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Angela Watkinson: The hon. Lady will of course be aware that it is open to any elector to choose a permanent postal vote. They do not have to ask for one for a specific election—they can have one for every election, and that arrangement can be made well in advance.

Ms Taylor: The hon. Lady is correct, but when unpredictable things happen, people do not have the opportunity to apply, and the time intervals are too tight. Many people felt that they were disfranchised because the election was moved from the anticipated date, not the stated date.

Having done a small piece of research to try to understand why my electorate had dropped, in turnout terms, from 72 per cent. to 61 per cent., I became much less depressed about my ability to engage with people locally. I began to believe that perhaps the electoral system was far too inflexible and rigid for people who perhaps go into hospital or go on holiday at the last minute, who cannot vote in the normal way at a polling station and who require the option of a postal vote. I therefore concluded that we must consider people-friendly voting activity, and pilots of postal voting seem to be an appropriate option.

In the northern region, there have been 13 pilots of postal voting. From my knowledge, the pilots to date have been successful if we consider the one measure on which many of us hang our coats again and again—the number of people who express their voting preference. To date, in all-postal ballots, upwards of 50 per cent. of the population have voted. In fact, the increase in the number of people voting has been 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) stated her case about Gateshead, but it is also the case for Sunderland. In fact, in some wards in Sunderland turnout was more than 60 per cent., and in my area of Stockton it was well above 50 per cent. That pilot is being used to persuade others to come on board to say that they have the opportunity to express their opinions and that we are giving them a flexible option to do so.

I am keen to say to the Minister, as many of my colleagues have said this afternoon, that because the northern region has had 13 different pilots, we have a great deal of valuable experience. Consequently, that leads me to persuade him that we should be one of the pilots chosen for the 2004 European and local elections. Across the region, we would see Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats as well as Labour seats involved in pilots of postal voting. I also say to him that many people in my constituency who have voted by post once, found that it was so user friendly that they believe that the opportunity will be open to them on all future occasions. It will be very difficult for me to explain to them that it was a one-off pilot and that it will not be available in the future. It is therefore important for the Minister to understand that people adapt quickly to new ways of doing things, and that this has been such a valuable experience that many people, if not the majority, would want to have that opportunity again.

All material published to date by the Electoral Commission, and some published by the Hansard Society, shows the worry about how to get people-friendly politics to work in our community. The assessment of voting pilots to date clearly shows what

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people think about voting by post because they use words such as "easy", "convenient" and "popular". The system gives people the opportunity to express their vote in a manner that references their lifestyles and home lives.

Angela Watkinson: Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a world of difference between voting by post out of choice and being compelled to vote by post? People who are compelled to vote by post are deprived of the opportunity to cast their vote in person at a polling station.

Ms Taylor: The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. I listened with great care to the part of her speech about how we can secure the system and ensure that fraud is minimised. However, she described a quite different situation from the way in which the postal vote system operated in my constituency and region, so I quickly wrote some comments down. I could well be wrong but I think that we operated a marked register somewhere in the northern region, if not in Stockton. All parties knew who had voted and at what stage that had happened throughout the process. Secondly, and valuably, voters in Stockton, South could take their postal ballot by hand to a polling station on the day of the election. As the hon. Lady rightly said, we believed that it was important to give people the widest and most flexible possible opportunity to express their vote. People had two options: they could post their vote or take their postal vote to a polling station, so a safety net was established.

It is crucial that we get the system right because many hon. Members have expressed the fear that fraud will occur. I read all the reports on the northern region's pilot studies because, naturally, we do not want to be part of systems that reduce politics in any way. Politics is reduced enough by far too much unscrupulous press coverage, so I do not want any more of the same. I tell the hon. Lady that I know of no concerns about, or evidence of, serious security issues during the pilot studies and that no challenge was made on the basis of fraud. That was said by all participating parties, which included the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative and Labour parties. We were all involved in watching and scrutinising how the 13 constituencies operated postal voting.

Sir Robert Smith: My worry is the potential for fraud and whether safeguards have yet been fully worked out to police fraud so that it cannot take off. When we pass legislation, our worry is about how people will respond in the long term, not necessarily during the first trial.

Ms Taylor: I would not undermine that statement for one minute. Each and every one of us wants to scrutinise the whole system so that we can be reassured again and again that fraud will be minimised.

First and foremost, I believe that we want to reinvigorate democracy and measure democratic involvement using the one method that we have always used—voting activity. However, equally, while invigorating democracy, we all want to ensure that we keep up to date with methods to the same extent as people throughout the country. Time and time again young people say to me, "What about e-voting?" I am

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cold to that method. I do not want to e-vote because I like going to the ballot box in a polling station, but young people press the case. They ask about text voting. I have no sense of involvement with that either, but it is clear that young people do. It is important for this legislature to have a wide-ranging discussion on possible pilots, as we have done today. We must also acknowledge the views of people outside the Chamber who think that we are not as up to date as they are and do not give them the opportunities to which they believe they are entitled. We are discussing one small pilot. It does not answer the whole case. We are not going to reinvigorate democracy simply by introducing this small measure, which I support.

I stress to my hon. Friend the Minister that the northern region has had 13 successful pilots, in which the turnout increased by 20 to 25 per cent. It is an obvious place to locate pilots for the European and local government elections in 2004.

5.6 pm

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): It gives me great pleasure to speak in support of the Government. I always wish to do so, but sometimes they let me down.

I support what is proposed because we must do everything we can to improve turnout at elections. Getting people out to vote is important. I draw lessons from the Library report, which surveys the various experiments that took place. I note, however, that extending voting hours reduced the turnout in every case: the logical conclusion of that is if we allow people 20 minutes to vote at some point during the day, virtually everyone will make it. I see that the Government have not been sufficiently bold to pursue that.

I support the aim of making it easier for people to vote, but that does not address all the issues. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Parliament is not adequately tackling our failure to interest enough people in politics. There are many problems that the Bill and the Government do not address. The first is the culture of the yah-boo politics of confrontation, which undoubtedly alienates young people. My children and their friends frequently comment on our behaviour. They think we behave like young children in a minor English public school as we shout back and forth at each other across the Benches. I have occasionally indulged in that myself, Mr. Kettle, but none the less I recognise the need to repent, and I am willing to do so if others are willing to do likewise.

Mr. Tom Harris: Two examples do not help my hon. Friend's argument. Neither the Scottish Parliament nor the European Parliament are forums famous for yah-boo politics, yet turnout for the elections to both Assemblies is considerably lower than it is for the House of Commons.

Mr. Davidson: I will come to that.

The second reason why we are losing public support is the culture of spin and over-presentation. Politics as a brand of show business has been introduced to a great extent by some members of the Government. We must consciously break away from that. Spinning the end of

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spin is not sufficient—genuine recantation and reform are needed rather than just the presentation of them.We should consider seriously the way in which we balance the need to end the excessive rigidity of the whipping system and the need to ensure that parties and groups are not over-divided. That balance needs to be struck in a way that enables us to engage more with the public, who on the one hand do not like clones but on the other do not like undue splits and divisions. It is a question of managing to strike that balance in a mature fashion.

I should like to touch on the serious matter of low turnout, which is politically malign. People who do not vote are usually those who need politics the most, including the poorest and the least educated. Those who most need the state's efforts are often those who make the least effort to influence affairs of state. Politics therefore increasingly becomes a contest for the votes of the prosperous—it is a bidding contest for the votes of the articulate middle class. However, many of the people I seek to represent find themselves neglected and ignored. I do not believe—in this I support the views of one of the Opposition speakers—that that decline is inevitable. It depends on whether or not we can engage with the population as a whole. Had we had a general election or an opportunity for the expression of popular support during the Iraq war, there would have been a tremendously high turnout, particularly among young people, because they engaged with the issue. But there is a disconnection between the issues about which they feel strongly and the ways in which they can express their views.


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