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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 3 February 2004

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

All-postal Ballots

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kemp.]

9.30 am

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have secured this debate. Some colleagues whom I expected to attend are serving on Standing Committees this morning; it is a bad morning for the debate, but I know that the hon. Members present will do their best to make it interesting.

This is the second opportunity that I have had to exchange views with the Minister. I was able briefly to make a few relevant points in the previous Session on Second Reading and in Committee on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the wider issues raised in the debate.

In setting out the case for all-postal ballots, I shall begin by placing the debate in the historical context of the development of representative democracy in Britain, and the philosophical context of the rights of the citizen in such a democracy. I shall then negotiate my way through the details of whether all-postal ballots are practicable and finally examine the implications of my analysis for British elections.

It is necessary to begin from first principles. Why is voting important? The idea of democracy was discussed as far back as "The Histories" by Herodotus as an alternative to hereditary autocracy. Direct democracy was implemented in Athens and, although it may have been practical in a Greek city state where the polis was small—this has nothing to do with the Glasgow polis that I know—in a large state, some kind of representation became necessary. Whether the nature of democratic participation is direct or representative, the principle of active involvement by citizens in the political process remains.

In the British context, debates have focused on, first, who should have the right to vote, and secondly, the manner in which that right should be exercised. I believe that all-postal voting follows logically from the progressive widening of the franchise in Britain. In the past, voting was restricted on the basis of wealth, poverty and sex. Those who had the right to vote were forced to exercise it in public, without the protection of a secret ballot. The reform and representation of people Acts of the 19th and 20th centuries gradually altered the situation. We now recognise that every adult of sound mind should be permitted to vote, irrespective of background or knowledge. We are all rational and moral agents, and a person's capacity to will freely as a rational agent is not dependent on any empirical capacities that he or she may have. In practice, many are prevented from exercising the right to vote that follows on from that premise.

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The 2001 general election turnout was the lowest since 1918. In the last European elections, fewer than one in four voters went to the polling station. Low turnouts are noticeably concentrated in the poorest socio-economic groups and in certain geographical areas. The people who did not vote are not lazy, and many were not making a positive abstention because of their disagreement with the policies of every political party. Many of them are simply in pressured jobs and have substantial family commitments. Many are socially excluded. The law says that those people have the right to vote, but in practice it is more difficult for them to do so.

If we are to make the legal right into a practical reality, it is necessary to find easier ways for people to vote. All-postal voting could provide one of the solutions to that problem, because it works. The Representation of the People Act 2000 introduced new provisions on postal voting and resulted in important changes to absent voting arrangements, including the introduction of postal voting on demand. In my constituency, the turnout for the Scottish Parliament elections in May was 45 per cent., which is down 5 per cent. on 2001. Postal votes, however, were returned at a rate of 72 per cent.—almost 2,500 votes.

The pilot schemes for all-postal ballots also had excellent results. Among the most notable was that described by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). Turnout in the 1998 local elections in Chorley was 31.3 per cent., but in 2002 it was 61.5 per cent. Further remarkable improvements have been seen in pilots from Tyneside to Trafford and from Bolton to Brighton.

It is not only hon. Members—well, most of them—who have expressed approval of that development. The Electoral Commission has concluded that all local elections should be run as all-postal elections unless there are compelling reasons against doing so. The commission made a series of recommendations about making such ballots easier and more secure. For example, it recommended that the current declaration of identity should be replaced by a new security statement and that staff delivery posts should be provided as part of the ballot to allow voters to have access to assistance and to deliver their completed postal vote by hand. The commission also recommended the creation of a new offence of intending fraudulently to apply for a postal or proxy vote, and tough new penalties.

We are not, therefore, considering a whim for some new-fangled development or a party political stunt. All-postal voting is a serious option backed by serious research. Nevertheless, the opposition, especially from the Conservatives, has been considerable, as was particularly evident in debates on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) declared that he would have to give me a reality check. He mentioned fraud and compared postal voting with the pinnacle of confidentiality supposedly provided by voting at a polling station, but he conveniently forgot the enormous potential for fraud when all that one needs to do to obtain a ballot paper is state a name to an officer at a polling station. He and other hon. Members should pay close attention to the Electoral Commission recommendations to which I have referred.

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Likewise, the hon. Members for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) expressed concerns that there would be a detrimental impact on voter confidence if all-postal voting were introduced. The hon. Lady and others advancing that argument would do well to remember that the most telling indication of voter confidence in the process is voter participation. The most effective rebuttal of their argument, therefore, is reference to the substantial increase in turnout that occurred in the majority of areas in which pilots took place.

It is disappointing that the hon. Member for Upminster was forced to resort to spurious arguments about ceremony and to saying that going to a polling station gives the act of voting more significance. Such comments remind me of a long-running historical theme—Tory opposition to measures that empower more people to participate in the democratic process. I fear that we are seeing the latest chapter in a long history.

Students of history will recall that at the time of the Reform Act 1832, the Duke of Wellington declared that the House of Commons would end up rotten to the core if poor people were ever allowed to vote. We are used to Tories clutching at straws when trying to ensure that only Tories get out to vote. Of course, Tory antipathy to making the franchise a reality is understandable. The most significant occasion on which a Tory Government widened the franchise was the introduction of the second Reform Act, of 1867. Within months of that legislation being passed, the newly enfranchised masses booted the Tories out by a landslide.

Whereas the Tories of the 19th century sought to defeat legislation that would give people the legal right to vote, the Tories of the 21st century oppose measures that will make it easier for people to exercise what is already their legal right. They do not even like Scottish Members of Parliament exercising their right to vote as equal Members of the House.

It might be interesting to see what participation there has been and what questions have been asked by the Opposition. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) asked a question about postal ballots on 12 May 2003 and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) asked one on 30 June. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) asked a question on 2 July, and the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale asked one on 12 September. They all asked roughly the same question. I shall read out the last one:


That series of questions suggests that the Opposition were looking for excuses not to conduct a postal ballot. I am sure that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will tell us why, even though the Opposition want nothing to do with such ballots, they are so concerned about them that they had to ask those questions.

What lessons can be learned? First, we should select appropriate locations for pilot schemes in the European and local elections this year, for which I believe Scotland

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is ideally suited. Secondly, depending on the operation of pilot schemes in those elections, we should consider the possibility of an all-postal ballot in general elections. I am disappointed that the Electoral Commission decided not to recommend that Scotland be chosen as one of the pilot zones. In my view, it fulfilled all the necessary criteria.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): What are the hon. Gentleman's conclusions on why Scotland has not been selected, given that the Minister was close to declaring that it would be selected during the final stages of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill? I understand that the change has occurred on the initiative of the returning officer. What is the hon. Gentleman's view of what happened?

John Robertson : The hon. Gentleman has asked a valid question. If he can be patient, he will find that my view will be well laid out in this speech.

The low turnout in much of the country means that there is a greater urgency and much more potential for improvement. That is proven by the track record in constituencies such as mine of campaigns to encourage postal votes. The situation would also be helped by the fact that, unlike in the English regions, no local elections would be held on the same day as European Parliament elections. A change in turnout could be affected as much by local matters as by the introduction of different voting methods. Holding a pilot scheme in an area in which two different elections are taking place on the same day would complicate matters further. Furthermore, the European and local elections will be taking place under different voting systems. My view is not new, but was echoed by many on Second Reading of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. Unfortunately, it appeared to fall on deaf ears.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): That view did not entirely fall on deaf ears as far as the Electoral Commission is concerned, as Scotland was identified as the second best region that meets the criteria. So why on earth have the Government chosen two English regions rather than Scotland?

John Robertson : That question is not for me to answer, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will address it.

The multiplicity of variables in the elections in England and Wales next June will make any scientific assessment of the impact of new voting methods much more difficult. In Scotland, however, there will be one election under one voting system with one ballot paper, so it provides the perfect testing ground for the pilot schemes to which the Bill refers.

Even the Electoral Commission recognised what it called "several distinct advantages", notably including Scotland's several separate media outlets, such as the strong Scottish press and clearly defined radio and television markets, which would make any voter awareness campaign much easier. Scotland's own distinctive identity would ensure that electors were well aware that any campaign on Scottish voting arrangements would apply to them.

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Why was the Electoral Commission not convinced? It gave two principal reasons. One was the potential pitfalls of organising a postal ballot in rural areas, some of which do not have access to a daily postal service. The Royal Mail, however, specifically recommended Scotland in its submission. Indeed, it stated:


That is a glowing endorsement.

The second reason given by the Electoral Commission was the submission that it received from the regional returning officer, Mr. Tom Aitchison. Its report states:


It has been reported that Mr. Aitchison also raised the problem of resources, but the Minister has indicated that resources could be made available for areas selected for pilots. I have also been told that Mr. Aitchison told Ministers that his colleagues supported him, but my information is that that is not true. Does the Minister know who is right? Did he contact other returning officers, as requested on Second Reading of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill?

Perhaps Mr. Aitchison's reluctance can partly be explained by his experiences in the 1999 Scottish parliamentary elections, when 2,000 ballot papers from the Edinburgh, West constituency, which he oversaw, went missing. If Mr. Aitchison has no faith in his own ability or that of his colleagues, he should stand down and make way for someone with the ability and confidence that he obviously lacks. I would like to know what the Minister's assessment is of the advice received from the regional returning officer for Scotland, and I would appreciate his comments on the situation. Perhaps he can tell me how one gets rid of an electoral returning officer.

It is especially important that that question is cleared up, because the Electoral Commission stated in evidence to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs that Scotland would meet criteria for an all-postal ballot if the Government provided the necessary resources and Royal Mail the necessary commitment. As has been heard, the Minister and the Royal Mail have both given that commitment, so why is Scotland not being considered for a pilot? It would be very unfortunate if the returning officer's decision to oppose an all-postal ballot unnecessarily wrecked our opportunity to enfranchise thousands of people who are often prevented by time or other factors from going out to vote.

Finally, if the pilots in June this year are successful, the Department for Constitutional Affairs should give serious consideration to the use of all-postal ballots

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across the country at general elections. There would have to be areas where people could still deliver their ballot paper by hand, but one such location per constituency would probably be enough, except in more rural areas, where there might be two or three.

I am aware that when the chairman of the Electoral Commission, Mr. Sam Younger, was asked about all-postal voting at general elections, he said:


However, if the Opposition get their way, we probably will not even start crawling. I agree with Mr. Younger that we must take our time, put effective safeguards in place and ensure that we are well prepared for pilot schemes, but let us still be ambitious and rise to the challenge of increasing voter participation, given that all the identified problems are addressed. In Britain we have a proud tradition of a representative democracy, but we must seek continually to reinvigorate the process. Having listed the problems that we face, I have demonstrated why all-postal voting is required.

In conclusion, I have to ask the following questions for all who are connected with the elections. Why did the Electoral Commission not support Scotland for an all-postal ballot even when the concerns were addressed? Why did the returning officer refuse to allow Scotland to be a pilot for all-postal ballots? His own colleagues wanted the pilot provided that all the concerns were met, as they were. Why would opposition parties want to prevent people from voting? What are their real motives? What is the Minister doing for Scotland given the obvious unfairness that has been shown? I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members, in particular my hon. Friend the Minister, have to say.

9.51 am

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I am pleased to contribute to this debate on an issue that has considerable importance, not just for us as party activists and politicians, but for the general public.

The case for all-postal ballots has been made overwhelmingly, not just by the Electoral Commission, political parties and the Government, but, more importantly, by the voters when they have had the opportunity to participate in elections in which the vote has been cast entirely by postal ballots. Recent pilots have demonstrated that the average turnout in local council elections increases by about 50 per cent.—from about 35 per cent. to 49 per cent.—when there are all-postal ballots. Some may argue that that increase is not good enough, but it is far better than the normal situation. Although the average turnout at local council elections is 35 per cent., turnout in some areas is even lower—20 per cent. or less in some cases.

The Electoral Commission has evaluated the pilots since 2000 and has reported that not only has turnout been boosted, but opportunities for abuse and misuse of the system—many have raised that point; no doubt we will hear more on it this morning—are no greater than under the present system of partial postal voting. Nowadays, the hurdles in the way of achieving a postal vote have been removed. People can vote by post if they choose to do so, although they have to apply. A few years ago, there were all sorts of reasons why people applied. For example, they might have been going on

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holiday or have been ill. In those circumstances, they had, for example, to get a signature from a doctor or a family member. Those difficulties have been removed.

Abuse can exist under the present system. Candidates and parties have been accused of building up postal votes in unethical ways. While canvassing, one comes across people who would like to vote, but who will be away or who work long hours and cannot predict when they will come home.

John Robertson : Does my hon. Friend agree that, come election time, those out walking the streets and meeting people find that the electorate always ask how they can cast a vote? They want to know if they can get a postal vote or a proxy vote. In general, there is an increase in activity at that time. Our problem is trying to secure that increase in activity all the time.

Mr. Hall : My hon. Friend is right and demonstrates that he is speaking from experience. He has walked the streets and knocked on doors for years, as we all have. Making personal contact with people, even if they are not initially interested in party politics, means that there is a much higher chance that they will express an interest in issues that affect them and their community—they want to have a say. If they cannot vote at the polling station on a particular day for various reasons, they are often delighted to know that they can do so by post. As I said, that has been made much easier. The process is one of opting in. People can vote by post if they want to in elections in which people can also vote in person at the polling station in the traditional way. Assisting people to participate in elections, by explaining that they can get a postal vote or a proxy vote, is welcomed by the public.

In 25 years of election campaigning activity I have come across only one example of unethical practice with regard to absent votes, which took place in a local council by-election in Bedford. Liberal Democrat activists targeted elderly Labour voters, who had been carefully canvassed, and offered to assist them to cast their vote by proxy, which no doubt the individuals concerned saw as extremely helpful. They may not have felt like going out and getting wet, or may have had difficulty walking. I am sure, because I went and saw some of the voters myself, that it was not made plain that the helpful members of the community who suggested that they might vote on the elderly people's behalf by proxy would cast those votes for the Liberal Democrat candidate. About 20 elderly Labour voters assisted the Liberal Democrat candidate to achieve a narrow victory. I was not happy with that and neither were other people.

There are no doubt examples from elsewhere in the country of an unfair pushing of the ethical line in previous years. However, none of us has campaigned nationally that the principle of absent voting, by post or proxy, is therefore wrong. It is not; it is absolutely right. People welcome it and it should be extended.

John Robertson : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is perhaps time that the Government wrote to every elector explaining what they can and cannot get in relation to a ballot? People can already get a postal

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ballot on demand. Is it not time to tell people that? Plenty of people do not realise that they can have a postal vote on demand.

Mr. Hall : I have not read any national assessments of whether the electorate in all council areas are told that they can have a postal ballot on demand. I think that that happens in my constituency. In many places, people at least receive something in writing that says that they can opt in, but that should take place in a more rigorous and coherent way. However, I do not think that that message will sink in unless people like us knock on the door and tell voters that they can have a postal ballot. When we do that and they say, "Oh really?", we can then say, "Here's the form" and so on. It is still a little difficult to get people to opt for something that many of them would want if they knew about it. The best way to deal with that issue is to have an all-postal ballot.

I welcome the Government's decision to double the number of all-postal ballots in England next June. They are doing so not only in the north-east and the east midlands, but in the north-west, Yorkshire and Humberside. I regret the exclusion of the rest of the country, including the eastern region, where my constituency lies. I am not convinced of the reasons for that. I understand that in the eastern region there was no enthusiasm among returning officers for such a ballot. Indeed, some political party organisers were not too keen either and did not want to risk change. However, the pilots that have taken place, and the further pilots to which we are committed this June, pave the way for the inevitable. That is the way forward.

We will have a three-month evaluation after 10 June this year, the results of which will be published in September. That is the intention. That will provide the opportunity to iron out procedural difficulties before national implementation. I do not want to pre-judge the evaluation. It may be that it raises issues of which I am not aware, requiring us to stop or turn back, but I do not think it will. Experience so far indicates the road along which we are travelling. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister not to pre-judge that evaluation any more than I would by closing the door on national implementation in 2005. If the lessons so far are anything to go by, higher turnout is there for the taking. Surely that is essential if we wish to restore the credibility of our political system, the quality of our democracy and the legitimacy of the outcomes of our elections.

People often mention the low turnout in the last general election. Although it was low, I am aware that it did not represent a wholesale rejection of the system. The main feeling I got on the doorsteps in the 2001 general election campaign was one of a foregone conclusion. People said that they did not need to bother to vote because they knew what the result was going to be. That does not sound terribly sophisticated, but the public were right. It is not a healthy situation. It gives grounds to those who are cynical about our system to say that there is less and less interest in the system and we are more and more separated from the people we represent. That might be so, but I do not believe that the majority of people want no further say in the system. Declining turnout is worrying, even if people at the last general election could say that they knew what they were doing because the result was a foregone conclusion. All-postal ballots would almost certainly reverse that

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decline and I want those to take place at the next general election. There will have to be some very good reasons for not introducing them at the next general election.

People nowadays have complex lives, with a lot of demands on their time. They are busy. Perhaps getting to and queueing at a polling station in the rain and cold is not terribly attractive. Having a say, however, remains attractive and most people still believe in it. The method of having a say must be tuned to the more complex and busy lives that most of us lead.

A fully electronic system is not yet available. The technology is not sufficiently secure, people do not have total confidence in the system, which is not user-friendly, and many voters would be averse to an electoral system based entirely on electronic voting. We can, however, be 100 per cent. confident of postal voting. It is 150 years old, and is tried and tested.

From the point of view of political parties, an all-postal ballot election would still require campaigning, people would still expect to meet candidates, and parties would want to remind people to vote, all of which is healthy. It may well be that, under such a system, polling day as such—it would, in fact, not be polling day, but the day on which the process ended—would be an anti-climax for the parties, but so what? The system should not be devised for the entertainment of political hacks and political parties; it must serve the people, and they are not impressed by the build-up to polling day and all the leaflets that go out because, certainly in local elections, the majority take absolutely no notice and do not vote. We may be entertained by it, but that is not the issue.

The test is what the people feel. They have shown that they want all-postal ballots and that they respond to them more than they do to the current system. The facts show that clearly. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, when considering national implementation in 2005, to keep an open mind about the outcome of the evaluation in September.

Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair): It might be opportune to remind the three hon. Members who will respond to the debate that it is accepted practice in the Chamber to divide the remaining time into three equal parts and that any exercise that may infringe on that would be considered infra dig.

10.6 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I hope that you will not mind, Mr. Cook, if I do not take up my entire allocation, as I may be able to express myself adequately in less time than I have available. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) on securing the debate and on his contribution to it. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) on his speech—once he had been coaxed to his feet.

I do not want to rehearse all the arguments that were laid out in the context of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. The Minister knows that whatever the merit of novel forms of electoral practice—and there are some that we want to encourage—we have two principled problems with the current proposals. First, they will create the circumstance in which a single election is held on two

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different bases according to where one is in the country. Secondly, there are still serious issues to address about electoral fraud in all-postal ballots.

I accept the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland. There is scope for fraud in conventional systems and we have had postal ballots for a long time. However, if more widespread postal voting is introduced, it will be incumbent on us to do whatever we can to mitigate the opportunity for fraud. The Electoral Commission has come up with some proposals that I hope to see implemented, but there are still problems with the system for houses in multiple occupation, of which we should be aware.

I agree with those who raise the principle of the secret ballot as a valid objection to postal voting. The head of the household or some other dominant person has more scope for inappropriate influence on the individual elector. We should guard against that as far as possible, but there is no wholly acceptable answer to it.

Mr. Hall : Surely the points that the hon. Gentleman has made about the opportunities for postal ballots to be seen by other members of the family or other residents of houses in multiple occupation apply 100 per cent. to the current system—never mind the proposal for all-postal ballots. How would he address the disadvantage of the current system?

Mr. Heath : I thought that I had made my position absolutely plain. Of course opportunities for fraud occur under the current system, but the effect on the outcome of an election is greater in a 100 per cent. postal ballot. It is therefore proper that we address those issues in so far as we are able. No system is absolutely foolproof, but things can be done to improve the situation. Rather than rehearsing those points yet again, I will address what the Government have done since the Bill left the House for the other place.

We have already discussed the Electoral Commission's proposals for the regions that it identified as appropriate for pilot schemes. It came up with only two regions: the north-east and the east midlands. I will not argue about those proposals further; they were the proposals of an independent body. If the Government wish to go ahead, clearly those are the regions that should be taken.

I did, and do, have problems with the fact that the Government said that, although the Electoral Commission identified only two regions as appropriate, there would be more than two and that we would have a repechage event to identify further regions. I thought that that was code for, "We are going to give in to our colleagues in Scotland who feel strongly about this." The Electoral Commission clearly stated:


I can understand the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland being a little upset. Although he chose to express his upset as criticism of the Electoral Commission, which is not entirely fair, his Minister has chosen to ignore what the commission said—which supported the hon. Gentleman's case that, if there were to be more than two regions, Scotland should be next in the frame. The Minister ignored the claims of Scotland and instead went for two further English regions. The Minister must explain to the hon. Member for Glasgow,

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Anniesland and other Scottish Members why he does not feel able to support what the Electoral Commission clearly said about Scotland.

John Robertson : The hon. Gentleman feels that I was overly critical of the commission, but that is not what I intended. The point that I was trying to make was that its concerns had been identified. In its evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, it stated that, provided resources were put in place, it could see no reason why Scotland should not be used for a pilot scheme. Those concerns were taken care of by the Minister.

Mr. Heath : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because that means that the situation is worse than I thought. There were no barriers to Scotland being chosen as a region except the Minister's will, which is to entertain the English regions rather than Scotland. He must explain why that is.

The two regions that were chosen do not meet the basic criteria. One is the north-west, which clearly had strong advocates. However, a principal problem stems from one of the criteria that the Government originally set for inclusion, which concerned the number of local authorities in the region and the number holding local elections in June 2004. The Electoral Commission felt unable to recommend the north-west principally because it had so many elections on the day that there was considerable scope for problems. The Government have ignored that. They have not reduced the number of local elections, but have decided to override the criteria and go for the north-west for no apparent reason.

The other region is Yorkshire and Humberside. Again, there is a fundamental problem, as expressed by the Electoral Commission. The complaint in the case of Yorkshire and Humberside is that:


In this case, the Minister has decided to ignore not just the Electoral Commission but local returning officers.

The result is a pilot scheme that is hardly a pilot at all. The whole of the north of England will have one voting system and the whole of the south of England, Wales and Scotland will have a different one. It is just as well that there has been a good deal of ethnic mixing over the years in this old country of ours, because it looks like the Danelaw has one system but us Saxons and Celts are not able to use that same system.

The Government must explain why that is. They must explain why they do not use the advice of their independent arbiter. They must explain why we are not able to move to a national election. We are to have a quasi-national election that involves a land mass that is bigger than many European countries. Belgium is normally the unit of currency in these matters. I am sure that the land mass and the population involved are bigger than Belgium's. The north of England will have one system and the rest of us poor peasants in the south are to have a different one. Why has the Minister decided that that is a sensible way to run a pilot scheme? My argument is that it is not, and I hope that he will be able to come up with some explanations. His proposal

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gives rise to much concern and suspicion about the Government's motives and a belief that they are applying jiggery-pokery to the independent advice that they were given.

We had a lot of debate about the marked register when discussing the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. We have also had a letter from the Electoral Commission expressing some concerns and suggesting some provisos. Can the Minister help us by explaining his intentions?

This has been a useful debate, if only because it has exposed the fact that the Government ask for independent advice, but ignore it completely when it suits their purposes and do exactly what they want to do, irrespective of whom it upsets, including the Minister's hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland.

10.16 am

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): I want to follow up what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, especially in his last point. Like him, we are very suspicious about the Government's motivation. I want to say a little more about what the Government have done, which is contrary to what the Minister told us on Report and Third Reading of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, and as recently as 16 December 2003. The Bill is still passing through another place, so the process is far from finished.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson), who initiated this interesting debate, started his speech by talking about historical and philosophical context, but it turned out that, as I had anticipated, all he really wanted to do was have a serious go at his own Government and the Minister for not accepting Scotland as a pilot region. He has made the same point on many occasions during the passage of the European Parliament and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill.

I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman decided to make what I can only describe as an ad hominem attack on the regional returning officer for Scotland. In the light of recent events, I would have thought that Labour Members might have learned that it is unwise to make ad hominem attacks on dedicated public servants. I do not know Mr. Aitchison, but I have no doubt that he carried out his duties in reporting his views to the Electoral Commission in a straightforward and sensible way. The hon. Gentleman is effectively saying that he does not like the conclusions that Mr. Aitchison came to.

I want to draw specific attention to what the Electoral Commission said about Scotland. It is important to bear in mind what the commission said about its reasons for not recommending that Scotland be part of the original proposals for pilot regions:


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That is what the Electoral Commission reported and it believes that it is important. It went on to say that that was


The regional returning officer, Mr. Aitchison, who has been so savagely attacked by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland, held that post in 1999, and the Electoral Commission's report quite clearly says—this is the crucial point—that his views were supported by "a large urban authority." Listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech, one might have thought that the returning officer was speaking purely for himself.

The Electoral Commission goes on to say that the


Those are very strong words. The report continues:


To our great pleasure, the Government dropped any plans to conduct an electronic voting pilot. They were absolutely right not to do so in Scotland, given that the strong and compelling words of the regional returning officer, whose views were supported by a large urban authority, were among the reasons why the Electoral Commission made its recommendation. The report says that a very large number of Members of Parliament and other people involved in government made individual submissions. They included 45 Members of Parliament, nine Members of the European Parliament, two peers, two Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish First Minister, but not the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland, who did not make a submission to the Electoral Commission, did not like what it said and has been complaining ever since. In the Opposition's view, the Government were absolutely right to recommend against Scotland, as we said in Committee and on Report and Third Reading of the European Parliament and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill.

However, we have severe concerns about what the Government have done. On 16 December, the Minister said:


I made fun of the phrase then, as I do now—


He went on to say:


Apparently, he hoped to come to a conclusion soon on


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He also said:


Later, he said that the Electoral Commission had


The Electoral Commission did not make such a recommendation; the Minister was making a mistake. The commission was asked to recommend three regions, including one for an electronic pilot, and it only recommended two, for very good reasons. As recently as 16 December, the Minister said not only once, but about six times over five columns in Hansard, that there were going to be three regions—the two that the Electoral Commission had recommended and a third one.

Suddenly, in a written statement made on 21 January 2004, however, the Minister slipped out this announcement:


Instead of a third region, there was now to be a fourth as well. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, the Opposition are bound to be suspicious as to why that division suddenly emerged between Danelaw and the rest of the country, as he wittily put it. Suddenly it was announced that a swathe of the country—the whole of the north of England—would be involved.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend also press the Minister to tell us who was involved in taking those decisions? Was it the totally unelected head of his Department, the Lord Chancellor—or whatever it is we have to call him these days? Was it the Minister himself, whose constituency falls within the added area, who took the decision, or was it taken on a wider basis? The way in which the recommendations came about is important for accountability, bearing in mind that the Electoral Commission was set up and then ignored, and that other areas were added.

Mr. Hawkins : I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope the Minister will deal with those points in some detail. I join my hon. Friend in pressing the Minister to say exactly who was involved.

I return to the two extra regions that the Government have now surprisingly added to what the Electoral Commission recommended. As I pointed out on Report and Third Reading on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, the Electoral Commission is a creature of this Government. It seems to us extraordinary that, after this bureaucratic system has been set up and its independence has been trumpeted by the Minister and others in the Government, its recommendations should be ignored.

Why did the Government ignore what the Electoral Commission said about Yorkshire and the Humber? The report states that Yorkshire and the Humber


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That is one side of the argument, but the report goes on to state:


In this case, the regional returning officer was in favour of an all-postal pilot for the region. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome pointed out, however, the commission goes on to say:


in 2004. That is a good reason why Yorkshire and the Humber should not have been added to the all-postal pilot.

For similar reasons, in paragraph 284 of the report, the Electoral Commission says this about the north-west:


Again, those are good and compelling reasons why there should not be an all-postal pilot in either the north-west or Yorkshire and the Humber, and yet the Government have proceeded to ignore their own Electoral Commission.

As we have consistently said, our view is strongly influenced by the Electoral Reform Society, which is totally independent and is not a creation of this Government. We prefer its approach to these matters to that of the Government. We point out to people such as the hon. Members for Glasgow, Anniesland and for Bedford (Mr. Hall) that it is not a universal truth that all-postal voting leads to an increase in turnout. It has done so in some areas, and it certainly did so in part of my constituency, when we succeeded in defeating the Liberal Democrats and getting control of Guildford borough council in May last year on the basis of an all-postal pilot. We therefore do not have a principled objection to all-postal voting everywhere. However, the Electoral Reform Society says this about turnout:


we discussed this issue in Committee and on Report and Third Reading—


in an all-postal ballot.

The Electoral Reform Society also says that, in respect of all-postal ballots, some of the safeguards introduced by the 1872 ballot secrecy legislation with regard to undue influence and bribery have been removed. It states:


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The hon. Members mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow Anniesland—my hon. Friends the Members for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson)—as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I, have all made clear our belief that there is something significant about voters taking a decision to go to a polling station and vote in person. We are delighted that the Government have made it absolutely clear that the next general election will take place in the traditional way.

Mr. McLoughlin : On increased turnout, my hon. Friend might like to reflect on the situation a few years ago, when the Liberal party, along with the Government, very much supported the new system of electing Members of the European Parliament on a regional basis. They argued that a system of proportional representation would lead to increased turnout. Indeed, that is exactly what the Foreign Secretary, then the Home Secretary, used as his principal argument for introducing the system, which has actually led to a fall in turnout because people do not feel associated with those whom they have elected.

Mr. Hawkins : I can only agree with my hon. Friend. I recall that Conservative Members tabled amendments in Committee to try to bring back first-past-the-post voting. I have no doubt that turnout for European elections would increase again if we were to reintroduce a constituency-based system, because voters would strongly identify with the people whom they elected. They do not feel that they have that link under the list system and PR. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

We are suspicious about what the Government have done, particularly because the Minister completely contradicted in his 23 January announcement what he had said on numerous occasions in the past, and as recently as 16 December. Furthermore, we do not agree with the views of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland.

John Robertson : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; it is a pity that he did not let me in earlier. If I may return to his original point, I would hate to have him think that all my attacks were on the returning officer for Scotland, as there are plenty on the Tory party. As he has plenty of time, I hope that he will try to answer one question: what is his objection to asking people to vote? Why does the Tory party have a problem with people casting their vote? It is an historical activity—it goes back centuries. Once again, he has indicated that he does not want anyone to cast a vote other than by the traditional method. Are we not to encourage people, including those who have difficulties, to vote?

Mr. Hawkins : The modest changes that have been made to enable people to apply for a postal vote if they want one have been successful, but there is no need to go down the slippery slope towards treating elections as if they were some popularity contest like "Big Brother" or "Pop Idol". That is the danger that we have identified.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman has a problem, in that his own Government have said that they still want general elections to take place in the traditional way, as

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we do. It is important that electors take voting seriously. The best way of taking it seriously is for people to vote in person at a polling station. As I said, we are delighted that that will continue in the next general election.

Mr. Patrick Hall : On electors taking elections seriously, is the hon. Gentleman making a serious point himself about the clear evidence of much higher participation in all-postal ballots for local council elections? The turnout was significantly higher in those elections. He said that the process is not a guarantee. He is absolutely right, but the evidence is that there was significantly higher participation. Is he actually suggesting that those people were not serious?

Mr. Hawkins : No, I am not suggesting that. I am saying that the evidence is contradictory, as the Electoral Reform Society pointed out. The postal voting system did not increase turnout everywhere. It did so in some places, but not others.

The Electoral Reform Society is also quite right to stress the dangers of electoral fraud. I shall not repeat all that was said in Committee and on Report and Third Reading, but Conservative Members stressed concerns about the need for extra security wherever there is all-postal voting, particularly for houses in multiple occupation. We think that the Government have much more work to do on that issue.

There are balancing factors, but there is no doubt that the best system, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) pointed out, is a system of first-past-the-post elections with a constituency link, and not an arrangement involving list systems and PR. We should also ensure that people are voting at polling stations if they can do so, with the opportunity to apply for a postal vote if they do not want to vote in that way or find it difficult to get to the polling station. However, it would be detrimental to move down the slippery slope towards treating elections as though they were as trivial as "Big Brother" or "Pop Idol" in a desperate attempt to try to make them trendy.

Although the issue that has been raised has been of some use in allowing us to ventilate the issues further, I deprecate some of the views expressed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland, and I am pleased that his Government do not agree with him.

10.35 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie) : I take the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) on securing the debate on this important issue. I hope to respond to some of the points made and to set out the Government's wider approach.

It is always my dubious pleasure to follow the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, who says how dreadful and appalling is the Government's desperate attempt to make voting easier and more convenient for people. I am afraid we are guilty of that; it is important for any Government to try to make the democratic process as accessible and convenient as possible. I am disappointed that the Opposition do not share in that fairly worthy aspiration, which I hoped would have been shared on both sides of the House.

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Obviously, the House is aware of the history—how we come to be where we are today. The Representation of the People Act 2000 was the main legislative vehicle to provide initially for the piloting of all-postal and other innovative voting methods in local elections in England and Wales. That was partly in response to calls from election administrators who wanted to try new methods, changing the system of voting that had not had any significant alterations since the ballot legislation in the 19th century. They were keen to innovate and to improve their systems. There were calls, too, from many others who wanted voting made easier and more accessible so that it fits around modern ways of living. That is one reason why the Government set up a working party in 1997 under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). The hope then was to make voting more convenient, to find a way to persuade more electors to become inclined to participate and to halt, or try to deal with, some of the decline in turnover in a variety of elections.

In 2000, local pilots were undertaken, some of which were on the voting times of the day, others on electronic voting, methods of counting, mobile ballot boxes, weekend voting and so forth. Postal voting proved by far the most popular; the initial pilots were mostly on a small scale and took place in seven local authorities, but they all showed a significant—in some cases substantial—rise in turnout. For example, in Gateshead, turnout more than doubled. Because of that initial success, we wanted to consider the issues further and to increase the number of pilots. That was not done in 2001 because the local elections were combined with the general election. However, despite that gap, in 2002, 13 authorities ran pilots, some of them across the whole of the authority, and large rises in turnout were the result. In 2003 more local authorities—39 in total—were keen and eager to run all-postal pilots in their area and an increase in turnout, sometimes a substantial increase, was the rule.

Given that experience, which was built up over a wide range of different local authorities, we did not want to ignore the message being sent, not only from the electoral administrators, who were keen on the proposition, but from the public: the electorate were telling us that they preferred this manner of voting. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) said, they wanted to participate more actively, and local councils were becoming more representative of their electors. The elected representatives thus had a more solid mandate and they, in turn, felt more confident to take forward the policies on which they were elected. That is the enrichment of the democratic process that I am sure that we would all want to see.

Mr. McLoughlin : The Minister says that he genuinely wants to test whether there has been an increase in turnout. One of the ways in which that could be done would be to compare the results with what happened at the last European elections, when we had results for individual constituencies. I understand that the Government have changed the rules in such a way that we will not be able to make those comparisons, because

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we will not get the results for individual constituencies. How will we be able to make a true comparison of whether turnout is better or worse than last time?

Mr. Leslie : We will have results from the European constituencies because the regions are the constituencies. The hon. Gentleman mentioned parliamentary constituencies. The electoral administrators expressed a preference to count on the basis of district council election areas, but whether votes are counted on that basis or at parliamentary constituency level makes no difference to the outcome of the election in a particular European constituency. His point is rather obscure, but I shall let him pursue it.

Mr. McLoughlin : I am sorry that the Minister thinks that the point is obscure. One of the things that people say to us in arguments about turnout is that the turnout in certain areas cannot be seen. If, from now on, we receive only the results for the whole of Liverpool or Manchester, rather than for the constituencies of which those two cities are composed, there will not be the same degree of accuracy as in the last elections, when we were able to see how individual parliamentary constituencies voted. I am sure that there will be many studies on the increase in turnout, but we will not be able to see where that turnout has occurred as well as we could have done if the counting basis had remained the same as in the last European elections.

Mr. Leslie : I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. These are not parliamentary elections, but European elections. It is therefore right that they should be counted on the basis of European constituencies. The electoral administrators can then decide how best to break down the different counting areas. I believe that we will be able to carry out a proper analysis of the different effects that occur in relation to all-postal voting versus the conventional arrangements, given that the pilot schemes will be carried out on quite a large scale.

We have had many pilot schemes in local elections, and we now want to move on to a wider regional scale. That takes us into new territory; if we are to extend all-postal voting to a wider range of people, we must take difficult decisions about the scale on which that should be done. We feel that now is the right time to use those constituencies as a comparator for conventional and all-postal voting, not least because of the occurrence of the European elections.

We cannot rely, however, solely on volunteer local authorities—in some areas there may need to be a greater level of compulsion, so that there is uniformity across a particular constituency. That is why we introduced the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). The Bill continues its passage through Parliament in the other place, and will enable the Government to proceed with the planned pilot schemes.

Many hon. Members asked why we recommended and selected particular regions, so it would perhaps be helpful if I were to give the rationale behind that. The regions, and the local authorities within them, that will run all-postal ballots this year were selected on the basis

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of advice from the Electoral Commission, and after discussions with the returning officers—the people who administer the elections. The Electoral Commission's advice indicated that the north-east and the east midlands should be chosen, but also listed a number of second-rank authorities and regions that might run the pilot schemes. It deemed them potentially suitable, but they were less favoured and not positively recommended.

I am aware that Scotland was at the top of that second list and I should like to explain how the discussions about additional regions progressed. We considered the regions in the order of the Electoral Commission's ranking. Initially, there was discussion with Scottish returning officers about the issues that they raised in response to the commission's consultation. Their concerns were largely focused on the same practical issues that affected all the other regions. We made efforts to allay their concerns, but the returning officers remained unconvinced that effective elections could be held in Scotland in June on an all-postal basis. As a consequence of those concerns, which were in essence about operational capability, the Government were advised, particularly by the Secretary of State for Scotland, that we should not proceed with an all-postal pilot in Scotland.

Government officials then spoke to the returning officers for Yorkshire and Humber and the north-west, which were the next in the Electoral Commission's ranking. In Yorkshire, there was little enthusiasm from the returning officers for piloting the election, although the electoral administrators were confident that they could deliver successful pilots. That point was conceded by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath; there is a difference between the returning officers' approach in Scotland and in Yorkshire. Although they expressed little enthusiasm in Yorkshire, they recognised that the region could work together to deliver a successful pilot scheme. The returning officers' level of confidence is very important. Similarly, in the north-west, they were also very confident that they could deliver, despite the Electoral Commission's concerns about the complexity of a successful all-postal election. The electoral administrators' views have become an important part of the ultimate decisions that we hope to take about which regions will be selected.

Although enthusiasm and willingness are important in the consultation exercise, and while the Electoral Commission's recommendations are clear, they are, ultimately, recommendations. It falls to Ministers to make decisions to put before Parliament on which region should be chosen. We have decided that operational capability and capacity to deliver successful elections must be the paramount concerns. That was the rationale behind our decisions.

Mr. Hawkins : The Minister says that it must be for Ministers to decide and to put the matter before Parliament, but does he not think that it is completely inappropriate to put the matter before Parliament in a two-paragraph written statement? Should not matters as important as this—when the Government disagree with their own independent Electoral Commission—be debated? Should not everything that the Minister

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announced on 23 January be properly debated in the main Chamber so that we can see whether they were right to reject the Electoral Commission's advice?

Mr. Leslie : First, I do not think that it is inappropriate to make announcements to Parliament in written statements; I think that that is the appropriate manner to make announcements. Secondly, Parliament will have every opportunity to debate the recommendations that Ministers make in the Bill, including any amendments that have been tabled in another place, when the Bill returns to this House. That is a fair approach. We do not want to stifle debate. Heaven knows, we have had every opportunity this morning to investigate many of the issues.

I, together with the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and the Lord Chancellor, met returning officers from Yorkshire, Humber and the north-west to investigate how they feel about operational capability and whether they can deliver. I do not want problems to develop in elections. That would clearly not be in our interests. We have been careful to take into account their views on the capacity to deliver. Consequently, we have made decisions about the four regions that we want to recommend. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath made fun of the fact that we initially asked the Electoral Commission to recommend three regions. It made two firm recommendations and then suggested a list of others, ranked in order, as potentially suitable. So it is open to us to make a choice from that second-rank list. That is not in conflict with our decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland highlighted a number of significant benefits that arise from all-postal voting. First, he referred to the convenience that it offers the voter. He is absolutely right. Experience shows that a large proportion of the electorate would prefer to vote by post rather than go to a polling station, so postal voting also helps with participation. Secondly, all-postal voting gives voters a greater sense of control when choosing whom to vote for and casting their vote. It is not just about convenience for the elector; it also gives the elector more time, after receiving the ballot paper, to consider the candidates and the news in the media, and to look at the literature from candidates from different parties. Electors do not need to make up their mind on the spot: they can consider the matter in greater detail and become more aware of who is standing for election before casting their vote and returning it in good time. Some critics may have overlooked that benefit.

All-postal voting is extremely popular and higher turnouts also produce other benefits, such as more interest in local politics and a greater sense of mandate for those elected on a higher turnout. The MORI opinion poll commissioned by the European parliamentary office predicted yesterday that only 18 per cent. of the population were certain to vote at the June European elections. We should all be exceptionally concerned about that. One way, though not the only way, in which we can make it easier for people to express their views is to make it more convenient for them to vote by testing all-postal voting on a scaled-up basis. That is precisely the policy that we are pursuing.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised specific concerns about all-postal voting, which he has mentioned before, and the unease felt in

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some quarters. I appreciate that that is the view of the Electoral Reform Society, a body quite different and distinct from the independent Electoral Commission, which comes under the auspices of the House and from which we prefer to take our advice and recommendations. The Electoral Reform Society suggests that there is a possibility of greater fraud with all-postal voting. That criticism does not necessarily stand up to scrutiny, although there have been concerns about ballot papers going astray or falling into the wrong hands.

There is no fail-safe electoral mechanism. We should not look at all-postal voting in isolation and pretend that every other electoral system is watertight. Much can be done to ensure that people are aware of their rights and responsibilities in all-postal voting. Amendments have been tabled to the Bill to extend the ability to prosecute personation, to extend the offence of personation outside the polling station and to ensure that we put other security improvements in the pilot order. The Electoral Commission also recommended a code of practice for political parties and their workers and set out acceptable practices for dealing with postal votes. I fully support the development of such a code of practice and urge all those involved to abide by it. Everybody should know where they stand on the rules.

Mr. McLoughlin : Should the Government's proposals be accepted, and there is every likelihood that they will be, will the Minister assure us that all the rules relating to the last day of recommendation, the last day for ballot papers to be returned and so on are given to the political parties and the regions concerned well in advance of local elections? At the last general election, changes to postal voting were made late in the day for all political parties to be able to understand them. If he introduces such a system, I hope that he has a better timetable than the one used at that election.

Mr. Leslie : The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about providing information not just for the public, on their rights and responsibilities with regard to postal voting, but for political parties. I appreciate what my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford said about not running elections simply for the convenience of political parties and that, although polling day might feel more like an anti-climax under all-postal voting arrangements, we should not consider simply what suits a particular political party. Nevertheless, it is important to allow parties to adjust their campaigning capabilities to the new circumstances. We want personal contact with the electors and for electors to receive information from different candidates. So it is important to share information as widely as possible and I take the point made.

There have been a number of criticisms. The criticism of funding has been addressed by ensuring that pilots will be fully funded from the centre. Those criticisms are not onerous and can be overcome by the work that we have put into the Bill. I hope that the House understands the rationale behind our decision.

John Robertson : Does my hon. Friend have any intention to distribute literature to explain postal ballots

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and proxy votes, not just in pilot areas but across the country? Everyone should be able to understand their voting rights.

Mr. Leslie : There is certainly a fine balance to strike between the state producing too much literature at expense and us giving people information on how to vote. In the previous European elections, in which the new electoral system was used, a leaflet was distributed to every household to explain that new system. We have no specific plans to repeat that exercise, but I will certainly consider my hon. Friend's concerns.

It is important to commit to improving electoral turnout and to make voting more convenient and attractive for the whole population. Therefore, we intend not only to improve piloting, but carefully to monitor and evaluate that process in conjunction with the Electoral Commission. I hope that the House will continue to scrutinise the issue and will welcome our initiatives.

Mr. Hall : In the few seconds that remain, will my hon. Friend briefly outline the programme that the Government may follow with regard to examining the September report of the evaluation of the elections in June?

Mr. Leslie : There is specific provision in the Bill to make the evaluation and for the Electoral Commission to undertake that independently. We will carefully consider that. We want to extend new forms of voting, but it is important to evaluate each pilot step by step to learn lessons, and I commend that approach to the House.


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