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the situation is not nearly as bad as it seems[ Official Report, 20 January 2005; Vol. 429, c. 1002.]
Well, it was. Less than 40 per cent. of service personnel were registered to vote. It is difficult to find out how many of their families were registered. They move a lot, and the electoral registration officers were not catching up with them under the new system. When I was in the Army, I registered once and that lasted me 15 years. Actually, that is not quite true, as I moved, so I had to register twice.
I am glad to say that some changes have taken place, and the situation is better than it was. The Electoral Commission has moved, although it was pretty slow. I found it depressing that the Government at the time, as I have said, were not very interested in ensuring that people had the vote, which is bizarre.
My hon. Friend will recognise that, as members of the Council of Europe, we sometimes lecture other countries about how they should conduct
their own democracies, including ensuring that every citizen above the age of 18 is able to vote. Those countries will be looking at some of the antics in this country, including the lack of service voters, and the problems with postal votes. Perhaps he is aware that the Council of Europe is conducting an inquiry into the shambles of some of the postal vote frauds that we have had in this country.
Mr. Robathan: I was not aware of that, but I am delighted to hear it. As my hon. Friend rightly says, this country used to be somewhere that could be shown as an example to others. I fear that that is no longer the case.
In Scotland earlier this month, we had the e-counting fiasco. I will not go through all the details because they were much rehearsed in the debate yesterday, but it was appalling. Someone thought, Lets bring in e-counting. It sounds marvellous. We all know that new Labour likes modernising. We have had a lot of that. What it meant was that more than 140,000 votes were not allowed.
We have had e-voting pilots. I have not followed those very closely, but why are we having those pilots when everyone, including the Electoral Commission, is saying that e-voting will be less safe than anything we have now? I can use the internet, just. I use e-mail, despite my advanced age.
I do not know how to hack into systems, but some people do. If the Pentagon can be hacked into, the Blaby district council website on conducting elections can be. It is as simple as that. No one in the House has any idea what it could lead to if we go down the route of e-voting.
We are talking about all-postal voting pilots. Postal voting is not a panacea. I would have thought that everyone knew that. I have known the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) for some years. He will probably agree that postal voting on demand has been a disaster. For years, Members of Parliament have had postal votes. People could get a postal vote if they really needed one. Now, people have been encouraged to take postal votes. What has happened? As we know from the case in Birmingham not two years ago, we have been reduced to the status of a banana republic.
I do not know how many hon. Members read The Sunday Times insight team report about three weeks ago about postal voting in Leeds. The inquiry was conducted by a couple of under-cover reporters. I do not particularly like to quote under-cover reporters because from time to time some of them are pretty dodgy people, if I can put it that way without being too unkind. The report was about Labour activists, and the reporters went around with them. The result was shocking. The activists were going around helping people to fill in postal votes and then collecting them. They were deliberately getting round the systems that the Electoral Commission had tried to establish to ensure that postal voting was not corrupt. I am afraid that it is corrupt, and we should have no more truck
with postal voting on demand. Of course we want people to vote, but is it too much to ask people to wander down every couple of years or so to a polling station and put a cross in the box?
After the chaos in Scotland and the corruption that has been identified in postal voting, one would think that we would want to move on, and that hon. Members on both sides of the House would say that we must revisit the integrity of our electoral system. Sadly, that does not appear to be the case.
Let me turn briefly to proportional representation, which has been introduced in Scotland and Wales. If my memory serves me correctlysomeone will correct me if I am wrongI believe it was the dHondt system in Scotland and Wales, and now we have the single transferable vote for local government elections in Scotland. It is obviously not a simple system because, notwithstanding what one Scottish Labour Member said yesterday, I do not think that the Scots are any less intelligent than others. I see one Scottish Member in his place, so I will say that I am quite sure that they are not. However, they found the system pretty baffling, and I am not surprised.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the STV system for local government actually produced very few spoiled ballot papers, because the electors understood it perfectly and knew how to work it. Equally, the additional member system, used in 1993 and 2003, produced very few spoiled ballot papers. The difference this time was that Labour introduced a new form of ballot paper for the 2007 parliamentary elections, which was very confusing in that people had to mark two Xs on the one paper. That is what caused the problemnot the system, but the badly designed ballot paper.
Mr. Robathan: I read that the ballot paper was badly designed, though I did not actually have one because I am not registered to vote in Scotland. However, I understood that until the beginning of the month, Scotland was run by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, or have I got that wrong?
Mr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that for the last eight years Scotland has been run by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, but the design of the ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament elections is a reserved power for the Westminster Government, and it was designed by the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Mr. Robathan: I understand that the Liberal Democrat party did not register an objection and said that the paper was finewhereas the Conservative party, to its credit, failed to reply at all! That is often the best answer.
Mr. Robathan: Indeed. I thank the hon. Gentleman. As I said, I have known him for a long time, and we have even agreed from time to time. He is absolutely right. Responsibility lies both in Westminster and in Holyrood.
What was proportional representation meant to bring about? The new Labour Government could certainly say that it was not meant to bring about an SNP Government in Holyrood. I suspect that some people on the Treasury Bench are scratching their beards wondering whether that was what they thought they would achieve when they voted for PR. In Wales, through the so-called reforms for the Welsh Assembly elections, we have achieved chaos. There is still no Government there. It is 24 May, and if my memory serves me correctly, the elections were exactly three weeks ago today.
Mr. Robathan: Yes, it is a complete shambles and I cannot believe that that is what the electorate want. We have chaos in Wales, chaos in Scotland, and proportional representation is being revealed for what many of us always thought it wasa disaster. As I said, I was struck by how many Scottish Labour MPs in yesterdays debate called for a return of first past the post for Scottish Parliament elections.
How have the Government responded to this chaos? The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who I believe is responsible for these matters, has said that the important thing is to ensure that more people are voting, and more people are registered to vote. Actually, as we have seen, the number of people voting has reduced dramatically over the past 10 yearsin general elections, at least. The turnout in 2005 should give us all cause for grave concern. I understand, of course, that that was nothing to do with proportional representation. Nevertheless, it was with extra postal voting and all the rest of itpart of modernisation, to use the Governments favourite term.
When the Electoral Commission and others put forward the idea of individual voter registration, the Under-Secretary said from the Treasury BenchI am allowed to quote her; I am not attacking her in any waythat when it was introduced in Northern Ireland, the number of people on the electoral register went down. Surely that is the pointbecause the people left on the electoral register then were bona fide electors, whereas when I was young, and until very recently it was always said in Irish elections, particularly Northern Ireland elections, Vote early, vote often, because people had more than one vote. The electoral system in Northern Ireland was certainly corrupt until quite recently.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: The Electoral Commission argued strongly for individual voter registration, yet the Government insisted on household registration. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the correct response of the Electoral Commission would have been to threaten to resign en masse? That would have forced the Government to rethink, and to try to justify their position.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. There has been criticism recently. In Sir Alistair Grahams last report on standards in public life, he criticised the Electoral Commission. He was, of course, appointed by the Government; no one could accuse him of being a
wicked Tory. He said that the commission had not been robust enough, and that it had not pursued the policies that it should have done.
I hate to say it, but I find the Governments reaction strange. It is almost as though they do not care about the way in which our electoral system and our democracy have been undermined. That is deeply worrying. Where would we be if there were chaos similar to that in Wales and Scotland at a general election? I hope that that will not happen, because we have not yet changed the system for elections to Westminster, although I suspect that some people might wish to do so, and not just the Liberal Democrats. We would be left looking like the banana republic to which that judge so rightly referred two years ago.
The hon. Member for Pendle tempts me to talk about the Electoral Commission. I do not especially want to criticise Sam Younger, but I naively thought that the commission was appointed not only to police the electoral system but really to get a grip on it, and ensure its integrity. I have had this discussion with Sam Younger in the past. It seems to me that he and his commission are much more interested in e-voting pilots and all that kind of nonsense than they are in establishing an electoral roll that is entirely trustworthy, for the benefit of democracy in this country.
Fortuitously, the Electoral Commissions corporate plan arrived this morning. Yes, it talks about a complete and accurate electoral register, and about well-run elections, but it seems more excited about party election finance. Of course that is an important subject, but surely the most important thing of all is that the only people who vote in our elections are those who have the right to do so, and that everyone can trust the results of those elections, whether we like them or not; often we do not.
I have spoken for quite long enough, but I want to make two brief local points. I have been in correspondence with the Department for Transport for some years about the noise and pollution problems on the M1 between Narborough and Enderby. The M1 is probably used by many hon. Members; I suspect that the hon. Member for Pendle uses it occasionally. The housing on that stretch is very close to the road; it was built before the road became the M1. There is therefore a terrible noise problem, although we have had some resurfacing. There is also the problem of the pollution from the traffic going by.
This is not an easy problem to solve. The Deputy Leader of the House may rest assured that I do not blame the Government for all the noise and pollution on our roads. It would be helpful, however, if he could ask the Minister with responsibility for roads to come to my constituency and meet the motorway action group for Narborough and Enderby, which has wanted to meet him for some time. That Ministers predecessor, who used to sit for Plymouth and whose name has briefly escaped me
David Jamieson came to the areabut unfortunately, only as an election stunt during the general election campaign in 2005. He was slightly put
off because I was there when he got there. Never mind; these things happen. I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House could pass on my invitation, however.
My second local point is about post offices. I know that the issue is hardly unique to my constituency. I represent a largely rural constituency in which post offices are greatly valued. Many have now closed. It is true that some of them closed before 1997, but the rate of closure has now accelerated. Following the recent pronouncement, it is obvious that there will be more closures in my constituency and in others. The Government have shown a paucity of imagination in their treatment of the Post Office. They may have spent money on it, but they have not given sub-postmastersall of whom are small business peoplethe freedom to operate that they should have. At the same time, the Government have been taking away the business that post offices have had from the Department for Work and Pensions. I hope that in the next few months the Government will take steps to free up postmastersalthough I have to say that I rather doubt whether they will.
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is being suggested this afternoon that during the recess, the Government will take ownership of the report into the seizing of British service personnel by the Iranians. Mr. Speaker has said on a number of occasions that when reports are awaited by the House, it is quite wrong for informed speculation or leaks to appear in the press ahead of the House being told. Through your good offices, Mr. Deputy Speaker, could the Government be made aware that it would be unacceptable for any information from the report to appear in the press ahead of the Select Committee or the House seeing it?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Obviously, these are extremely important matters, and I am sure that the responsible Ministers will want to report to the House of Commons at the earliest appropriate moment. The Deputy Leader of the House is here today, and I am sure that the point made by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) will be transmitted through the usual channels.
First, I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the House for being out of the Chamber for the early parts of the debate due to my duties elsewhere in the House. I am glad to have returned and to have heard some excellent speeches.
I agree with the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that changes to the machinery of government should not be made at the whim of a Prime Minister, written on the back of a fag packet and presented as a fait accompli to the House. They should be properly considered and properly costed. We should be clear about the expected advantages of any changes to the structure of government. The best way of doing
that is to produce a considered White Paper, present it to the House, let it be scrutinised and proceed with implementation.
That is the exact reverse of what happened with the creation of the Ministry of Justice, which I support. I do not, however, support the fact that it was done without any prior consideration. As a result, we now face the prospect of the Lord Chief Justice making a statement to Parliament under section 5 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 because the judiciary are so dissatisfied with the way in which matters were handled. The hon. Member for Pendle is absolutely right.
I was also interested to hear the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) about the Marie Louise gardens in his constituency and to hear that he scored a goal at Stamford Bridge this morning. I was asked to play in a charity cricket match at Lords today, but I had to decline the opportunity as I had to be here for this debate. I am happy to be here, but I am sure that had I been at Lords I would have made a considerable scoreI dont think.
My final preliminary remark concerns the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who made a number of comments about the integrity of the voting system, some of which I agreed with and some of which I did not, as he will readily understand. I shall start with the point on which he closed: post offices. The hon. Gentlemans constituency, like mineboth are rural areaswill bear the brunt of the post office closures, and I am extremely concerned about the consequences of the closure programme. We are being asked to regard the closure of 2,500 post offices as a blessingas a reprieve for the post office network. It will be nothing of the kind in areas such as mine. It will lead to the closure of many of the small post offices that serve the many small communities in my constituency. There are about 120 villages in my constituency, not all of which have post offices as many have closed.
A wide variety of business is transacted in the remaining post offices. For people who rely on their post office, that is essential. If post offices close in areas such as mine, people cannot simply catch a bus or walk down the road to another post office; often there is no bus, and sometimes there is no road. Such closures can be extremely difficult for peopleespecially the elderly and the disabledwho do not have access to private transport. Sometimes members of young families with children do not have access to private transport either, as the breadwinner travels to work in their car. It is hard to see how such people will manage without their post office.
The post office is much more than simply a place to buy stamps, or to collect pensions or benefits; it is, as we have said many time, a focal point for a village community. Often, it offers a wide range of servicesa range far wider than the scope or the imagination of the Post Office. It is an integral part of its community; it is its heartbeat. It saddens me that that heartbeat is to be extinguished in many of our villages.
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