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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6)(Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Fees and Charges

Question agreed to.



Quiggins, Liverpool

8.59 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): If you have never had the opportunity to visit Liverpool, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suggest you try and get to see us as soon as possible. Liverpool is a great city of kind-hearted, spirited people. We have marvellous museums, theatres and buildings that rival anything in the UK. After years of underinvestment, since 1997 Labour Government money has been helping to transform our city. In 2002 our glorious city received the ultimate accolade when it was awarded the status of European city of culture 2008.

What a wonderful array of goodies we have to offer our visitors, including Quiggins, a marvellous retail mix with something for everyone. Motorbikes, antique furniture and the best 60s clothes on the planet are all available in this retail unit. But Quiggins is facing compulsory purchase as the mega Grosvenor empire seeks to close one of the best shopping experiences that Liverpool offers.

I present to the House tonight a petition signed by 50,000 people, which includes the names of thousands of my constituents who are both customers and retailers of that lovely emporium. I ask the House to urge the Deputy Prime Minister to consider carefully the recommendations placed before him by the planning inspectorate, to support the retention of a great Liverpool institution and to support Quiggins.

To lie upon the Table.

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Participation in Elections

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Margaret Moran.]

9.1 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): In the 2001 general election, voter turnout dropped to its lowest level since the advent of universal suffrage: just over half of those eligible to vote did so. There has been much discussion about low turnout and declining participation in elections. I am sure it is an issue that concerns us all. We speak and seek to govern for the majority, but we are fast approaching a situation in which the majority may not bother to vote at all.

The last general election saw a turnout of some 59.4 per cent.—a new record low, surpassing the previous low of 71.3 per cent. achieved in 1997. In local elections, particularly in local by-elections, we can only dream of such turnouts, as actual turnouts often average less than 40 per cent. In local authority by-elections, participation levels that were once unheard of, between 10 and 15 per cent., are pretty much run of the mill. The predictions for the future are that this trend of decline is set to continue, with pitiful turnouts predicted for the forthcoming European elections, which might be saved only by the fact that they are being held on the same day as the local elections, and probably a new low in the next general election.

We may well look back to the 1997 election, when 30 per cent. of the electorate did not vote, as some kind of golden age. That is a sad indictment of our current system, as we seem content that such a large proportion of our electorate did not take part in the process. We also seem content that a large and growing number of people do not even register in the first place. No doubt many hon. Members have looked at the electoral registers, as I have done, and seen examples of properties that we know are occupied, but which do not appear on the register. Some colleagues have seen quite sizeable drops in their electorate.

We require individuals by law to fill out registration forms and give correct information, yet we appear to do nothing about it if they do not. Arguably, we have never recovered from the effects of the poll tax and the huge numbers of people, particularly younger people, who left the register in an attempt to avoid the tax. A cynic might argue that that was one of the main aims of that Conservative policy.

What are we doing to encourage registration? Not a lot, I would say. Yes, the Electoral Commission has had poster campaigns and some councils are more diligent than others, but the reality is that we are only scratching the surface. Furthermore, when I asked the Department for Constitutional Affairs for an estimate of the extent of the problems that we face and what is being done about them, I was told that in the main, it does not keep such information. Why not? Unless we know the extent of the problem, we will never tackle it effectively.

Our last experience of elections in Wales was the Assembly elections last year. My party and I were pleased with the result, but I do not think that anyone could, or indeed should, find the turnout acceptable. My own seat held the unenviable record of the lowest turnout in Wales, of some 24.9 per cent.—less than a quarter of the electorate.

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Why was the turnout so poor? I am sure that we could all find reasons to explain away the lack of participation. In areas such as the north-east and the south-east of Wales, which voted against devolution in the first place, turnout was certainly lower than in the pro-devolution areas. Anglesey, Ynys Môn, had the highest turnout of just over 50 per cent., but still hardly a level that we can be pleased with.

The Assembly has an uphill battle to convince many people in the north that it is not just a Cardiff-based institution, and without doubt there is still a lack of understanding among the electorate as to exactly what its powers and responsibilities are. The method of election did not help, either, with a bizarre system of proportional representation that in many cases gave the losing candidates in the constituency election a seat in the Assembly through a back-door method of selection via the regional list.

In addition, there was the ludicrous situation of Clwyd, West, where the only candidate who stood a chance of not getting elected to the Assembly was the sitting Labour Member, as the Tory, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru candidates were all No. 1 on their party lists, and barring some miracle were certain to be elected. Despite rejecting those three candidates at the ballot box, the voters of Clwyd, West—and, indeed, the rest of north Wales—find themselves supposedly represented by those individuals in the Assembly. Furthermore, despite the fact that people voted by a clear majority for Labour on the party list in north Wales, not a single Labour list member was elected. Apparently, that is democracy in action, but I think that most people find it rather difficult to understand—or, more to the point, to justify.

There are lessons that we can learn from the Assembly elections, but we would be making a grave mistake if we believed that simply addressing those factors would make a meaningful difference to turnout. The problem is that we look to explain away poor turnouts on an election-by-election basis, and do not look at the long-term trend, which is getting worse. We are in denial, and like anybody in denial we look for excuses rather than addressing the problem.

In the 1997 general election, turnout was apparently low because Tory voters stayed at home. In 2001 they apparently did it again, and many Labour voters thought it was a foregone conclusion, so they did not vote either. That may or may not be true, but it does nothing to address the problem that we face. Likewise, we find further comfort in blaming the press and the media for encouraging cynicism and complacency among the electorate.

We have all become used to the accusations—"They're all the same. It doesn't matter which lot get elected, because they won't change anything. It's hardly worth bothering. They're not interested in ordinary people. They can't relate to you, particularly if you're young, and they don't care about the old. They're only in it for themselves." Oh, and by the way, we all spend at least 95 per cent. of our time on holiday, as Nicky Campbell never tires of telling us on Radio 5. Again, with the press that we have, I cannot see that changing in the foreseeable future. We will not return to the reverence with which the media used to treat politicians in the 1950s, and we should not do so. We must live with that situation; we must get on with it.

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We face a simple choice: either we accept the growing disengagement with the political process or we do something about it. The situation will not change by itself, and all the evidence points to its getting worse in the future. As individual politicians, we can only do so much. We can make ourselves more accessible, hold more surgeries, knock on more doors, consult more and listen more, but that does not necessarily mean that we can improve matters on our own. Because of their hard work and public standing, some hon. Members may be able to count on higher levels of personal support than others, which may enable them to hold their seats in difficult times and difficult elections for their parties. However, there is little evidence that individual politicians have any real impact on turnout itself—at least in a positive way.

Our attempts to improve turnout have therefore focused on changes to the mechanism of voting itself. Experiments with postal voting have, without doubt, proved successful, and I welcome the changes that have made postal voting easier. Where we have had all-out postal voting in local elections, there have been sharp increases in turnout, and I personally regret that we will not have postal votes in Wales this year. However, it will be some time before we can judge whether that is a short-term change in voting patterns or a significant breakthrough.

With postal voting, there is also concern among us, as politicians, that we will somehow lose control of the election process and that our traditional forms of campaigning must change. We would no doubt all have sleepless nights at the thought of voters filling out ballot papers and sending them off before we have had a chance to canvass them. However, would that not be a price worth paying if we could significantly improve participation in our elections?

I am further encouraged and drawn to postal voting by the opposition of the Conservative party—there must be something in it, if the Conservative party is against it. It therefore comes as little surprise that Conservatives in the other place are doing their best to derail our proposals.

Some would argue that all we must do is change the method of election from first past the post to some form of proportional representation, and suddenly large numbers of people would flock to polling stations and take part in the democratic process. Our experience in Wales, and indeed in Scotland, demonstrates that that is unlikely to be the case.

Arguments over voting systems have always tended to be carried out among academics rather than among people. I have never come across a dedicated non-voter who quotes the electoral system as their reason for not voting. Equally, reform of the other place, and some of our other hobby-horses in this House, are low down on their lists too. Ultimately, we must decide whether we are serious about increasing voter participation. If we are not, we must carry on as we are—perhaps we can tinker a bit here and there, with voting on Sundays, using the internet, voting at supermarkets and votes at 16, but we are still likely to see decline.

If we are serious about making a change, we must consider compulsion. To some, that would be an acceptance that we have failed in all other means of voter re-engagement—perhaps it would—and no doubt

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it will upset the liberal elite. However, are we really comfortable with a situation in which turnouts for future general elections may be less than 50 per cent, and perhaps in the long term even less than 40 per cent.? Are we really saying that it is too much to expect and require the citizens of this country to go out and vote once every four or five years to take part in the political process? Even if they choose ultimately to vote for "none of the above" and spoil their vote, is it such a great infringement of civil liberties? I think not.

Experience from around the world shows us that compulsory voting works, and is accepted by the citizens of countries where it operates. Voting is regarded not only as a right, but as a civic duty. For example, Australia has had compulsory voting for many years. There is a small fine for those who do not take part without a valid reason, but the numbers are not great. Nobody would argue that Australia is anything other than an open and democratic country, yet over the past 30 years it has consistently achieved turnouts of around 95 per cent. of the electorate. Australia's lowest turnout since 1972 was 94.2 per cent.—a level that we have never achieved, and will never achieve, unless we are prepared to change our present system.

America, on the other hand, illustrates the dangers of the direction in which we may be heading. Turnout in the congressional elections in 2002 was just 52 per cent. of the registered electorate; but when one looks at the percentage of voting age population—an estimate of those eligible to register to vote—the percentage drops to a staggering 36.5 per cent.

Requiring people to take part in the democratic process is not the thin end of the wedge of a totalitarian society—on the contrary, it engages people who would otherwise not take part in, and be ignored by, the political process. Importantly, it makes politicians and political parties seek to engage with the electorate as a whole, rather than only with those who vote. We need only look to America, where in certain states whole sections of the population are effectively disfranchised and ignored by the political parties. After all, why appeal, or have policies that appeal, to people who are not on the register and do not vote?

Even in this country, the employed are twice as likely to vote as the unemployed, the old more likely than the young, and the middle class more likely than the working class. There is a real danger that we in Britain could go down that road. We need seriously to explore and study the options surrounding compulsory voting, including incentive-based and penalty-based systems. The international evidence is there. We must find a reliable and workable solution to this long-term problem.

The Government rightly talk about the rights and responsibilities of our citizens. It is a right—a precious right—to be able to vote. In many countries, people are still fighting and dying in the pursuit of that right, yet many in this country simply cast it aside. With rights come responsibilities, and the time is now right for us to enshrine that responsibility in law.

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