Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD): On a connected issue, is the Minister convinced that the postal services are capable of coping with the increased amount of mail that they will have to deliver? There is evidence in my area that they have not been able to do so in previous elections.

Mr. Leslie: We have been in close dialogue with Royal Mail, and have had a number of assurances in writing, both at regional and national levels, from its officials that they are capable not only of living up to the challenge but of exceeding expectations. They have given a guarantee to run the scheme as efficiently and effectively as possible. The Bill, however, allows the Electoral Commission to study the pilots after they take place to make sure that they can verify exactly what happens in the June elections.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am still concerned about houses in multiple occupation, particularly groups of old people living together, and should like reassurance about the collection of those votes. Of course, Sir Howard's returning officers will commit themselves to a positive reaction—they would hardly commit themselves to a negative one.

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend is right. I am glad that there is enthusiasm on the part of returning officers, and it is helpful to ensure that they are keen. My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about houses in multiple occupation, an issue that we considered in Committee and on Report, and which was also dealt with in another place. We have been able to give assurances about delivery mechanisms and the extra attention to be paid to those issues. I will certainly make sure that we continue to monitor the plans that regional returning officers have for people living under one roof or in houses in multiple occupation.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Leslie: If I may make a little progress, it would help.

The Electoral Commission has always said that it was up to the Government how many regions they wanted to pilot. In the statement issued by the commission on Report in the other place, it said that

The House will be aware that there is a disagreement between the Electoral Commission and the Government over the definition of a pilot and whether a pilot can extend to four regions. It is important to examine the issue, as it quickly becomes clear that there are no substantive grounds for opposing four pilot regions.

The scale of piloting that we propose is not too great or excessive. The four regions represent 31.6 per cent. of the UK electorate. I do not agree with those who say that that is too large-scale. The UK is made up of 12 electoral parts, of which we are choosing to pilot in four. That is a minority of the country and cannot therefore be caricatured as national roll-out. Nevertheless, it is a significant pilot, and rightly so—it needs to be, because this is the next stage after the local government pilots in the process of piloting.

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1293

If we pilot in only two regions, that would not be scaling up. Previous pilots, which included all-postal voting as well as e-voting, have been going through a process of scaling up for a number of years. Pilots in 2002 were available to about 2.5 million electors. Experiments were scaled up in 2003 to make them available to an electorate of about 6.5 million. Were we to exclude Yorkshire and the north-west, as the other place suggests, pilots this year would be available to only just over 5 million electors—a smaller number than before. If we are to learn lessons about the scalability of all-postal voting, we must test on an appropriately large sample. Larger- scale pilots are a means of testing the co-ordination and interoperability of suppliers and proving the capacity needed to support wide-scale all-postal voting. Only through this proper, reasoned, step-by-step process will we be able to gain the experience that will inform future policy.

In any case, postal voting on demand is scaling up. The introduction of postal voting on demand in 2000 vastly increased the popularity of postal voting. More than 1.7 million postal votes were issued at the 2001 general election—an increase of roughly 87 per cent. on 1997. Some constituencies showed even more striking increases. Were such an increase to continue, we could almost see a de facto rolling out of all-postal voting in some elections. Clearly, the sort of testing of the postal services and other suppliers in a structured and ordered way that these pilots will allow is vital if that is to be achieved safely.

Piloting in four regions is no more risky than piloting in three or two regions. It is a curious argument advanced by some that because all-postal voting is being piloted, it must necessarily be limited in scope to a couple of regions. Pilots should be held only where, after careful assessment, it is the judgment of those who are responsible on the ground that the election can be successfully delivered. Where that judgment is made and where resources are available, we should be able to pilot. To the extent that regional circumstances would allow the delivery of successful pilots, we should have as many pilots as our resources permit. In this way, we achieve the greatest benefit for voters now, for democratic engagement now, and for democracy in the longer term through the pilot outputs of lessons learned and confidence built.

The Electoral Commission has not identified to us what the risks of scaling up from two or three to four regions would be. If, as the commission accepts, each region individually can deliver a successful pilot, there is no reason to think that each will not be successful if all four regions are chosen.

Dr. Pugh: Can the Minister explain slowly for the benefit of the House—we must be a bit dull—what he expects to learn from four regions that he will not learn from two?

Mr. Foulkes: Twice as much!

Mr. Leslie: In many ways, there is virtue in recognising that the increased scale will enable us to learn more from the different parts of the country. I

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1294

know that the hon. Member for Southport is concerned about complexity and would shy away from piloting in the north-west. It is important to deal with some of those challenges and recognise that if the Electoral Commission itself recommends that in future all local elections should be on an all-postal basis, we must test postal voting in areas that present complexity.

Mr. Bercow: Increased scale underlines the importance of protection against fraud, just as it would in relation to voting in person. Can the Minister tell the House what is the mechanism to prevent someone from voting by post in two areas?

Mr. Leslie: The same arrangement applies as in conventional elections. The electoral registration process is the bedrock upon which a ballot paper is issued in a conventional election or in a postal election. If people are registered incorrectly or improperly, that is clearly a matter for the regulations that relate to registration, not for the all-postal piloting arrangements.

Hon. Members will be aware that in three of the four regions that we have selected, there will also be referendums on regional assemblies on an all-postal basis in October—a decision welcomed by the Electoral Commission. This is a relevant factor that should be borne in mind and which it would be odd to ignore. It cannot be thought helpful for major polls to be held four months apart on a differing basis. That would not benefit the electorate or the election administrators.

I shall close with two further quotes from regional returning officers. In my letter I asked each of the RROs whether they had any concerns that they wished to raise. Paul Rogerson from Yorkshire writes:

Sir Howard Bernstein from the north-west writes:

I urge hon. Members to listen to these concerns and to recognise that we have painstakingly sought to allay worries wherever genuine concerns have emerged. I hope the House will allow pilots to take place in all four regions that are now willing and prepared.

Parliament needs to settle the matter. If the Government are now decided on the issue and the Commons makes up its mind, we must be able to get on with planning and preparations. It is important for this elected House of Commons to take a view—a final view, I hope—on which regions should have electoral all-postal voting pilots. Hon. Members of this House are best placed to make decisions on elections policy. Although we must listen to the views of the other place as a revising Chamber, we must also weigh up the fact that we are accountable for Parliament's decisions and they are not. The House of Commons needs to make clear its views on improving our democracy and electoral systems. I commend the Government amendment to the House.

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1295

Mr. Hawkins: Having listened to the Minister for 40 minutes on the first group of amendments, all I can say is how wise we were to vote against the programme motion. I know that he was generous in taking interventions, but the time that we are left with will be wholly inadequate to discuss these important matters.

We are defending what another place rightly decided to do. On this day, on which constitutional matters, the role of the second Chamber and the Government's threats to indulge in yet more constitutional vandalism are much in the public eye, it is well worth noting that another place defeated the Government on two key parts of the Bill by very substantial majorities. Those were not merely narrow defeats by one or two votes. On the first issue dealt with in this group of amendments, the Government lost in the other place by 169 votes to 111, and on the next, by 157 votes to 110.

Why was that so? Why did so many peers—Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and a substantial number of Cross Benchers—feel that the Government had got it so wrong, and why will the veiled threats in the Minister's last few sentences fail to work when the matter returns to another place? Part of the reason, at least, is that the Government have so clearly ignored the firm views of their own Electoral Commission—a body intended to advise on these matters, which the Government created but choose to ignore. The Electoral Commission clearly recommended that there should be just two regions for all-postal pilots, but the Government seek to impose four regions against their own commission's advice.

Next Section

IndexHome Page