As I said, my party is not in favour of e-voting, not only for the European election but generally. As the Electoral Commission has come to the view that there
"is insufficient time available for all necessary development work to take place for the elections in June 2004",
16 Dec 2003 : Column 1482
we are reinforced in our opposition. The commission continued:
"Although local election electronic pilots have been delivered in less than six months, we believe that the scale of a regional pilot presents a higher level of complexity . . . when assessed against the criteria no region would be suitable to conduct an electronic voting pilot."
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made that point clear.
One of our many objections to e-voting is that, apart from the fact that it demeans electionsI very much welcome the views just expressed by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) from the Government Back Benchesin the few pilots that have been held it has not had a significant effect on turnout. The Electoral Commission's evaluation of the 2002 electronic voting pilots noted that
"the findings suggest that the advent of new technology did not inspire the electorate to vote in significantly greater numbers than would otherwise have been the case . . . there is no strong pattern of improved turnout."
That quotation comes from page 62 of the commission's report, "Modernising Elections", published in August 2002.
Even if one accepted the Government's criteria and agreed that the proposals might be a way of overcoming voter apathy, a view expressed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) in response to a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) when we were discussing the need to give young people extra reasons to vote, I cannot see that the e-voting pilots have in any way encouraged young people to vote.
Mr. Tom Harris:
Is the hon. Gentleman's opposition to e-voting solely related to the Bill or is it a point of principle with no time limit? In other words, is he simply opposed to e-voting? The reason for my question is this: since the congestion charge was introduced I have regularly paid it by text, which is a fantastically accurate and efficient system, and I imagine that at some point in the futurenot next year, but within the next 10 years or somost people will think that is a perfectly natural way of casting their vote.
I beg to differ with the hon. Gentleman, especially on his congestion charge example. I continue to receive letters from throughout my constituency and to read many horror stories in the newspapers with descriptions of how people with vehicles such as vintage cars, which have never left the garage, are being wrongly charged by Capita. There are also cases where people fraudulently use number plates, so I do not think that the example is a good one.
I am about to go into our objections to e-voting in more detail as it is important to put such things on the record, but to answer the hon. Gentleman's direct question, they are not restricted only to the Bill. We take the view that e-voting is demeaning of the whole election process. However, the strongest reason for our objection to e-voting, not only for the Bill but for the immediately foreseeable future, is that IT experts say that the system is not yet secure against the danger of electoral fraud.
Our objection might not remain for ever, but we shall certainly maintain it for the foreseeable future. While IT experts say that the system is not secure and the
16 Dec 2003 : Column 1483
Electoral Commission expresses concerns, my party cannot envisage being ready to welcome e-voting in the immediate future. There are two aspects at this stage: the practical points relating to the views of the Electoral Commission and to IT security; and the issues of principle. I hope that that is sufficient answer to the hon. Gentleman's intervention.
Before one could possibly contemplate substantial e-voting developments, one would have to address the issues that have cropped up not merely in this country but elsewhere. We are hugely concerned about security. The hon. Gentleman and other Members may be interested to learn that I have some professional expertise in e-security. Before I was a Member of the House, I worked as a corporate lawyer at a senior level in the credit card industry, and during my 11½ years in this place I have continued to take a great interest in electronic security measures. Quite apart from my Front-Bench duties, I am personally interested in the issue.
Under the small-scale electronic voting pilots that have taken place, important information, such as pin numbers for e-voting, has been sent to voters by what the Electoral Commission conceded could be insecure means; for example, postcards that give the pin numbers could be read by someone else in a house of multiple occupation. The internet can also be insecure. Many Members have suffered from such problems in their offices and both the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart and I have raised points of order about the insecurity of the parliamentary data and video network. Although we were reassured that such problems would not recur, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that not long after we raised the matter, the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) experienced similar problems in his constituency when information from the Government was being sent to a hairdresser in Blyth Valley instead of to him. So there are even concerns about the e-security of the House. The internet is therefore notoriously insecure and vulnerable to attack.
There has also been significant controversy in the United States about the reliability and lack of security of e-voting machines. Companies in the USA that make the machines have refused independent scrutiny of their software for commercial reasons, raising concerns that there could be security flaws that have not been identified through proper testing. The technology correspondent for The Times, David Rowan, has remarked that
"the commercial companies supplying the technology for UK election pilots say that security is their priority. But growing evidence is emerging that some of these companies have covered up security flaws in the past . . . If Mr Blair insists on rushing towards e-voting, he must ensure that any software companies awarded contracts make their computer code available for independent scrutiny, and that every time a computerised vote is cast a paper copy is printed to let voters know that ballots have been recorded as intended . . . It will take just one security breach to undermine public confidence irreparably".
That is from The Times
on 2 Decemberonly a fortnight ago.
The hon. Gentleman's comments are extraordinarily valuable. Does not the American
16 Dec 2003 : Column 1484
experience also demonstrate, however, that these machines have a strange predisposition to award a greater number of votes to the Republicans than opinion polls show?
I was going to come to the so-called hanging chads controversy, and I know that the hon. Gentleman, in the main part of his remarks, supported the concerns that we are expressing.
Another expert, Dr. Ben Fairweather, a research fellow at De Montfort university in Leicester's centre for computing and social responsibility, has said:
"I have seen most, if not all of the pilot schemes demonstrated, and have spotted substantial flaws with some of them . . . There are serious worries about SMS voting. Operators can discard text messages if their systems are busy. Also people are obliged to key in long sequences to vote by text. It's a pale imitation of a cross on a piece of paper. Electronic voting in general has not reached maturity".
That was taken from a publication called The Register
on 31 July this year.
The Foundation for Information Policy Research has asserted that election integrity can be assured only if e-voting machines produce a paper audit trail that can be verified by voters and later by election scrutineers. It remarked in The Register in May this year that
"the only safe way to allow electronic voting is through machines controlled by election officials that produce an auditable paper trail. Anything else is an invitation for fraud to hackers and virus writers around the world and could destroy public confidence in our elections. It's always a bad idea to look for technical fixes to social problems. Election turnout would be increased if citizens were convinced their vote would make a difference. Simply computerising the current system is unlikely to achieve this".
The Opposition say, "Hear, hear," to that. As the son of two research scientists, may I say that I agree totally that it is always a bad idea to look for technical fixes to social problems?
Most significantly, the Electoral Reform Society, the independent experts on these matters, has asserted that
"the fact is that e-voting, whether by telephone, internet, digital TV or text messaging, does not raise turnouts in any significant way . . . We are concerned that any form of remote voting is potentially more open to abuse than polling station voting".
That is the basis of one of our most significant concerns.
Even the Local Government Association has maintained that
"we have concerns about e-voting on a regional basis, particularly in the short space of time between now and the next elections. A failed e-voting pilot in 2004 could jeopardise this being seen as a realistic development for the future".
Even if the Opposition agreed with the Local Government Association that that might be a helpful development for the futurewhich we do notif even it says that a failed e-voting pilot could happen and could jeopardise that, that shows how bad an idea it would be.