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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I have taken part in more elections either as a candidate or an election agent than I care to remember. I am concerned that the Government and many others are blaming the electorate for apathy and alienation, whereas the fault lies with the political practitioners.
The fault does not lie with those who vote. If we want people to vote, we must give them something to vote on and enthuse and encourage them to do so. If people do not turn out to vote, it is the fault of political
Going to the polling station, particularly for parliamentary elections, used to be a great occasion. People would get together; they discussed the issues; they voted at the polling station and felt that they had done their duty. They had done their duty collectively and felt good about it. I felt good the first time I voted. I do not know whether first-time voters feel as good as I did then. There is something about going to the polling station to take part in a collective act of duty to elect your government whom you will hold eventually to account.
Further, any candidate worth his salt will first of all want to identify his supporters. If he is to identify his supporters, he will have to go out and find them. He must talk to them on the doorstep, convince them that he is the man they should support and that he has the policies with which they agree that will make their life better. Door-to-door canvassing is one of the essences of real democracyto meet the people who will be governed, to see how they want to be governed and to persuade them that you are the chap or the lady to do just that.
Having identified the relevant people, you get them to the polling station. But there is one problem with postal votingthis has already been identifiedbecause the postal vote is sent out 10 days or a fortnight before the election. Anyone who has done any canvassing knows that, when well done, canvassing continues until midnight of the day of the election. What happens in that interregnum? Even if you canvass people on the postal voting system, you go to the door and they say, "We have voted. We have already done it a fortnight beforehand". Therefore, political parties have no chance to convince those people between the time that they receive their postal vote and the election. Elections are often won or lost in the last few days. I remember that well in 1970 when I was first elected to the House of Commons. It was expected then that the Wilson government would survive but there was a turning point on the Monday before the election and they lost. Big issues are involved here.
Moreover, having identified your voters, you then get them to the poll. There is great excitement. Many people are working togetherthe parties are also working togetherto get the highest possible turnout. There is contact with the people to persuade them that it is not only their duty but also a pleasure to vote at the polling station. So far as I can see, that will all be completely sacrificed. The measure will make political parties become lazy. Indeed, having four-year elections instead of annual elections has already proved the point that in the interregnum period political parties become lazy and therefore lose contact with the people they are supposed to represent.
Enlarging the pilot scheme at this stage to cover nearly half the country seems to me completely absurd because the issue is not proven. I believe that it will be bad for our democratic system and bad for government as a whole.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I hope that I may add one very brief point to the admirable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I feel very strongly that this measure threatens the secret ballot. Secrecy seems to me to be a most valuable and important thing that must be preserved. We know, alas, from Northern Ireland that there are infinite ways of rigging a postal ballot. The IRA was found to have a printing press in a cellar on which it turned out papers. That can happen. In many communities people will be required to vote in a certain way by certain people. We must preserve the secrecy of the ballot.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I do not apologise for intervening in this Bill at this late stage. Until the Government see fit to give me a colleague, I am not necessarily able to take part in the earlier stages of every Bill. However, I have been lobbied fairly heavily both by members of the Green Party and by my old friends in the Liberal Party to support this amendment. They all say that, so far as they are concerned, the measure is not only open to abuse but also almost impossible to organise in one or two of the areas which are now thought likely to be included.
I believe that we should stick to the original recommendations. I take very strong account of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. As someone who was responsible for the organisation of the Liberal effort in two by-elections, both of which returned Liberal Members of Parliament to the House of Commons, I remember distinctly that about five days before polling day you suddenly felt that you had won. Others who have taken part in by-elections will have felt exactly the same. You suddenly know that there is a feeling in the air and your canvassing suddenly surges way ahead. People should be given the opportunity to register their votes right up to polling day. It is not a good thing to expand the postal votes. I sincerely hope that this amendment will be passed.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin): My Lords, I wish to speak to the Government's Amendment No. 2 and to respond to the discussion on Amendment No. 1, and, by association, Amendment No. 3. I agreed strongly with one point that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made; namely, that no mechanism for voting will by itself solve the problem of disengagement from politics and one's concern about that issue. The noble Lord is right in that respect.
Without maintaining the tradition of making this a Second Reading debate, it is right that I mark why we are where we are. We are where we are because there has been such a reduction in turnout in local, European and national elections that any neutral political commentator has to be concerned about that issue. The noble Lord was right to say that postal voting by itself cannot constitute a total answer. However, turnout in elections where postal voting has been piloted has increased by some 15 per cent on average. When that 15 per cent is added to a turnout of some 30 per cent, many local authorities have found
I turn to the amendments before us today. As is apparent, the Government's amendment names our choice of regions on the face of the Bill and by so doing seeks to negate the need for a main order. I very much appreciate the discussion that I have had with both Opposition Front Benches in that respect. I also appreciate the recognition that although we are not at one regarding the relevant regions, there is a sensible and, I think, healthy consensus that in terms of efficient electoral administration the fact that Parliament itself designates the relevant regions in primary legislation provides certainty and allows the maximum time for preparation on the part of returning officers. I believe that we all consider that that is to the good. I thank noble Lords warmly for that.
Why four pilot regions? Piloting is about learning lessons. Within reason, the more data that we have, the more accurate the conclusions that we shall be able derive. So far, pilots have been small scalewe have always said that the Bill is about scaling up. The combined electorate of the four regions is more than 14 million people. The evidence that we shall gain from making pilots available on that scale will enormously help the Government and all parties that have a legitimate interest in the issues, including the Electoral Commission, in informing future decisions about whether to go further with postal voting.
In Committee I explained how we took the Electoral Commission's recommendations which were split broadly into three categories. I believe that in the debate there has been selective quoting from the Electoral Commission report. The Electoral Commission made three points. It had a first category of two regions which were definitely suitable for postal ballots; another four regions which the commission thought were clearly not suitable for a variety of reasons; and a middle category which was marked "potentially suitable", about which the commission was aware there were concerns.
In December the Government accepted those regions described as suitable and said so. We then worked through those described as "potentially suitable", in the order of ranking as set out by the commission. We considered Scotland, but we decided that Scotland was not a practical possibility because the returning officers in Scotland did not believe that they could deliver a safe election. Therefore, we would have been foolish to have gone ahead in that situation.
We took operational capability as our key criterion. As a consequence, we had discussions. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and Chris Leslie in another place met the regional returning officers from both the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside and discussed with them their perspective on whether they could deliver successful pilots in their situations. To cut short the matterI shall perhaps refer
As part of the process of testing we also discussed the issues of security and safety, which are proper issues of concern in this debate. I shall make it absolutely clear that in doing so, we have been operating completely within the terms of the Electoral Commission. It did not say that the four middle category of potentially suitable regions could not go ahead. It said that there were issues. To put that beyond doubt, the commission said, in the letter that it has distributed to the House for consideration on these amendments, that four regions were unsuitable, but named four regions as potentially suitable for an all-postal pilot. The commission believed that it was open to the Government to have further discussions with these four regions if they were minded to designate additional pilots. We had those discussions, which led us to believe that it was safe and sound for there to be a wider scale of piloting, which we believed to be desirable. To add emphasis to that, Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council and regional returning officer for the north-west, a region that was quite rightly the focus of much of our discussions in Committee, said that,
One further reason for having four rather than two pilot regions is the diversity in those areas. If one pilots the willing, one will always receive a slightly biased result, but life is not made up totally of the willing. Therefore, a significant advantage could be obtained in having pilots that are carried out in areas where people are not necessarily massively enthusiastic about them, or massively experienced in undertaking them. That would be real life. Diversity will help to maximise our experience.
Why the pilots should take place only in the north was touched on. Clearly London and the south-west were excluded. Additionally Wales, the eastern region and the south-east were all deemed not suitable by the commission and we did not feel that it was appropriate to go against its clear, direct advice nor did we wish to do so.
On the 50 per cent figure, a more accurate figure is that the pilot regions would see a turnout of about 31 per cent of the electorate. In 2003 the pilot regions saw a 22 per cent turnout of the local electorate; so, as a consequence, we are not talking about such a large scale increase.
Agreeing to the four pilot regions will give the matter certainty and will be enormously helpful to regional returning officers and to local authorities which, as a consequence, will be able to plan forward. This year marks the last chance for pilots on this scale until 2009. Therefore, I believe that we would be wise to learn from the ability to have a wider-scale pilot by having four rather than two.
I shall briefly refer to one or two points raised in the debate. I have signalled why this is not the arbitrary overturning of the Electoral Commission's report. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about staff concerns. I would always expect that there would be staff concerns on something of this kind. I have also noted the many important points that he made in Committee on that point.
On the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, clearly the problem is that the electorate is already partly out of touch with politics, which is one reason for trying to increase turn-out. Door-to-door canvassing will continue but in a different form, as we have seen.
I shall not weary the House longer, as we shall shortly have a Statement to deal with. We believe that there are good reasons for conducting four pilots. We believe that we shall learn more by having four pilot regions; that four pilots can be carried out successfully; and that the House should allow for four pilots to proceed on this basis so that, as a consequence, we can have early certainty and closure. I hope that the government amendments will be supported and that the opposition amendments will not be.
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