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Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman is generous in allowing me to intervene. He paints such an exciting picture of elections in Chorley that I almost wish I lived there. Is no one in Chorley unhappy about the removal of choice in how to cast their votes? Do no Chorley electors wish that they could still cast their votes in person? Does no one object to compulsory voting?
Mr. Hoyle: That is a very good point. There will always be someone who argues against any system. Some people argue against the system that we have now. I would say that it was only a minority of people who did not like the new system, but in democracies we must talk about the majority. I hope that we are all democrats here and accept the majority view. That is what happened in Chorley. It was about the majority of people accepting the new system.
It is important to realise that if people wanted the ballot paper to go into the ballot box, that option was available to them, because they could troop down to the town hall with their envelopes. The ballot box was there and they could put their ballot papers into it, just as under the old system. That choice was still there, which is important. If people wanted their votes to go into the ballot box, that was still available to them. That was crucial. Even on the closing of the polls, the town hall's ballot box was still open. If for some unknown reason people missed the mail on the day before or forgot to take the vote in, they could still dash down and vote at the town hall until the close of the poll. That is important when we are talking about systems and it explains why I welcome the system. All we can talk about is experience, and the experience in Chorley shows that the system worked. I hope that the north-west will benefit once again when we franchise the new system and pilot it.
Other hon. Members have quite rightly spoken. Some Members from the west midlands have said that they do not want the system. That is fine; that is their choice. I am pleased to say that I believe that it would be good for the north-west. I would like to see a franchise for the north-west and other colleagues here think the same. Some Members from Scotland said that they would like to try the new system.
It is important at the end of the day that the whole of the country is not trying this. We are going to have pilots. That is why it is called the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. If people want to opt out, let them say so now, and they will not be considered. Those who want to opt in should put that view forward and rightly say that the Bill is important to them. I know that there are exceptions, but I will be pleased if the north-west goes ahead, because it
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Conservative Members will not support the legislation this evening. We have substantial concerns and, if I may say so, they have been only exacerbated by some of the arguments made on both sides of the Housefrom all parties and including Government Back Benchers as well as Conservative Back Benchers. In particular, we strongly oppose the Government's plans to carry over the legislation, and decisions will be taken separately later this evening. We believe that carry-over is wrong in principle and Conservative Members feel very strongly about it. If the Government are allowed to get away with carrying over Bill after Bill, particularly when matters have been consulted on only at short notice, it will be bad for democracy. According to the Government, this legislation is supposed to be about increasing democracy. The proposal to carry the Bill over has nothing to do with that.
I propose to set out some of our concerns, and then I shall seek to summarise some of the important contributions that we have heard from both sides of the House. We are concerned about the Government's proposals for e-voting, especially because the jury is still out on its reliability and security. I shall return to the issue of the concerns that have been expressed by the most senior IT professionals about the lack of security.
If e-voting is to be piloted at allwe have many doubts about the wisdom of doing soany pilot scheme should not cover a whole region, given the concerns of the IT profession. Further, the pilot schemes that the Government intend to implement will not address the real, underlying causes of low turnout, especially in European elections. Those underlying causes are, principally, a flawed electoral system, the abandonment of first-past-the-post voting for European electionswe would like to return to itand a distant and unaccountable European Union, as perceived by the electorate.
If pilot schemes are to be set up, there is a strong case for the Electoral Commission to choose regions in which most of the local authorities are willing to conduct a pilot scheme. Regions should not be compelled to be pilot areas if the majority of local authorities are opposed to it. If necessary, there should be fewer than three pilot areas. In the speeches by Labour Members, we heard strong calls, especially from Scottish Members and Members from the north-east and north-west, for their areas to be pilot areas. If by some magical means
Mr. Miller: Has the hon. Gentleman examined the results of last May's elections in Vale Royal, which were conducted using an e-facility? That e-facility substantially increased turnout. It also resulted in a swing to the Conservatives, who took control of the authority. Why would the hon. Gentleman deny Conservatives in that area the ability to enjoy that facility?
Mr. Hawkins: I am delighted to congratulate the Conservatives in the Vale Royal area, but it would not be wise to choose one particular small area and generalise its results to the whole country. We have a proper caution about e-voting in the light of the severe warnings that we have received from senior people in the IT industry.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The hon. Gentleman makes a strong statement about the potential for fixing, whichto some extentis a slur on the Electoral Commission. If he examines the election pilot schemes in last year's local elections, he will see that the other partiesincluding independent candidates, in those areas where they stoodwere represented more in the pilots than was the Labour party.
Mr. Hawkins: I am not sure about the slightly confused latter point, but we are not casting any slurs on the Electoral Commission. We are concerned to ensure that if no good grounds are found for having three pilots, we could have fewer. We will continue to make that case. An area should be chosen for a pilot scheme only if a substantial number of local authorities are in favour of that.
We have concerns about that, and will be very interested to see how the pilots proposed in the Bill work out. As a party, we are not in any way opposed to pilots of further postal elections, and we have recognised that in some areasbut as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone remarked, by no means in all areaspostal ballots have increased voter turnout. However, concerns persist about ballot security. Investigations into the postal voting pilots that have taken place already have been piecemeal and inadequate.
What reliable evidence there is from objective sources suggests that the scope for abuse of postal ballots is wider than the Government care to admit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone pointed out, senior police officers have raised concerns that the greater use of postal voting, including postal votes on demand, in normal elections could lead to suspicions of vote rigging.
Although we recognise that the countersignature is not a foolproof method of ensuring the identity of the person completing the ballot paper, it is an extra safeguard that does increase confidence. The countersignature requirement has remained the norm for postal voting in normal elections.
We strongly support a limit on the number of ballot papers that may be sent to an address that is not the registered address of the voter concerned. That would help to increase the public's confidence in postal voting by making large-scale abuses more difficult. We believe that some of the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission could have been introduced in the Bill. We will explore that further in Standing Committee, as we try to improve the proposals. The recommendations include clarifying the law on undue influence and specifying a secrecy warning to be included in postal voting literature.
On voter confidentiality, concerns have been raised that voter secrecy has been compromised in all postal pilots. In some past pilot schemes, the declaration of identity was even attached to the ballot paper, and only detached at the count. We believe that it would be better to retain the traditional method of placing the ballot paper in a sealed envelope, separate from the declaration of identity. That would help to reassure voters that their ballot would remain confidential during the delivery, handling and counting processes.
If it remains unamended, the Bill will impose all-postal pilots on local authorities that may not wish to participate. In such cases, we believe that it would be very important to have delivery points in each local government ward. That would allow electors, if they so wished, to drop off their ballot envelopes by hand, at a secure location convenient for them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone made clear, we are very concerned, in the light of current and likely future strike action by Post Office staff in various parts of the country, that there might be a doubt about the reliability of the postal service in an all-postal election. Independent organisations such as Postwatch have commented that since 1997 the postal system has unfortunately become increasingly unreliable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) pointed out, on average 1,500 items of mail are lost each week in every parliamentary constituency. That is a lot of misdelivered or lost mail, which is of great concern if there is to be an increase in postal pilots.
A delivery point in each ward, arranged by the local authority, would act as a measure of last resort during postal industrial action. It would reassure voters who did not trust the postal service, thereby increasing turnout. Large rural areas may need more than one delivery point per ward. Greater clarification of opening times would also be helpful for voters.