HC Deb 24 July 2000 vol 354 cc748-9
5. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

If he will make a statement on his plans for the extension of different methods of voting in next year's local elections. [130326]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

Thirty-eight pilot schemes to test new voting arrangements took place in 32 local authority elections last May. Each authority is preparing an evaluation of the effectiveness of their pilot projects, but these are not due until the beginning of August. When we have seen the evaluations we will be able to decide whether any extension is justified.

Mr. Pike

Will my hon. Friend confirm that while we all want an increase in the number of people who are able to vote in local elections, we want also to ensure the integrity of the vote and make sure that people's votes are cast correctly? What will happen to the pilot schemes next year if the general election falls on the same date as the county council elections?

Mr. O'Brien

We certainly want to ensure the integrity of any pilot schemes. Of course, if there were a general election at the same time as local elections, the arrangements that operate during a parliamentary election would apply in both cases.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

When considering new voting methods, will the Minister bear in mind the needs of disabled people, particularly those with sensory disabilities, to ensure that any new methods take their requirements into account? We must ensure in particular that we do not lessen the pressure on authorities to maintain conventional voting methods that are open to disabled people.

Mr. O'Brien

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we want to ensure greater access not only for those with physical disabilities but for those with learning disabilities. We have done a great deal to provide that access under recent legislation, and we have recently published guidance for electoral registration officers and returning officers to ensure that, wherever possible, there are obligations on them to provide access for disabled people to polling stations or to other forms of voting such as postal votes, so that they can play their full part in society.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I welcome some of the pilots that took place in May, particularly on earlier postal voting, but does the Minister accept that people fail to vote not simply because they cannot vote at weekends or over extended periods, but because they feel that the local government for which they are voting does not have the powers they want it to have? For example, when councillors vote against planning applications, their decisions are often referred to an independent inspector, who may overturn the wishes of local elected councillors. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to find out what measures may be introduced to ensure that local democracy means what it says?

Mr. O'Brien

As I understand it, the legislation under which local government operates was introduced by the previous Government, whom the hon. Gentleman no doubt supported. We are ensuring that we give local authorities greater freedom and greater powers so that we restore local democracy after the damage done by the Conservatives over 18 years.

Mr. Phil Woolas (Oldham, East and Saddleworth)

In his deliberations, will my hon. Friend look into the important problem of voter impersonation? He may be aware that in the Coldhurst ward in Oldham there is a police investigation into what appears to have been widespread abuse of the voting system by people apparently voting twice.

Mr. O'Brien

Personation is a serious offence, and I will ask the police for their view on that matter when they have completed their inquiries.