HC Deb 18 November 2002 vol 394 cc359-61
31. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

To ask the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, what proposals the Committee is considering to increase participation in electoral politics of under-represented sections of the community[81525]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission)

Consideration of such proposals would fall outside the statutory remit of your Committee, Mr. Speaker. The Committee has, however, endorsed the Electoral Commission's current corporate plan, which includes plans for promoting public awareness of elections, with a particular focus on groups that currently have relatively low levels of participation in elections.

Fiona Mactaggart

I hope to persuade the right hon. Gentleman to encourage the Electoral Commission to use its powers under section 13 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to ensure that, in the education on electoral systems and democratic processes that it is able to fund, it targets groups such as women and ethnic minorities within all political parties, to ensure that they understand the electoral system and have better strategies to participate in it.

Mr. Beith

We are all aware of the under-representation of women as Members of this House and as candidates, but that is primarily a responsibility with which the political parties will have to deal. There is little evidence that women vote in smaller numbers than men; therefore the commission's work in that field has not included direct attempts to encourage women to go to the polls, since they regularly do so. However, the commission has approached the Equal Opportunities Commission to discuss areas of common interest and possible research projects. In addition, the new initiatives fund administered by the commission provides an opportunity for organisations to submit proposals for pilot projects, which might well meet some of the hon. Lady's goals.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman for some guidance? Councillor Stephen Worrall of Sheerness has raised a question to which I do not know the answer. His is one of the poorest parts of Britain, yet the local council, Swale borough council, is to reduce the number of polling booths, and he wants to know what legislation can be used to challenge that reduction. Not only is his area poor, but it is one of the areas of lowest turnout in the country.

Mr. Beith

I shall certainly ask the Electoral Commission to write to the hon. Gentleman with any useful advice it can give, but some of the responsibility may lie elsewhere.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

While it is, of course, important to ensure that pilot projects continue to ensure accessibility for people, so that they can participate in elections and cast their vote, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that until greater relevance is perceived in this place, rather than abuse by Whitehall and by Ministers, people will be disinclined to vote in general and other elections?

Mr. Beith

The Electoral Commission has engaged in quite a bit of research into reasons for not voting, but we all have our personal opinion, and in that respect mine and his are not far apart.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

May I urge the right hon. Gentleman to give particular consideration to the needs of former mining constituencies, which do not fall into either the rural or the urban category? There is a specific problem with providing polling stations in next May's elections—indeed, in my constituency, one third of polling stations are likely to close.

Mr. Beith

Mine is both a mining and, in some parts, a former mining constituency, so I am aware of the problem. The matter is one that will have to be drawn to the attention of other authorities, including those in Wales, but I shall ask the Electoral Commission to keep a close watch on it.