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Mr. Davidson: Gosh. I am not sure what constitutes the electronic equivalent to being lost under a table, but if it can be done with bits of paper, I am sure that it can be done with gee-whizzery. I find it difficult to operate my computer and I cannot believe that everybody else operates theirs to the highest possible standard and that there is no scope for jiggery-pokery. It is not clear how we could be confident that a recount was being conducted according to the highest standards.

Mr. Miller: My hon. Friend's argument reminds me a little of that of a constituent, who explained carefully, in a seven-page letter, the reason for voting in pencil. He argued that it was so that "they" could alter the results. I asked him how I got elected when "they" altered the results. My hon. Friend is presenting conspiracy theories.

Mr. Davidson: I can give my hon. Friend's constituent a simple explanation: I always thought that he was one of "they". I rest my case.

Let me remind the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), of the saying that we are at our best when we are at our boldest. I hope that when he sums up, he will be a little bolder than his fellow Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), who opened the debate. [Interruption.] I am an optimist. Nobody is beyond

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redemption. My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham is too young to be completely institutionalised.

We should consider a pilot for first past the post. As I said earlier, I do not understand why we cannot hold a first-past-the-post pilot in Scotland in the European elections to ascertain whether the turnout increases drastically.

Angus Robertson: How is it possible to hold a first-past-the-post election for the European Parliament in any region, given that under treaty obligations, the United Kingdom and every other European Union member state must have the same or a similar proportional representation electoral system?

Mr. Davidson: The hon. Gentleman does not appreciate the extent of the Prime Minister's influence with our European partners. I am convinced that if we had the will, we could debate with our European partners and tell them that we were being bold. We could say, "We are at our best when we are at our boldest and we call on you to agree to the experiment." There would be something in that for many of our European colleagues, because if we managed to find a method of increasing people's connection to the European Parliament, they might want to copy it. The falling turnout in European elections is happening not only in the United Kingdom but everywhere else in the European Union.

It is no coincidence that in virtually every referendum held in the European Union, "they"—whether it is my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) or his colleagues—lose. Those who are running the system lose referendums. It is only when they have to re-run them—as in Ireland—that they occasionally win them.

I notice that the Minister has had to bring in reinforcements now that we are discussing the question of boldness. My second point about boldness was also raised obliquely by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris); it concerns the question of compulsory voting. Have the Government considered looking at the Australian example? I was in Australia recently and I was struck by the fact that, over there, compulsory voting, which would seem contentious in the extreme to us, is now accepted as part of the furniture. This raises the issue of people's rights and responsibilities. All the citizens of this country have rights—quite rightly so—and we are seeking to expand them. There is also an issue of responsibilities. In Australia, people have the opportunity to go along and not vote, but they actually have to make the effort to make that decision, as it were. We ought at least to be seriously considering that option.

My third point concerning boldness relates to a referendum on the European constitution. I have already touched on whether we could have a pilot on this. We could ask people whether they would like to have a referendum. Public opinion indicates overwhelmingly that people wish to have a voice on the

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new European constitution. I am not entirely familiar with the position taken by all the Irish parties, but I think that every party bar my own, which is split on this question, is now in favour of a referendum on it. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to increase interest in politics and get himself on the news tonight by announcing that we are to have a referendum on the European constitution.

Mr. Peter Duncan: Be bold!

Mr. Davidson: I would also tell the Minister to be bold. This would get him some good coverage. He would be speaking to the Prime Minister pretty quickly if he announced that tonight.

The final point about boldness that I would like the Minister to consider is the question of the simplification of the electoral system. As has already been mentioned, in Scotland, we are in danger of having four different levels of government with four different electoral systems. That is clearly a recipe for confusion. The European Union might well not allow us to consider anything other than proportional representation at European level. However, we are still open to having a similar or equivalent system across the three other tiers. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to say that the Government will introduce positive proposals in due course for a first-past-the-post system for the Scottish Parliament. In consequence, we could then ensure that first past the post could be retained for Scottish local government as well.

I would like to say how grateful I am that the new sitting hours of the House have the last speaker finishing at 7 o'clock rather than 10 o'clock. Given the lack of interventions, I am not sure that, if we had had to continue until 10 o'clock, I would have been able to abide by the Whips' exhortation to keep things going as long as possible.

I support the Government in this matter. What they have done is necessary but not sufficient, and I hope that when the Minister comes to his summation, he will be bold and take up some of the very positive suggestions that have been made by my colleagues and me.

5.34 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): This is quite an important debate. [Laughter.] Opposition Members may laugh and Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members chuckle, but some of us have experience of pilot schemes for postal voting. I shall explain what has happened in Chorley in the past two years. It may be a lesson for the Liberal Democrats, but that is never hard. It is important to discuss previous experience.

We were lucky in Chorley. Two years ago, not just the Labour group that runs the borough council—far from it—but all three political parties and the independent councillors wanted to encourage the good electors of Chorley to exercise their franchise again. The Liberal Democrat vote collapsed in the local elections, and we felt sorry for them. We felt sorry for all political parties. Once the vote goes below 30 per cent. in certain wards, the problem must be addressed. One of the ways to deal with the problem of people not voting is to give them more time and more opportunity to vote. We believed that the right thing to do was to apply for a pilot in postal voting.

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Two years ago, the leader of the council, Jack Wilson, the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and a couple of Independants agreed to work together to try to persuade more people to vote. They said that if someone objected they would not proceed. It is important that the political parties work together to ensure that more people use their democratic right.

Angus Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman advise his hon. Friends on the Front Bench that any pilot in any electoral region in the UK should have the support of the main political parties in that region?

Mr. Hoyle: I am talking about Chorley borough council. The council felt that that was right. If the hon. Gentleman welcomes the position of the Labour leader of Chorley borough council that is fine, but I want to explain how it worked in Chorley. It is up to the people to decide how it should work in the hon. Gentleman's own country. It is not up to me to decide what is good for Scotland. It is up to the Minister and the hon. Gentleman to negotiate and discuss that. It is not for me to influence the views of the people of Scotland. I have no wish to do that, because I do not want my postbag to be full of letters from Scotland. I shall concentrate on the experience of Chorley.

Leaders of all the political parties in Chorley worked together. They wanted to encourage more people to vote, and they wanted to be in the first pilot scheme. The chief executive, Jeff Davies, who has been there a long time, had seen a declining turnout at every local election. In the general election, there was a 62 per cent. turnout. I was asked why I could bring in 62 per cent. whereas in wards the turnout was down to 24 per cent.

It was decided that an application should be made for Chorley to be in the first wave of pilot schemes. That application was successful. Thankfully, it went very well. Councillors had to change the way in which they canvassed. They had a new system to work with, and all political parties were sceptical about whether it would work. We wondered how we would let the public know that there was a new scheme and a new way to vote. We got the newspapers involved, because the media have a role to play. They are good at persuading people not to vote by condemning us and showing us up. However, the local newspapers were helpful and urged their readers to get behind this new idea.

On the side of the town hall and the council offices was a thermometer, and each day as the votes came in the thermometer rose nicely. It worked. People were engaged with the new way of voting. It encouraged people who had never voted before, who did not like the system or were afraid of going into the polling station. I do not know whether it is agoraphobia, but some people have a fear of the ballot box. They were able to vote at home and post their ballot paper to the town hall.

Royal Mail played its part. This is about partnership. We had the co-operation of the media, the council officers, who had a new system to work with, the political parties and Royal Mail, which emptied the postboxes and made two deliveries a day to the town

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hall. The advantage was that representatives from each of the political parties watched the ballot papers being opened, checked, bundled and put away. The bar codes were also checked, so we knew that the ballot papers were correct. That system was very successful.


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