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Online Voting

9. Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): What assessment he has made of progress with the online voting pilots for the forthcoming local elections. [49402]

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The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): All online pilots have been subject to a departmental quality review that showed they were all on track. We are planning a further independent quality and security review of those authorities before election day. We have also been working closely with authorities piloting all postal voting to ensure that their arrangements do not enhance the opportunity for fraud or undermine the secrecy and security of the poll. We will remain in contact with all pilot authorities over the election period so that the returning officers responsible and we ourselves can be confident of the robustness and security of the pilot voting arrangements that will be available.

Mr. Allan: Like the Minister, I want the e-voting pilots to succeed in May. I congratulate Ken Bellamy, head of information, communications and technology at Sheffield city council, on what he has done to develop the Sheffield pilots. Will the Minister ensure that clear guidance is issued to cover a situation which still concerns me? What happens when a voter turns up on 2 May at the polling station only to be told that someone has already cast their vote electronically, but they deny having done so themselves? That problem could damage confidence in e-voting if it is not handled carefully. I hope that the Minister will agree to publish guidance so that Members of Parliament, councillors and the public know what would happen in those circumstances.

Mr. Raynsford: On the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, I shall ensure that officials from my Department are in touch with Sheffield council to discuss the circumstances of that case and that appropriate guidance is issued to all authorities undertaking electronic polls. It is very important that we use the pilots as an opportunity to test thoroughly the availability of new technology to facilitate voting. All of us are concerned about falling participation in elections; anything that we can do to help people to vote who might not otherwise do so is a good thing. We are keen to explore that, and ensure that we make the most of the opportunities presented by the pilots.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will understand that certain basic principles govern voting in this country: people can be assured that no one can tell for whom they voted; they can be certain that when they put their ballot paper in a ballot box they have voted; and when counting takes place, candidates or their agents can scrutinise the process. Can my right hon. Friend therefore give a guarantee that when people vote electronically it will not be possible to trace them or the person for whom they voted? Can people have a guarantee that when they have

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voted electronically their vote will be received and counted, and how will the process be scrutinised by candidates and their agents?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend raises a number of important issues that we considered carefully, along with the Electoral Commission, before authorising the pilots this May. Arrangements are in place to deal with the precise concerns that he raised, and will ensure the security of the ballot, the anonymity of the voter and the opportunity if necessary to challenge any allegations of fraud. We are keen that the polls should be conducted in the most rigorous and careful way, but we are also conscious of the fact that many people who show an interest in using electronic technology to exercise their vote perhaps would otherwise not vote. It is right to pilot such opportunities to test whether in fact we can extend opportunities and encourage more people to exercise their vote, while at the same time guaranteeing the integrity and secrecy of the ballot.

West Coast Main Line

10. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): What policy the successor to Railtrack will have on the levels of investment for modernising the west coast main line. [49403]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): That will be a matter for Railtrack's successor.

Mr. Jack: In earlier exchanges on the west coast main line, the Minister asked for a degree of humbleness on the part of Opposition Members asking questions. May I suggest to the Minister in all humility that many of the problems reflected in those earlier exchanges focus on the problems brought about by his changes to Railtrack and the arrival of Network Rail? When can we expect a definitive statement that will spell out precisely what is to happen on the west coast main line in terms of train capacity, safety and rail closure, and what is included in phase 1 and phase 2 of the development?

Mr. Spellar: The right hon. Gentleman is right to be humble about the railways, as the Opposition have much to be humble about. If he had been listening to the full exchanges, he would have heard me say that discussions were taking place with all the parties about how the system can evolve to achieve progress on the west coast main line. In view of the mess that the Conservatives left, the right hon. Gentleman should understand that that will take a considerable time, not least because we have steadily been finding more and more deficiencies in the previous practice of Railtrack. He should not only be humble; he should be blooming well ashamed of it.

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Annuities (Competition)

Mr. Frank Field presented a Bill to require pension providers to provide information from the Financial Services Authority on annuity rates to all holders of personal pensions policies which allow the purchase of an annuity from any provider: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on 19 July, and to be printed [Bill 123].

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Alcohol Services

3.31 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I beg to move,

There are two background features to the Bill that I should mention briefly. The first is the extent of problem drinking and its social and economic costs. Too many people are drinking well over the recommended limits; indeed, a recent survey indicated that just over a quarter of adults aged 16 to 74 are hazardous drinkers, the highest proportion being those aged 16 to 24 years.

As well as the deaths and illnesses directly attributable to alcohol abuse, there are the indirect effects on the health of the nation—for example, one in seven people killed on the roads and one in 20 people injured are involved in drink-drive accidents. In addition, there are the alcohol-related crimes. The British crime survey in 2000 found that incidents in and around pubs and clubs accounted for nearly one in five of all violent crimes.

I shall say no more about the problems of alcohol abuse. There is an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall tomorrow and I know that a number of hon. Members want to explore them on that occasion.

The second background feature to the Bill is that alcohol care services throughout the country are under severe pressure. Services are shrinking in number; most services have static or declining levels of funding; and the present sources of funding are not secure. Moreover, alcohol care services are patchy; there is a postcode lottery in availability, range and quality. One current problem is the haemorrhage of skilled staff to drugs agencies as a result of the greater priority and Government funding given to them for the expansion in drugs services. There are therefore high levels of unmet need, especially for early intervention and preventive services. That is showing up in the higher level of alcohol-related admissions to accident and emergency units and to acute and chronic in-patient services.

Four years ago the Government announced that they would publish an alcohol strategy, and two years ago they said that they would implement it by 2004. Unfortunately, other pressing priorities have meant that the strategy has yet to be announced. The upshot is that there is uncertainty about the future of alcohol services. Local authorities are not prioritising alcohol issues in their community strategies, local public service agreements and crime reduction strategies. Without a lead from the centre, primary care trusts are not always clear how to proceed.

The Bill seeks to address those problems in alcohol care services. The understanding behind it is that the Government will use their own favoured system of solving such problems, which they have used successfully in other areas. Specifically, the Bill calls for the inspection and regulation bodies—the Commission for Health Improvement and the National Care Standards Commission—to investigate each part of the country, report on deficiencies in alcohol care services and make recommendations. They would examine whether there was adequate coverage and availability of high-quality alcohol care services in every locality.

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The best way for the Government to make that work is to issue a national service framework for alcohol care services, which would set standards and models of care, provide a proper implementation structure and ensure that mainstream NHS and local authority money is directed to those services. That would provide the benchmarks against which the regulatory agencies would carry out their inspections. In addition, the Bill builds on the existing roles of local authorities.

I hope that if the House gives leave to bring in the Bill, it will agree on consideration that its approach has advantages, as it fits with Government policy in devolving responsibility for purchasing to primary care trusts and requires no new administrative machinery.

In summary, the Bill provides the implementation machinery for the Government's alcohol strategy. There is an urgent need to put the authority of the regulatory bodies behind a serious initiative to create a nationally adequate and reasonably secure system of alcohol care provision. Without an adequate system of early- intervention alcohol services, other Government policy goals in law and order, employment, productivity, social exclusion and education will not be achieved. An adequate system of alcohol services will save money across the public services as a whole, as well as addressing the social needs of many of our citizens.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ross Cranston, Mr. Kelvin Hopkins, Mrs. Marion Roe, Bob Russell, Mr. Russell Brown, Jon Cruddas, Mr. David Amess, Mr. David Drew, Mrs. Betty Williams, Mr. Siôn Simon, Rev. Martin Smyth and Fiona Mactaggart.

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