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Miss Begg: People are worried about changing the electoral system and pilots because of the possibility of abuse through fraud. However, if anything illustrated how seriously electoral fraud is taken, it was the court cases that resulted from the 2004 local elections in England. If anyone thought that such fraud would be
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treated lightly, they were soon disabused of that view because of what happened to the councillors who took part in it.

David Cairns: Let me say this clearly: the Government condemn fraud wherever it occurs and whomsoever is guilty of it. If the people who commit fraud are members of the Labour party or Labour councillors, that in no sense diminishes our outrage. In fact, it increases our outrage that such practice takes place. I utterly condemn fraud and the people who attempt it. We are introducing measures through the Bill to minimise the risk of fraud. My hon. Friend was right to say that the judgment was serious. We are learning the lessons from that and making it absolutely clear that there will be zero tolerance of fraud, irrespective of who commits it.

Mr. Binley : The night is getting late, my mind is slowing down and the Minister speaks very quickly. Did the Minister say that there would be postal voting pilots for local council elections? If so, will he give a commitment that he will allow local government to decide whether or not it wants that pilot, or will it be done by Government edict?

David Cairns: No, I specifically said in the prospectus for the next local council elections that we are not inviting invitations for all-postal pilots, although there will be other pilots to test various locations where people can vote and so on. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we will put anti-fraud measures in place, along with the other measures that I outlined. He might ask the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) why I am speaking so quickly to this group of amendments.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Yes, let us get on.

David Cairns: I apologise to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire.

Mr. Heald: The Electoral Commission said that all-postal voting should not be pursued and that

Why will the Minister not just give the Committee an assurance that all-postal voting will be abandoned?

David Cairns: We see merit in all-postal voting. There is a clear difference between our position and that of the Electoral Commission, as there is on several other issues. I remind the Committee that the vast majority of the recommendations in the Bill were made by the Electoral Commission, and we listened to it carefully on a range of issues. However, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State said on Second Reading, it is for the commission to make recommendations to the House, but it is for the House to decide how to implement those recommendations. On this issue, we do not agree with the commission, but we accept that additional anti-fraud measures must be put in place before we proceed any further.

Mr. Heath: Does the Minister accept that there are two principal objections to all-postal ballots? One is the
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requirement that there should at least be an opportunity for people to vote in person if that is their preference, and the other is the fact that identifiers are not in place to allow an all-postal ballot to be conducted without threat of fraud. QED, such arrangements should be made sooner, which is why we do not want the pilots to be long-haul.

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to revisit a discussion on a previous group of amendments. Let me reiterate that we are concerned to put anti-fraud measures place before we proceed with further all-postal ballots. It will be appropriate to hold such ballots when there is a minimal security threat. An example is the recent Downham Market parish by-election, which passed off entirely without fraud.—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is casting aspersions on the voters of Downham Market I am outraged, and I disassociate the Government and myself from those allegations. We do not want to paint ourselves into a corner and say that we will never hold a postal ballot again, because that is not wise.

Mr. Love: May I share with my hon. Friend the real dilemma about piloting? What happens if all the local authorities that wish to participate in pilots have high registration in middle-class areas? What if, for example, none of the London authorities offer themselves for pilots, because they think that the response will be negative for them? Would the Minister roll out the scheme, knowing that certain areas of the country did not believe that the pilot would be successful for them?

David Cairns: I am not certain whether my hon. Friend was in the Chamber when I addressed that issue in relation to a previous group of amendments. In relation to the pilots for individual identifiers and registration, I gave a clear commitment that we would seek to draw from as wide an area as possible within the seven categories outlined by the Office for National Statistics. Postal balloting is a different issue, but I take the point that my hon. Friend is making.

Amendment No. 23 seeks to place a ban on the piloting of electronic voting. Research for the Electoral Commission released in 2003 shows that there is significant demand for electronic voting and that it may help to stem the declining turnout at elections. The research reveals that more than half—55 per cent.—of adults in England said that being offered electronic voting in some form would encourage them to vote at the next local election. We are all safely outside the youngest demographic group, 18 to 24-year-olds, who are most keen to try the new methods, with three-quarters of them saying that e-voting would encourage them to participate.

10 pm

The electoral process must fit with modern lifestyles, because many people spend little if any time in the locality of their polling station in the course of their working day. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) has said, as the population in general becomes more comfortable with conducting transactions electronically, enabling e-voting could promote increased participation in elections. Local authorities have also
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demonstrated an interest in using electronic voting as an option in local elections. In recent years, a number of pilots have been conducted, and they have provided some important lessons, which were outlined in various contributions earlier in Committee.

Piloting electronic voting in local elections allows new technologies to be tested and the identification of ways in which the security of the vote may be improved. While the Electoral Commission has identified areas in which previous electronic voting pilots have needed improvement, it also sees such developments as important in increasing future participation in elections.

Finally, amendment No. 24 proposes an additional parliamentary layer in the sign-off process for pilots run under section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which allows local authorities to propose innovations on how they run their elections. Those proposals are based on local experience of what might work in local elections as well as local expectations about what might work better. The proposals are currently assessed by the Department, and the Secretary of State determines which pilots should proceed following consultation with the Electoral Commission. Pilots are assessed for suitability against a framework of criteria that    takes account of the Electoral Commission's recommendation and Government policy on electoral modernisation.

This is not a great issue of principle for the Government—it is an issue of process. The argument advanced by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire was slightly disingenuous, because he was trying to scupper the whole notion of pilots, both now and in the future, whereas we are trying to improve the process.

Mr. Harper: Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on the Front Bench about ruling out all-postal pilots completely, the Minister has not addressed the importance of allowing electors to choose how they want to vote. If the Government want to pursue the concept of all-postal pilots, will they consider giving electors the option of voting in person? At this year's election, a number of my constituents who had previously registered for postal voting contacted the council to deregister, because, among other reasons, they were concerned about fraud and wanted to vote in person because they thought it more secure.

David Cairns: I hear the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is axiomatic that if people take their ballot paper to a polling station, it is not an all-postal pilot. However, no immediate plans exist for any further all-postal pilots, which are not included in the prospectus for the local elections in 2006. We want anti-fraud measures in place before we consider any further such pilots.

Returning to amendment No. 24, it is not clear how an additional level of parliamentary oversight of such pilots, particularly when they are already independently assessed by the Electoral Commission, would automatically add value to the process. If we were to move towards the system outlined by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, we would be concerned about placing any
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additional constraints on an already tight timetable for proposing, approving, establishing, conducting and reporting on those pilots. However, the Government acknowledge the importance of Parliament having the final say on whether any local government pilot scheme should be adopted on a permanent basis, which is why section 11(3) of the Representation of the People Act 2000 includes an affirmative resolution procedure. As that is already law, amendment No. 24 is unnecessary.

I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is satisfied and that he will withdraw the amendment.

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