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Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, from these Benches we welcome the opportunity to debate the Bill. There is much in it that we can support, particularly the anti-fraud measures on the provision of false information and fraudulent applications for postal and proxy votes. Because we share with the Government the aspiration that registration should be as straightforward as possible, we will support
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measures that bring that about, provided that in our judgment they do nothing to impede the integrity of the ballot. We will oppose anything that compromises the way that our ballot is run.
I have serious concerns about today's announcement about changes to the voting system for the next elections. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord is genuine in his desire for those issues to be debated in your Lordships' House as part of this Bill, but those elections are only 10 weeks away. The preparations will have already started and will continue apace. Frankly, any debate that we have on the Bill in this House concerning the principle and the technical issues raised by these provisions will be too late.
We are told that we will be able to vote at the post office or, indeed, at Tesco, which is probably just as well because these days you are more likely to find a Tesco open than a post office. I gather that we will be able to vote by text or computer. We are talking about reducing democracy to the level of "Strictly Come Dancing" or "Big Brother". That is a travesty which suggests that the Government have learnt nothing from the postal ballot trials. On my way here I reflected that, in the case of "Big Brother", as the public threw George Galloway out they showed more discernment than his electorate, but perhaps I should gloss over that.
My noble friend Lord Greaves will return to this topic in his own inimitable way and will take it further. At this stage, in terms of the integrity of the ballot and so on, I pay particular tribute to the work of the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society, which do so much in recommending frameworks to establish a balance between maximising participation and maintaining the integrity of the ballot.
It is always tempting to say that ever-reducing turnout is to do with technical issues, the electoral roll or convenient hours and places of voting, but that is much exaggerated. The evidence shows that, above all, two things are important in influencing turnout. The first is the salience of the election to the voter. General elections see much higher turnouts than by-elections or local government polls. The successive emasculation of local government and its institutions has seen a reduction in turnout, which is almost inevitable. The second point is the extent to which people think that their vote will count in their area. With the inevitable attention given to the minority of seats which change hands, voters in other areas simply feel that they do not matter. That is one reason why on these Benches we have always supported a system of fair voting, in which how you vote is what matters rather than where you vote.
We also need to recognise that, in some communities in this country, the concept of the vote as something private and non-transferable is not entirely recognised. It is a great problem in areas with low levels of functional literacy. These points were made very strongly in the aftermath of the Birmingham case last year. It is not a new problem that we have had to
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grapple with in this country; I know of veteran party canvassers who, in the not too distant past, have been told by farm workers that they had to vote the same way as the landowner. That tells us that cultures and attitudes change over time, so there is a huge educational role for local authorities and community groups working together.
We support the provision of a locally managed, centrally co-ordinated electronic electoral register, and see it particularly as a useful step towards giving voters the option of voting wherever they happen to be on polling day. It is useful for people away at work or for those who simply turn up at the wrong polling station.
It is a matter of concern that some 3.5 million to 4 million people are not registered. Therefore, we strongly support changing the date for registration so that the register no longer closes before an election is announced. As the noble and learned Lord said, many people do not think about it until the election is called and then it is too late. We would like to see the opportunity for a national information campaign about the need to be registered using all the medialocal, national and regional. Perhaps we also need some changes to the freepost rules to ensure that late entrants still receive freepost literature.
We share the regret of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that the Government have not moved towards individual rather than household registration. In this day and age of very varied domestic arrangements, that seems extraordinarily out of tune with modern life. Individual registration is supported by the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Reform Society and the Local Government Association, among others. The Government have made tentative steps towards this provision in pilot schemes, although the scope and the timing are very unclear. We would prefer not to see pilot schemes. We believe that the case has already been made and that pilot schemes can only delay the national rollout. However, if we have pilots, we wish to see them carried out on a sufficiently large scale to ensure that proper evaluation takes place with a sufficiently large evidence base. I ask the Government to be aware that one problem with pilot schemes is that it is often the authorities that are already best which volunteer to take part in them.
We welcome the system for regular review of polling stations and district boundaries. However, as a matter of practicality, we would like to see a moratorium on doing this within three months of a fixed election polling day. That is because the republication of a revised register close to an election causes all sorts of logistical difficulties for all the political parties who need to use the register.
We strongly support changes in the rules that will allow translation into other languages and assistance for postal voters. Those points are also raised by the Disability Rights Commission and I expect the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will have more to say on that. In its Right to Vote campaign, the DRC highlights the particular difficulties faced by people with learning disabilities.
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We also welcome the reduction in the age of candidature from 21 to 18. However, the Bill appears to come up with different dates for different elections as regards the day on which someone's birthday has to fall. We may have to discuss that in Committee and perhaps agree that the same polling date should be used across the board.
We welcome the use of common names. During the 14 years when I was a local government candidate, people would often say to me, "I didn't know you were called Rosalind". They only saw that name when they came to the polling booth. The only person who ever called me Rosalind was my mother and I am not sure she ever voted for me. I wonder whether we should have a system which would enable agents to proofread ballot papers. I realise the time constraint, but we have receivedas I am sure other parties havemany complaints from agents about mistakes on ballot papers, which is probably due to the pressure on authorities.
On the concern about election expense returns, there are worries that the Electoral Commission is going overboard and demanding unnecessary detail. We would like to see that power used in a proportionate way and some simplification in the way in which the commission carries out its business. We share with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, some very serious worries about changes to start election expenses four months from polling day. That is not a problem for fixed elections, but for general elections that will present parties and their agents with some very difficult practical problems. The danger is that the uncertainty will mean that parties go back to the old system under which candidates were not formally selected until the election was announced, returning us to the nonsense of the prospective candidate or Westminster spokesman, and the late lamented adoption meeting.
We support the creation of formal standards in performance for electoral services, as there is such a wide variation in the capacity of local authorities to deliver uniformly and consistently. However, the Government must recognise the tension between pushing the time scales for registration and postal voting ever closer to the election date, and the need for officers to be able to work under pressure. We need to obviate the danger of error and corner-cutting.
Some matters are not in the Bill, but we would like to find time to discuss them. We believe that changes to the rules governing the details of freepost election addresses are now overdue. Currently, the rules appear to be drawn up unilaterally by the Royal Mail and, while we have no problem with it dealing with technical details, we question whether the Royal Mail should make decisions about whether leaflets should contain requests for donations. That should be a matter for the Electoral Commission, after consultation with parties. My noble friend Lord Garden will talk about the particular problems experienced by service voters.
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On these Benches, we have a long-standing commitment to bringing in votes at 16; 108 Members of Parliament from eight parties signed an Early-Day Motion on that in another place. At 16 and 17 people can work650,000 do; they pay taxes; they get married; and 61,000 of them are the main carer of a sick or disabled relative. It cannot be right to deny the franchise to this group of people. Most of the arguments against giving young people the vote are exactly the same as those used in the past two centuries for opposing the vote for working men and then for women. I look forward to the Grand Committee on the Bill.
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