is a fundamental flaw that people will not have the ability to vote for individuals. If the Government were really radical, they would go back to the first-past-the-post system. The argument at the time was that European constituencies were too largecomprising seven or eight parliamentary constituenciesand that that was not wise. A year later, the Government introduced the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which created first-past-the-post constituencies the size of boroughs, which were almost the size of the old European constituencies.
The Government have missed an opportunity to push turnout up in the most fundamental way by going back to first-past-the-post. A postal voting system will help turnout, but legitimate concerns arise, which have been expressed in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) mentioned the concerns raised by not having two envelopes and questioned the security of postal ballots in her borough. We have already heard about the problems of houses in multiple occupation, or flats, which can lead to fraud. Fortunately, incidents of electoral fraud are rare in this country, but when they happen they almost always involve the operation of postal votes. Someone harvests postal votes in a particular ward and suspicion is aroused. The Government must continue to reassure people that the operation of postal votes will be arranged so as to minimise fraud.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): The hon. Gentleman makes some good points. He is worried about the prospect for fraud, but we must recognise that the potential for fraud exists in any system. Whatever system is adopted, someone will always try to cheat it. I can reassure him that a postal voting system has been used in two local elections in Chorley, and turnout in the first was more than 60 per cent.the highest in the country. The next time, turnout was the second highest in the country. The system was successful and I welcome the opportunity to try to increase turnout and encourage more people to exercise their franchise. I am sure that we would agree about that.
Mr. Syms: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and Chorley was mentioned earlier in the debate as an example of successful postal voting. The briefing paper from the Library shows an increase in turnout in local government elections of more than 15 per cent., sometimes more, sometimes less. So postal voting has led to higher turnouts, which is why the Conservative
Chris Grayling: Does my hon. Friend agree that an opportunity for fraud will arise if areas or regions are asked to adopt multiple voting strategies? For instance, where e-voting sits alongside postal voting, returning officers may be asked to monitor two or three separate flows of ballots as they come in. Does my hon. Friend agree that, under those circumstances, the job of policing fraud will become much harder?
Mr. Syms: That is a very good point. The Conservative party's position with respect to e-voting is much more reserved. As has been noted, there are concerns in the US about the security of such votes, and similar concerns have been expressed here.
The pilots that have been held show that postal voting pushes up turnout. I do not think that we need look to other systems of voting, although we should make it easier for people to get postal votes at general elections. If the Government were to say today that the whole of the European election was to be decided by postal vote, I believe that that would be legitimate. However, I am not so sure of the validity of the argument that part of the election should be conducted by postal vote.
A number of pilots have been held, and most have happened where councils have volunteered to conduct the experiment. We are now moving into very different territory. After consultation, the Government will tell certain regions that they will have to adopt the new system, and that causes me certain problems.
Electoral registration departments in many authorities have not received much investment in the past. Many struggle, on limited resources, to carry out their tasks. Some authorities are very good. They are switched on and efficient when it comes to dealing with votes and delivering the count, but other authorities are less so. Introducing a new system on a region-wide basis will mean that there is variety in the delivery of service.
As we have heard, it is very important, when moving to a postal voting system, to be able to inform the parties of what is going on. The experiment earlier this year in Guildford was quite successful in pushing up turnout, but every day the borough's returning officer told the political parties who had voted. The game, therefore, became a giant knock-up exercise, as parties determined who supported them.