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6.41 pm

Angela Watkinson: I have listened with great interest to the debate. When our debates started this afternoon, I was opposed to the Bill in principle because of my experience in the most recent local elections of the postal ballot pilot in Havering, which threw up a range of difficulties. I hoped that, during the debate I would gain confidence that those difficulties could be overcome, but having heard Members' contributions, I remain opposed to the Bill.

The pilot in Havering threw up problems with the postal service, such as the non-receipt by electors of ballot papers and the difficulties of getting duplicates. In Havering, the one-envelope system was a particular problem, because a lot of electors resented having to put their declaration of identity in the same envelope as their ballot paper on the grounds of lack of confidentiality. The person who opened the envelope could link the ballot paper to the elector's identity, which was wholly unsatisfactory. There was also the problem of finding out whether completed ballot papers had been received at the town hall. A significant number of voters contacted me to ask how they could be certain that the town hall had received their ballot paper. In fact, there is no way of knowing. If we acknowledge the large

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amount of post that goes astray every year, we must assume that a certain proportion of ballot papers do not reach their destination.

In principle, an all-postal ballot is a bad thing, because it removes choice from the elector. Anybody who wants a postal vote can have one. In the past, it has been necessary to give a reason, such as going on holiday, work commitments or illness. Now, however, anybody who wishes to vote by post can do so if they submit an application. Nobody is therefore denied a postal vote if they want one.

David Taylor: The hon. Lady posed a rhetorical question when she asked how people can know that their absent voter ballot has reached the count. The marked register is a public document and is available for inspection after the electoral process is complete.

Angela Watkinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which highlights my point. By the time a voter has discovered that their vote has not been received, it is too late. It is certainly possible to find out whether a vote has been recorded, but only after the election has taken place.

Choice should remain. If people wish to vote in the traditional way at a polling station, they should still be able to do so, but if they wish to have a postal vote, they should have one. That is preferable to choice being removed from people who wish to vote in person.

I shall say a few words about electronic voting, about which I would be extremely concerned. Highly sophisticated hackers, the introduction of viruses and the opportunities for personation mean that secure and confidential electronic voting is a long way off. I for one would never wish to vote by electronic means, because I would have no confidence at all in that system. It would have to be part of a mixed method system, because one could not guarantee that everybody had access to a computer. Those who had access to a computer at home or in their local library—those are two different methods, for a start—could vote electronically, while others would vote by post or in person at polling stations. That would make the system extremely complicated.

I take issue with the aim of the Bill. If I understand it correctly, the aim is to increase voter participation, which in itself is desirable. The proposals are aimed at non-voters, but people who do not vote choose not to vote. Nobody prevents them from voting. One can hardly say that voting is a complicated, onerous or difficult task. It is a simple matter to go to a polling station, and it is very simple to ask for a postal vote if anybody wants one. To make the process even simpler is wrong in concept.

If people need to be spoon-fed their ballot papers, they are not motivated to make a choice of who they want to vote for. They must have some personal motivation to participate in an election. The proposal is one step away from knocking on somebody's door, putting a pen in their hand, taking the ballot paper and putting it in the ballot box for them. People must take some responsibility for themselves. Making an election simpler is wrong in concept.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend is making an important point. Does she agree that when we look

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around the world and see many other countries where people are still fighting and dying for the right to vote in the traditional way, it is rather ridiculous that, because of their obsession with modern technology, the Government want to demean and get rid of a system that people elsewhere in the world desperately want—a democracy that is tried and tested, and which has worked for many hundreds of years in this country?

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which highlights the situation in this country. We live in a free democratic country where everybody has the right and the opportunity to vote. If they do not take it, that is their choice. It is up to politicians to motivate people to use their vote by giving them reasons to think that that is important and makes a difference, not to make it so easy for them that they do not have to make any effort at all. If people cannot be bothered to vote, if it is too much trouble for them to ask for a postal ballot paper or to go to a polling station, it is their responsibility, not the Government's.

6.48 pm

Dr. Pugh : I rise for three purposes: first, to express my strong support in principle for postal voting, for entirely selfish reasons—it saves me a great deal of energy on election day if more and more people vote by post; secondly, to express support for the Electoral Commission's conclusions, although I do not tend to make a habit of that; and thirdly, to urge the Minister to resist other siren voices from the north-west and the erroneous idea that the north-west would be a good target for the pilots.

I accept entirely that there have been successful pilots in places such as Chorley and St. Helen's, and I accept entirely that there has been an increased level of participation in those elections. That is well documented. However, there are specific reasons this time for not choosing the north-west. The Electoral Commission is right in its decision, not because there is no need to increase participation—there clearly is; not because north-west people are not ready for modernity—they clearly are; and not because it would affect the political balance—the figures last time showed that it did not.

There are specific circumstances in the north-west in 2004 that make the region a bad choice. There is a real risk that the success of the north-west pilot in 2003 will not be replicated in the whole of the north-west in 2004. What was true in Chorley in 2003 may not generally be true of the whole of the north-west subsequently. The axiom "Chorley today, the world tomorrow" will not necessarily hold in this case.

I should like to give a rationale for that. The bulk of the elections in the north-west will be in the big mets and unitaries. That is where most people will vote. Very large numbers of the politically disconnected reside in those areas. Eighteen of the biggest councils in the north-west happen to have all-up council elections. That will occur in all the mets. It is the product of a completely coincidental process in terms of the periodic boundary reviews. Unusually, across the north-west people will vote in June and not May; for three councillors, not one; in two elections, not one; and under two voting systems, not one. Adding many people's first encounter with a postal voting system will produce a recipe for a degree of chaos, as novelty will be piled upon novelty.

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My judgment—I think it is a fair one—is that, because of the complexity involved in this year's elections, people in the north-west will need more help than usual from polling clerks. A large number of people will be outfaced by the sheer size of the ballot paper and the various notes that will need to accompany it. Those who are least politically literate will have more problems. People in ethnic communities, for example, or those who have problems of social disadvantage may be most deterred by that scenario and by the bulk of paper. If one's introduction to the postal voting system is complex, but will not be replicated the following year, when a more simple procedure will be in place, it will not be a good basis for a pilot.

That is not just my judgment. Obviously, it is only a guesstimate on my part, but I have taken the trouble to write to a good number of chief returning officers in the mets who face the problem that I have described. In most, but not all, cases, they anticipate problems not for themselves—they are capable and competent administrators—but for the people who have to fill in the voting slips.

I wish to make one final point that is more delicate in some respects. In urban boroughs, including some in the north-west in particular, serious concerns have been expressed about electoral fraud. Much of what is said is based on anecdote, even though the Electoral Commission refers to it in its report, and much of it features in the media. I thought it would be very helpful to have some positive and exact statistics, so I took the trouble to write to the Government asking how many allegations of electoral fraud in postal voting in local elections in the north-west had been reported or investigated in the past 10 years. I thought that, if they were going to propose the north-west as a pilot region, they would definitely know the answer to that question. The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire replied:

The fact that the Minister and the ministerial team do not know the answer to that question adds to uncertainty and to the prima facie case that the north-west is not the best area for a pilot. If he were to choose the north-west, which would run contrary to all the evidence that has been presented and to the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, the suspicion would be that the explanation was entirely political.

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