HC Deb 23 April 2002 vol 384 cc144-6
9. Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

What assessment he has made of progress with the online voting pilots for the forthcoming local elections. [49402]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

All online pilots have been subject to a departmental quality review that showed they were all on track. We are planning a further independent quality and security review of those authorities before election day. We have also been working closely with authorities piloting all postal voting to ensure that their arrangements do not enhance the opportunity for fraud or undermine the secrecy and security of the poll. We will remain in contact with all pilot authorities over the election period so that the returning officers responsible and we ourselves can be confident of the robustness and security of the pilot voting arrangements that will be available.

Mr. Allan

Like the Minister, I want the e-voting pilots to succeed in May. I congratulate Ken Bellamy, head of information, communications and technology at Sheffield city council, on what he has done to develop the Sheffield pilots. Will the Minister ensure that clear guidance is issued to cover a situation which still concerns me? What happens when a voter turns up on 2 May at the polling station only to be told that someone has already cast their vote electronically, but they deny having done so themselves? That problem could damage confidence in e-voting if it is not handled carefully. I hope that the Minister will agree to publish guidance so that Members of Parliament, councillors and the public know what would happen in those circumstances.

Mr. Raynsford

On the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, I shall ensure that officials from my Department are in touch with Sheffield council to discuss the circumstances of that case and that appropriate guidance is issued to all authorities undertaking electronic polls. It is very important that we use the pilots as an opportunity to test thoroughly the availability of new technology to facilitate voting. All of us are concerned about falling participation in elections; anything that we can do to help people to vote who might not otherwise do so is a good thing. We are keen to explore that, and ensure that we make the most of the opportunities presented by the pilots.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will understand that certain basic principles govern voting in this country: people can be assured that no one can tell for whom they voted; they can be certain that when they put their ballot paper in a ballot box they have voted: and when counting takes place, candidates or their agents can scrutinise the process. Can my right hon. Friend therefore give a guarantee that when people vote electronically it will not be possible to trace them or the person for whom they voted? Can people have a guarantee that when they have voted electronically their vote will be received and counted, and how will the process be scrutinised by candidates and their agents?

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend raises a number of important issues that we considered carefully, along with the Electoral Commission, before authorising the pilots this May. Arrangements are in place to deal with the precise concerns that he raised, and will ensure the security of the ballot, the anonymity of the voter and the opportunity if necessary to challenge any allegations of fraud. We are keen that the polls should be conducted in the most rigorous and careful way, but we are also conscious of the fact that many people who show an interest in using electronic technology to exercise their vote perhaps would otherwise not vote. It is right to pilot such opportunities to test whether in fact we can extend opportunities and encourage more people to exercise their vote, while at the same time guaranteeing the integrity and secrecy of the ballot.