HC Deb 10 November 2003 vol 413 cc18-20
23. Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore)

What discussions the Committee has had with the Electoral Commission in respect of all-postal ballots. [137045]

Mr. Malins

The statutory remit of the Speaker's Committee does not normally require it to discuss such matters with the Electoral Commission. The commission has recommended that, if all-postal voting is backed by changes in the law to minimise the risk of electoral abuses, it should become the standard approach in local elections in England and Wales. It has been directed by the Government to recommend which regions are most suitable to conduct all-postal ballots in the European parliamentary elections in 2004.

Huw Irranca-Davies

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. Does he agree, on behalf of the Committee, that what will be needed in whichever regions are chosen is a certain surefootedness and dynamism, and a willingness to innovate—all characteristics that we saw in abundance on the rugby field in the Welsh team at the weekend? In his discussions with the Electoral Commission, will he therefore convey the very strong support among Welsh Labour MPs for all-postal ballots in Wales next year?

Mr. Malins

I shall certainly convey those sentiments, and I join the hon. Gentleman in saying that I thought that the Wales team performed absolutely brilliantly in the rugby. If I am allowed to say so, being a quarter Welsh, I played for London Welsh schoolboys a long time ago. I shall pass on his points, which are well made.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Are the hon. Gentleman and his Committee content that, in the studies that the Electoral Commission is conducting on the pilots, it has been specifically excluded by the Government from considering whether there should be pilots at all, why there should be three, the detailed form of postal or electronic voting, and whether it should consult all returning officers after the event rather than only a selected few? Is he content that that will give a true picture of what is going on?

Mr. Malins

The hon. Gentleman refers to the paucity of pilot schemes in Wales. Election pilot schemes have been permitted at local elections in Wales for the past three years, and the law provides that the local authority concerned has to apply to the Government for permission to conduct a pilot scheme. On the balance of his question, I shall be happy to ensure that the chairman of the Electoral Commission writes to him with a very full response to a point well made.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, especially in residential homes, abuse is possible with regard to all-postal vote ballots? Does he agree that, without imposing too onerous a task on the Electoral Commission, there should be some sort of monitoring of the mental capacity of those who are offered votes, especially when they have not asked for them?

Mr. Malins

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the need to ensure security, the absence of fraud, and so on, in relation to postal votes. As to the risks concerning places of multiple occupation, to minimise the risk of fraud in general in relation to postal votes, the commission is currently developing a series of tools for use by electoral staff, including best practice guidance on multiple occupation households. He makes a fair point.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does my hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members on both sides of the House view with genuine concern a move towards all-postal ballots, because whatever is done, there is bound to be greater scope for abuse? Will he further accept that the commission might do better to turn its attention to the question of making voting compulsory if it wishes to increase turnout, rather than introducing all-postal ballots?

Mr. Malins

In relation to my hon. Friend's observation on making voting compulsory, that is not a matter that has crossed my path so far. I do not believe that we have any particular views about it, but I hear what he has to say. He said that postal voting is a significant issue. There are very different views about this matter. Many hon. Members take the view that the old-fashioned system of voting is absolutely right. It is inevitable that we will move towards postal votes for all sorts of elections, as the years pass. I think that he will agree that it is critical that we maintain security, safety and the absence of fraud whenever we can.

24. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

What consultations the Committee has had with the Electoral Commission on all-postal vote pilots for the European elections in Wales. [137046]

Mr. Malins

The statutory remit of the Speaker's Committee does not normally require it to discuss such matters with the Electoral Commission. However, the commission is currently undertaking at the behest of the Government a consultative exercise on which European Parliament regions might conduct electoral pilots in 2004. I believe that recommendations will be presented to the Government by 8 December 2003.

Kevin Brennan

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), there is an old saying, "Three tries for a Welshman", but on some occasions even that is not enough.

It would be a good idea for the Electoral Commission to recommend all-postal ballots in next year's elections for three reasons—namely, that three elections will be held at the same time: European elections, local government elections and community council elections. That is unique in the United Kingdom. Will the hon. Gentleman convey the strong message from MPs in Wales that that makes Wales a unique area in which to experiment by including it in the pilot?

Mr. Malins

If there were 10 points for a try, a different team would have been in the semi-finals.

The commission is well aware of the strong support from many Labour Members of Parliament for the postal pilot schemes. I understand that it has received representations from several organisations and individuals in Wales: it will take those into account when it makes its recommendations to the Government. The hon. Gentleman speaks for many of his colleagues in advocating his cause, and he does so with passion and a great deal of diligence.