HC Deb 16 July 2003 vol 409 cc263-5
1. Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell)

If he will make a statement about local electoral pilots. [125859]

The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

For the 2003 local elections we approved a wide range of pilots, 33 involving all-postal ballots and 17 involving e-voting pilots, which covered in total some 6.4 million electors. The initial headline results are encouraging; the average turnout for all-postal pilots was close to 50 per cent., and where there was e-voting about a fifth of voters opted to use electronic methods. We are now awaiting the Electoral Commission's detailed evaluation, which we will want to consider carefully and to which we will respond in the autumn.

Mr. Challen

I welcome my right hon. Friend's reply because it shows that the pilots are finding new ways to get people involved in our democratic processes. I urge him, however, to read early-day motion 174, in my name, which refers to the potential for fraud in electronic voting methods. There is evidence from the United States, where some of those systems have been used extensively, that there are no proper controls or means of verifying whether fraud or other deficiencies have occurred. The Government need to read that early-day motion very carefully.

Mr. Raynsford

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the benefits of pilots that appear to be turning around the decline in participation in elections. All Members of the House should welcome the evidence that a number of the pilots have been very successful in increasing turnout.

I agree also that it is vital to have safeguards against the risk of fraud, and I can assure my hon. Friend that the electronic voting systems used in the pilots all include measures to provide the audit trail required to verify that any ballot paper has not been altered or lost. We are absolutely clear about that. Looking at his early-day motion, I have to say that we are not convinced of the merits of a paper audit trail, which could undermine the security and secrecy of the ballot and prove unnecessarily bureaucratic. However, we are committed to proper audit and control systems, and we will be looking carefully at the Electoral Commission's recommendations.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

We all want to see an increase in turnout, but we do not want it to be achieved on the basis of "vote early, vote often". Many returning officers, and professionals from all parties, have expressed worries about vote rigging in all-postal ballots. Detective Chief Inspector David Churchill of West Midlands fraud squad said that the current electoral system is based on trust and that trust is being eroded … The new postal voting system provides an opportunity for malpractice. Now that the pilots have been in place for some time, what lessons about fraud has the right hon. Gentleman learned, and what measures does he intend to introduce to tighten the procedures to ensure that we preserve the sanctity of the ballot box?

Mr. Raynsford

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the ballot remains as secure against fraud as possible. The hon. Gentleman will know that any electoral system is potentially open to fraud, and it is essential that there are safeguards. That is why, for all the pilots that we have run, we have ensured that there is proper evaluation, and particular attention has been paid to any allegations of fraud, which have all been investigated. The Electoral Commission is considering that in its report, which we expect to receive on 31 July, and we will obviously give a full response when we have received its recommendations.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)

Will my right hon. Friend look not only at the issue of declining participation, but at that of declining electorates? He will be aware of a parliamentary question that I tabled recently about a massive drop in the size of the electorate in more than 100 seats in the United Kingdom. Some of those decreases are unaccounted for. Will my right hon. Friend look into the reasons for them? Seventy-five of the decreases are in Labour seats.

Mr. Raynsford

We are in regular discussion with the Electoral Commission about measures to ensure that the registration system for elections is as thorough and accurate as possible. We certainly share my hon. Friend's concern to ensure that there is no unjustified decline in the number of people registered to vote, as those who are not registered are consequently denied their entitlement to vote. We shall certainly continue to do all that we can to ensure that there are effective electoral registration measures.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

May I endorse the notes of caution sounded by the hon. Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Challen) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles)? Does the Minister accept that the vote is indeed a precious possession and people should regard it as such? We should think of the people of South Africa and how they responded when they first had the vote.

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that we do not devalue the importance of the vote by making the process too easy and therefore open to abuse?

Mr. Raynsford

I do not believe that making it easier for people to exercise their democratic right devalues the process. It is important to ensure that proper safeguards are in place to uphold the integrity of the ballot. However, in an age when people are much more used to responding quickly to a variety of other transactions, using electronic or postal means rather than going in person to an office, it seems logical that the same principle should apply to voting. It is right to give people a greater opportunity to vote by post and electronic means where appropriate safeguards are in place. I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares our satisfaction with the evidence that we are beginning to turn the corner in terms of participation, because declining participation in elections should deeply concern us all.