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9.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and

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Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing this opportunity to debate a vital issue that is essential to this Parliament—namely, the degree to which we secure participation in our democratic system and in our elections. All hon. Members accept as a top priority the fact that if we do not have good levels of participation, that reflects ill on the nature of our society. A civilised society is one that has active citizenship and where, if elected representatives are to act with a strong mandate and to be held accountable for their actions, as many citizens as possible must be active and participating.

As my hon. Friend notes, turnout and participation varies enormously in many different ways. It varies from area to area and in terms of ethnicity, social class, educational background, occupational background and age. No matter which way one cuts the cake, there are different lessons to learn about the extent to which people are willing to participate. Of course, we as politicians have a key role—perhaps it is a burden on us all—in stimulating debate, making politics more interesting and presenting a real choice to the electorate. When we near general election periods, we naturally find that there is more interest among the population as they feel that their choice is more obvious. We do not do too badly in Britain in that respect.

By coincidence—or perhaps not, if my hon. Friend has timed his request for this Adjournment debate very well—the Electoral Commission and the Hansard Society launched a joint audit of political engagement today in Portcullis House. In it, they looked at a whole series of influences among the general population. A survey was undertaken, and my hon. Friend will be delighted to learn that the audit demonstrated that, for example, people who have recently had contact with their local Member of Parliament are much more likely to be satisfied with their performance than those who have not—62 per cent. were satisfied, as against 38 per cent. who were not. That is a nice thing to note. In fact, the audit report comments that

That is something of which we can all be proud.

Among the good things in the audit was the finding that 41 per cent. of people were satisfied with their own Member of Parliament, while just 13 per cent. were dissatisfied. It also found that people view individual Members of Parliament more favourably than MPs as a collective, and that 74 per cent. agree that voting is a duty, while 75 per cent. said that they wanted to have a say in how the country was run. There were, however, less good aspects to the findings. Only 50 per cent. of people said that they were interested in politics, and less than half the public say that they are well informed about politics, in terms of both their perceived and assessed knowledge. So the audit presents a mixed picture. I pay tribute to the Hansard Society and the Electoral Commission for their work on it.

I think that my hon. Friend would be the first to acknowledge that first-time voters are especially important in ensuring that we maintain the momentum in democratic participation. Research has shown that those who vote at the first opportunity tend to continue to participate on later occasions. Conversely, those who

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do not bother see no reason to change that habit, and tend to stay away from the ballot box on a more permanent basis.

Our approach has therefore been to attack this issue in a number of different ways, not least through schools. Citizenship education is just one of the mechanisms for raising awareness and educating people about how decisions are made, who makes them, why decision makers make their decisions and how they can be influenced. In England, we already have a good level of compulsory citizenship education for 11 to 14-year-olds. That has been the case since Sept 2002. There is no statutory curriculum in Scotland, but I understand that the Scottish Executive have produced guidance to ensure that the breadth of the curriculum includes social and democratic responsibilities. In Wales, my hon. Friend will know that citizenship education forms part of the personal and social education framework that was implemented in September 2000. In regard to Northern Ireland, I understand that our ministerial colleagues are considering their own proposals for citizenship education.

Other useful initiatives have taken place in recent years. The creation of the Electoral Commission has been useful, as it has helped to lead and innovate in participatory democracy policy. It was set up in November 2000, and its remit includes voter education as well as keeping electoral law and processes under review. It also develops publicity and awareness materials, and there have been television advertisements to encourage registration in elections. The commission's innovations are constantly being proposed, and it is quite prodigious in producing reports, to which we are keen to respond as best we can.

There are other ways in which we can improve participation. Technically and administratively, through the mechanics of the electoral system, we can remove barriers to participation and we are trying to take action in many different ways in that regard. My hon. Friend mentioned the electoral registration process, and we have had a great deal more accuracy recently in that regard, although when certain population changes have come into play, they have made it appear as though the registers have shrunk in some areas. Obviously, such changes will always have an effect on the quantum of the register, but we now have increasingly accurate electoral registers. They are locally administered, and rightly so.

We also have new help for voters with disabilities. We are piloting electronic voting, and telephone voting has been piloted in local elections. There has also been postal voting on demand in the ordinary run of elections. Earlier today we debated yet again our attempt to achieve piloting of all-postal voting, which we know for a fact has a positive effect on turnout in general—there tends to be a considerable increase. Depending on the passage of that legislation, we hope that as many regions as possible of the four that we have identified can benefit from that.

My hon. Friend referred specifically to the experience in his locality of the 2003 Welsh Assembly elections. I know that the turnout, which was only 38 per cent., disappointed him and other colleagues. That is obviously a challenge, predominantly for the Welsh Assembly, and many of the remedies rest in its own hands. However, the Electoral Commission usefully

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published an official report commenting on turnout. While it says that this is not wholly a Welsh issue, it highlights specific areas in which it may be able to undertake extra activity. For example, it feels that there was an information deficit on the nature of the Welsh Assembly. Clearly, that is a matter for the Assembly to address.

The Electoral Commission feels that voters had particular views on the Welsh Assembly that did not necessarily encourage them to turn out and vote. However, the Government support the current devolution settlement and we do not think that there is any particular evidence that changing the settlement at that level would affect public engagement. The Electoral Commission also says that the election campaign was too low key. All the political parties have a role to play in ensuring that we pep things up a little to make the campaign more interesting for all concerned.

As usual, enthusiasm among younger voters was at a relatively low level, but the citizenship efforts being undertaken by the Welsh Assembly Government will help with that. In Wales, particularly for the Assembly elections, there may also be a need for more convenient voting methods. I assure my hon. Friend that we will discuss with the Welsh Assembly Government whether any powers are needed to enable innovation in voting mechanisms for Welsh Assembly elections. I hope that he will monitor that and keep a close eye on developments.

My hon. Friend also concludes that it is perhaps time that we started to consider the age-old question of compulsion—compulsory voting and whether the attraction of being able to remove at a stroke worries about turnout should come upon us. I see aspects of the attraction, but, as he knows—I read the Fabian Society pamphlet he wrote some time ago with a colleague of ours—there are disadvantages. I would worry about the sense of the voting process being criminalised. If people did not attend the polling station, would they be

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behaving in a criminal manner? That would be a big step for us to take in our civilised society. There are serious issues that need considering.

Turnout, of course, involves more than attendance at the polling station. Political disengagement is the deeper problem and failure to turn out is merely a symptom of it. As one of my officials helpfully pointed out when we were talking about the debate, "You can force school children to do cross-country running, but you cannot make them enjoy it." I do not think that compulsory voting would necessarily force everybody to engage with the political process. It is not wholly a solution. Of course, enforcing the process of compulsory voting would also be a mammoth task, and perhaps disproportionate to the nature of the offence. Therefore, while I hear what my hon. Friend says, some potential disadvantages would need to be overcome.

Nevertheless, I do not want to rain on my hon. Friend's parade completely. In 1998, the Home Affairs Committee reported that while compulsory voting might not be desirable, there should be a public debate on it. I gather that the Electoral Commission has said subsequently that it wants to examine the issue in more detail, and it may well be researching some of the wider international experience. He should therefore watch that space. In the meantime, however, I am afraid that the Government have no plans to pursue the possibility of compulsory voting.

Parliament is sensitive to the need to act to improve participation in the electoral process, however. As a Government, we have taken significant steps forward, and are working hard to take further steps. The more fundamental question is how we as politicians can enthuse the public and engage their interest further to make that political process work, but I at least congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the subject today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Nine o'clock.

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