Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, before the Minister replies, I raise two questions of competency which may lie behind the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Would it be competent for the registrar when making up his register to record people's e-mail addresses--their Internet addresses--in the register? If that is the case, is there anything in Clause 10(2) that would make it incompetent to have a scheme which allowed people to vote over the Internet?

6.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am interested in the spirit behind this amendment. I am with the noble Lord in spirit, perhaps more than he might have imagined when tabling what he described as a probing amendment. The Government are also with the noble Lord in spirit. After all, we now have an "e-envoy". The Prime Minister has given a commitment to conduct 25 per cent of government business electronically. In developing the 44 local authority

29 Feb 2000 : Column 504

local elections pilot schemes we have taken a keen interest in those that involve new technology, encourage e-commerce and make use of the Internet.

In my previous job as leader of Brighton and Hove Council it was part of our vision to create and generate a "wired" city. We had made a great deal of progress towards that objective when I resigned my post. I took a profound interest in that matter. We "wired up" nearly all of the schools within Brighton and Hove by the time I had to resign my post. I want to see these developments progress apace. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is keen to encourage innovation. Having said that, we do not believe that the amendment is necessary, however keen we are to see innovation. We can encourage that innovation by other means.

As I am sure your Lordships will be aware, we received applications from 44 local authorities which want to run pilot schemes at the local elections, assuming that the Bill receives Royal Assent in time. We have been extremely encouraged by the number of applications that have been submitted and also by their breadth and quality. Eight of the schemes covered in the applications involve either electronic voting or counting. That is a significant departure. My right honourable friend has been able to give provisional approval to six of those applications.

Other applications that have been provisionally approved included all-postal ballots, early voting, extension of postal voting entitlement and mobile polling facilities, all of which we regard as being equally important innovations. We do not want to focus just on "e-innovations"; we want to focus across the broad span. By placing extra emphasis simply on innovations involving new technology, we may find that fewer local authorities decide to apply to run pilot schemes because they do not feel that they have the necessary capacity.

I was encouraged to read in the Municipal Journal--that is not at the top of everyone's weekend reading list although I am afraid that it is at the top of mine, sad character that I am--a small item on, I believe, Barnett Council, which conducted a budget consultation. It had posted a site and had invited people to respond via the Internet. It received about 1,000 responses. That figure was not as high as the number of paper responses it received. Nevertheless that encourages me to think that, even in these early stages of the development of Internet sites and so on, there is much capacity and much interest to see these matters taken further.

None of the applications this year has involved Internet voting, which I suspect may have something to do with the short time available to local authorities for preparing their applications. However, we are hopeful that in future years pilot scheme applications might involve Internet voting. That would be an interesting development and picks up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made in part.

All such applications would be judged against the normal criteria. In the case of any involving Internet voting, clearly particular attention will need to be paid

29 Feb 2000 : Column 505

to security issues and to the resilience and robustness of the system. I am no expert in those matters but with a new, emerging technology and with a new, emerging voting technique there is always the potential for abuse or fraud to occur. Only a couple of weeks ago it was reported that had to be shut down following the action of hackers. Therefore we cannot afford to be complacent as regards these new approaches and when we try to tap into new technologies.

None the less, as I hope I have been able to demonstrate, the Government have the will to explore and continue to explore--and are receptive to--innovations in electronic procedures involving new technology. We hope that this will develop as part of the pilot process. Although, of course, there are always some difficult issues to overcome, we see a golden opportunity here.

In the light of what I have said and of our overall commitment, I trust that the noble Lord will feel sufficiently reassured to withdraw his amendment. No doubt he will continue to badger us, argue with us, stimulate us and encourage us to explore this issue further.

Lord McNally: My Lords, the great advantage of debates of this kind is that we get a glimpse into the private lives of Ministers. The thought of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, finishing his last Red Box and then turning for a couple of hours relaxation to the Municipal Journal is most encouraging.

I take fully what the Minister said. I used this opportunity--and perhaps slightly abused it--to raise also the issue of political campaigning. I realise that that does not come within the terms of the Bill, but as I know that there are in the Home Office avid readers of Hansard, perhaps when the Minister has his next team meeting he may say "Do you think there is anything in this? Are our electoral laws going to cover new kinds of campaigning and fund-raising?"

I thank the Minister for his constructive response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 13:

    Page 13, line 18, leave out (", where and how") and insert ("and where").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is an exploratory amendment which seeks to allow us to spend a few minutes discussing and exploring electronic counting and voting. Obviously it is related to the previous debate. It is different in that I hope we can address only the concept of voting machines and the like.

There are two reasons why the Government may well want to move in this direction. First, if we are allowed to vote in more than one place, there will have to be some form of electronic communication between the places to ensure that we do not vote in more than one place. I can see me dashing around all the places at which I am entitled to vote during the course of the

29 Feb 2000 : Column 506

afternoon and registering my vote in each one of them. The current system of scoring a name off the register would not deal with that. Polling stations, of course, would need to be linked up electronically. I wonder where we are on that matter. Are any of the pilot schemes and local authorities going down that kind of road? Do they have the electronic machinery in place to allow them to do so and to ensure that security is up to scratch?

The second point concerns the matter of going into a polling station and, instead of the traditional method, voting electronically. I presume that that would lead on to electronic counting. I presume that the Government do not have any intention of carrying out electronic counting on the back of the traditional ballot paper. That would seem to be a pretty pointless exercise. We will get to electronic counting when we get to electronic machines.

I have agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, to sponsor an exhibition on Thursday--this is advertising time--in Committee Room 4, between 4 o'clock and 7.30 p.m., on electronic voting machines. I regret to say that it is not a British company but a Japanese company that deals in these matters. We thought it reasonable that your Lordships and Members of the other place should have a chance to see the equipment.

I should like to explore with the Minister how he sees these matters advancing. What electronic gadgetry will be employed in the pilots? I see from a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, on 1st February that a number of applications for electronic voting have been received. How many of those have been accepted and what are their details, as far as the Minister can give them? We are interested in all these matters because I have little doubt that we shall go down the road of electronic voting. We shall have to ensure that as we go down that road we do not run into problems of security and so on which we have, at least by and large, dealt with in the voting systems that we are used to. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his amendment and for putting his points cogently. I shall not be quite as helpful as I thought I might be in answering his questions.

The noble Lord raised a very important issue on which I can help him--that is, the issue of different polling stations where one could, in theory, vote on the same day. That is an important issue. We initially rejected one of the pilots that came forward because we did not feel that it had taken sufficient account of that particular issue. I think that it was from the Blackburn and Darwin local authority--they are now linked--and my understanding is that it has now established an electronic link to deal with the precise problem that the noble Lord has usefully raised. It is an issue of which we are very conscious.

Other issues will, of course, emerge as a consequence of introducing new technologies. I am reminded, for instance, as we look at some of the other issues involved in this, of marks on ballot papers. If we move

29 Feb 2000 : Column 507

to a system of electronic counting we shall need to introduce measures such as bar codes on ballot papers. So we are moving a long way from the stubby pencil in the draughty church hall. People have difficulty in seeing how we can move away from marked papers to papers that are marked in some other way so that they can be properly and effectively counted, and new counting schemes will need to be reflected in the way in which ballot papers are prepared.

So we are conscious of those issues. We know that we will have to look very closely at the practicalities and that new technology in itself may mean that we shall have to reflect further on the way in which we regulate elections. They are issues that we shall have to confront in the future. This short probing amendment has shed some light in this area. When new pilots come forward--particularly those which open up the possibility of electronic voting and the use of voting machines and so on--we shall have to return to this issue. I should like to see a sponsored debate on this matter. It would usefully open up the whole area.

I am grateful that the noble Lord has put his name to the exhibition taking place this week. It is a very useful innovation and, if I find time, I shall certainly come along.

We are abreast of the issues. I hope that the noble Lord is satisfied with the spirit of my response. If I have missed any of his points, I shall study Hansard closely and carefully and come back to him in correspondence.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page