Draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Dr. John Pugh (Southport): As I understand it, we have no difficulty with the statutory instrument. It appears to be a permissive piece of legislation, allowing more than was hitherto allowed. There are electoral arrangements for referendums and elections and there are election methods—traditional, postal, proxy and pilot. The legislation seems to be a method for extending that, providing an à la carte menu for different authorities to conduct their affairs. Does the Minister not think that that runs the risk of confusing people whose grasp of electoral arrangements is not always perfect and whose participation level is fairly low?

Will the Minister confirm that the changes are not simply a knee-jerk reaction to Hackney—or wherever—but a genuine attempt to encourage participation in the electoral process? Will he also assure me that, as the novelty increases, people will be properly mindful of the safeguards against electoral abuse and of the possibility of confusion in the minds of the electorate, which may lead to miscast votes and poor efforts at voting?

Does the Minister not think that, to some extent, the initiatives are hitting the wrong target? The general thrust seems to be to encourage participation in the electoral process, and to do that we are making changes and introducing novelty into the way in which people cast their votes. However, one of the most decisive steps that we can take to encourage participation is not to find ever new ways of casting votes, but to ensure that people's votes count and that the bodies that they elect, such as local authorities, have genuine and substantial powers. I think that

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everyone would acknowledge that such powers have been eroded over the past decade or two.

Does the Minister visualise the Government introducing a process of consolidation and presenting an overview of the methods of voting in the light of the new legislation that has been introduced to empower local authorities and give them greater credibility? If they have more power, they will have more effect on their communities, and there will be participation because the electorate will find ways to participate, no matter what methods are presented.

My party in no sense opposes what is being suggested, but if the Government carry on introducing such ad hoc diversity, there may be less participation. People who move to different areas will find that the electoral arrangements are not quite the same and will be reluctant to take part.

There is a serious danger that all these ''back of the fag packet'' innovations will trivialise the electoral process; indeed, that seems to be happening. Judging by the turnout, the mayoral questions that the electorate are being asked to decide are matters of monumental indifference. Will the Minister therefore consider whether greater participation is best secured by ever more electoral innovation? It is probably more successfully secured by giving the vote itself more power. There has been debate and controversy about the mayoral project, which has not encouraged people to vote further.

To conclude, will the proposal mark the end of ad hoc adjustments, or will we be given an overview at some point of where we are to go with the electoral process? Is this not the time for a commission to find out why people do not participate and for Government research to find out what lies behind the level of participation? Falling participation is rarely down to the fact that voters seek ever new mechanisms for casting their vote.

5.3 pm

Dr. Whitehead: I thank the hon. Members for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and for Southport (Dr. Pugh) for their contributions to the debate and for saying that they do not oppose the measure. That should lead to a high level of consensus for the aim of enabling local authorities to consider different methods of conducting elections. They will be able to examine how voters would like elections to be carried out and how different ways of conducting elections might add to turnout. That will reinforce the view that is held in all corners of the House that well attended elections in which large numbers of people participate are good for the health of democracy—nationally and locally.

It has been claimed this afternoon that the provisions are the result of ad hoc-ery on the Government's part. That is not the case or our

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intention. Hon. Members may recall that this year, as on the previous occasion, local authorities have applied for several electoral pilots for May. There have been 42 bids for electoral pilots using different methods—e-voting, all-postal voting, all-postal and e-counting, leaflet addresses from all parties to each voter—to increase turnout and convenience to the electorate, thereby enhancing and encouraging the legitimacy of the election. Of those 42 applications, 31 pilot schemes have been agreed for May. One that was agreed in principle was from the London borough of Hackney. That could not have been countenanced had it not been for the drafting of the regulations.

What we are discussing is particular, but general too. The regulations will apply generally to referendums in future, and further referendums may arise as a result of petitions. There was a successful petition recently, in the sense that a referendum was held in Bedford as the result of a petition. The majority of those voting, albeit on a fairly low turnout, wanted a mayor.

In the referendums held so far, turnout has varied considerably. It is interesting to note that turnout in referendums by all-postal ballot has been markedly different from those conducted by non-postal means. The suggestion that pilots might be appropriate to the future conduct of referendums seems to be founded in our experience from the 23 referendums so far, whatever their result.

The issue is therefore about neither one local authority nor ad hoc-ery. Where we hold election pilots, it is important that local authorities are enthusiastically involved. I would not like us to impose systems on an unwilling authority and find that there was little enthusiasm or co-operation for those pilots. The validity of lessons learned from pilots could be contaminated by the fact that they were implemented by an authority that was led into them kicking and screaming.

Therefore, it will be useful to conduct several pilots this year—I hope that Hackney's is among them—in order to produce a great deal of information on what does and does not work better and to address the wider issues raised by hon. Members about how we should conduct elections in future. The schemes are pilots, but they are being undertaken with the enthusiastic assistance and support of the local authorities concerned, so they will produce useful results. The regulations add to that process. They will ensure that pilots, including that in Hackney, add to our information and that the turnout and arrangements are to best advantage. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002.

Committee rose at nine minutes past Five o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Hurst, Mr. Alan (Chairman)
Beard, Mr.
Brazier, Mr.
Gilroy, Linda
Hopkins, Mr.
McWalter, Mr.
Mann, John
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew
Moss, Mr.

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Mudie, Mr.
Pugh, Dr.
Ruddock, Joan
Ruffley, Mr.
Trickett, Jon
Whitehead, Dr.
Woolas, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order 118(2):
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

 
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