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John Robertson: Would the hon. Gentleman accept an electronic register, marked on a rolling, day-to-day basis?

Mr. Syms: I have no strong view one way or the other. What is important is that all parties are treated the same. I am concerned to ensure that all authorities in regions with postal voting are efficient enough to be able to tell the political parties about the returns in a particular constituency or borough. That should be the model. We know that provision varies, and that is one reason why the Electoral Commission has been looking into how returning officers provide their services.

The point was made by the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Moray (Angus Robertson) that postal voting makes for a

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different type of election. A problem arises that has to do with how political parties time the climax to their campaigns. A mixed system causes difficulties in that respect.

In the normal run of things, the vast majority of voters—90-odd per cent.—go down to polling stations. However, some postal voting takes place even then, and people are able to vote a week or 10 days before the final poll. Broadly speaking, the parties know their expenditure limits and the point in their campaigns when they want to get their message across so that people go out and vote for them. A system that means that the important date is a week or 10 days before polling day for one chunk of the country, when the vast majority of people in the neighbouring region will turn out to vote on polling day, will cause problems in respect of advertising, television and the delivery of a particular message.

That adds to the complications, and we are already confined by the fairly strong straitjacket imposed by the legislation on political parties and referendums.

Mr. Lazarowicz: Is the hon. Gentleman not in danger of saying that elections should be run for the convenience of political parties rather than of voters?

Mr. Syms: It is important, as long as we are sensible, that political parties should be happy with the arrangements, too. If I have a criticism of the Government it is that they have not always consulted widely on some of the changes that they have introduced. It is important that those who operate the system should be seen to be fair as we deliver our message. There is no reason not to take into account the concerns of all the political parties in setting up the arrangements.

We are in favour of postal voting, although we have some concerns about security. We are more anxious about e-voting and some of the newer systems. However, if we are to reconnect with people we must make fundamental changes rather than merely tinkering with the arrangements. We need to get back to individuals and candidates, because they matter more than systems.

I am not a pessimist about turnout. At present, everyone involved in the political process seems to be terribly depressed because turnout is down. However, the Library briefing shows that turnout did not change much between the second world war and 1997; it bobbed up and down during the 1970s, and at some points people had a stronger wish to vote than at others. In the February 1974 election, when I was still at school, there was a high turnout, owing to the miners' strike and the three-day week. Television broadcasts were reduced and there was a sense of crisis, so many people voted, although I would not argue that that was a successful way of getting people to vote. The rise in turnout compared with 1970 may have been a material factor in the Conservative defeat in February 1974. People wanted to express their concern about the state of the country.

In 1992, turnout was high because many people wanted to get rid of the Government and many people wanted to keep them. There was pressure from both ends of the political spectrum, so turnout was high.

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Several years before the 2001 election, opinion polls had been telling people that the result was a foregone conclusion, which had a material effect on turnout. Opinion polls influence behaviour, so it would be a perfectly respectable argument that banning them for a period could change the nature of elections and get people to vote. My only reservation would be that if official opinion polls were banned, people might move into the vacuum and make them up, as the Liberal Democrats did in their little newspaper during the Brent, East by-election. However, opinion polls do sometimes depress turnout.

Mr. Tom Harris: A new question in opinion polls is, "Do you intend to vote at the next election?", so does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the media constantly report the fact that fewer and fewer people will turn out to vote, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—and the media should take some of the responsibility for lower turnouts?

Mr. Syms rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that we are getting slightly away from the legislation's centre of gravity.

Mr. Syms: We want to raise turnout in the elections next June and some of the Bill's provisions will be helpful. One can be genuinely critical of the fact that we are not going entirely one way or the other. There are problems in focusing on particular regions, as is currently being proposed. We need to consider what has not been included in the Bill, because the Government could have done much more to encourage turnout in general elections.

I hope that turnout will rise in June. As the turnout in the previous European election was so appallingly low, there is a chance that it may be higher next time. There are signs from the last two local elections that turnout is rising. If people thought that elections would be more competitive, turnout would start to increase.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) made a good point about the attitude of the public: if there is full employment, when there may be fewer dragons to slay, people may have less motivation to turn out. However, that may not last for ever.If people care passionately about things, they may be more determined to vote. I am not convinced that we shall have ever-lower turnouts. I am sure that in future there will be issues that regenerate people's interest in democracy. It is a pity that we have been landed with this awful list system for the European elections next June.

4.50 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): I welcome the Bill. I see it as a very important way to introduce innovatory voting methods that could reinvigorate democracy. This is a complex debate and what I say may be full of ifs and buts, but I believe that we need to consider how to reinvigorate democracy.

In my early days, in my first election in 1955, my father fought the seat of Vale of Glamorgan, and the percentage vote cast was 89 per cent. It was a

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Conservative seat, with a 20,000 majority. It is now a Labour seat, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) will ensure at some stage that he too may achieve a 20,000 majority, but the point is that all of us hang so much on the argument about turnout. How many people vote indicates to us all the sense of importance or value placed on politics, legislation and government. We underestimate or undermine the argument if we do not see the value of turnout—it shows people's trust and their confidence in voting.

The Bill is important, but re-engaging people with politics is not solely about persuading them to vote. We have to persuade them that the political discussions that we are involved in are real and valuable to them. We have listening schedules and on-street surgeries. We all use questionnaires. We do an awful lot to engage with the wider population—with our constituents—to persuade them that there are real debates here. Sometimes, some of us feel overwhelmed by the robust nature of our constituent's opinions. We have only to listen to them talking about hunting with dogs, third world debt or the controls that they want on fireworks to know that they are very engaged with the political debate. So if people are involved in political debates, it is important for us to ask why they find it so much more difficult or impossible to vote in the great numbers that voted when I was a child.

I was singularly depressed in 2001, when the number of people who turned out in Stockton, South went down by 11 per cent. In 1997, 72 per cent. voted. In 2001, 61 per cent. voted. I believed that I had energetically and robustly engaged with my electorate in all manner of ways, persuading them that political discussion—political challenge—is valuable. I was seriously depressed so I carried out a survey. A small team and I spoke to 500 people—not thousands, I know—so I do not necessarily suggest that the analysis has to be accepted by all. We asked people why they had not voted. Was it because they could not be bothered? Were they not engaged in the political process? We got a very clear response. Yes, some of them said, "You're all the same. You don't deliver on your promises", but overwhelmingly, people said, "You changed the date of the anticipated election. It was not May, as we thought, but June, and we were too late to request a postal vote."

The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) asked why the 2001 election bucked the trend, when the number of people who did not vote doubled. We were very concerned about the foot and mouth episode, so the election was delayed. Let me tell him what my small survey shows. People were caught off guard and had not asked for a postal vote.

Other answers were given to me. People work shift systems, and many work offshore and are not available to vote during their normal working activity, as they are away for six weeks at a time. Many of my 18 to 21-year-olds told me that they were in the middle of their final examinations and had no time to consider voting in an election. It is therefore important for us to understand that people have complex lives, which are not run according to a normal 8 to 5 day.

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