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1AClause 1, Line 15, at end insert—
"(c) Yorkshire and the Humber;
(d) North West."
The Lords disagree to Commons Amendment No. 1A to Lords Amendment No. 1, for the following reason—

1BBecause it is appropriate to make provision for no more than two pilot regions, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.
The Commons do not insist on their Amendment No. 1A to which the Lords have disagreed, but propose the following Amendment to Lords Amendment No. 1 in lieu of that amendment—

1CClause 1, Leave out lines 16 to 18 and insert—
"(c) Yorkshire and the Humber;
(d) North West.
( ) Postal voting is voting where no polling station is used and a person entitled to vote in person or by proxy must deliver by post or by such other means as is specified in a pilot order—

(a) the ballot paper, and
(b) the completed declaration of identity form.

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( ) The declaration of identity form is a form which is delivered along with the ballot paper and which is completed by being signed—

(a) by the person to whom the ballot paper is addressed, and
(b) by a witness to that signing whose name and address are clearly marked on the form."

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Commons Amendment No. 1A to which the Lords have disagreed. For the convenience of the House I will also speak to Amendment No. 3C.

At this stage in parliamentary proceedings it is sometimes difficult for those who have not been closely following the cut and thrust of ping-pong to know exactly where we are and why we are where we are. So, in the optimistic hope that there might be one or two who are listening to our debate, I will seek to reassess or reaffirm why this issue matters and why the Government and the Commons have taken the position that they have on it.

Let me address first of all the question of why postal ballots matter. This House knows from previous discussions that we have a serious problem in our society about the reduction in the proportion of the population that is taking part in formal democratic processes. We have turn-outs in local government elections where on average the turn-out is less than one-third of the electorate. We had a turn-out in the last European Union elections in the United Kingdom when only 24 per cent of the electorate voted. We had a turn-out in the last national election when only 59 per cent of the electorate voted. In terms of turn-out in local government elections and European Union elections we had the lowest turn-out in the European Union.

I do not think that that is an issue that divides the parties. I think that there is a common concern that it is worrying; it matters, it weakens the mandate, it weakens the participation of people in formal democratic processes and there is always the anxiety that it opens the door, if only slightly, to the rise of extremist positions or parties. Therefore, for all these reasons I do not think that there is a difference of opinion that we have to find legitimate ways of trying to increase the participation of the public in our elections. Postal ballots matter because, although no one—unless he was foolish—would advance the argument that they were the only solution they represent, the only technical solution that has been found so far in a range of experiments with techniques of balloting that has been shown to have a significant impact on turnout. We have piloted postal balloting at local elections in this country for three years. As a consequence, we have acquired some good, deep experience, which shows that, on average, turnout has risen by 15 per cent in local elections in which postal ballots have taken place. Fifteen per cent may not sound like a big percentage, but when it is added to a turnout of 32 or 33 per cent, it is a very big percentage, and it means that we have raised participation in local government elections by almost a half.

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I do not think that there is an issue between the parties on that. There is open-minded and strong interest in all the parties in the potential importance of postal balloting. We also know, because the evidence from the Electoral Commission and others is clear, that the public like postal ballots, the elderly like them, and the disabled like them.

Lord Hoyle: Young people like them.

Lord Filkin: I am reminded of that as well.

The essential question before us is whether such ballots would also increase turnout in the European Union elections. We have never piloted them at European elections, and therefore I would be surprised if the issue divided us. Getting positive engagement by the electorate in European elections must matter, and it is therefore important to see whether postal ballots would have that effect. The pilots are also about testing whether pilots can be carried out successfully on a larger scale—a regional scale—even though they have previously been carried out only on a local scale. That is why it matters; and, indeed, is what the issue is all about.

So, what appears to divide us at this point in proceedings? I think that there are two issues: one is the question of which regions, and the second is the question of how big a pilot should be. The question of which regions hinges on the process by which the Government asked the Electoral Commission for advice—I stress the word "advice"—on which regions looked most suitable for conducting postal ballots at the combined European and local elections in June. The commission said that two regions were clearly and positively suitable; four were possibly suitable; and the other four were not suitable. It also said clearly that it was open to the Government, as hardly needed saying, to explore whether, having considered the areas about which there was concern, they wished to add additional regions. That is what the Government have done. While considering the list of the possibly suitable, we established from that process that Scotland was not possible, because the electoral returning officers there were not confident that they could conduct a ballot. We could not—and should not—have done one in Scotland, as there was no certainty that it could be delivered.

I shall not go into detail, because the Front Benches know the issues as well as I do. With Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west, we considered issues of scale, commitment of returning officers, security, safety and fraud, through an active process of discussion and engagement. We came to the evidence-based conclusion that it was reasonable to carry out pilot elections in those two regions as well. In other words, we are satisfied, as are the regional returning officers who carry the legal liability for the elections, that it is safe and secure to carry out elections in the north-west and in Yorkshire and Humberside, as well as the other two. Our debate is about the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside.

I turn to the next question that may divide us: are four regions too large for a pilot? In a sense, that issue engages with the Electoral Commission. The commission was

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asked for its advice on which regions were suitable. It was not asked for its advice on how big the pilot should be, but, as it was entitled to, it gave a view. It is perfectly positive about two regions, could probably live with three, but thinks that four may go further than is necessary for a pilot. At heart, that is what we are debating. Without pushing the point, the debate is about whether three or four regions should take part in the process. The commission has said that it thinks that we could do what needs to be done in the pilot in three regions, without needing to go for four.

Why do the Government and the Commons feel so clearly that it is important that we have four regions? I shall summarise the reasons. The first point that I shall make, before going into detail, is relevant to the amendment that we will debate later: it is an issue for the Government and Parliament, not the Electoral Commission, to decide. I have the greatest respect for the commission and its chairman, but Parliament is there to make such judgments. They are often fine judgments about how issues should be addressed. That is as it should be, and it would be strange for this House or another place to concede that role to an external body.

Why four regions? First, as I have said, we will learn more from the complexity and diversity that we will get from those four. The four regions are not the same. There is more complexity in the north-west. The area of Yorkshire and Humberside is different, and we will have a better pilot by having evidence from those regions. Secondly, this is the last time until 2009 that we will be able to pilot postal balloting on a regional scale. As a consequence, we would be foolish not to try to maximise the opportunity for learning. Next, the two regions that we are talking about—the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside—will have all-out postal ballots in October 2004. That is an important reason. They will have those all-out postal ballots as part of the regional referendums. That proposal has been warmly welcomed by the Electoral Commission. The commission thinks that it is a good thing that we should have postal ballots in the regional referendums for three out of the four regions that we are talking about in October 2004. It said so clearly and on the record.

It may seem to some in the House slightly bizarre that we have a position in which the commission, like the Government, is positively recommending that we use postal ballots for regional referendums but do not use them for these ballots. That might be a debating point, but there are also some practicalities involved. Many local authorities in the two regions that we are debating have until now conducted their local elections by postal ballot. If the amendment to the Commons proposal were to be carried, local authorities that had carried out their elections well and properly by postal ballot would have to revert to traditional methods in June and go back to postal ballots in October. To the Government, that seems bizarre. It also seems strange to the Electoral Commission. It argues for keeping stability in the electoral arrangements, for obvious practical reasons.

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For these reasons it seems to the Government that it is a judgment as to whether three or four regions are worth while. The judgment of the Government, supported by another place, is that on balance four is right and three is less good. In essence that is what I believe the debate is about.

There is also concern in what the Electoral Commission has said about whether the Government might be at risk of moving from pilots to universal postal balloting by a process of elision without having put in place what the commission believes to be right, which is individual voter registration. We do not intend to slide from pilots to universal application by a process of elision. We are looking very seriously indeed at individual voter registration. That is the position and the essence of the issues.

I shall now say something about Amendment No. 3C. We had a recent debate on that in this House. In another place the Government have made a concession on the point to sustain the traditional practice of individual voter witnessing on postal balloting. We do not believe that the evidence supports it, but in a spirit of seeking to narrow the differences between us and to show that we are not obdurate, we have made that concession and stand by it.

This process is obviously taking time and the delay is affecting and hurting those persons who have a real-life job to do in organising the elections. I am concerned about that as I am sure are the Opposition Benches. It would be good if we could bring this matter to a conclusion quickly and cleanly because none of us is gaining by the delay.

As a consequence of these changes we will learn more. If another place has its way, 2 million more people will vote in these regional and local government elections than would otherwise be the case. I shall not go into detail but I can substantiate that arithmetic without difficulty. Many more people will vote in the elections. Democrats that we are, that must matter to us for the reasons which I have signalled. Another place has now expressed its view twice on this issue and it has done so in the full knowledge of the views of this House. A strongly argued concession has been granted. I urge the House not to seek to frustrate the will of another place on this issue.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Commons Amendment No. 1A to which the Lords have disagreed.—(Lord Filkin.)

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