HC Deb 12 July 1999 vol 335 cc5-9
4. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

If he will undertake a review of the possible use of weekend voting for elections. [89213]

7. Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

If he will put forward proposals for voting at weekends at future elections. [89216]

18. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

If he will bring forward proposals for a substantial extension of postal voting for future elections. [89228]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

The working party on electoral procedures, chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), has been carefully considering all those matters. I shall be publishing the working party's final recommendations on modernisation of electoral procedures after its meeting tomorrow. Copies will be available in the Libraries of both Houses.

The Government are committed to improving our electoral procedures, as I am sure will be welcomed by all parties in the House. The working party will, among other things, be making recommendations for piloting new arrangements for voting, including changes in polling hours and polling days—to allow, for example, voting over more than one day, including over a weekend—all-postal ballots for certain elections, and electronic voting.

Mr. Plaskitt

I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend's answer, as that part of our political process is desperately in need of modernisation. Voting needs to be made more accessible, especially for families—many of whom, currently, are inconvenienced by Thursday voting because of school closures. Is my right hon. Friend considering committing himself to holding the next European Parliament elections on a weekend, as other member states do?

Mr. Straw

We shall certainly consult the other political parties on moving the polling date for the next European parliamentary elections, which will be held in 2004. There is also a case, which we shall consider very carefully, for ensuring that those elections coincide with local elections.

I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says about the way in which current voting arrangements might inconvenience families. There is nothing magical about using Thursdays as a polling day—until 1974, Saturdays were used in certain urban districts. I should also say—as it has been a problem in some polling areas of the west midlands—that I believe that there is no excuse for returning officers seeking to prevent parents from entering polling stations with young children, which would mean leaving those young children outside polling stations.

Mr. King

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt). I am also sure that the whole House appreciates the very good work that is being done to reform a clearly antiquated system.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mr. King

Certain dinosaurs might not want anything to be changed. In the European elections, there was an access problem in the west midlands, with mothers with young children in prams—who could not be left outside—being turned away from polling stations. Ed Doolan highlighted that serious problem on Birmingham radio. We must ensure that polling stations are open to all, and I ask my right hon. Friend to commission a study into how we can ensure that returning officers and polling station staff are fully briefed on their responsibilities.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The issue was raised with the Under-Secretary by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). He has examined the matter, and will tell Birmingham returning officers that there is no justification whatever for asking parents to leave their younger children outside a polling station. There is no rule whatever to say that younger children cannot be taken into a polling station. Against a background of falling turnouts, we must do everything that we can to encourage people to vote, and to make it easier—not harder—for them to do so.

Mr. Crausby

Is my right hon. Friend aware that hardly any doctors ever refuse an application by a pensioner for a postal vote? Should we not now save NHS time by allowing all pensioners the right to request a postal vote—perhaps with an application form in the pension allowance book?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We need to do everything that we can to encourage people to participate. The simple fact is that the transaction involved in voting—a pencil cross on a piece of paper—now appears to many to be old-fashioned and inconvenient, and polling stations are not necessarily sited in convenient places. I am keen to see an extension of postal voting to almost anyone who wishes it.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

In any changes that are made, will the Home Secretary ensure that effective steps are taken to combat electoral fraud and vote stealing—a serious problem, not just in Northern Ireland, but in other parts of the United Kingdom? The Home Secretary must know that some of the measures that he has mentioned are the very means by which such electoral fraud is committed.

Mr. Straw

I accept entirely what the right hon. Gentleman says: these problems are not confined—as the myth has it—to Northern Ireland. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has a question on the Order Paper about problems in respect of the high numbers registered for proxy votes. The overriding and guiding principle for the working party on electoral procedures—chaired by the Under-Secretary-has been to ensure the integrity of the process. However, provided we get the procedures correct, there is no reason why, for example, there cannot be an extension of postal voting—a separate issue, and a system that is more secure than proxy voting—without undermining the integrity of the electoral process.

Mr. Forth

Surely the Home Secretary would not want to play any part in trivialising the voting process. Does he accept that it is not unreasonable to ask someone, in casting his vote, to take the trouble to go to a polling station between the very early hours of the morning and the late hours of the evening? Why should that be seen as so difficult? Why cannot a modern, mature electorate cope with that? Why should we have to spoon-feed people in the important matter of voting?

Mr. Straw

I see that the Conservative party is still intent on no compromise with the electorate. Such in-your-face hostility is unlikely to attract the right hon. Gentleman many more voters than he managed on the previous occasion. His approach should not recommend itself to his Front-Bench colleagues.

Mr. Forth

Answer the question.

Mr. Straw

I shall answer the question. Our voting arrangements were last changed to any degree in 1883, and life has moved on since then. [Interruption.] Evidently it has not moved on for the unreconstructed right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). In a modern democracy, we ought to ensure that, consistent with the proper integrity of the process, the system is made as easy and attractive for people to vote as possible. Surely we all have an interest in maximising turnouts at elections.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

In reaching a compromise with the electorate, will the Home Secretary go back to one, single, easy to understand and to administer system for all elections? Is it fair to introduce five different election systems in the space of two months for the same electorate within the UK? Rather than considering weekend voting, could we return to the first-past-the-post system? Or is the Home Secretary running scared, as such a system would have returned 65 Conservatives and probably a single-figure total of Labour Members to the European Parliament after the recent elections?

Mr. Straw

Running scared is not one of my habits. There is much to be said on all sides about different voting methods. I recommend to the hon. Lady the speech that I made on the first Second Reading of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, in which I talked about horses for courses. Whatever the arguments in favour of different voting systems, no one can argue that the electorate did not understand the system. That is a condescension. There is overwhelming evidence from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the United Kingdom that the voters understand the system; whether they agree with it is a different question.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

However, I hope that my right hon. Friend will not discount the views of those who find voting on Sunday offensive. I have sent him representations from my constituency, which is strongly Methodist. I know that many of my constituents are over 60, and can therefore of course be discounted, but there are still many people who regard this as a Christian country and find it offensive to be asked to vote on Sunday.

Mr. Straw

People who are over 60 are the least to be discounted, especially by this Government. I fully accept that there are those who would not want to vote on a Sunday, for religious reasons; there are also people, including members of the Orthodox Jewish faith, who for religious reasons would find it difficult if not impossible to vote on a Saturday. That argues for extending voting over the weekend on both Saturday and Sunday.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

We are grateful for the consultation with the Under-Secretary, and we believe that the proposals are sufficiently radical to warrant a public consultation. What has happened to the legislative prospects of the Neill committee report? The Home Secretary talks about no compromise. That ought to be the slogan for recommendations 83 to 88, on the conduct of referendums. Why do Ministers seem willing to rush headlong into legislating on the recommendations of the working party, when the Neill report was specifically commissioned by the Prime Minister and ought to be the priority?

Mr. Straw

In this Government, we can have more than one priority. I promised that there would be a draft Bill in response to the Neill recommendations by the summer recess and I fully intend to keep that promise. The Bill will deal with, among many other things, the recommendations on the conduct of referendums. There is no reason at all why we should not proceed as quickly as possible to put in place the other changes that were not dealt with directly by Neill in respect of electoral procedures. I am very grateful for the contributions of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and others on the working party. It is in the interests of everybody who believes in democracy to ensure that our voting procedures are brought up to date.

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