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I have tempted the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) by mentioning Somerset, but he should bear it in mind that if he wishes to intervene he will take more time from colleagues.
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Mr. Liddell-Grainger: The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point. As he knows, the boundary commission report has made it much more difficult in Somerset to secure that sixth seat. Does he agree that the position is iniquitous for Somerset and other counties and it is time that the boundary commission reformed itself?
Mr. Heath: There is an absurdly small variation to the boundary between the Somerset and Frome and Yeovil seats. It has not resulted in a change in the net population or, as far as I can see, its political propensity, so it is utterly pointless.
I appreciate the demands on our time, so I shall conclude by referring to the need for accountability. If we want people to be interested in elections they must believe that they are electing someone who will do a satisfactory job for them, and will have the opportunity to represent them properly and scrutinise the Government. The House is failing in that duty, and both it and the House of Lords need to be reformed. We must look at the two issues in the round, and get on with the reform programme. I welcome the review of electoral systems by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, although I have doubts and regrets about the Cabinet Sub-Committee and its chairman, as I fear that they may obstruct sensible arrangements. I look forward eagerly to the electoral administration Bill.
I do not support the Conservative motion, because of the rush of blood to the head that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire experienced halfway through his speech, when he became peevish about proportional representation. I do not support the Government amendment, which is the most complacent amendment I have ever seen and appears to suggest that everything is rosy when clearly it is not. We shall take great pleasure in voting against both.
Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): There is much that I would like to say, but time is limited for all of us, so I ask the House to forgive me if I pass over some matters.
In the debate on 22 June last year, I explained to the House how the postal vote system had been abused in Birmingham and turned into political currency. I do not wish to revisit the issue, not least because matters are sub judice, but I should like to highlight the action taken by the returning officer in Birmingham to try to prevent the situation from arising at the general election. The returning officer wrote to everyone who was on the postal vote list, which resulted in a great number of people being removed from it. Indeed, in one ward where there was controversy the number went down from 8,600 people to 3,000. Hon. Members will agree
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that that is a huge drop. The returning officer worked with the West Midlands police to investigate all multiple applications, and the police visited houses where more than five people had applied for postal votes. Together with the work to encourage all political parties to sign up to a code of conduct, that ensured that the contests that took place in Birmingham during the general election were not subject to the problems that occurred in local elections.
There are three issues that I shall touch on briefly. First, how do we prevent the electoral process from being corrupted by fraudulent use of postal votes? I am not in favour of all-postal voting, particularly when that system is imposed on people against their will. I agree with the Opposition spokesperson who referred to the dangers of gimmicky e-voting. It is fraught with dangers and if it is brought in, it will cause even more problems than have occurred with postal voting. But there is no doubt that many people like the opportunity to vote by post, so we must devise a system that is as foolproof as possible.
To go on the electoral register, a person should have to sign. Whether they sign individually or sign a form that comes to the house, there must be a signature. If that person applies for a postal vote, the signature on the application must be checked against the signature provided to go on the register. As a final safeguard, when the person fills in the postal vote and sends it back with the declaration of secrecy, that signature must also be checked. Those are positive steps that can be taken and would make a real impact. I know that it would cost money and there would be arguments against such a system, but what is the price of democracy? I strongly urge my right hon. and learned Friend to consider that seriously as part of legislation.
Secondly, we should revisit the argument about obligatory voting. Some people call it compulsory voting, but it is not. It just obliges somebody as a citizen in a democratic society to go to a polling station or to get a postal vote. What they do with the ballot paper afterwards is entirely a matter for them. All right hon. and hon. Members will have gone through the salutary experience on election night of watching the disputed votes and seeing what some of our electors think of us. I have no problem with that. People are exercising their democratic right. I would not object if there was a place on the ballot paper where a voter could write "None of the above" or write in the name of a candidate for whom they did want to vote.
We are allowing a cop-out from the democratic system. If we want higher turnout, we should move towards the Australian system of obligatory voting. It is far better than going in for various gimmicky ways of trying to increase the turnout which are fraught with dangers, as has been found with postal votes.
The final point concerns a problem that occurs in an area such as mine, which I hope my right hon. and learned Friend will take on board in legislation. What happens on election day in a constituency such as mine is not how elections used to be fought. Traditionally, at the polling station there would be a representative of
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each of the parties, the number taker, and there would be a great deal of conviviality and sharing of information.
That does not exist in areas such as mine. On election day groups of people congregate at the entrance to polling stations. They hand out leaflets and talk to people, particularly in areas where English is not the first language and where the number on the ballot paper is even more important than the name. They give out a great deal of misinformation. During the day the numbers at each polling station build up so that by early evening, as happened in my constituency at the recent election, there are 50 or 60 people at the gates.
The police are there and struggle to prevent violence breaking out. In the background there is the cacophony of cars parked outside the polling station with recorded messages from the candidates on a repetitive reel, so that goes on throughout the day. All the traditional conventions that most of us may remember, whereby a loudspeaker was not allowed anywhere near a polling station and there was no campaigning on polling day, have gone by the board. Somebody who wants to vote from the early evening onwards has to go through a cacophony of sound, intimidation, harassment and misinformation, and that is only to get into the polling station. It is no good turning round and saying, "Well, the police have powers to deal with that." As we have learned in the west midlands, the police do not have such powers. New legislation is needed to prevent campaigning within a certain area around a polling station, because the police do not have a hope at the moment. I have shared my views with hon. Members, but I am mindful of the fact that time is limited.
I welcome the Government's intention to introduce legislation. I also welcome the fact that both the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary have fought many elections and are therefore experienced. I am sure that their boss in the Department also has long experience of fighting elections, and I hope that they share their experiences with him in drawing up the legislation.
I urge Ministers to take on board my remarks this evening, which are a genuine attempt to address the issues. When I referred to what happens on polling day, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) and others nodded vigorously, and if the issue is not addressed, the situation will get worse.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Although I have probably experienced more elections than most hon. Members, my experience is not as extensive as that of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff).
The Electoral Commission should fund closed circuit television supervision of what goes on outside polling stations, which would allow the police and others to take action after an election, because the certainty of action will stop people from engaging in an activity that is undesirable and should be unlawful. Voting without intimidation matters in a family, outside a polling station and inside a polling station.
In approximately 1997, I first raised the question of allowing outside observers into polling stations. If I go as an observer to El Salvador, South Africa or anywhere
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else, I expect to go into a polling station. I expect authorised observers following our elections to be able to do the same thing here, and I hope that there will not be another national election in which that cannot happen.
The Electoral Commission should be given funds to allow it, rather than local authorities, to provide money to electoral returning officers. I have not seen complaints from electoral returning officers about the allocation of funds within local authorities, but that temptation should be avoided.
I demand that the Government make sure that every service voter is registered by the time of the next national election, which is a point that applies to both local and general elections. It is scandalous that the Government made changes that made it less likely that service voters would be on the electoral register, and all their words before the last election were inadequate. We should not spend too long going over the past, but Ministersnot only Defence Ministers, but Ministers with responsibility for electoral registration and, preferably, the Prime Minister, toomust make sure that a service voter's ability to vote is maintained by their service unit and the Government.
A similar point applies to overseas voters in general. When I visited Mallorca, I met potential voters, and the British Government expend very little effort on people who are eligible to vote from overseas countries. The high commission or embassy website might refer to registration, but nothing is released in the British community stating, "This is the easy way to register to voteand you should do so." I want to see all-party work on that point, and perhaps the opportunity to send out members on balanced delegations should be extended to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to try to encourage that process. If people like such trips, why not take them for a good cause that helps democracy?
If we were to introduce voting at 16, one advantage would be that people could automatically move from the child benefit register to the voting register. As a growing number of families receive child benefit until children are 18, the transfer should become automatic. The measure should not entail a breach of data confidentiality, so let us take that simple, practical step.
Let us try to ensure that we get the co-operation of mobile phone services, because most people coming up to the age of 18 and eligible to be registered to vote should be able to send a public service message to do so, if that is allowed by this House, as that goes beyond ordinary data protection issues. A whole series of those simple things could happen, in addition of course to the council tax payer being automatically expected to be on the electoral register.
I turn to individual registration, which was one of the issues discussed by the Electoral Commission and by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs combined with the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister just before the election. Although there are arguments for individual registration, they are not so overwhelming that an electoral register should require an individual signature. Students in halls of residence would not register in great numbers if that
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were the requirement. It is preferable that one person in a household should be able to nominate people on the register. Perhaps then, if the electoral registration system requires something to go out to individual potentially registered voters, they can sign up for a postal vote or any other method of voting, and that can be checked. The initial movement towards the register should come from the householder or pseudo-householder, whether they be the warden of a students' hall of residence, a landlord, the manager of a residential home for the elderly, or someone like me with a household that is occasionally full of children eligible to vote.
A whole series of other issues matter, but given that attendance has been quite good and that colleagues on both sides of the House still want to speak, all I want to say is: "Don't let this discussion be totally distorted by arguments for proportional representation, because that has been shown to be a last-past-the-post system on too many occasions." If we want to start talking about electoral systems, let us have a proper debate on getting rid of the worst scandal in our system at the momentthe closed list system for the European Parliament elections. If the electorate cannot pick out someone they particularly want and get them elected or pick out someone they particularly do not want and get them disappointed, we shall have a system that is not democracy.
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