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2.30 pm

Mr. Heath: The Electoral Commission has produced its own recommendation that individual registration is a necessary precondition for rolling out the scheme. That is one form of verifiable identification.

Angela Watkinson: It is essential that electors be able to have total confidence in the confidentiality of the voting process. In all-postal ballots, unlike voting in the traditional way at a polling station, electors cannot witness their ballot paper being put into a sealed ballot box. New clause 2(b) would require acknowledgements to be sent to electors for returned ballot papers. This would help to overcome the doubts of many electors that they would have no way of knowing whether their ballot papers had been received at the town hall. Indeed, given the number of items of post that are acknowledged routinely to go missing, it is reasonable to assume that some ballot papers might not arrive at their intended destination.

I personally have had several items of post go missing this year—that I know about. One was correctly addressed and had a first class stamp on it. It arrived in

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perfect condition, undamaged and not dog-eared or showing any signs of having been on a long and difficult journey, three months after it had been posted at a point about 10 miles away. Another item of post was sent to me from this House to my home address just before the summer recess, and I am still waiting for it to arrive. It has disappeared into a black hole. Delays of that kind involving election documents would deprive electors of their vote, and that is a serious matter.

The same problem would apply to the receipt by voters of their blank ballot papers and acknowledgements of their completed ballot papers. I received a number of complaints during the election period from people who had not received their ballot paper from the town hall. On inquiring at the town hall, they had been told that it had been sent to them. There was no form of appeal, and no way of obtaining a duplicate ballot paper. Often, time was too short to do anything about that. Wrong delivery is another complication. Some people redirect mail if it is wrongly delivered through their letter box, but not everyone takes the trouble to do so. Some wrongly delivered items therefore end up in kitchen waste bins, never to be seen again, and it is difficult to see how that problem could be overcome.

New clause 2(c) requires arrangements to be made for the personal delivery of ballot papers for those electors who prefer that, or in the event of a disruption of postal services. I hope that the Minister will agree that this is a sensible requirement for contingency arrangements which should be included in this Bill. One collection point in each constituency would not be enough, particularly in rural areas, or in areas in which elderly voters prefer to stick to the traditional voting method that they have always used. Many of them like to go to a familiar polling station, and they resent having to change the way in which they vote. That option should be available to them.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend will be relieved to know that this point was raised in Committee. She will also have noticed from the amendment paper today that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have tabled new clause 6, although it was not selected for debate because the matter had already been dealt with in Committee. The new clause dealt with the preservation of the traditional methods of voting. My hon. Friend will also be aware that I quoted her when we debated the issue in Committee.

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful contribution.

New clause 2(d) provides for the reduction of opportunities for personation and other forms of malpractice that postal voting makes much easier. Every precaution possible must be taken to protect the confidentiality of the vote, to ensure the security of the transfer of votes from one place to another, whether by post or motor vehicle, and to ensure that nobody is either influenced or intimidated in relation to the way in which they vote, or deprived of their vote, or able to vote more than once. We must also ensure that the person casting the vote is the person who is entitled to do so.

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The Electoral Reform Society supports those views, and does not believe that the Bill will be in a form that is ready to be introduced until every possible means has been used to combat potential fraud, because of the various issues that I have just raised. Too many uncertainties exist at the moment for all-postal ballots to be introduced without resolving the opportunities for fraud, and the Bill should not proceed until that has been done.

Mr. Tom Harris: My hon. Friend the Minister will be relieved to hear that I intend to make only a few brief points. First, I would like to respond to the heartfelt and genuine view expressed by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) that it is necessary to maintain traditional polling practices because some voters, particularly older people, have gone to the same polling station year after year and want to maintain that practice. However, the problem lies not with our older voters, who will always come out and vote; it lies with our younger voters—people aged 18 upwards—who do not vote and whom we need to persuade to vote. Senior citizens have a great sense of civic responsibility and need no extra encouragement to vote. They already understand their responsibilities. It is younger voters to whom we need to introduce new forms of voting because they have shown time and again that they are reluctant to vote. We need to deal with that problem.

Mr. Forth: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that apathy and indifference are themselves political acts, and that it is perfectly legitimate for a citizen of whatever age, young or old, not to vote because they are not interested or do not think it worth while, or because it is, in their view, a bit difficult to do so? One of the great dangers inherent in the obsession with making it easier to vote is that people may in the end undervalue the process rather than value it fully.

Mr. Harris: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and I have some sympathy with it. My problem with the general approach to making the political system more engaging and relevant is that there is a danger of putting certain issues on the back burner. We are trying to introduce a fairly radical measure to encourage higher turnout in the short term. I am sure that he would approve of more strategic measures to engage people of all ages and classes politically and to encourage them to become more involved in the political process. Unfortunately, I do not think that that is going to happen in the short term. We need to come up with some shorter-term measures to find out whether it is possible to increase engagement. That may not happen as a result of the Bill, and we will then have to go back to the drawing board. I support the Bill, however, because it provides us with an opportunity to see whether this innovation will work.

I draw the House's attention briefly to a point that I raised with the hon. Member for Upminster about new clause 2, which proposes that

I accept what she said about the verification of identity, but, technically, that is not what the new clause refers to. It refers to a "verifiable form of identification", and I do not believe that that could apply to a simple statement

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claiming that I am who I am. A form of identification is a document proving that a person has a particular identity, not that they are claiming to have that identity. On that basis, the House must reject new clause 2.

I am intrigued by new clause 5. It proposes:

I wonder how the House would react if the chief executives of a commercially run organisation were to write to the Minister before an all-postal ballot—and the letters published in the House of Commons Library—stating that they were incapable of carrying out the duties for which their companies were being well subsidised by the public purse. I intend no disrespect to the chief executives involved, but if any of them thought that there were a possibility that even one in 10,000 of the ballot papers would go missing and wrote to the Minister to say, "Hold on, don't have this all-postal ballot because I cannot guarantee that one in 10,000 ballot papers will not go missing", it would undermine the commercial viability of the organisation concerned.

Mr. Hawkins: Does not the hon. Gentleman think that, when we are talking about the postal services being used for the vital purpose of voting in elections, those who hold those exalted positions should be able to be held to account by the House? Is that not what we are here for?

Mr. Harris: Absolutely, but the postal services are there to provide a day-to-day service on behalf of citizens to the best of their ability, and, I would hope, to a high standard, regardless of whether it is Christmas and there is extra demand or of whether there is a 100 per cent. postal ballot. It should not be necessary for the chief executive of such an organisation to claim in advance that it is, after all, capable of doing the job that it was established to do.

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