Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Hawkins: As always, I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that if the Government allowed a vote and referendum on the EU constitution—an issue on which he and I would be campaigning on the same side—there would be a large turnout and a decisive rejection of the constitution?

Mr. Davidson: I believe that that is an issue with which the public could engage. Because they would be engaged with it in a way that the Government do not want, the Government are declining to allow a referendum. The reason why we have not joined the euro is that a commitment was made some time ago to have a referendum, which the Government have declined to hold as they know that they would lose. Similarly, they are resisting a referendum on the new European constitution because they believe that they would be defeated. Some people in favour of the new constitution have argued that the only way in which change will be achieved is to engage the public by putting the issues before them through the forum of a referendum, from which a genuine decision will flow. I support that position. We cannot continue to have a political elite leading us further down a particular road in European decision making and politics without the people's consent, which is almost deliberately designed to increase alienation, discontent and unhappiness. When that alienation and discontent cannot find legitimate political expression, there are swings to the extremes, of the kind that have sadly taken place in some parts of Europe in recent years.

21 Oct 2003 : Column 580

However, I digress, and shall turn to the European elections themselves. There are a number of reasons why European turnouts have been so low. First, as many Members have mentioned, there is the question of proportional representation. Undoubtedly, the introduction of huge constituencies with list members with whom virtually nobody can identify has driven down voter turnout, engagement and participation. I fail to comprehend why the Government are not prepared to recognise that. I admit that Europe will probably not allow us to change our electoral system, but the Government ought at least to acknowledge that and say honestly, "We would like to change the system. It is not our fault. We recognise that first-past-the-post Members would allow more of you to be adequately represented, but this is one of the prices that we have paid." A straightforward admission would be helpful.

The closed list system and the jiggery-pokery that has gone on not only in my party, but in the Conservative party and others, whereby people have been selected for lists for various reasons, not all of which are publicly available, has undoubtedly reduced the attraction of participation for many.

The third reason for low turnout is the dislocation between the British public and the great European adventure in general. We must look for ways of re-establishing contact. It was suggested not long ago by one Minister that the European elections should be turned into a referendum on the European constitution. If the Government were prepared to accept that the European elections would be a referendum on the European constitution, I can see that that would be helpful in terms of driving up turnout. However, it would not be helpful to my party's cause, so I very much hope that the Government would not take that course of action, and would seek by any means possible to avoid the European elections becoming a referendum on the European constitution.

The best way of doing that is by holding a separate referendum on the European constitution, thereby parking the issue on one side of the European elections, so that the elections can take place in the context of the European constitution, yea or nay. It would be immensely helpful for the engagement of the British public in politics if spokesmen, of the Government in particular, did not make the entirely false assumption that anyone who wants a referendum on the European constitution ipso facto wants us to withdraw entirely from the European Union. That is a foul slander from which, in the interests of honesty and openness in politics, I hope the Government will refrain in future.

I turn to the provisions for the checks on fraud. Many of the earlier speakers mentioned points that I would otherwise have made. I want some explanation of the process whereby the Electoral Commission came to the conclusion that all the pilots have been acceptable and free from fraud. I wonder how many members of the Electoral Commission have ever stood in a tight selection in a political party context or in a trade union election. That might be a valuable learning experience, which would demonstrate that the theory of elections is not always the practice.

In council elections, wards can be won when there are relatively small amounts of fraud. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) that the best way to defeat fraud in

21 Oct 2003 : Column 581

large elections is to bump up the turnout. However, in elections for individual wards, fraud can significantly affect the result. I seek the Minister's clarification of the amount of back-checking that has been done. The fact that there have been no complaints does not necessarily mean that there has been no fraud.

With reference to postal voting, for example, how many signatures accompanying the ballot paper that came in have been compared with the signature on the application form? How many ballots have been ruled out because the two did not match? If there are no examples of checking and no examples of ballot papers being ruled out, I find it difficult to believe that there has been no fraud whatever. My only significant experience of postal voting was an internal Labour party election in Glasgow, where it was run so inadequately that the whole ballot had to be re-run. It is impossible to believe that that has not happened elsewhere. Those ballot papers were ruled out for a variety of reasons, some of which were innocent: for example, people had rushed their signature on one occasion, but not another; or people whose first language was not English had expressed themselves slightly differently on two separate occasions. Nevertheless, it raised enough doubts in my mind to make me somewhat cynical about the merits of postal voting in small electoral divisions.

On e-voting, would the mere possession of a number allow someone to cast a vote on someone else's behalf? The United Kingdom is now a multicultural community, and different attitudes to democracy are found among many of the groups that make up our country. I am not certain whether the traditional view is necessarily the only correct one. If, say, a godfather collects numbers from an extended family, or on the basis of comradeship or commercial links, should that be condemned in every case? Are we right to say that there should be individual, rather than collective, voting? [Hon. Members: "What's the answer?"] I think I know the answer, but I want to know what steps the Government are taking to ensure that what we might see as malpractice is being stamped out. All the evidence—anecdotal, not from the Electoral Commission—shows that such malpractice is occurring.

I am not convinced that the Government are taking that issue sufficiently seriously. I have argued that they should be bold and experimental in several respects, but in some areas more caution is required: we must retain people's trust in the electoral system by ensuring that its integrity is beyond doubt. Can the Minister tell us how many reverse checks have been made? How many people who voted electronically were subsequently approached and asked whether they voted, or whether other people, by a variety of methods, cast votes on their behalf? Let us check whether the system is foolproof.

Angus Robertson: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not having been present at the start of his comments. Does he agree that one of the most simple and effective safeguards in making such checks is a marked-up register, and that it is essential to have such a register in any pilot region where postal voting takes place?

Mr. Davidson: I was about to come to that point, but I shall deal with it now. I am not entirely familiar with the details of the marked-up register system, but hon. Members on both sides of the House have made

21 Oct 2003 : Column 582

valuable points about it. So far, the Government seem to have provided the strongest possible assurances that as much as possible is being done, and I look forward to the Minister's confirmation that that will be adhered to.

I want to ask the Minister about recounts. Having participated in elections where recounts have been necessary, whether to save a deposit or to determine who has won, I have never been entirely clear about how a satisfactory recount can be conducted where there is electronic voting. The old paper piles have the merit that they can be stacked up and looked through one by one. I am not clear about the electronic voting equivalent. Unless the system can demonstrate beyond peradventure that the votes have been cast and counted accurately, there will always be a suspicion that those who know how to manipulate the technology have rigged the results.

Like many others, I was interested to read in a national newspaper reports of anxiety in the United States about the possible misuse of electronic voting. The Americans cannot run even a mechanical system properly, and it is unrealistic to expect them to run anything more complicated more coherently. We should not simply jump into something that is perceived to be technologically at the cutting edge.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): I apologise for missing my hon. Friend's opening remarks. When I was a party agent in Ealing some years ago, there was a recount and genuine difficulties arose because some of the bundles of paper had been lost; they were misplaced under another table. The joy and advantage of electronic voting is that such a problem simply would not occur. It is much easier to compile the information and it should be quicker to count the votes in the first place.


Next Section

IndexHome Page