Mr. Heald: Amendment No. 21 provides for no pilot schemes by all-postal voting. As Members on both sides of the Committee will be aware, the Electoral Commission has twice said that there should be an end to all-postal voting. It is clear[Interruption.]
Mr. Heald: It is clear that the public value the tried and tested ballot-box polling stationthe traditional British way of voting. They should not be forced to vote by other means such as postal voting if they do not want to do so. That is the recommendation of the Electoral Commission; it has been restated twice and it is time that the Government agreed to it.
The point was made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) that such pilot schemes have shown no sign of increasing turnout in the past. The concern with electronic voting is that there is no proper way to establish an audit trail, so we propose in amendment No. 23 that we should not introduce such measures when there is no justification for them.
"I have seen most if not all of the pilot schemes demonstrated, and have spotted substantial flaws . . . How do you know who's in the room with someone when they vote and how can you be sure they are not trying to influence someone's vote? . . . There are serious worries about SMS voting."
We are concerned that piloting is becoming a serial occupation of the Government. They pilot and pilot and pilot, and then they pilot and pilot and pilot. That has been said before in the debate, but it is getting to the
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point where some controls should be put in place, so we suggest that Parliament should approve the pilot schemes.
Miss Begg: The hon. Gentleman describes the current position with electronic voting or text messaging, but five years ago, I could not even text: the technology is moving at an incredibly rapid pace. Those types of voting could be secure in five years' time, but they would be ruled out if we were to agree to the amendment. It is very narrow minded and backward looking to rule out those innovative ways of voting.
Mr. Heald: The hon. Lady cannot have it both ways. We have tried an accurate system of voter registration in Northern Ireland. The Government have lauded it to the skies, but they will not introduce it in England. She is now saying, "We've tried electronic voting. It's failed. Let's introduce it." She cannot have it both ways.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is accurate in saying that the Government's intention is to pilot and pilot and pilot, given that the Minister seemed to postulate a three-stage pilot process, with a local, then a regional and then a supra-regional pilot scheme. So none of these things will ever be put in place.
Mr. Heald: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is right. I think that we both heard the rustle of the long grass, as the Minister kicked these proposals well into that territory. He then thought that that was perhaps not far enough, so he kicked them a bit further. In fact, piloting is a method of delay: the Government will not grasp the nettle.
Barbara Keeley : I disagree most profoundly. As I said earlier, I have experience of a number of successful all-postal pilot schemes. We had great success with them in Trafford and in Salford. Piloting is important because we are changing a system that people have used all their lives. If they are middle aged or older, they may have been voting in a certain way for a number of years. It takes a fair amount of work to make pilot schemes successful. I agree that some local authorities did not get together and work hard enough to make them a success, but some of them have been successful. The reason why the Government keep supporting pilots schemes is that we are changing the way that people vote. That is a profound change for a lot of people, and we need to try out different ways of doing it.
Mr. Heald: It is becoming an abusethat is the truth of it. We were happy to agree to some pilots in 2000 to try ideas out, but here we are, five years later, still piloting. The Minister seems to want to carry on with pilots for another five or 10 years. This really will not do. If we are to have pilots, we ought to have proper parliamentary approval. I see that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) agrees[Interruption.]
The amendments relate to pilot schemes for local elections in England and Wales under
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section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000. Amendment No. 21 would prevent local authorities from making applications to the Secretary of State to conduct pilots of all-postal ballots.
In 2002, there were 13 all-postal pilot schemes. Those pilots secured significant increases in turnout in many areas. There was a 38.7 per cent. turnout on average in all pilots, compared with a national average of 32.8 per cent. In 2003, 33 all-postal pilots took place. The average turnout was just under 50 per cent., compared with the general picture of around 33 per cent.
Subsequently to those first two trialsthis is the point that I was making earlier, although I think that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mischievously chose to misrepresent me slightlyall-postal pilots were held in four English regions: east midlands, north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber. Some 14.1 million electors were involved. At that election, turnout more than doubled in the pilot regions from the 1999 levels. In 2004, turnout in the pilot regions was 42 per cent., compared with 37 per cent. elsewhere. It is performance such as that that has led to many local authorities supporting all-postal ballots, as they keep turnout up.
Clear and sincere concerns have been expressed about how we can tackle fraud in the midst of all that. I outlined earlier the fact that there are anti-fraud measures in the Bill, albeit only in brief because the matter was not especially germane to that group of amendments. Further measures to combat fraud in postal voting will follow in secondary legislation. The measures include a requirement for the address of the electoral registration officer to be on the postal vote application form and will require a reason for redirecting a postal vote. All applications for postal votes will have to be confirmed in writing and replacement postal voting papers will be available up to 5 pm on the day of the poll. Some of the learning and development that supports those changes has come from pilots in which specific problems have been highlighted.
The Government believe that those measures will support all-postal pilots in the future, but we want them in place before any further pilots are carried out. As a result, the prospectus issued by the Department for pilots for the May 2006 elections specifically states that the Government are not seeking applications for all-postal pilots. While we have no intention to roll out all-postal voting as the default position for local elections in general, there might be instances in which such a pilot can be conducted effectively without any security concerns. In order to consider whether there is a case for allowing such elections to continue on an all-postal basis, we need to ensure that pilots of voting in such a way can be run to test and improve systems before any wider implementation.