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Mr. Hoyle: At the end of each day the turnout was shown, so that, as was the case when people stood outside polling stations and asked voters for their card numbers, the candidate knew the percentage and where the votes were coming from. Of course he would have to decide for himself whether those votes were for him or for someone else. No doubt someone as popular as the hon. Gentleman would assume that they had all been for him.
People's imaginations were caught. They were asking each other "Have you voted?" Not wanting to trust their votes to Royal Mail, they were arriving at the town hall to deliver them in person. There was a ballot box for those who wanted to use it, which had to be emptied four or five times a day. That shows how successful was the pilot of two years ago. Indeed, it produced the highest local-election vote in the country. Chorley has a lot to shout aboutalthough I will always shout on its behalf, for I am very parochial and very proud of Chorley.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): My hon. Friend speaks on the basis of great experienceexperience of possibly just one election in Chorley. Does he agree that postal voting is often confusing, especially for older people? That applies not least to my area, in which next year not one, not two but three elections will take placeEuropean, local and parish, each featuring a different system. For that reason Newcastle borough council, on a cross-party basis, recently urged the west midlands not to be part of a pilot next year.
Paul Farrelly: Should the postal vote not serve as a supplementary to the tried and trusted method of the ballot box, the difference being that people could take their ballot papers along with them on the day?
Mr. Hoyle: I am interested to learn that the west midlands have opted out. That leaves a few of us who can bid. I hope that the north-west will again be one of the chosen areas, so that the people of Chorley can benefit.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend wants to express his views, and to exclude his own authority from the postal vote. That is fine, for this is really about what we believe is best for our areas. I can only describe the success we have experienced in Chorleyand it was not just in one election. Far from it: there were two. I was going to come to the second later.
Angela Watkinson: Claustrophobic people who do not like going into polling booths, and indeed agoraphobic people who do not like leaving their houses, have always had the option of a postal vote. They can have a permanent postal vote if they like. It is not a new option; it is the compulsion that is new.
Mr. Hoyle: That is true, but there has not been much take-up in the past. People have had to apply, and there have always been restrictions. Until recently, reasons for being allowed a postal vote were limited. Some doctors were unwilling to sign the form allowing such a vote, while others wanted to charge a fee. That was one of the problems. Now people are being offered a golden opportunity. Some regions may not want it, but others, such as mine, are saying, "We want to go ahead. We want to be part of the new trial." That is what Chorley wants: all the political parties have agreed that they want to take part for a third time.
Mr. Peter Duncan: Those parties were making a voluntary decision. In this instance, the UK Government are deciding which region will take part in the trial. Should not the financial burden therefore fall on the Government?
Mr. Hoyle: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that point, which he keeps trying to get across. In fact, the matter went before the full council, so the full council took the decision. In effect, the hon. Gentleman is saying that this House should take such decisions, and I welcome that view. I totally agree: let us put the question to the House and accept the House's decision. That is exactly what happened with Chorley town hall, which took the decision. The hon. Gentleman is taking a very good line that we ought to encourage.
Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman is so generous in giving way. The point was made earlier about the confusion caused by long and complicated ballot papers, with which people can get assistance at polling stations, if necessary. However, there is also the question of those who spoil ballot papers and have to get another paper from the returning officer's desk. What provision is made for that problem in postal voting, and for fraud, impersonation and the stealing of other people's ballot papers?
Mr. Hoyle: The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points, but those who lost ballot papers or made mistakes filling them in applied for new ones, which were duly issued. We can overcome that problem, but I should point out that this great belief that fraud does not occur under the old system is a little naive. Part of the problem is that under the old system we do not know that the person who goes into the polling station and puts a vote in the ballot box is the person who should be voting. Nor do we know how much fraud goes on. We
Mr. Hoyle: Of course he is an hon. Gentlemanis that better, Madam Deputy Speaker? We are all hon. Members, which is why this is an important debate. I am pleased that we can get a little humour into the Chamber now and again; nevertheless, this is an important subject.
What is crucial is how many additional people will vote under the new system. I agree that no system can be 100 per cent. right, but in the case of the first trial in Chorley, when we franchised the postal vote system, a security check was carried out afterwards. Certain people were picked off the register, their votes were checked and they were all correct. As with everything, there will doubtless always be some fraud somewhere, but in fairness it should be pointed out that a security check was carried out, and that the electoral returning officer, the council leaders and everybody else were happy with the system.
Because of the success of the first year, Chorley's political leaders decided to put the matter before the full council, and the town hall decided to apply for the second wave. That happened for two reasons. First, the Government provide a subsidy to pay for elections; secondly, the town hall's electoral system had been modernised. For the following election, not only postal voting but texting and computers were used, so votes could be e-mailed. Following the huge success of the first wavethe voting figure was 62 per cent., just 1 per cent. behind the general election figurewe wondered whether the second wave would repeat that success or fall back to 25 per cent. The key point was whether, after the novelty of the first year, the figure would fall right back. So it was crucial to have a two-year trial to discover what people thought of the system. In fairness, the figure did drop in the second year, but not significantly so. It was still well over the magical 50 per cent. figure, which was important. Interestingly, during the first trial the figure for one particular ward was 78 per cent., so there was some enthusiasm in certain wards. People wondered, "Can our ward be better than another ward?"
Mr. Kevan Jones: It is interesting to hear that the beaming light of democracy is strong and vibrant in Chorley, but does my hon. Friend agree that if we take postal voting away from constituencies such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), where postal voting has been used for three years, the situation will seem strange and turnout might plummet dramatically? That might even prove true in bastions of democracy such as Chorley.