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Mr. Heath: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 4—Conduct of elections under a pilot order—

'Any pilot order made under section 2 may make provision for—
(a) all-postal voting; or
(b) any combination of postal voting and voting in person at a polling station;
but may not make provision for any other manner of conducting an election.'.

New clause 7—Matters not to be included in pilots—

'No pilot may include any use of voting electronically by computer, mobile telephone, SMS, text or any other form of e-voting.'.

Mr. Heath: The debate now moves from postal voting to all-electronic voting. New clause 3 was tabled prior to

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the recent report from the Electoral Commission. As with the provisions in new clause 2 in relation to postal voting, new clause 3 would introduce new safeguards for electronic voting.

Electronic voting raises even more pertinent questions about fraud prevention than does the use of postal ballot papers. However, I tabled new clause 4 after the publication of the Electoral Commission report, and to some extent it supersedes new clause 3. I am grateful for the support given to new clause 4 by Conservative Front-Bench Members.

3.15 pm

New clause 4 makes it clear that we feel that electronic voting should not form part of the pilot schemes to be held under the Bill, for the simple reason that it has been rejected in the Electoral Commission report. Paragraph 3.20 states:

Moreover, paragraph 3.21 states:

New clause 4 is one of two litmus tests before the Government this afternoon. Much has been said about the Electoral Commission's importance, impartiality and independence, and about how it has looked at these matters in depth. The Minister has said, quite properly, that it is Ministers who first propose legislation, and then in the end determine what is included in a Bill. However, we have said all along that it would be improper for Ministers to overrule the independent advice of the Electoral Commission, unless they have extremely good reasons for doing so. Moreover, they must be able to explain any such reasons to the satisfaction of the House.

I do not believe that the Government have any grounds on which to reject the Electoral Commission's findings, which in effect underwrite the concerns expressed in Committee. The test is whether the Government will accept the Electoral Commission's clear recommendation. If they exclude it from the Bill, we need to know on what grounds they have made their determination, and for what reason.

I shall not detain the House on these new clauses, as I suspect that the battle has been won. I believe that our concerns have been recognised, and that the Government will accept the Electoral Commission's recommendation. I do not know whether they will accept new clause 4. I hope that they do, but they may continue to resist it on the ground that they will take a decision on it at some nebulous point in the future.

We must wait and see what the Minister has to say on that score. I shall return to the matter if his response is inadequate. It is not my intention to press new clause 3 to a Division at the end of this short debate, but I shall certainly ask the House to divide on new clause 4, which would, in effect, put the Electoral Commission's

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recommendation into action. That recommendation is the only right and proper position for the Government and Parliament to take.

Mr. Hurst: I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has read the report by the Electoral Commission and he will have heard what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has said on the issue, which may be supported by other hon. Members. While there is some evidence—it is not overwhelming, but it is considerable—that all-postal ballots increase turnout in local elections to about 50 per cent., some 40 years ago that would have been regarded as par for the course in ordinary elections. My father was a borough councillor and was often elected or defeated on turnouts of about 60 per cent. in local elections. These days, we might think that such figures represented progress in a general election.

There may be a case for all-postal voting, but there is probably no case for new-fangled electronic techniques, which many people—including one or two Members of Parliament—may not fully understand. Therefore, we would create two classes of elector: those who know about such things and those who do not. One of the problems caused by juggling around with the electoral process is that it creates uncertainty. I have read a helpful Library paper on turnout in various pilot schemes and I cast my eye over one or two of the tables reproduced in it. One of them gave the figures for spoiled ballot papers, and the largest number spoiled by voting for more than one candidate or for no candidate occurred in 2001, 1997 and 1979. Those were all years in which there was another election held alongside the general election, which created natural confusion in the minds of some people. Thus, the number of spoiled ballot papers rose dramatically, compared with other occasions.

I do not wish to labour the point too strongly, but we must be mindful that if we alter the mechanism of voting—the way we vote—we may change the decisions that the electorate make. If we make it easier for those who have electronic equipment to vote and more confusing for those who are unused to electronic equipment to vote, the result may be different from what it would have been had we not taken those steps. All those issues need to be considered with great care.

We have yet to reach the ultimate test for postal voting, which would be its application in a general election. It would take a courageous Government, of whichever party, to take that decision, because it would almost certainly create a different result to the old system. However, it is only when that step is taken that we will see whether all-postal voting, or anything other than ballot-box voting, increases turnout. In limited pilots, such as local government elections or European elections, we might only be raising the number of those who vote to the levels of general elections, and the changes in the voting system might not make any difference in a general election. The only final test would be applying the system to a general election and we may need to think long and hard before we take that step. Meanwhile, if we should beware of anything we should beware of electronic voting, which could distort the result of an election.

Mr. Hawkins: As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has said, this group contains new

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clause 3, tabled by the Liberal Democrats before the Electoral Commission report was published, and new clause 4, which supersedes new clause 3 and to which we have added our names. We had added our names before we saw the report, which pleased me because it showed that we realised which of the new clauses was going further in our direction.

The group also contains new clause 7, which we tabled. I anticipate that the Minister will be able to be helpful, in the light of the Electoral Commission ruling out e-voting for next year's pilot, but even if he were able to convince the Liberal Democrats not to press new clause 4, I would wish to press new clause 7. We want a total ban on e-voting included in the Bill, because we have no enthusiasm whatever for it.

I said earlier that the Conservative party sees no need for so-called modernisation, which would spoil our traditional election methods. We can see some case for some expansion in postal voting, although many of my hon. Friends have taken the view that the changes that have already been made—which allow people who want postal votes to obtain them easily—are as far as we need to go. However, with some reluctance, we have accepted the possible need for further pilot schemes for postal voting, but in our opposition to e-voting we go even further than the Electoral Commission, which says that regions are not yet ready for it. We are delighted that the Electoral Commission has come to that conclusion, because all the evidence of technical people that e-voting systems are not secure reinforces it. We want to make clear our complete opposition to e-voting being included in the Bill. It would demean elections to start treating them as though people were voting in a television game show such as "Big Brother"—[Interruption.]

Mr. Leslie: I know that the hon. Gentleman will have the courtesy to hear what I have to say before he decides definitely to press new clause 7 to a vote.

Mr. Hawkins: Of course I will give the Minister that courtesy, but unless my ears deceive me, I thought I heard the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary saying, "Hear, hear" to some of the things that I said about "Big Brother". If I am getting support even from the PPS, it reinforces the strength of my views.

We do think that the issue is vital, and I shall explain why. When it comes to e-voting, had the Government proceeded with their original plans—as they gave every indication of doing when the Bill was in Committee—one region would have had voting by telephone, by text messaging or so-called SMS voting, via digital television and via the internet. As the region that might have adopted e-voting would also have been an all-postal one, voting electronically in a polling station would not have been relevant.

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