HC Deb 13 March 2000 vol 346 cc4-6
3. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

What steps he is taking to enable new technology to be used for voting in national and local elections. [112574]

12. Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

What steps he is taking to enable new technology to be used in national and local elections. [112584]

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

The Representation of the People Bill includes provisions to allow local authorities to pilot innovative electoral procedures, such as electronic voting and electronic counting. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been able to give provisional approval to six such schemes to be piloted at this May's local elections.

Mr. Chapman

While I welcome the piloting of electronic voting at the local government elections this year, if we are to make voting as accessible as possible, do we not have to go much further and consider all-postal ballots, mobile balloting and more flexible times and dates for voting?

Mr. O'Brien

I very much agree with my hon. Friend that we need to consider all those things. I hope that, under the provisions of the Bill, we shall be able to pilot many of them and ensure that there is greater access to enable all those who have the right to vote to do so more easily. I hope that that will increase the number of people who participate in our democracy.

Jane Griffiths

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the interests of democracy, we should all be concerned about the declining turnout at elections? Does he also agree that people will not understand the continuing Conservative opposition to measures to make voting easier and more accessible?

Mr. O'Brien

We have had varying degrees of support from the Opposition for our legislation. I believe that all Members of the House should be in favour of encouraging more people to go to the polling station and vote. It was with regret that we encountered some opposition to particular aspects of this legislation that could have encouraged people to exercise their proper democratic right to vote.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

While I welcome new technologies, does the Minister agree that some people—such as my mother, who lives in Lichfield—are quite nervous about using things like automated teller machine cards? My mother likes writing out cheques, and I am quite sure that she would like to be able to do the old-fashioned tick on the box—hopefully against my name. Does the Minister accept that, in this ruthless drive for new technology, he may well alienate older people who are frightened of using electronic devices? Or will this new initiative be as effective as the initiative announced in the first three months of the new Labour Government, when they said that they were going to introduce new electronic dispatch boxes? Like so many other promises, it has come to nought.

Mr. O'Brien

I think the hon. Gentleman is at least guaranteed one vote—or is he?—and, by the way, we normally put Xs, not ticks, on ballot papers. We certainly aim to encourage all people to vote, and we have taken precautions, in the legislation and in shaping the role of the Electoral Commission, to ensure that any spread of the types of pilot scheme that we shall now consider will be of the sort that will encourage people, especially the elderly, to feel comfortable with going into polling stations and casting their ballot. Therefore, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if he is to get only one vote, we shall want his mother to be able to vote.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Can the Minister put my mind at rest by reassuring me that voting will continue in person, that voting electronically will not be open to fraud and that it will be deliverable in villages and market towns such as Easingwold, Thirsk, Bedale and Boroughbridge in north Yorkshire?

Mr. O'Brien

We certainly want to ensure that the new pilot schemes will be safe from abuse by any of those who might seek improperly to use them. None of the applications being piloted this year involves systems such as internet voting, but we hope that, in future years, we shall consider pilot scheme applications that involve such innovations. However, we will want to be reassured that, even when we pilot them, they are secure in terms of the operation of voting and that we do not have problems with personation, improper voting procedures and electoral abuse. We want to be very careful and we hope that the Electoral Commission's role in considering the pilot schemes will assist us in ensuring that things are done properly.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

What will the checks be against electoral fraud when votes are exercised and counted electronically? At present, the parties can send their people to the counts to keep an eye on the votes and to see how they are stacking up. What will the equivalent system be so that the representatives of the parties can ensure that we do not have a fiddled franchise?

Mr. O'Brien

We certainly want to ensure that there is no fiddled franchise and that we have a system that operates in a secure manner. If we receive any applications—I must tell my hon. Friend that we have received none as yet—we will want to ensure that the checks that are carried out provide safeguards. I cannot give him a list of the safeguards that we might have to put in place, because we have received no applications yet. I suspect that electronic and internet systems are not suitable at the moment for carrying out such operations. However, we will not close our mind to such systems in the years ahead.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). In many ways, he has been the parent of many of the very good ideas for a rolling register that are being introduced in legislation.