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Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that the reason why the Opposition parties welcome the fact that the other place has thought that the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber should not be included in the pilots is that the high turnout will mean that Labour votes are expressed and recorded, and Labour local authorities and Labour Governments elected? That is manipulation coming directly from the other place.
I want to return to my point about the quotes from that Member of the European Parliament. At least he has some legitimacy, albeit under the bizarre list system, in my constituency. Unlike those at the other end of the Corridor, I was elected to represent Ellesmere Port and Neston. I suppose Chris Davies has some legitimacy in that respect as an MEP, but not a single vote is cast for anyone at the other end of the Corridor. Yet I understand that, by a vote of 174 to 130 dominated by
Mr. Watts: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is my hon. Friend aware that the turnout is doubled when a postal vote takes place? When a Liberal Democrat Member says that this is about lazy voters, he is actually accusing half the voters of being lazy.
Mr. Miller: My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently. His constituency has been subject to one of the pilots, as has Chorley in the north-west. I have examined the statistics carefully, because I am interested in alternative ways of voting. I have investigated other systems such as electronic voting. Although that system benefited the Conservative party in Vale Royal, I am in favour of it. I think it would be very short-sighted of us not to look for new opportunities to enfranchise people in all our communities.
Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the remarkable result in Chorley, where a postal ballot system increased the turnout from 31 per cent. in 1998 to 61 per cent. How does he explain the fact that the turnout dropped by 0.4 per cent. in Greenwich and by 3 per cent. in Hackney under the same system?
Mr. Miller: I think there are special circumstances that we should examine in all the pilots we undertake, but I also think the Greenwich pilot was far too small for us to make any statistical sense out of the data. I should be happy to debate the point with the hon. Gentleman elsewhere.
My constituents in the north-west undoubtedly want more opportunities to vote. People who work difficult shifts in the chemical and vehicle-building industries in particular often find that that they must either rush to the ballot box after a 12-hour shift or miss their opportunities. Tremendous strides have been made in the recent past in removing some of the constraints preventing people from having postal ballots. I think we should agree, in the interests of those people and the other sections of society that I mentioned earlier, that it is utterly irresponsible of the Lords not to allow the will of the people of my constituency and of this House to prevail.
Mr. Cash: One of the biggest problems involved in the whole question of postal voting is the background to the reasons why people want the turnout to increase. According to a recent opinion poll connected with the approaching European elections, it was stated that no more than 19 per cent. of the people of this country would participate. We know that in the last European elections the turnout was only 24 per cent., and I believe that in one part of the north-westLiverpool, I thinkit was only 9 per cent.
There is a serious problem. This is a democratic question, and it is also about whether or not politics and politicians in general inspire confidence. We have discovered that, as a result of what has happened in the last few years, confidence in the electoral system has fallen further and further. Indeed, the average turnout in general elections between 1945 and 1997 was approximately 73 per cent., but between 1997 and 2001 there was an astonishing drop of 12 per cent. People in this country certainly need to take account of the fact that this is not just a question of the technicalities that can be applied by increasing the number of people who vote by post. There is a much deeper crisis about our democracy as a whole, which is clearly demonstrated by the figures that I gave for the period 1997 to 2001. It is clear that it is directly connected to the atmosphere of dishonesty, to which the Government have contributed by the way in which they have gone about what they have done.
Andrew Bennett: Will the hon. Gentleman go back over those figures and relate them to how close the public perceived the election to be? Turnout almost every time went up when people thought that it was going to be a close contest.
Mr. Cash: I am not against the idea of postal votes. That is something on which we ought to agree on both sides of the House; I am sure we do. I am speaking for myself here. I am deeply encouraged by the fact that in Chorley, as I said, there was an increase in turnout from 31 per cent. in 1998 to 61 per cent. in 2002. That cannot be anything but a good thing because it is people participating in the democratic process, but the problem is that that is not mirrored throughout the country.
I have to take the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made, which is simple but none the less valid. We are going to have elections that will affect the outcome in the European Parliament and thereby, because of the power of co-decision, have a vast impact not only on this House but on our electorate, because the power of co-decision is a power equivalent to that of voting in the Council of Ministers. Therefore, we should be taking the matter extremely seriously, and I am sure we are. The point that the hon. Gentleman made that there should be consistency throughout the country is important. In the areas that are disputed in the amendment and in the northern part of the country in broad terms, why should a system be put in place that differentiates sharply from the position in the south? I am afraid that I cannot
Mr. Cash: I will certainly give way. I cannot conceive of any reason for that. I am happy to give way to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), not the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).
Mr. Cash: Wait a minute. I am not saying that I necessarily agree with that point but it is a perfectly fair point to make. What I am saying is that we should be taking the matter extremely seriously. This may be a truncated debate and our time may run outmy time in particular may run out very soonbut in terms of what is at stake this is a central question for the future of democracy in this country. We had better get this right.
The Deputy Prime Minister was ranting on and asking for the evidence, so I quoted the Alden committee report, which is really very instructive. The Labour council had the good sense to appoint a Conservative city councillor whom they greatly trusted to lead the investigation. The Birmingham Post quoted John Alden as saying that until he had completed his investigation, he had not realised how serious the perversion of democracy had become. That is in relation to postal voting, personation and intimidation at polling stations in Birmingham.
Mr. Watts: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that what he is referring to is in relation not to all-postal voting but to traditional voting? He seems to be advocating doing away with all postal voting in any circumstances.
Mr. Cash: I am not advocating that. The hon. Gentleman heard me just now saying that I could see advantages in postal voting systems, provided that they are free of the perversion of democracy that John Alden identified. I am glad to see the Minister nodding at that. We have been round this track before, and I feel strongly about the need to ensure that we have a proper voting system. The more people who participate, the better. Indeed, the issue of the European elections will become increasingly important because, to my great concern, more and more power in law making is being transferred upwards, in what I believe is an undemocratic way. If we are to have a European Parliament, let us for heaven's sake have a system that cannot be perverted as in the case identified in the Alden committee report.
The Electoral Commission recommended that all-postal voting should become the norm for local elections, but there are concerns about ballot security. It said that investigations into previous postal voting had been both piecemeal and inadequate. What reliable evidence there is suggests that the scope for abuse is wider than the Government might care to admit.