HC Deb 22 June 2004 vol 422 cc1205-64

[Relevant document: The Seventh Report from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Session 2003–04, HC 400-I, on Postal Voting.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

We now come to the first debate on an Opposition motion. Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. There will be a 12-minute limit on speeches by Back Benchers.

1.49 pm
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House notes the constitutional importance of the forthcoming referendums on the Government's proposed regional assemblies; expresses grave concern at the threat to the integrity of the British electoral system through the Government's ill-conceived widespread extension of exclusively all-postal voting in the recent elections against the advice of the Electoral Commission and in the face of opposition from across the political spectrum; notes the public concern over reported instances of fraud, corruption and electoral malpractice; believes that the fragmentation of voting systems and methods under this Government is confusing and off-putting to the electorate; expresses concern that the integrity of the electoral roll is becoming undermined; and calls on the Government to restore a person's right to vote in a secret ballot at a polling station should they so choose.

All hon. Members have confidence in the process whereby we have arrived here. I hope that we all appreciate and believe that faith in any system of election is essential for the proper working of democracy. Conservative Members feel ever more strongly that the process whereby representatives in this country are being chosen is becoming contaminated by excessive upheaval, irresponsible experimentation and tinkering for its own sake.

Government by upheaval is the hallmark of new Labour's approach to almost every aspect of constitutional change. The Government invariably end up making a mess of things, wishing they had never started but not being prepared to admit that they have made a complete Horlicks of it. A system that, until recently, enjoyed the unquestioning trust of all its participants, be they voters or candidates, has become open to abuse and unfathomably complicated and has lost the universal trust of those that it serves. The debate that we must hold is neither party political nor trivial. It addresses a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy on which the structure of government at all levels relies.

In the election 12 days ago, all-postal voting, which was forced on people, attracted widespread disdain and derision. Far from being a long-term solution to democratic participation, it has sown additional seeds of political disaffection among the electorate.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the depth of disdain and derision was so shallow in the east midlands that turnout in the European elections doubled relative to those in 1999? How does he account for that?

Mr. Duncan

Thy hon. Gentleman should go back to school and study statistics because there is no point in comparisons unless one compares like with like. The experiment in all-postal voting has become a thoroughly counter-productive exercise, which, in the long-term, will be a cause of political alienation, not a solution to it.

I am well aware of the Government's opinion of the merits of increased turnout, but turnout is the altar at which they worship to the apparent exclusion of any other standard of measuring a voting system's effectiveness. Falling turnout is but one factor in a more deeply rooted trend away from mainstream political involvement, but the Government have resorted to a simplistic approach to a complicated issue.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

Does my hon. Friend know that more than 1 million people in this country claim to have two addresses and that the Government showed in a written answer to me that they have no idea of the number of people who are registered in more than one place? I suspect that almost all Members of Parliament are registered in London and in their constituencies. Postal voting greatly exacerbates a small problem. What am I to do with the two extra ballot papers that I am holding? I got postal votes in London and the east midlands and I could easily have voted in both places because there was no mechanism to show that I had cast my European vote in London, where I was voting in the mayoral elections.

Mr. Duncan

I saw the Minister's answer to my hon. Friend's question and my hon. Friend has a valid point, which I shall tackle in more detail shortly. It is becoming increasingly clear to anyone who stops to think about it that the disadvantages of malpractice and disaffection more than offset any marginal increase in turnout in all-postal-voting areas.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)

A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman said that we should compare like with like. In my local authority area, we have had three successive years of all-postal voting without any problems. The only difficulties arose with delays and the introduction of unhelpful obstacles, such as the witness requirement, which was introduced this time and led to reduced turnout. When comparing like with like, it surely effrontery for the hon. Gentleman to castigate the Government when the cynical delaying tactics in the House and in the other place and the introduction of bureaucratic obstacles that had not been in place previously in my area caused the problems.

Mr. Duncan

Gateshead experimented with all-postal votes early. Subsequent experiments show that turnout has decreased comparatively. The right hon. Lady has experienced no end of problems in her seat and I shall deal with them shortly. I want to tackle all such matters because the disillusion and confusion that now attaches to voting methods systems and rules and the composition of the electoral roll are becoming a serious cancer in the body politic. They are switching people off.

The Minister's previous complacency should be replaced by a sense of contrition and an admission of concern. It will not do for him to intone his earlier answers to questions put to him before the elections. He simply assured us then that everything was running smoothly and that all-postal voting was a triumph for democracy. Clearly, in the eyes of most voters, it was not. To be satisfied that all is well in the voting world, the Minister must establish the extent to which voter participation has permanently increased, ensure that there is no extra scope for corruption or cause for discontent and that the foundation of the entire edifice—the electoral roll—is a pure and perfect construct. He cannot do that.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to two disadvantages but there is another. People have to vote early in a postal ballot and therefore might not be affected by events during the campaign. Let us consider the Spanish election. Although one might regret the action of the Spanish electorate, the fact that they could take action as a result of something that happened during the campaign is surely part Of democracy.

Mr. Duncan

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. One of the problems of all-postal voting is that it destroys the process of any genuine election campaign and puts an end to polling day as judgment day in our British democracy.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

It is a mistake to make a fuss about all-postal voting. The hon. Gentleman should examine postal voting in principle. Perhaps he could remind hon. Members that the Conservative Government extended postal voting to holidays and that neither the Conservative party nor the Liberal party objected when the House extended postal voting on demand to other groups. If there is a problem, it is not all-postal voting but postal voting generally.

Mr. Duncan

There is a clear distinction between postal votes that are specifically requested and those that are scattered willy-nilly, as if from the skies, over the entire country. An enforced system of all-postal voting entails a massive conceptual shift in the manner that we manage our elections. Instead of saying that a voter must go to a polling station in person and, from a setting of secrecy, immediately put the ballot paper into a secure box, which goes straight to be counted, or specifically requesting, as the hon. Gentleman described, a postal vote, the whole country now receives a confetti shower of charged, loaded, undetonated ballot papers that are designed to provoke higher returns but are open to all manner of maldistribution and malpractice on the way to being counted. [Interruption.] If the Minister wants to sneer, he should apply some basic common sense to the way in which a ballot paper goes from A to B to C to D and back to being counted.

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

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Duncan

I should love to.

Mr. Raynsford

Why does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Electoral Commission recommended, in its evaluation of the 2003 pilots, that we should move towards a presumption in favour of all-postal voting in all local government elections?

Mr. Duncan

Again, I shall deal with that point shortly. Frankly, I do not care what the Electoral Commission said. I disagree and believe that experience is showing that the system is open to fraud and that the recent all-postal voting experiment is a dangerous backward step for democracy. Voters can more easily be impersonated and ballot papers can be intercepted or even bought and sold more easily under the new system. There is no similar scope for illegal practice when one votes in person at a polling station.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Duncan

I shall give way shortly. The Minister uttered one piece of good sense on 27 May when he said: No unexpected issues have been reported to my Department in those parts of the country where voting will occur through conventional means."—[Official Report, 27 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1735.] Indeed. Voting through conventional means works.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) asked what specific issues of fraud or lack of security applied to an all-postal ballot as opposed to postal voting in general in an ordinary election. The hon. Gentleman replied with a general diatribe. Will he revert to the question and state what specific problem of fraud or lack of security applies to an all-postal ballot but would not apply to postal voting in a normal election?

Mr. Duncan

In a nutshell, when a postal vote is specifically requested, it goes directly to an individual person who wishes to participate in the ballot. That is not the case in all-postal ballots. Indeed, scattering ballot papers all over the place is a process that is almost impossible to police. One person found that their vote was up for auction on the eBay website—[Interruption] It may be illegal, but that is just the visible malpractice. There has been talk of children selling ballot papers in return for a packet of cigarettes, and of people selling a whole batch of ballot papers for a fiver. At this rate, we will soon have a futures market in ballot papers, or a swaps market. Move over, stock exchange; soon, we will have a vote exchange. David Dimbleby's election reports will have to take on a new guise. He will be telling us: "Voting prices have collapsed today in a Blair market." Or perhaps the Prime Minister will only be happy when they are selling short.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The hon. Gentleman is making some very strong comments. He has made these allegations, but has he reported this information to the police?

Mr. Duncan

The whole point is that these practices are almost undetectable, but they destroy confidence. Let us consider the basic administrative problems—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I want to hear less shouting from a sedentary position. One or two hon. Members should know from their own experience of chairing that they should not be engaging in that practice.

Mr. Duncan

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Shouting abuse is the only argument that they have.

Even before there was any suggestion of illegitimate practice, the simple administrative problems were enormous. Printing and distribution was a nightmare. Many ballot papers were delivered late and not printed properly. Barcodes did not work. Ballot papers arrived behind schedule. Emergency polling booths had to be opened in Bolton, for instance, after 6,000 ballot papers were never delivered, which I suppose gives another meaning to the name "Bolton Wanderers". In Gateshead, the constituency of the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), they had to put collection boxes in the town's 18 libraries because ballot papers were delivered late. More than 1,000 voters in Wigan had to go to the town hall after another distribution blunder. I suppose those ballot papers just went over the end of the pier.

Instructions were not clear, and there was massive confusion about which bits to put into which envelope. To split or not to split: that was the question. It was a sort of nationwide test in origami. Some packs were missing either envelopes or ballot papers. Some people received two EU ballot papers and no local one, while others received two local ones, and none for the European election. Some ballot papers got ripped in half during the count, or on opening, and the system was totally bemusing to blind people.

Mr. Raynsford

indicated dissent.

Mr. Duncan

The Minister shakes his head, but the Royal National Institute for the Blind has cautioned, in a mood of some justified indignation, that many blind and partially-sighted voters were offered no provision whatever to assist their impairment. That was entirely the fault of the Government, and nothing whatever to do with the returning officer.

There was also a widespread problem involving the duplication of mailing lists, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has pointed out. New all-postal and existing postal lists were in some cases not scanned for duplicate distribution, so both sets were sent out. Some people were simply caught in a downpour of ballot papers, all addressed to them. In one case that has come to my attention, someone received four, which I have here. Here is one; here is another; here is a third; and, rather like on "Blue Peter", here is one I prepared earlier. With a bit more sticky-backed plastic, we could pretty well take over the whole country.

Returning officers up and down the country despaired at the process. Frankly, in the circumstances, they have all done remarkably well. They are to be congratulated for making the best of a bad job, but let us not pretend for a moment that they would ever embark on the same exercise again with any enthusiasm. They would not. Let us be absolutely clear whose fault this was. The Select Committee that looked into this issue just as the Government were bulldozing everything through Parliament, against the wishes of the upper House and the Electoral Commission, said that it was concerned by the Government's poor management of the arrangements for the pilots". It had good cause to be so.

David Taylor

Would the hon. Gentleman accept that the litany of problems that he is describing was not at all evident in any part of the region that he and I partially represent, the east midlands, not least because there were few local elections? Is not the main problem the shortness of time that was available because of his colleagues in the other place delaying the legislation?

Mr. Duncan

That is not the reason at all. If the hon. Gentleman is in touch with his constituents, as I know that he is, he will have come across the widespread discontent of people being forced to vote by post.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

It really is nonsense for the Government—or even their Back Benchers—to blame the lateness of the determination of the Commons and the Lords on the Bill in question. We have known since before Christmas that the Government were going to combine the two elections. They had plenty of time in the parliamentary timetable to allow these things to be arranged. It was the Government leaving the legislation late because they could not make up their mind that led to this problem; it was nothing to do with the Lords and the Commons.

Mr. Duncan

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government also refused to accept the clear advice of the Electoral Commission on this matter, and proceeded in defiance of it.

Another aspect of the current voting system that is becoming a massive turn-off for anyone contemplating doing their bit at the polls is that, quite simply, it is all becoming too complicated, and people are getting fed up with the way it works. They almost need a PhD in political science to get to grips with all the different systems of voting, counting, and casting their vote. Voters cannot be expected to know their STV from their SV from their FPTP, and they are becoming increasingly confused about their preferences.

One of merits of the traditional British electoral system has been its simplicity and transparency, yet the proliferation of voting systems and voting methods under this Government has become a voter's nightmare. It risks hindering, not helping, democratic participation. Let us take the London elections. The public faced the confusing prospect of casting five different votes under three different voting systems: one vote for a regional party list in the European elections; two votes for the Assembly via the additional member system; and two preferences for Mayor via the supplementary vote, an electoral system so obscure that it is only otherwise used in Sri Lanka. It is no wonder that, in the Assembly elections, a worrying 6 per cent. of all constituency votes were rejected, as were 3 per cent. of all list votes.

In the vote for the Mayor, 60,000 voters had their first preference rejected, and while some people admittedly would have chosen not to express a second preference, 330,000 second preference votes were still labelled as rejected. Yet, to and behold, here is another fiddle: those rejected votes were all counted towards the overall level of turnout. This creative counting gives a profoundly misleading impression about the real levels of democratic participation, and is yet another sign of the spin behind the arguments.

Claire Ward (Watford) (Lab)

surely it is part of anyone's democratic right to go a long to the polling station and to participate by spoiling their ballot paper, if they wish. That is democracy, and those votes should be counted towards the turnout level because those people have participated. They may not have voted for the hon. Gentleman's party or for mine, but they have still participated.

Mr. Duncan

One of the problems is that many people could not go along to a polling station, although they could in London. No doubt, if people scribbled "I hate Claire Ward" all over their ballot paper, they would know that they were registering a protest and that their vote would be rejected. However, it is clear from the process that we saw 12 days ago that many people simply did not understand the system and did not register a proper vote.

One of the main advantages of the first-past-the-post system is that it is clean and simple. People understand it, they trust it and they accept it. Perhaps that is why it is the world's most widely used system. But now, with all this variety, people often do not understand the system, and do not trust it. We seriously risk them eventually not accepting its results.

Mr. Betts

I actually agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about first past the post, but would he accept that one of the biggest causes of confusion in the all-postal ballots, certainly in my constituency, was the requirement for a witness statement that was imposed on the process by the Tories and the Liberals in the House of Lords at the last minute, against the advice of the Electoral Commission, which said that it would add nothing to voting security?

Mr. Duncan

When there is so much scope for fraud already, removing the requirement to have a witness statement would merely compound that problem and lead to an even greater lack of confidence in the system that the Government have forced on the British people.

The greatest problem with all-postal ballots lies in the loss of confidence caused by the massive scope that exists for electoral malpractice. Under the traditional system, there was perhaps a minor chance that someone would be able to impersonate someone else, and exercise another person's right to vote. Under all-postal voting, there is massive scope for fraud and undue influence. It is, at every turn, open to fiddles. So much can go amiss between the ballot paper being sent out by the returning officer and it coming back to him. Votes can be gathered up when lying on the doorstep or in flats. They can be pinched, transferred, chucked over a hedge or fished out of dustbins.

Andrew Bennett

If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the postal vote issue, what recommendations will he give to Tory candidates in the next general election? Will he recommend that they should encourage people to have postal votes, or, given his concern about possible fraud, will he recommend that they have nothing to do with encouraging the electorate to have postal votes?

Mr. Duncan

It is a matter of choice. People should be able to ask for a postal vote, but it should not be universally forced on them and sent to them out of the sky.

Mr. Robathan

While my hon. Friend is talking about choice, one thing that seems to be ignored, particularly on the Labour Benches, is that many couples do not vote in the same way. We hear a lot about domestic violence, and many women do not wish their husbands to know which way they vote. When it comes to a postal vote, however, they are of necessity likely to cast their vote in the presence of their husband. That is something about which many women feel strongly, and which they do not wish to do.

Mr. Duncan

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, there have been fairly widespread reports of household intimidation. There can be intimidation in households and in the workplace, as was reported in Bradford. The Minister may want to speak to someone on his Benches who has often been brave on this matter. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) has argued that voters can be subjected to what she calls, delicately and politely, "community pressure". I suggest that he looks behind him instead of barracking the Opposition about the dangers that can be involved in the system.

Then there is the so-called harvesting of votes, with party activists pressuring people on the doorstep to hand over their vote—a practice recklessly encouraged by the Labour party in its official postal voting guide and document, the Labour party postal vote handbook 2004, with its sinister advice to have a ballot box for people to put their votes in which you can then deliver … if your volunteers are wearing Labour stickers or rosettes it is unlikely that supporters of other parties will give you their votes. If there is many a slip twixt cup and lip, it takes only the Labour party to turn it into an art form. In the face of that, our position is clear—no one should be forced to vote by post.

No doubt, in response to all this, the Minister will simply say that we should await the inquiry due to be undertaken by the Electoral Commission. I can just see the Minister sitting there satisfied already that he will be able to stand up in a couple of months and assert to the House that there have been few if any proven cases of malpractice. The Minister seems to share that view. That, if I may say so, is exactly the problem.

The whole point about the malpractice that can so obviously take place in an all-postal ballot is that it is almost impossible to detect, and even more so to prove. People are not stupid. They can see it, and they do not like what they see. They suspect that many elements of the process are like a series of unreported crimes—we know that they are happening, but there is no chance of prosecution, so why bother reporting them. But it undermines their confidence. People will be utterly incredulous about the Government's absurd assertion in their amendment to today's motion that there is currently no evidence to show that all-postal ballots are more susceptible to fraud than traditional elections". The Minister says that that is correct. Even someone with limited common sense, or a five-year-old, can work out that they are most definitely susceptible. There are probably a few five-year-olds who have doubled their pocket money proving it. All that matters for the system to be undermined, and for people to lose confidence in it, is that all these abuses are able to take place. One would think that a Government who bang on about perception would have worked that out.

If the Minister announces to the House in the autumn that the Electoral Commission has found no systematic evidence of malpractice, that is no defence whatever of a system that is so obviously open to it. It is not even as if the Electoral Commission has been at all in evidence walking the streets of Britain over the last few weeks to see things for itself. It is not in any way equipped to conduct such an inquiry.

The Government cannot get away with just bleating on about turnout. Even the headline figure is not what it seems to be. In the past, the number of rejected ballot papers has been so insignificant that it has hardly mattered. But when it reaches the level of say, 1 per cent. or 2 per cent., it begins to matter. That is not just because it might be thought to have an effect on the result of marginal contests, but because when subtracted from apparent total turnout, it shows that increased participation is not quite what is claimed. [Interruption.] The Minister says that that is nonsense, but it is basic arithmetic. No one is therefore surprised that the Government have insisted on including rejected ballot papers in the turnout figure. It makes the increase in all-postal areas look bigger than it really is.

We cannot concur with the rosy ministerial statement issued yesterday proclaiming that what the Government call the "multichannel approach" is a "positive result" for "electoral modernisation". The fact that all-postal voting leads to more votes in the ballot box is not in dispute. The key test is whether the integrity of the electoral system is compromised as a result. The Government's claims of doubling turnout, as one Member mentioned, are a statistical sleight of hand. Turnout in the pilot regions was a mere 5 per cent. higher than in non-pilot regions. Turnout rose because the European and local elections occurred on the same day; contests in which all councillors were up for re-election due to boundary changes increased campaign activity; people wanted to protest against the Government's plans for a European superstate; and paradoxically, the controversy about all-postal voting itself gave front-page coverage to what was being dubbed "Super Thursday".

The Government use the base year of June 1999 to make comparisons, which saw a turnout of just 20 per cent. in the pilot regions. They omit to make comparisons with the last set of local elections, which always have a higher turnout than European ones. Indeed, in areas that have had all-postal local elections for many years, turnout fell. It was down 3 per cent. in Newcastle, 7 per cent. in Sunderland and Gateshead, and 7 per cent. in Trafford.

The Government point to the anti-fraud measure of witness statements as the cause—some Labour Members even want to abolish it. Yet this fall is a continuation of a long-term trend. As the Electoral Commission reported last year, in its review of 2003 pilots, examining areas that also had all-postal voting in 2002, the novelty value had worn off, and turnout was beginning to decline again. That pattern has continued, it would appear, in the elections that we have just had.

Let us just imagine the scope that there would be for even greater fraud were there no requirement for some sort of witness statement. Is that really what Ministers would now like to see? Do they wish to abolish the witness statement? I offer them the chance to say so now, at the beginning of the debate.

Mr. Raynsford

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Electoral Commission has recommended that. Does he agree with the Electoral Commission's proposal?

Mr. Duncan

I do not agree with the abolition of the witness statement, because there would then be far too much scope for increased malpractice.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con)

It is important that my hon. Friend should recognise that the Electoral Commission, in accepting that the witness statement could go, also made it clear that the postal ballot should not have been extended as widely as it was without individual voter registration. If Ministers are going to pray in aid the Electoral Commission, they should be honest and straightforward and promise that individual registration will be in place before we ever have another such experiment.

Mr. Duncan

My hon. Friend is right, and that is exactly the point that I want to come to. Another ingredient that severely contaminates the dubious process of all-postal ballots is the composition of the electoral roll on which it is based. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Dame Marion Roe) has become the commander, if I may say so, of that issue. As she pointed out in her debate on 5 May, there are thousands upon thousands of names on the electoral roll of people who are not entitled to vote. In Portsmouth, where the registration process was cleaned up, more than 11,000 ineligible names had to be removed—a whopping 15 per cent. of those on the list. Should my hon. Friend catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, she will be able to elaborate on that. It has severe implications not just for voting but for the setting of constituency boundaries and hence the very composition of this House.

With all-postal voting, we start with a highly questionable list, especially for those student flats and homes of multiple occupancy in which the risk of malpractice is at its worst, and we compound that situation by bombarding all those electors—and, it would seem, non-electors—with ballot papers. Unless all that is addressed, perhaps by the individual registration for which my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) called, and unless that happens quickly, people will feel that the entire process has become rotten.

The Government's reckless fiddling with the electoral system has raised widespread public concern about the integrity of the country's electoral process. The electoral practices of the 18th and early 19th centuries, such as intimidation and fraud, risk becoming the hallmarks of the 21st. The system that we have allowed to emerge needs tightening up, not loosening up.

We will lead a cross-party campaign in both Houses to challenge the Government's plans to hold the forthcoming regional assembly referendums by a compulsory all-postal ballot system. We will also resist plans to use such ballots in any European referendum or across all local elections. This Government have a clear agenda to throw away the ballot box and force all-postal voting on the British public, irrespective of their wishes. We will protect people's right to vote in person and in secret. They should be able to choose the ballot box over the letter box. We are the defenders of democracy; this Government most clearly are not.

2.23 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

I beg to move, leave out from "House" to and and add recognises that the all-postal pilots in June 2004 were part of a process of testing alternative voting mechanisms for the benefit of making voting easier and more convenient for electors; further recognises that turnout in European elections had fallen to its lowest ever level in 1999 and that all-postal pilots assisted in making the 2004 European election turnout the UK's highest ever; welcomes the fact that voter participation for the European elections in the pilot regions more than doubled in 2004 compared with 1999; believes that allegations of fraud have been reported disproportionately and that there is currently no evidence to show that all-postal ballots are more susceptible to fraud than traditional elections; recognises that further reforms will be necessary to widen participation and engagement in the electoral system; and further believes that the integrity of elections and referendums, including the proposed referendums on elected regional assemblies, is adversely affected by declining turnout which puts in jeopardy the democratic mandate.

What a pity that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) took such a completely over-the-top attitude. How sad the official Opposition have become that they now resort to this. In its desperation to attack the Government, the Conservative party will try to seize on any story or rumour and, by extrapolating from those anecdotes, spin a yarn that the totality of our institutions and the world is crumbling and being brought to its knees, and that everything is a failure—that everything is wrong and a disaster. That is the myth that they are trying to peddle.

Both the Tories and, to a certain extent, the Liberal Democrats have systematically and persistently tried to undermine the elections and their outcomes throughout the process. They throw dust in the air to cloud the true picture, and they want to focus on the negative at the expense of anything positive. They deliberately seek to present matters out of perspective.

Thankfully, the reality is quite different from the Opposition's myths. We have every reason to be proud of our system of governance in this country. Our institutions are strong and improving, and are being reformed. Despite difficulties that occur from time to time, we have a democracy that is successful and leads the world. That is the reality, whatever the Opposition say to undermine it. Yes, there are real issues that need to be addressed, but our electoral administrators and returning officers have done a fantastic job in seeing through a challenging combined European and local election, with new systems in some areas designed to make voting easier and more convenient. That is why we put them in place.

The European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Act 2004 was passed with the explicit intention of testing out whether different forms of voting could engage a larger number of electors who had not voted in previous elections. It did that. More people took part this time than last time, especially where all-postal voting was tried out.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman says that the system engaged more electors than before. The question that people are concerned about, however, is whether the people who cast the votes were indeed the electors to whom the voting papers were addressed.

Mr. Leslie

If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence that those who cast the votes were not those people, he should deal with that and pass the information to the relevant authorities. If he is seriously suggesting that the increase in turnout of millions more people was somehow fraudulently arrived at, he is living in a different world and does not have anything to substantiate the comment that he has dreamed up.

David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab)

Is the Minister as puzzled as I by the Conservative party's conversion to opposing the present system? Was it not that party that made the proposals for trade union ballots to take place by postal voting systems? I come from a union that had 80 to 90 per cent. of members voting through the ballot box but now has 60 per cent. voting through the postal voting system, with no checks being done. Is that not a U-turn?

Mr. Leslie

Absolutely. The fact is that the Conservative party itself has encouraged people to vote by post, for example on its website, which has various literature about encouraging people to vote. Interestingly, the Association of Electoral Administrators was quite critical of the Conservative party process for garnering postal votes, because it said that they were not returned in time to returning officers. However, we should look at that on another occasion.

We have been trying to make it easier and more convenient for people to vote—that is the sin of which the Opposition accuse us. Millions more people found postal voting more convenient. Millions who would not go to conventional polling stations preferred to cast their vote by post. That is the truth about the recent elections.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

On the specific point that the Minister has just raised, my village is approximately 18 miles from the assistance and delivery point—the only one in my local registration district. If there were a blind person in the village who had difficulty using or accessing a template at home, would they have to go to the local delivery point to receive assistance, and could that be seen in any possible way as more convenient than the system that has been replaced?

Mr. Leslie

There was a fail-safe arrangement in place whereby returning officers went to visit anyone who requested assistance, whether because of visual impairment or other disability. The reports that we have received show that that worked for large numbers of people. If the hon. Gentleman's local authority—I think that it is Conservative—had chosen to have more assistance and delivery points than the one that the legislation required, it would have been perfectly free to do so.

Joyce Quin

Was my hon. Friend puzzled, as I was, by the repeated reference of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) to people's being forced to vote by postal ballot? Certainly in my area, in the three years for which we had successful experiments, it was still possible to put a vote in at the civic centre or at a designated location. People were not forced to vote by postal ballot, although most of them welcomed the opportunity to do so.

Mr. Leslie

That is absolutely correct, and my right hon. Friend rightly gets rid of the myth that the ballot box has somehow been abolished. People had the choice to go and use the polling booth in the conventional way at those assistance and delivery points if they so chose. We provided for there to be at least one in every local authority, and most local authorities decided to provide more than that.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

If that really is just a myth got up by the Opposition parties, why did the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) describe the Minister's statement issued yesterday as ludicrous and claim that all-postal pilots led to a "cash-and-carry democracy" in his constituency? Why has the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) described the statement as nonsense and called for a root-and-branch reform of the system? Why have Labour council leaders up and down the land been voicing concern about the system? Why have 12 of the Minister's colleagues signed early-day motion 1338, which draws attention to the allegations of cheating and stealing votes and calls on the Government to review the system? Are those people all Tory stooges?

Mr. Leslie

The hon. Gentleman will have to talk to whichever hon. Member he sees fit to talk to, but if he has specific evidence—I hope that we conduct our debates in the Chamber on the basis of fact and hard evidence rather than rumour and supposition—he should produce it. He should produce it, furthermore, not just for the House, but for the relevant authorities so that they can investigate it; otherwise, I cannot see the validity of the hon. Gentleman's point.

The fact remains that, in recent years, people have been less inclined to participate in local elections and if anything damages the integrity of our democracy—partly the long title of today's debate—it is the problem of dwindling involvement, minority participation, and the consequent weakening of the mandates of those elected supposedly to "represent" the public in taking decisions. How, then, should we respond to that particular problem? Should we simply ignore it and hope that it goes away—that seems to be the approach of Conservative Members—or should we try to look for ideas and solutions to see whether we can re-engage people in a way that removes barriers and obstacles to their participation? That is exactly what we have tried to do.

The Government and this Parliament have been keen to try out new ideas, to test new ways of raising interest and involvement in democracy and elections. Not everything is the fault of the mechanisms of the electoral system, but it would surely be foolish not to look to see whether improvements might make some difference.

Mr. Hogg

It is obviously a legitimate aspiration of the Government to crive up voting. That is correct and I agree with it. At the same time, however, it is important that people perceive the result of an election to be fair. There is a widespread view, held in most parts of the country, that the possibilities for fraud are so great as to undermine the outcome of many of the ballots.

Mr. Leslie

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about a percept on, which has been perpetuated by his Front-Bench colleagues, but I believe that it is indeed a perception rather than a true depiction of the reality of the position. I am glad that he accepts that it is right to explore different voting methods and technologies. We should be looking into whether it is possible to give electors the choice and convenience in voting that they would expect from other activities such as shopping or banking.

Claire Ward

I believe that my hon. Friend is right to pursue as many alternatives as possible to encourage voter participation. Four years ago in Watford, there was a pilot scheme whereby people voted for a whole weekend. Our elections were held over three days with postal and ballot boxes being placed in supermarkets. Our turnout actually fell as a result, but it has not discouraged me from looking to find other ways of increasing participation. It is clear that postal ballots help to achieve that, so I hope that my hon. Friend will continue to pursue the option of all-postal ballots.

Mr. Leslie

It is most gratifying to see that my hon. Friend has an open mind to try to find new ways of engaging with her constituents and to make voting easier and more convenient. The fact that some Conservative Members are circling to pounce at any opportunity on a pilot scheme whose outcome they do not like is most disappointing. It is right to test these options out; they were pilots, after all, and we learn lessons from them. We must also ensure that the pilots are as secure as possible and that we put extra security safeguards into pilots and trials, as we have every time that we have tested these initiatives out.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South) (Lab)

My hon. Friend will be aware that in Scotland we would have been delighted to have an all-postal vote in the European elections. Does he share my concern that the allegations made that huge swaths of the population are dishonest when it comes to voting are a serious matter? If the Opposition could substantiate those allegations, I would like to hear that substantiation.

Mr. Leslie

Quite right. The question of fraud and malpractice has not only excited the Opposition, but garnered many column inches in the press. However, I do not believe that the allegations have been fully scrutinised to assess whether they stand up, so I welcome the opportunity once and for all to deal with this important issue. The various media reports of a small number of voters being bullied on put under duress to cast their ballot continued throughout the last week of the election. It is vital for elections both to be secure and to be seen to be secure, and for any evidence of malpractice to be reported to the police straight away.

As I said earlier, if the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton has any evidence of wrong doing, I hope that he will produce that information and ensure that it is taken to the relevant authorities immediately. However, I have to say that, contrary to many of the reports that he and the media have perpetuated. the regional returning officers—the true experts in the field—to whom I have spoken have not reported any greater incidence of fraud or malpractice than that which typically occurs in every election campaign. They reported negligible local difficulties, and they doubted very much that any substantial problems were sufficient to jeopardise the elections.

The only reports that I have of actual arrests are of three individuals in Oldham, with no arrests reported by regional returning officers elsewhere in the north-west, in Yorkshire and the Humber, in the east midlands, or in the north-east. It is regrettable that hearsay and rumour created misconceptions about the all-postal pilots, when the reality is that they do not appear to have generated anything other than the normal level of charges or prosecutions typical to all elections. To quote a joint statement by the north-west regional returning officer, Sir Howard Bernstein, and the Greater Manchester Police: Our research shows that in Greater Manchester, the scale of allegations of fraud and malpractice is broadly similar to previous years. While the nature of allegations has changed this year, the scale has not increased—if anything, it has lessened. Much has been made of technical difficulties experienced within some pilot local authorities.

Mr. Brady

Before the Minister moves on, I am pleased to hear that he accepts that it is essential to make improvements to ensure security, so will he give an undertaking now that individual voter registration will be put in place, as recommended both by the Electoral Commission and the Select Committee in its May report, before any further all- postal votes take place?

Mr. Leslie

Unlike the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, I do care what the Electoral Commission says and I believe that it is important for us to listen to it. Ultimately, it advises and we take the decisions. The hon. Gentleman also has the right not to listen to its advice. Currently, the Electoral Commission advises that it prefers individual registration and we are certainly minded to continue to reflect on that advice. Bringing that about would require a change in the law. The Electoral Commission also recommends that, on the next occasion, it wants all-postal referendums and we will be in discussion over the coming months about that.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend picked up on the comments of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). Did he note that the hon. Gentleman said that he did not care what the Electoral Commission said, but then, on at least three occasions, he prayed in aid what he alleged the Commission did say?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend is looking for consistency from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, but his expectations are set a little too high in that respect.

I made it clear when I gave a statement to the House on 27 May that, although problems and delays were encountered in some of the technical preparation for the ballot process, proper contingency measures were put in place and the elections continued to run successfully. Despite some of the more lurid headlines that were printed, of the 14.1 million ballot packs, more than 99 per cent. were issued by returning officers by the deadline of midnight on 1 June. The few remaining packs were issued by 5.10 the following morning. Royal Mail treated them as if they had been received at midnight. It provided an outstanding service in supporting the administrators and suppliers and ensuring that their role in the process was delivered effectively. That is a tribute to the hard work of returning officers, suppliers and the Royal Mail, each of whom showed dedication and adaptability in overcoming the difficulties that were experienced. It also shows that the allegations of "chaos" and "shambles" levelled at the returning officers were severely overblown.

Mr. Jenkin

May I return the hon. Gentleman to the possibility of all-postal referendums? We know of the Government's intentions for the regional referendums in the autumn, but will the Minister give an assurance that there is no question of holding the referendum on the European constitution by all-postal ballots? Will that be conducted through the ballot box, not the letterbox?

Mr. Leslie

Any decisions about future referendums must be taken on a case-by-case basis. I am certainly not going to box in at this stage how such referendums should take place.

I turn now to the accusations that there was complexity in the voting system. It was alleged that both the all-postal pilots and the combination ballots involved a degree of extra complexity. The evidence of a significant increase in turnout shows that we must keep that in perspective.

In the pilots, local authorities ran helplines as well as assistance and delivery points to cater for those who needed help. People who wanted to cast their vote in the tradition way at a polling booth were able to do so at one of the ADPs. Returning officers were also able to provide assistance in the home for people with disabilities or visual impairment.

A great deal of advertising aimed at explaining the elections was also produced, and the Electoral Commission provided assistance on its website and by means of its own helpline. It is clear that support was available for those people who required it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con)

In 1999, the turnout in the European elections was higher both in the regions where there was all-postal voting, and where the more traditional system was in operation. That happened not because of the method of voting but because electors had strong views about European matters and therefore wanted to cast a ballot. That was the real driver behind higher turnout under both systems. Following the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) about the referendum on the European constitution, will the Minister accept that the opinion polls are more than two to one against the Government on this matter? If there is any suggestion that the Government are trying to use an electoral device to fiddle the outcome of that referendum, there will be tremendous anger throughout the UK.

Mr. Leslie

I have already answered the latter point. The hon. Gentleman compares the European elections of 1999 and 2004. I know that Opposition Members are devoid of facts, so I shall give them some. In the pilot regions, the 1999 turnout was 20.2 per cent., and in 2004 it was 42.6 per cent. In the non-pilot regions, turnout was 25.9 per cent. in 1999, and 37.2 per cent. in 2004. The figures are clearly higher for both categories, but the rise is lower in the non-pilot regions. The rise is considerably greater in the pilot regions, where there was an appreciable and significant uplift in turnout.

In the pilot regions, many electors expressed concerns about the witness signature requirement on the declaration of identity form. Both the Government and the Electoral Commission had reservations about that requirement, and I am afraid to say that it was almost certainly a factor in limiting turnout even more. In order to limit the number of votes rejected as a result of incorrectly completed declarations, the pilot schemes required returning officers, where possible, to return wrongly filled out forms to allow them to be corrected. Early indications are that that operation was successful, but of course we await the Electoral Commission's evaluation.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the Minister point out the legislative authority for that operation?

Mr. Leslie

I shall certainly do that. As I understand it, the matter is clearly covered by regulation. If the hon. Gentleman does not have a copy of the relevant regulations, I shall ensure that a copy of them is sent to his office. The proposal always was that returning officers should be able to help make sure that declarations of identity could be returned if they had been completed incorrectly. The same option was included in the guidance that we issued.

Mr. Hogg

The Minister is making it clear that he has doubts about the witness attestation procedure. Does he accept that almost every important document that people have to complete requires a witness attestation? That is true for passport applications, for example, as it is for wills and most credit agreements. The point is that, when a person signs an important document, it is rather important that that person is able to prove his or her identity.

Mr. Leslie

The Electoral Commission has said that better security arrangements can be developed. Opposition Front-Bench Members may not care for what the commission has to say, but the Government intend to follow its advice.

Claire Ward

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Leslie

I will, but I have just recalled the provision about which the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) inquired. The authority for the action taken by returning officers is given by article 45(1) of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (All-Postal) Pilot Order 2004. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward).

Claire Ward

No doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that, even in the non-pilot postal areas, people who applied for a postal vote were required to get that witnessed. In Watford, various allegations were made to the effect that, when the envelopes were opened before election day, a number of Liberal Democrat activists were seen to note the details of witnesses' names and addresses. We sought clarification on that matter from the returning officer, who did not seem sure whether that was a breach of the law. Will the Minister ask the Electoral Commission whether it is acceptable for observers to take down details of who has witnessed a person's vote? Surely that cannot be right.

Mr. Leslie

The occurrence reported by my hon. Friend happened in a non-pilot region, but it is important that we look into any worries about the declaration of identity Those worries have caused the Electoral Commission to be uncertain about continuing with the declaration. The system has been in place since 1918, but the commission believes that better security arrangements are possible.

The Electoral Commission is due to report on the pilots in September. I have no doubt that its evaluation will be both thorough and balanced, and we look forward to studying it in depth. Lessons learned will be incorporated into the Government's wider plans for electoral modernisation. Those plans include both traditional methods of voting and alternatives such as postal balloting and electronic voting.

We will continue to find ways of increasing convenience and choice for electors in the future. The next staging post for our electoral system is due this autumn with the referendums on the establishment of elected regional assemblies in the three northern regions of England. Those referendums are clearly different from elections in that there are no candidates, but even so it must be easy and convenient for electors to express their opinion. It remains the intention to hold the referendums on an all-postal basis—something that has previously been welcomed by the Electoral Commission, which for the first time is due to run the administration of these referendums. However, some of the parliamentary regulations and orders relating to the referendums will need to be taken through Parliament in advance of the Electoral Commission's evaluation of all-postal voting. We understand that that may not be available until mid-September.

We cannot leave the regulations and orders until after that time for the following reasons. First, we gave commitments that there would be a 10-week campaigning period in advance of the referendums. Secondly, before that campaign period, public information literature explaining the referendum process would have to be sent to every household. In practice, that means distributing leaflets over the summer.

Moreover, delaying the referendum regulation orders until after the commission has reported would prevent us from honouring the commitment to that timetable. It could mean putting the referendums back into the winter months, when campaigning would be more difficult, voters would be less inclined to participate and there could be a clash with the Christmas post, for instance. We will therefore bring the orders before Parliament over the next few weeks, so as to keep to the original timetable. However, given that for the first time the referendums will be run by the Electoral Commission, the orders will rest on the proviso that, if the commission's September evaluation were to conclude that it was unsafe to proceed as planned, we would be prepared to recommend to Parliament amending the approach for these referendums, even though that would almost certainly delay the referendum date.

I trust that this commitment demonstrates the seriousness with which we take the Electoral Commission's evaluation, but also our hope to keep to the commitments that we gave Parliament during the passage of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003.

After the referendums, there will be other local and national elections and by-elections at which we will need to consider employing new voting mechanisms. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which oversees local elections in England and Wales, will continue its policy of innovation to test innovative voting techniques, including telephone voting and electronic voting. The ODPM will work in co-operation with the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Jenkin

The Minister has made a significant announcement. He has acknowledged, implicitly, that there are potential problems with all-postal ballots. It remains to be seen whether the Electoral Commission can be the independent arbiter of those problems, given that it has already succumbed to Government pressure over which regions took part in the pilot. In addition, the Minister has also put in question the whole future of the regional referendums. A large number of Labour Members would like those referendums to be abandoned. What does the Minister have to say to them?

Mr. Leslie

The hon. Gentleman should not get his hopes up too much. We do not see any reason why the elections should be regarded as unsafe, but it would be unreasonable were we to disregard the evaluation by the Electoral Commission. We have to pay respect to the timetable. The commission will report in mid-September. I have given the reasons why we need to proceed with some of the paving regulations and orders at this stage. I have set out our approach in the unlikely eventuality that the Electoral Commission will conclude that it would be unsafe to proceed on an all-postal basis. We do not anticipate that, but I felt that it would be useful to set out our approach to the House.

For the time being, we can be satisfied that all-postal ballots boosted participation. In the regions where all-postal voting was held—the north-east, east midlands, Yorkshire and the north-west—more than twice as many people voted in the European elections as did in 1999. That was an increase of almost 3 million voters. The non-pilot regions also saw increases in turnout, albeit to a lesser degree. The combined effect meant that more voters participated in the elections to the European Parliament in this country than ever before. While just 24 per cent. of people participated in 1999, this year that figure rose to 38 per cent. That equates to about 6.5 million additional votes.

So, judged by our goal of raising participation and turnout, we have now proved that all-postal voting on a wider basis is clearly one way of successfully engaging more of the public in our electoral system. With the Electoral Commission advising that all future elections should take place on an all-postal basis, it was surely right to increase the scale on which we tested out the system, and the initiative has proved its worth.

Tackling low voter turnout is neither easy nor straightforward. The reasons for not voting are complex and varied. I believe that the course that we have struck is the right one. Pilots generate evidence and teach us lessons for the future. Steps are taken to minimise any risks and this year, as previously, things overall have gone well.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab)

My hon. Friend will have heard the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman rubbish the Electoral Commission on the question of extending all-postal votes to local government elections. He derided the Electoral Commission on the question of witness statements. Yet the Opposition motion invites the House to criticise the Government for acting against the advice of the Electoral Commission. Does that not demonstrate the nonsense of the motion and the usual doublespeak of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan)?

Mr. Leslie

I would never accuse the hon. Gentleman directly of hypocrisy, but he has had difficulty with consistency in his arguments. I think that he tripped up about 10 minutes into his speech and fell into saying that he did not really care what the Electoral Commission said. I have a feeling that that quotation will be around his neck for some time.

Mr. Alan Duncan


Mr. Leslie

If the hon. Gentleman would like to elaborate or perhaps dig himself out of that one, I will give him the chance.

Mr. Duncan

May I invite the Minister, for the sake of honesty in this debate, to desist from the comparison between absolute turnout this year and absolute turnout four or five years ago? The only statistical comparison that is valid is the differential turnout between areas that were all-postal and those that were not.

Mr. Leslie

Turnout did increase in the non-pilot regions by about 50 per cent; in the pilot regions it rose by more than 100 per cent. That is pretty convincing. All democrats should welcome the improvement in turnout. A derisory turnout, which gives politicians a questionable mandate and means that the views of only a small minority are represented, is surely the greater threat to our electoral system.

For our part, we will continue to try and find better ways of making it easier for people to vote. That is evidently in contrast to the Opposition parties, who seem devoid of ideas. They offer no solutions or reforms, but they constantly and opportunistically chip away at public confidence in the efforts of others to make improvements. As I said earlier, it is a great pity that, rather than addressing the real issues of reform, they choose to carp and criticise, using abuse of new ideas as a proxy for political attack. The real threat to our electoral system is the constant undermining that comes from the Opposition parties. They are perpetuating the cynicism and corrosiveness within our democracy, and will themselves be the worse for it in the long run.

2.54 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

First, I agree with the Minister that the whole House should pay tribute to the returning officers and all those who administered the electoral process for heroically dealing with the most difficult circumstances. That applies not only to the areas where the pilots took place but to all areas.

I agree with the Minister on another point. There is an urgent need to re-establish the authority and independence of the Electoral Commission. I regret very much the comments made by the Conservative spokesman. We have been consistent in our support of the Electoral Commission and I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to say that they, too, regret the extent to which they have undermined the authority of that independent commission.

My notes say that I should refer to the written statement from the PUSS at DCAF—I think that that is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs—but first and foremost I should say that I regret the extent to which he has overblown his case. A more moderate response in his statement yesterday would have been helpful. His claims were ridiculous and overblown.

Of course we are all interested in increasing the turnout, and that is not just on party political grounds. When the Bill was being debated, my party was attacked for being against the extension of the pilot to four regions because it was said that the Liberal Democrats thought that it would damage our chances. In those four regions, we did exceptionally well in the local government elections. We achieved spectacular results on 10 June in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Gateshead, Bolton, Sheffield, Rochdale and Newcastle. We also got two additional MEPs. So our opposition was not partisan. My criticisms and comments are on principle.

I agree with the Minister that worthwhile and important reassessment has to take place of the effect on turnout. I look to the Electoral Commission to analyse the elections carefully. But anyone who pretends that the increase in turnout was solely down to the all-postal pilots is dangerously disingenuous. There were other factors, and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) has referred to them.

The Minister spoils his case by referring to the turnout in the terms that he did in his statement. He said that in all four postal regions overall turnout in the European parliamentary elections was more than double that in 1999. That sounds dramatic, but the figure in the pilot regions was 42.6 per tent. and in the non-pilot regions was 37.2 per cent.—a very small margin. It is important that the Minister does not overstate his case before the Electoral Commission has done a proper analysis. We should recognise that those figures are not a ringing endorsement of all-postal voting and that such voting is not a magic wand to reverse the decline in turnout.

Moreover, the turnout came up from a lower base in the pilot regions presumably because those parts of the country were previously fiefdoms of one-party rule—especially Labour party rule. In safe seats, voters often consider that there is no point in voting. Turnout in those four regions was behind the others in 1999 because there were so many rock solid Labour majorities. That situation has changed. I gave the example of the Liberal Democrat advances. That demonstrates how the situation has changed Clearly, the persuasive factor is not the method of voting but the impact of voting.

In the meantime, it is plainly arrogant and ignorant for the Government to ignore the evidence of confusion and potential corruption

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Coop)

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that the variation between the turnout in the all-postal areas and the non-all postal areas was not that great, but he has failed to assess correctly the impact of the increased availability of postal votes even in areas where their use was not compulsory. The hon. Gentleman will see that, partly as a result of the publicity given to the experiment and partly due to the increased awareness of the all-party machine, turnout was higher due to an increase in postal voting even in areas where it was not compulsory. So my hon. Friend the Minister's underlying argument about the impact of postal voting still holds firm in spite of the points that the hon. Gentleman made.

Mr. Tyler

The hon. Gentleman has almost made his speech, which may be a good way to get in on this debate. I do not want to encourage other hon. Members to make interventions of that length, but it may be the only way. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but the Minister's statement referred to "all-postal pilots" That is the perception. The insistence on compulsory postal voting, the removal of choice and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) reminded me—the extent to which it has undermined the secrecy of the ballot are important disadvantages that must be set against the advantage.

If people think that no serious corruption took place, I draw the House's attention to the comments made by Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, who warned that the law was not specific enough to tackle postal vote fraud. Of course, Birmingham was not one of the pilot areas, but the Minister will acknowledge that making compulsory a faulty system, which at present applies only to the minority, will make things worse. Sir Albert said: At present, in relation to the handling of postal ballot papers, the law is so general that almost anything is legal. The Birmingham Evening Mail reported, on 10 June: City Labour leader Sir Albert Bore today called for a national rethink on postal voting after a candidate was found with a bag of completed ballot papers in a late-night police swoop. That followed a high profile incident when a number of Labour candidates and activists in Birmingham were witnessed taking voters' ballot papers out of the party office to a deserted cul-de-sac in an industrial estate near spaghetti junction to "sort them out". If that can happen when postal votes are a minority imagine what could happen when they are compulsory and 100 per cent. of the votes cast.

Andrew Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman remind us what happened when his party and the Conservatives voted on the extension of postal Votes on demand? Did they vote against that?

Mr. Tyler

No, we did not. However, we have insisted over recent months that the intention to defraud should be more carefully pinned down. That is why the witness statement has been introduced. I know that the Electoral Commission has some misgivings about it and we must look at the evidence in due course to see how we may improve the integrity of the system.

A flood of complaints has come in about possible fraud and electoral malpractice from the four regions involved. Of course the Electoral Commission and the police should examine those. It is outrageous to attempt to prejudge their conclusions as both previous contributors seemed to do, because we should wait and see the facts. However, it would be just as dangerous for the Minister to ignore those allegations as it would for him to accept that they are all likely to be true.

The Government do not seem to understand the reluctance of many electors to give up completely their right to vote in person, in secrecy and in the polling booth, with only the non-partisan presiding officer in attendance.

Mr. Betts

I return the hon. Gentleman to the criticisms he made of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) for not accepting the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. Surely the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Electoral Commission said to the Select Committee that it had no more concerns about the security of voting in an all-postal ballot than it did about postal voting on demand. That is the opposite of what he sad a few moments ago. Does he agree with the Electoral Commission on that issue or not?

Mr. Tyler

I have just said—the hon. Gentleman could not have been listening—that I am prepared to wait to hear what the Electoral Commission says in response to the pilot. The whole point of a pilot is to take advantage of the opportunity to learn the lessons from it. I am prepared to wait for that.

This is a timely debate, because the threats to the integrity of the electoral system do not solely occur in relation to all-postal ballots. There is also the interesting issue of the publication of opinion polls during the much longer period—in all-postal ballots—in which people are voting. It can be anything up to 15 days, instead of just one. In that time, greater emphasis can be given to the so-called evidence of the polls, and the way in which they are reported. Their value and validity is under scrutiny again, not least because they seem to have been more misleading or more influential than in recent elections.

In Business questions last week, I mentioned YouGov, but all the pollsters have a responsibility to consider how their results are reported. All the pollsters are undermined by the way in which the media present their findings at the moment. For example, one newspaper reported that YouGov's reputation for accuracy rested in part on its forecast of the outcome of last year's Conservative party leadership contest. Since none took place, I was not persuaded by that argument.

More seriously, the Evening Standard headlined the Livingstone-Norris contest as being "Neck-and-Neck", when the first round vote showed them to be on 35.7 per cent. and 28.2 per cent. respectively. That is hardly neckand-neck. It may be that the prominence of that front-page report, from a uniquely well-read paper in London, caused more people to vote to keep the Conservative candidate out. It may well have squeezed the vote of the Liberal Democrat candidate, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). The evidence of that is that the party vote for the Assembly was rather higher than his vote. Either way, it would be ironic if Mr. Livingstone owed his margin of success to a Conservative newspaper. It was equally ironic that Conservative campaigners used the "Neck-and-Neck" headlines in leaflets, and that may have frightened voters to go the other way.

Similarly, the substantial haemorrhage of Conservative voters to UKIP could be the direct result of huge coverage of the alleged rise in support for the party, almost certainly over-emphasised by a rogue YouGov poll— in of all papers—The Daily Telegraph. By focusing almost exclusively on the "certain to vote" figures, it forecast on 24 May an 18 per cent. UKIP vote, and then on 29 May an increase to 20 per cent. The actual result, after those misleading boosts to its chances, was of course some 16.1 per cent. I suspect that that will not make The Daily Telegraph very popular with the Conservative leadership.

Nor will the Standard be top of the Tory pops. Its eve-of-poll report of the YouGov poll put UKIP equal with the Conservatives on 22 per cent. The UKIP press release read: UKIP level with the Tories in last minute poll". That very day the Conservatives secured 26.7 per cent., more than 10 per cent. more than UKIP. They were not level at all. Even its exit poll seems to have been wrong.

In its defence, YouGov has said that the problem is how its reports are reported and that other polls are just as bad. Two wrongs do not make a right. The whole industry must now acknowledge that it is under the spotlight, especially from commercial clients. If YouGov's accuracy on political questions is at fault, commercial clients may also doubt its accuracy.

Mr. Jenkin

Am I really listening to a Liberal Democrat? The hon. Gentleman's party are the past masters at issuing false polls in the run-up to an election in every one I have ever seen them contest. The last-minute leaflet always has a graph showing the Liberal Democrat just about to catch up. Has he changed his mind? Does he agree with me that such leaflets can be unethical?

Mr. Tyler

All I am saying—[Laughter.] Well, it is a good crack. However, there is a difference between a so-called reputable public opinion poll and—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Wait a minute for the punch line. There is a difference if such a poll is published in an allegedly reputable newspaper and that is then repeated in a leaflet, as happened in London. That is a legitimate way to provide information to the public. However, the pollsters have a responsibility for the reporting of their results.

I shall give another example. The Times is being investigated for having published an opinion poll, purporting to show how people had voted in the all-postal vote regions, before the polls closed. Apparently that is illegal. We must examine how such polls are presented, because they do have an impact. It is important that we consider that issue.

The pollsters are as much victims as villains in this situation. The main culprits are those in the media who often have their own agenda and choose how to interpret and report poll findings. I am sure that representatives of the Conservative party will have a quiet discussion with The Daily Telegraph on that issue, after the haemorrhage of its vote to UKIP. It is significant that the newspapers that gave most prominence to those misleading figures of support for UKIP were those with a bitterly anti-European, obsessive agenda.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

On integrity, why did the Liberal Democrat party put out advertisements in the Evening Standard stating that the London mayoral election was neck and neck between Ken Livingstone on 51 per cent. and Simon Hughes on 49 per cent? What was the basis for that information?

Mr. Tyler

I have it here—in the Evening Standard report of a poll. I shall give it to the hon. Gentleman later if he wants to see it. If there had been a run-off, that would have been the result—[Interruption.] It was true. Indeed, the results showed that the Conservative candidate could not beat Ken Livingstone but that the Liberal Democrat could. I shall give the hon. Gentleman the report immediately after the debate.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler

I want to try to make progress, as I am conscious that there will be only limited time for Back Benchers.

I regret the fact that the Prime Minister indicated last week that he thought these were entirely matters for the parties. I do not think they are matters for the parties and I have said that to the chairman of my party. I do not believe that political parties can deal impartially with such issues. The Electoral Commission should be asked to examine the reliability and influence of reported opinion polls and their potential to undermine the integrity of the electoral process.

The Electoral Commission is extremely important to the whole subject of the debate. As I said earlier, I regret the attack made on it by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton. It would be folly to ignore the damage to the reputation of the Electoral Commission that the Government's unilateral decision to extend the postal votes pilot has created. I had hoped to hear an unequivocal statement from the Minister that that will not be repeated, and that the Commission's authority will be reinforced.

It is clearly desirable for the Commission to be permitted to experiment with other pilot projects to increase turnout. If the convenience of the electorate is the sole or main criterion, why not switch one year's poll to a weekend—Saturday or Sunday, or both? As we heard from the hon Member for Watford (Claire Ward), it may not be ideal but it should at least be considered. It is helpful to hold different elections on the same day and we supported the Government on that. It is also helpful to hold elections in June rather than in May, due to the interruption in campaigning at Easter and, indeed, the weather earlier in the year. We should look into that.

It is apparent, however, that the principal motivation for improving turnout is for people to have the perception that their vote will "make a difference". There is a close correlation between what seems to be a foregone conclusion and low turnout.

Average figures can be misleading. The worst experience in the 2001 general election was in seats that were thought to be so safe that it would not be worth bothering to go to the poll—Liverpool, Riverside being the worst example, with only 34 per cent. voting. On the very same day, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) managed to achieve a turnout of 72 per cent., because the result at the previous general election had been very close—the majority was only two—and it was perceived that it might be close again.

I can offer a personal example. When I was first elected to the House in 1974, my very clever electors in Bodmin knew that the result would be absurdly close and that I would have a majority of only nine, so 83 per cent. of them voted. By 2001, however, in my present seat, the equally clever electorate realised that it would not be quite such a close thing—the majority was well over 9,000—so I am afraid that turnout dropped to 63 per cent.

First past the post undoubtedly depresses the extent to which most voters in most seats perceive that their vote counts. It does not "make the difference" in most seats. In 2001, only 18 per cent. of those entitled to vote actually affected the outcome. Forty-one per cent. did not vote—in the circumstances, who can blame them?—and another 41 per cent. voted either for losing candidates or for those who had excess votes already and did not need those votes. Only 18 per cent. actually affected the outcome.

Before anyone tells me that regional lists do not work, I acknowledge immediately that closed regional lists are equally depressing for turnout. They are not the answer, and we are against them, but at least under the closed regional list system for the European Parliament every vote can be of reasonably equal value.

On the other hand, the single transferable vote system is much more effective on all counts. The Electoral Commission will need to examine carefully the experience of STV in local council elections in Scotland to see whether it would assist in dealing with the turnout problems in other parts of the country. I understand that at least one London council—Lewisham—wanted to run an STV pilot to see if there would be an improvement. Such a pilot would be extremely helpful. Where every vote is seen to count it makes a difference to people's motivation to turn out, as we saw in the several northern cities to which I referred earlier.

If the Electoral Commission is to regain its authority, based on a reputation for impartiality and integrity, it must be empowered to examine the defects of the whole electoral system. The Government are about to embark on an internal examination of the various voting systems currently in place—in Scotland and Wales, in London, in Northern Ireland and for the European Parliament. They are also honour-bound to revisit the conclusions and recommendations of the Jenkins commission—a firm manifesto commitment at the last general election.

It would be an unmitigated disaster if the same partisan approach displayed by the Deputy Prime Minister before the recent elections were allowed to dominate the Government's review. The review must be open and transparent; it must bring in all parties and be completely independent of the Government, avoiding any suggestion of yet more gerrymandering.

My colleagues and I acknowledge that the Government are in a dilemma in relation to the coming referendums on regional assemblies, although it is a dilemma somewhat of their own making. If they wait for the Electoral Commission to report in September, it may be too late to complete the necessary legislation. Perhaps the commission could be asked to produce preliminary recommendations specifically on the regional assembly referendums. In the absence of such a report, my colleagues and believe that, at least compared to local government polls, there may be a better, although not a perfect, case for compulsory all-postal voting in those referendums for the following reasons.

There would be less opportunity and less motivation for fraud, as there would be no individual candidates or over-enthusiastic supporters. The logistics would be more straightforward, with none of the printing, distribution or completion problems of complicated and confusing ballot papers that we experienced on 10 June. As long as we can still provide choice by insisting on enough locations in each area for the delivery of completed ballot papers, there may be a case for the system. I hope that the Minister can reassure us about that at the end of the debate.

Although it sounds like a maternity unit, the so-called assisted delivery point is extremely important. To have only one in Greenwich is fine, but in North Cornwall, where people might have to travel 40 miles to it, it is impossible. I noted from the evidence of the Electoral Commission and others to the Select Committee report, referred to on the Order Paper, that Government funding for those delivery points may be an important issue.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler

I am about to conclude my speech.

From all I have said, it follows that we believe that the Electoral Commission must play a critical role—the leading role—in bringing together the factual evidence on which the House and the country will take a decision on these important matters. Only then can Ministers repair the damage that they have done over the last few months.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the House that the 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches starts to operate from now.

3.18 pm
Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab)

As has been said, the integrity of the electoral system is an extremely serious issue. I regret the fact that some of the debate has been partisan in tone, because very serious lessons need to be learned from what happened in the last local and European elections. I listened to the Minister's opening remarks, but I should like to share with right hon. and hon. Members the reality of what happened during the recent elections in Birmingham. I suspect that what happened there was replicated in other multicultural inner-city areas.

I wish to make it perfectly clear that I am not talking all-postal ballots— Birmingham did not have an all-postal ballot—and that I support the Government's efforts to increase turnout and participation in elections. Although turnout increased in the area of inner-city Birmingham that I represent and in surrounding areas, in reality that had very little to do with an increased interest in the local or European elections. I deeply regret to say that the increase occurred because postal voting was turned into a political currency in those areas.

To give hon. Members an indication of what I am about to say, I shall quote the opening remarks of the front-page editorial in The Birmingham Post, to which my colleague, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), referred. It was written the day after the election and headed, "Bribes, bullies and ballots". It reads: Those Brummies who could be bothered to participate in yesterday's city council elections should ask themselves a sobering question today. Whatever happened to a polling system once praised as the cleanest in the world? There is no point in being anything other than blunt: the 2004 Birmingham City Council elections were besmirched by a postal vote feeding frenzy. Fights in the streets, postmen offered bribes for sacks of ballot forms, a post box torched, car chases, threats, bullying and intimidation and the unforgettable image of a … councillor `sorting out' ballot papers in the shadows of a back street car park at midnight.

Sadly, the article is true. The reason why it is true is that, as I have said, postal votes became a currency, whereby a place on Birmingham city council, with a minimum salary of £9,000 and all the associated privileges, was the reward.

The Minister has said that the overall result of postal voting proves that it was a success. It may have been a success in all-postal areas, but I would strongly advise him to talk to John Owens, Birmingham city council's elections officer—together with his team, he did a magnificent job in difficult circumstances during the elections—and to West Midlands police to find out whether they thought postal voting was such a great success.

Let me tell hon. Members what happened in the reality of inner-city Birmingham. Birmingham has 40 wards, with electorates that range from approximately 17,000 to 20,000 people. Before the local and European election campaign, the highest numbers of registered postal votes were in wards such as Harborne, Quinton, Edgbaston and Sheldon—the Tory wards, traditionally, in the leafy suburbs. The highest number of postal votes registered was 1,616 in Quinton ward. However, by the end of the six-week campaign, the postal votes registered in some wards had increased. The number in Springfield went up from 812 to 3,796; the number in Lozells and East Handsworth went up from 529 to 3,998; in Sparkbrook, it went up from 1,067 to 4,483; in Aston, from 578 to 5,241; and in Washwood Heath, from 693 to 5,583.

All those wards are in the central area of the city and all are multicultural, with very large communities that originate from the Indian subcontinent, but what happened in them is as nothing compared with what happened in the Bordsley Green ward. That newly created ward has 19,715 electors, about 50 to 60 per cent. of whom are from a single cultural group. When the election began, 691 people in that ward were registered for postal votes. In fact, that ward had one of the lowest numbers of postal votes in the city—it was 12th out of 40—but, in week 1, the number increased to 768. In week 2, it went up to 1,750; in week 3, it went up to 2,495; in week 4, it went up to 5,124; and in week 5, it went up to 7,195. When a halt was called on 2 June at the close of postal vote applications, the figure had reached 8,488. I hesitate to think what would have happened had the election campaign gone on for another three weeks.

One would like to think that the dynamics of the campaign had galvanised more than 40 per cent. of the electorate in that ward to obtain their postal votes, but hon. Members can draw their own conclusions on why that happened. During campaigning in the ward, regular phone calls were made to the police by people complaining about the pressure that they were being put under. There was a fight between rival candidates' teams involving 200 people, which meant that a huge number of police from west midlands stations had to be brought into the area. A postman complained to his superiors that the brother of one of the candidates had offered him £500 for his sack of postal votes. That is the reality of what happened in an inner-city multicultural area.

You might think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that what I have described is at least highly suspicious, if not downright illegal. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. The West Midlands police carried out a survey by a special team, which concluded that, as the law is deficient, no one did anything wrong. Indeed, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, Councillor Albert Bore had something to say about that. According to The Birmingham Post: Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham City Council, maintains he is allowed to apply for postal votes on electors' behalf, he can have forms delivered to his house, he can fill the forms in for other people and deliver them to the elections office. The Birmingham Post then makes the point that that seems slipshod and unusual. It asked the Electoral Commission for its opinion and a spokeswoman was adamant that it is 'unlawful' for a person to complete a postal ballot on behalf of another person unless that person has applied for a proxy vote. However, the Electoral Commission then changed its mind. It phoned The Birmingham Post back, insisting that it could not offer advice on the law and suggesting instead that only the returning officer for the city council, the chief executive, could pronounce on such matters. So hon. Members will pardon me if my views on the Electoral Commission are somewhat jaundiced.

Hon. Members will no doubt be appalled by some of what I have said, but I counsel caution against a knee-jerk reaction by Ministers. The reality is that in certain communities, the showing of completed postal votes to the candidate is a way of demonstrating loyalty. It will be difficult to frame a law that makes it illegal for a person voluntarily to show a completed postal vote to a candidate to prove their loyalty to that candidate.

I regret that time is running out and I cannot share with hon. Members some other comments that I wanted to make. We must revisit the whole issue of postal votes, because we have to ensure that the electoral system is fair and seen to be fair. I have always believed that voting in public elections is a civic duty. I also believe that we would be better going down the road of compulsory voting, as Australia has done. Whatever happens, however, more safeguards need to be put in place. For example, electoral officers in the recent election were not compelled to have a marked register for people who voted by post. Thankfully, the electoral officer in Birmingham had a marked register. When it comes out, I have not the slightest doubt that the cemetery vote will be high and that a large number of people who were not even in the country voted on the day. We are privileged to live in a democracy, the cornerstone of which is the electoral system. Anything that brings it into disrepute undermines our democracy, and we must never allow that to happen.

3.30 pm
Dame Marion Roe (Broxbourne) (Con)

I welcome the opportunity to raise again in the House the issue of the integrity of the electoral register, because I continue to be concerned that the system for the registration of voters in England, Scotland and Wales is not sound, and could lead to election fraud.

When I was appointed as an electoral scrutineer in the Seychelles on behalf of the Commonwealth, and in Angola on behalf of the United Nations, one of our first tasks was to decide who was entitled to vote, followed by a cleansing of the electoral roll. Only by setting down those important criteria could we acknowledge that a basic principle of free and fair elections had been met. I am sure we all accept that an accurate electoral register is a crucial cornerstone of any democracy. If it is corrupted or compromised in any way, the electoral process is undermined and the general public loses confidence in the integrity of the Administration.

Nine months ago, I became aware that the names of constituents of mine who were foreign nationals were appearing on the electoral register. I remind Members that it is an offence for a householder to fail to give the electoral returning officer information that will enable him to discharge his registration duties or to provide false information. There may be a number of reasons why ineligible voters are registered. First, a family may lack the knowledge, education or expertise to complete the registration form correctly. Children may even be added to the roll because of a misunderstanding of the system. Secondly, foreign nationals may have little grasp of the English language. When the registration form comes through their letter-box, the householder, who is under a duty to complete the form, may not understand the rules and add the name of everyone living in the accommodation.

Thirdly, foreign nationals know that they are not eligible to vote, and have no intention of doing so, but add their names to the register because it is extremely useful for obtaining credit cards, parking permits, loans, benefits and so on. Members will know that the electoral register is used as a database by many organisations to verify someone's residence. Fourthly, criminals may register false names to legitimise false identities and provide a cover for illegal activities such as benefit fraud. Fifthly, there may be an unfortunate and deliberate registering of people ineligible to vote, or of false names to corrupt the vote and enhance the chances of a particular candidate in local and general elections in marginal wards. Ballot rigging then becomes very easy indeed. Confusion is further increased by the fact that every electoral returning officer produces a different electoral register—they do not look alike, and there is no uniform presentation. In some parts of the country, they are in different languages to assist voters but, in all cases, many people find them complicated.

I had serious anxieties about the whole business when I discovered that, in general, comprehensive checks were not made on people who added their names on to the register. Even worse, I was told that, to investigate people whose names looked foreign could be deemed racist, and that there was no need to worry because the system was self-regulatory. When I made inquiries with the Electoral Commission, I was informed: If legislation required checks to be made by Electoral Registration Officers, it would be difficult to decide on what criteria these should be instigated and made … if such checks were done on the basis of the appearance or sound of names, such action could well be deemed to be racist and in breach of the law. Furthermore, the electoral returning officer is unlikely to make inquiries unless there is an objection to the inclusion of a particular name. The creation of the rolling register system has made it harder for political parties to use the claims and objections procedure, as the Electoral Commission acknowledged in its report, "The Electoral Registration Process", noting that it is questionable whether the objection process really does have deterrent value … a more effective objection process is likely to be valuable in the prevention of fraud.

In answer to a written question to the Department for Constitutional Affairs on 9 March 2004, the House was given a list of 20 constituencies in which the highest number of registered electors have been lost from the parliamentary register between 2001 and 2003. I draw attention to the constituency at the top of that list, Brentford and Isleworth, where there was a decrease of 15,486 or 18.6 per cent., which the Minister acknowledged may be due to 'cleaning' of the registers rather than actual falls in the number of electors."—[Official Report, 9 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1417W.]

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) said, Portsmouth, South showed a decrease of 11,210 or 14.5 per cent. Edinburgh, South showed a decrease of 7,163 or 11.1 per cent.; Brent, East showed a decrease of 6,968 or 12 per cent.; Bolton, South-East showed a decrease of 6,882 or 10.1 per cent.; and Dulwich and West Norwood showed a decrease of 6,812 or 9.7 per cent. There are also major implications for the boundary commissioners' work, which have yet to be acknowledged and addressed when assessing ward and constituency boundaries. This clearly demonstrates the size of the problem that we face.

There is no doubt in my mind that the electoral register is being abused. The argument that cases of fraudulent registration rarely appear in the courts cannot support the view that there is no problem to solve. The reason that no prosecutions are taking place is that no checks are made and no evidence is exposed. I should like to read an extract from an article that appeared in the Daily Mail on 7 February 2004, which stated: The astonishing ease with which fraudsters are corrupting the electoral system is exposed today. As abuse increases, especially by benefit cheats and illegal immigrants, a Daily Mail investigation has highlighted a culture of inefficiency and political correctness within local councils. It allowed us to register a fictitious student, called Gus Troobev, an anagram of 'bogus voter', on 31 Electoral Registers, within just a few hours and to obtain 9 further bogus votes in the most marginal seat in Britain. The Mail has no intention of using any of the 40 votes but, theoretically, they could be used by political parties to swing elections. Almost all the Councils we contacted were happy to allow our man to register for elections without asking for any proof of identity. Most of the officials we later asked if Gus Troobev had made it onto the Register said they would not dare investigate an applicant just because he or she had a foreign-sounding name or had lived overseas. Gus Troobev is now on the Electoral Roll of 31 key constituencies from Scotland to the South West of England. So who can vote in elections in the United Kingdom? British citizens can vote in all elections—local, national and European. Citizens of the Irish Republic can do the same, as can all Commonwealth citizens. Finally, citizens of a country that is a member of the European Union can vote in local elections and choose whether to cast their votes in the UK or their country of origin at European parliamentary elections. But under our present system of registration, how can a returning officer know whether John Smith is British and entitled to vote in all elections, or Canadian and entitled to vote in all elections, or American and not entitled to vote in any elections? It is impossible to know unless a thorough identity check is available on each individual.

In Northern Ireland, the problem of fraudulent voting—"Vote early, vote often"—was confronted and dealt with through the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. Now, in Northern Ireland, there is individual registration of each voter. Householders are no longer responsible for completing forms of behalf of all residents in the home. On the new registration form, there are five identifiers: name, address, date of birth, national insurance number and personal signature. Those details can, of course, be checked more easily but, more importantly, the voter must produce photographic identification documents from a list of options at the polling station when they go to vote. There was a reduction of some 120,000 names or 10 per cent. on the first register compiled under the new system of individual registration, compared with its predecessor, compiled under the household registration system. Thus, the electoral register gained credibility, and confidence in the whole procedure of voting at elections is being restored. In December 2003, the Electoral Commission produced a report outlining its analysis on the workings of the new system in Northern Ireland, and made recommendations for further improvement.

In one corner of the United Kingdom, we have already acknowledged the difficulties of producing an accurate electoral register, and we introduced legislation to correct the flaws. What are the Government doing to ensure that the same approach is adopted for the rest of the country, particularly bearing in mind that, for the first time, everybody was voting by post for the European elections and local elections a few weeks ago in the north-east, the north-west, the east midlands and Yorkshire and Humberside regions?

I believe that the Government have put the cart before the horse. It is almost an enticement to vote illegally when the ballot papers are put through one's letterbox with every encouragement to use them. It appears that the Government are sending out the message, "We want as many people to vote as possible, even if they are not eligible to do so." In his statement of 15 January 2004 on the Government's electoral modernisation agenda, the Minister for Local and Regional Government said: We are committed to making voting more accessible and straightforward for the electorate and to allow people more flexibility in where and when they vote."—[Official Report, 15 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 43WS.] I put it to the Minister that the question of who is eligible to vote should surely be the priority focus, before the introduction of multi-channelled e-enabled elections.

I believe that returning officers need to be given direction on scrutiny of the electoral register, protected from accusations of racism, harassment and so on, and supported with sufficient resources to fulfil their duties. Another knock-on effect is that the percentage figures of those voting are completely distorted because a large number of people on the electoral register are not entitled to vote in the first place.

We must ensure that secure procedures are in place for the registration of voters, so that the integrity of the electoral register is constantly maintained. Every loophole to corrupt our electoral process must be removed and any unfairness eliminated.

3.41 pm
Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough) (Lab)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate and affording me the opportunity to make just a few observations on the crisis into which our democracy is now falling.

Turnout in the 1992 general election was 77.7 per cent. Nine years later in 2001, it had fallen to just 59.4 per cent. That amounts to a loss of 7 million voters in less than a decade—7 million people who had voluntarily chosen to disfranchise themselves, including many millions of women who gave up their vote less than 80 years after Emily Wilding Davison gave up her life to help secure that vote for them. Of course, turnout in other elections is already far lower. The British disengagement with politics is now so extensive that "Monty Python" has become a reality TV show. Joke candidates have been elected as mayors, only the joke is not so funny any more, because when turnout tumbles, along with the football mascots, we get the fascists as well.

We in this place have to ask ourselves how that has happened, and how we have turned a democracy that was once cherished into one that is so widely derided, disrespected and distrusted. We have to ask ourselves what on earth we are going to do about it as we face the awful prospect of a Government being elected when fewer than half their people have spoken.

It is my belief that, in many ways, democracy is analogous to a marriage between the people and Parliament, with elections the ritual that joins them. The trouble is that that marriage is now failing. It failed first from neglect, and now it is failing from abuse, and it is often Parliament that is the more abused party. After all, we are a Parliament full of parliamentarians who, as the papers always tell the people, are only in it for themselves, live high off parliamentary freebies and vote like lemmings for fear of the parliamentary Whip.

The neglect in that marriage first manifested itself in lack of interest, as people sat on their sofas rather than walked to the ballot box. Then came the abuse, which is, in some respects, manifested by the all-postal voting system. As we endeavoured to drive up turnout, what we actually did was give people who did not really want to vote at all even more opportunities to beat us. We generated a huge protest vote—a protest against the Government, the war and Europe, and a protest against the Government's position on Europe and against the Opposition's position on it; a plague, indeed, on all of our House.

In part, I think that that is the fault of the press, aspects of which operate as a national conspiracy to keep everybody in a sustained sense of outrage. It is a sad reality that parties then use spin doctors to administer the antidote to the bias in the press, and in turn that allows the press to paint the spin doctors as an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.

In part, the situation is the fault of both Government and Opposition Members. Opposition MPs understandably fall in behind the marching bands of the right-wing press, which whip up cynicism and apathy throughout the land. Government Back Benchers are subordinated to the Executive, but that is not our fault. The media always paint a questioning political party as a divided political party, and MPs know that divided political parties rarely win.

The largest factor is the fundamental failings of our unwritten constitution, to which we cleave as though it were the grand protector of liberty and rights. We celebrate the unwritten constitution's antiquated quaintness, when in truth the unwritten constitution is deeply dysfunctional. The causes of constitutional dysfunction go to the root of our institutions and to the heart of our constitution.

We have never even begun to resolve the tension between the dual claims to supremacy—parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. Institutionally, that tension manifests itself in the uncomfortable position of the Lord Chancellor, who sits in the Cabinet, the legislature and the country's highest court. Doctrinally, it manifests itself in the fine arguments of judicial review, in which courts tiptoe around policy decisions, interpreting statutes but never challenging them. Indeed, the courts intervene only when decisions are perverse.

We have a confusion of powers, which we claim are separate, and the arguments that we use to justify that constitutional confusion are deeply unpersuasive and no longer carry the confidence of the people. The people instinctively know that our assertion of parliamentary sovereignty is not in truth enough to legitimise all the decisions that we make. That is not only because MPs are sometimes whipped into voting for the Cabinet and against their consciences, or because people know that that even majorities can be wrong, but because the people know that most of their votes do not count for very much.

Individual votes at elections do not choose the Prime Minister, and they rarely choose MPs. In 1997, my vote for the Labour candidate in Beaconsfield yielded me exactly the same amount of representation as I would have obtained by tearing up my ballot paper up and setting fire to it. None of us has a vote for a member of the second chamber, and, apart from Lesotho, we are the only nation in the world with legislators who are present through an accident of birth. As long ago as 1791, Thomas Paine wrote in "The Rights of Man" that the idea of hereditary legislators is as absurd as the idea of hereditary mathematicians. The people know that when the courts refuse to intervene on their behalf out of respect for parliamentary sovereignty, the decision is not made in Parliament. Such decisions are made either by the Executive or by an executive—a housing officer, someone on an immigration desk or a planning inspector.

The people are not persuaded by the rule of law, because if the red-top media are cynical about us, what do they say about judges? They say that judges are old; they say that judges are old Etonians, who are completely out of touch with ordinary people and ordinary lives; and, of course, they say that judges are absurdly soft on crime and criminals. That point contains an element of truth, because the people know that judges do not represent them and are not representative of them.

If people ever paused to think about the judicial invention of the man on the Clapham omnibus, they would soon notice, first, that that person is a man; secondly, that that person is a white man; thirdly, that that person is a bencher at Lincoln's Inn; and finally that that person has never been on the Clapham omnibus in their life. We therefore end up with a deep distrust of all our institutions. The perception that Parliament is not sovereign but supine means that people do not vote, and when the fools and the fascists get elected as a result, the people do not trust the judges to protect them.

What did we do about those problems? We introduced compulsory postal voting, which seems inadequate. Compulsory postal voting is also dangerous, and we must learn the lessons. We had an all-postal vote in the east midlands. That meant that my constituents had to entrust their votes to one of the worst postal services in the country, which had not recovered from a fire in one of its depots. In my constituency, 404 votes arrived late, and another 430 papers were completed incorrectly. More than 830 voters raised their voices, but their voices were not heard. That concerns me, because when I was first elected, my majority was 187, which is one fifth of the votes that were not counted. What was the cause of at least some of those spoiled votes? It was the Liberal amendment in the Lords that required people to have their ballot papers countersigned. What an affront to the privacy of the electoral process! For a generation of women, one of the first features of their liberation was that their husbands never knew how they voted. I wonder how many women felt compelled only a few weeks ago either to show their ballot papers to their husbands or not to vote for fear of showing them to their husbands.

Is not the requirement for a witness the biggest invitation to fraudsters to try to manipulate the vote? What does the returning officer do when he receives 100 votes countersigned by the same person and covered in Tippex? Of course, we need to increase turnout, but compulsory postal voting is too blunt an instrument safely to do the job.

What should we do? At least at the general election, we must ensure that people have a choice about whether they vote by post or by walking to the polling station.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP)

In Northern Ireland, the Electoral Commission has managed to get people off the electoral roll. In the European poll, not only did the figure go down in percentage terms but the total number of people on registers decreased. The Electoral Commission will have to get its act together, because it is robbing people of the right to vote.

Mr. Stinchcombe

Indeed, lessons will be learned throughout the United Kingdom from the turnout in the areas where the various pilots for different systems took place.

We should expand rather than remove opportunities to vote in person at the ballot box. We should give people more time—a week or a weekend—to vote. We should move towards making all votes count, not by introducing proportional representation for the House of Commons or getting rid of the constituency link but by reforming the House of Lords so that it is indirectly elected by the secondary mandate at the same time as we elect Members of Parliament. Thus we would not pile yet more elections on an election-weary electorate but add weight to the votes that they have already cast.

My final suggestion may be the constitutional upheaval that Conservative Members fear. If the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) is right and only countries have constitutions, why do not we write one for ourselves, together with a Bill of Rights? Both should be drafted by us, for us and according to our values, not written abroad and incorporated by parliamentary transplant. In that way, we can entrust Parliament with developing policies that would progressively realise those rights. We can ask a more legitimate second Chamber to scrutinise the work, and give a watching brief to a more representative, independently appointed constitutional court, empowered to enforce the Bill of Rights and the UK constitution through the respectful dialogue between constitutional courts and elected Parliaments, as happens in other constitutional democracies.

In South Africa, democracy and human rights genuinely matter. People were executed as they fought for a vote denied them by the colour of their skin, and the apartheid regime was enacted by a sovereign Parliament and upheld by the courts and the rule of law. Parliament there is now populated by many who were imprisoned on Robben island for daring to fight for the right to vote. In South Africa, constitutional democracy is cherished as the protection against such events ever happening again, whether through white supremacists or a one-party democracy. If South Africans perceive the need to enshrine their values in a constitutional democracy, not fearful of undermining the sovereignty of Parliament or the rule of law, perhaps we should be learn a lesson from that.

The legitimacy not only of our electoral system but of our democracy and our constitution is being called into question by millions who neither vote nor trust the courts. Rather than relying on compulsory postal ballots to rescue us, we need to examine more radical measures, which would truly bring a new legitimacy to our failing democracy and our flawed electoral system.

3.53 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) crammed a great deal into his speech, some of which I agreed with and much of which I did not. However, when we consider the voting figures for the past few elections, it is right to be concerned. I believe that there is a fairly simple explanation.

In 1992, when turnout was fairly high, the election was keenly contested. It was possible that the Labour party could win and people came out to vote in great numbers. They were also much influenced by what happened during the campaign. One need only mention the two words, "Sheffield rally". In 1997, we had a Government who were discredited and a party that had imploded and did not deserve the confidence of the people. We were seen off. In 2001, people were beginning to be disillusioned with the Labour Government, but if they had fallen out of love with them, they certainly had not fallen in love with us, so we did not benefit from any decline in support for Labour. Those simple facts explain more clearly than anything else why there was a decline. When people are really and truly interested, they will vote.

I would like to refer to the excellent, arresting and disturbing speech made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff). He took today's debate out of the party political arena and made us focus on some real and important facts. What he said about the postal voting in Birmingham should make us all pause and think. Every hon. Member who has fought many general elections—I have fought every one for the last 40 years—has had a slightly disturbing experience with postal votes, whether it involves someone who has influence over his own particular group, or the matron or superintendent of a home, who says, "It will be all right. We'll make sure they do it properly." We all have to acknowledge that the system is open to abuse, and it is more open to abuse than using a polling booth.

The Minister's speech was far too glib and complacent, and did not recognise the implicit faults that are present in any postal voting system, although they are not always capable of proof, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Dame Marion Roe) pointed out. This does not mean that I am against postal votes, but I am in favour of choice. It should be the conscious choice of the elector to vote by post; if the elector wishes to do so, he or she should be allowed to do so. There should be some form of verification of identity, but there should not be a requirement to prove that they are going to be on holiday, or that they are ill or incapacitated. They should be able to make a conscious choice.

In the recent election, many people were very unhappy about being forced to vote by post. I come from Lincolnshire—my home town was Grimsby—and I received a number of letters from friends there who said, "Whenever you get the opportunity, do say that we do not want this choice permanently taken away from us. We treasure the fact that we go consciously to a polling booth to cast our vote." We deprive our electorate of that choice at the peril of our democracy.

I am fundamentally opposed to compulsory postal voting for two reasons above all others. One is that it effectively abolishes polling day. The other is that it abolishes the influence that a campaign can have. I referred briefly to the Sheffield rally, but we can all remember certain incidents, some of which have been to the advantage of our own party and others that have not. I remember the first general election that I fought, in 1964, in the constituency of Bolsover. Of course, I was never going to have a chance of winning, but I managed to reduce the majority from around 24,000 to 23,000. That was the best I could do. However, I remember that two things happened that could have influenced that campaign if they had happened a day or two earlier. One was the Chinese explosion of an atomic device; the other was the fall of Khrushchev.

During an election campaign, it is important that people should constantly be listening to the people who are seeking to represent them. I deeply deplore the demise of the public meeting; I hold them every night in my constituency. People should be continually aware of what is going on during the campaign, so that their minds can be influenced right up to the time when they go into the polling booth. With compulsory all-postal voting, we destroy that at a stroke

We also, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath graphically demonstrated, run the risk of destroying the secret ballot. The secret ballot has been a feature of our democracy for only 140 years— before that, we stood on the hustings and proclaimed our allegiance. I could not help but think of that when he was talking about the demonstration of loyalty—a demonstration of loyalty voluntarily given is one thing, but a demonstration of loyalty yielded out of fear or intimidation is very different. I hope that those are factors on which the Government will think carefully.

If we are truly anxious, regardless of the will of the electorate, to increase participation in elections, there is an alternative, to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, towards the close of his speech, alluded briefly. That is the system that they have not only in Australia but in Belgium and other places—compulsory voting. If an element of compulsion is to be introduced, it should be that. People can then choose to vote by post or by going to the polling station. They can write. "A plague on both your houses," which was the substance of the hon. Member for Wellingborough's summation of the recent election, they can put more vulgar slogans, or they can return in the post a blank ballot paper. So great are the problems that we face, however—some of those to do with the integrity of the register were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne—that we ought to give some thought to compulsory registration, without which people would not be entitled to benefits and other things. If someone registers compulsorily, they have a duty to vote compulsorily, by returning a ballot paper in one form or another. In that way, we do away with most of the opportunities for abuse. we increase the turnout, and we concentrate the minds of the politicians—those of us who sit here or seek to sit here.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman has touched on a crucial point: even were there fraud under such a system, because turnout is much higher, it is much more difficult to influence the result by fraudulent means.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making a point that I was hoping to make a little later. If we have, as I believe that Belgium had on 10 June, a turnout of more than 90 per cent., or as they have in Australia, the incidence of fraud is diminished in its impact.

What we should all be concerned about is the reputation of our democracy, and what we aspire to do here. I am old-fashioned in my views of this place and of seeking election to this place. I believe that politics is an honourable vocation. Those of us who feel called to public service have a right to place ourselves before the electorate, and they have the right to choose. We have the duty to ensure that they have the means of choice. The way in which the Government are seeking to tackle this is misguided. It is not malevolent. I do not for a moment impugn the integrity of either of the Ministers on the Front Bench—they are both good chaps—but I do not think that they have thought it through sufficiently seriously. They have dismissed the Sparkbrook argument without listening to it, and now that they have heard it, I hope that they will take it on board, because it is a very important argument.

If Ministers are motivated by turnout, I hope that they will reflect on the logical, perfectly honourable precedent of compulsory voting—as we have said, there are precedents in other countries. If that is the road that they want to take, let us take it together. At the end of the day, however, let them realise that it is not the duty of the Government, by fiat—that is virtually what happened last time, and a Government with a big majority, such as this, behave in that way—to deprive people of choice. By all means, if a man or a woman wants to vote by post, let them do so, but do not deprive them of the opportunity of going to the polling booth.

It is no answer to suggest that because there is an alternative booth—one in a large area—that solves the problem. It does not. There is no substitute for the local polling station near where people live. Many people, particularly the elderly, rejoice in the fact that they make a real, conscious effort to go to vote. In the last general election, without doubt the most moving experience for me occurred in one polling station quite near a large old people's home. Those people were coming in, and being pushed in in wheelchairs—in one case, a bath chair—and they told me that they wanted to do that. They said that they did not want postal votes because coming out to vote was what they wanted to do.

If that is what people want to do, it is an arrogant assertion of overbearing power for any Government to deprive them of that. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will recognise the validity of our arguments and show that he wants us to move forward in a way that affords proper choice to all our people.

4.6 pm

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) should look carefully at Australia. It appears that with compulsory voting there, the number of people voting at each successive general election is falling and that the number of prosecutions is small. I do not think that compulsory voting is such a good idea. It would be a much better principle to say that when someone gets elected, any people who did not vote count as part of their majority because they had the chance to vote for someone else if they wanted, but did not.

The most important thing in this debate is to put firmly on the record our thanks to all those people who made the recent elections a success—all the returning officers, who did an excellent job, and all the election staff. We should also congratulate the Post Office, which turned up trumps in almost every case, throughout the country. I also add my thanks to the party workers who in most cases, particularly in the north of England where this had to be done that little bit earlier, got the election literature out so that people could make an informed choice.

The debate would have been better if the Tory party had not just had a rant in opening it, and, I am afraid, if we had not seen some amazing hypocrisy from the Liberal party. The Liberals told us that they would wait and see what the Electoral Commission had to say, but their amendment firmly pre-empts the commission by suggesting that the whole system is in chaos.

We need to recognise that many of the problems occurred because of the ping-pong between this House and the House of Lords. The House of Lords must take some responsibility for the chaos that it caused. We must also recognise that the deal that was done to get the legislation through—the witness statement—was a big mistake. It is quite clear that some people living on their own did not vote because of the problems of going to ask a neighbour or someone else for the witness statement. The witness statement is absolutely pointless. It is probably true that if a voter put down Mickey Mouse, with Disneyland for the address, the returning officer would have disallowed the statement, but if they put down John Smith at some address somewhere in the country, there was no chance of that statement being checked out. The witness statement is a waste of time, and we do not need it.

It was unfortunate that the Electoral Commission discouraged the political parties from helping people to return their ballot papers, and from signing the witness statements. That was a serious mistake. I must also say to the Tory party that the more that we insist on a witness statement, the lesser the degree of secrecy for the individual voter. If we do not have a witness statement, a voter can take their paper away, sign it and send it off without being influenced at all by other people.

We should firmly congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government on going ahead with the experiment, because we learned a great deal. That does not mean to say that I necessarily want us to carry on having experiments, but we should recognise just how important this experiment was.

First, we had a much higher turnout, which was worthwhile. Secondly, we had to look into the matter of size. There is some question as to whether there are enough security printers to extend the arrangements so that all local elections could be done through an all-postal ballot. I think that that is questionable. One suggestion is to solve the problem by providing more time between the nominations and sending the ballot papers out, but we should remember that we have been fantastically lucky in this country in that we have not had to conduct a by-election in the middle of a general election since 1955, when a parliamentary candidate died and an election had to be put off. The longer the period between nominations and voting, the greater the likelihood of having to re-run an election when a candidate dies.

We must also recognise that the experiment showed that many people were not volunteering for it. Almost all the experiments up to this point were conducted by volunteers—in other words, by the dynamic returning officers who were keen to prove that they could conduct an experiment. This time, however, we had one or two people who, to put it kindly, were not particularly up to the job. We have to recognise that if we moved to an all-postal vote system, there could be problems there.

There is also the problem of expense. We have to weigh up whether all-postal voting provides value for money. We also have to acknowledge that a half-and-half system, towards which we might be moving, may be even more expensive with half the people opting for a postal vote and the other half going to the polling station. If we were interested solely in increasing turnout, it might be better simply to say to all the electors that they could have £5 off their council tax if they voted. That might well get more people to vote, without incurring all the expenses of the system.

We must now evaluate the experiments properly, but not to place blame, as all the political parties have pressed for extra postal voting. We now need to ask ourselves how best to move forward. It has to be through the Electoral Commission, but if so, we should also have a few people representing the political parties sitting on it. That might give the Electoral Commission a little more experience of the realities of electioneering.

I promised that I would conclude my speech in six minutes and I am sorry that I have overrun. I congratulate all those people who made the system just work this time and I congratulate the Government on carrying it all out, but we now need a full evaluation.

4.12 pm
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con)

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate, because it is essential that we preserve the hitherto high reputation of our voting system, which has been brought into question by the problems that have arisen with all-postal voting.

The essential ingredients of our voting system are confidentiality, privacy and security. All those three elements have been put into question by various recent problems and they have been undermined by recent innovations to increase the turnout in elections. I would question the practice of describing all-postal voting as "turnout", because that is the one thing that people do not have to bother to do. The traditional method, on which our reputation has been built, centres on trust and the confidence of the electorate. It is a private matter. People do not want others to know how they voted.

Theoretically, under the traditional system, someone could wade through hundreds of thousands of used randomly sorted ballot papers to look for one particular number, but it is unlikely that that would ever be attempted and even less likely that it would be successful. People like to see their vote being put into a sealed ballot box and they enjoy the ritual of going to their polling station and voting in person. With an all-postal ballot system, they are not allowed to do that. It is important that they reserve the right to make a choice as to whether to vote by post or in person. When someone applies for a postal vote in person, it shows an indication of the intent to vote, which is quite different from issuing a postal ballot paper to everyone, especially when many people have no intention of voting in the first place.

In the 2002 local elections, Havering was one of the pilots for postal voting. As I have noted before, there was a problem with the one-envelope system, under which people put their declaration of identity and their ballot paper into the same envelope. The voter's ward could be identified from the outside of those envelopes, which meant that people could know where that voter lived and his or her likely voting intentions. When the ballot paper and the declaration of identity were returned to the town hall, they had to be separated. At that stage, too, it could have been possible to discover how voters had voted. That did not happen, but people resented the fact that the opportunity had been created.

I know that the percentage of people voting rose in the recent elections, but that happened at a price. The price was the number of irregularities in the election process, and the fact that voters were deprived of choice. The hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward) is no longer in her place, but I was concerned about her report of what happened in Watford. I had the thought that the one-envelope system had been discontinued, but it sounded to me as though it might have remained in operation there.

I want to challenge the received wisdom that it should be made easier for people to vote. That should not be confused with increasing the percentage of people who use their vote. It is already easy and convenient for people to vote, and to get a postal vote. They have only to ask for one: they do not have to give any justification or explanation. However, even doing that much requires a little effort by voters. It is not great, but people have to take the trouble to ask for a postal vote.

At election time, some people do not even notice that an election is going on. Despite what they read in the newspapers, hear on the radio or see on the television, and despite the contents of the posters hung in windows or the leaflets pushed through their letter boxes, some people claim not to know that an election is being held. It takes quite a lot of effort to ignore all that. I suggest that those people are unlikely to have bothered to give the election any thought at all. They will not have considered the issues involved, or compared the attributes of the various candidates. They disfranchise themselves by neglect and treat their privileged vote with disdain—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. We must not have continued chuntering from a sedentary position.

Angela Watkinson

I challenge whether the Government have the right to make it easy for people to vote, when that is already so very easy to do. Some people choose not to use that privilege.

Another problem is the unreliability of the post. I have been inundated with complaints from people who did not receive their ballot papers. Many complaints came from people who happened to be on holiday on election day. They had informed the town hall of the date when their holiday was due to begin, and had been assured that their ballot papers would arrive in time. When that did not happen, they lost the opportunity to vote, even though had made the effort to make inquiries.

I hope that the Minister will clarify one point. He will correct me if I am wrong, but in a television interview I thought that I heard him say that people who did not receive their ballot papers in time cousld go to their town hall's electoral registration department and ask for one. When people did that in Havering, the town hall refused to give them another ballot paper. Did the town halls have different instructions, or did I misunderstand what the Minister said?

Mr. Leslie

I shall try and clarify that. In the all-postal regions, the failsafe in the unlikely eventuality that people did not receive their ballot papers was that they could go and get a replacement. The bar codes used on the documents meant that the original ballot paper would be cancelled automatically. Those arrangements did not exist outside the pilot regions. The experience described by the hon. Lady was not related to the pilot on all-postal voting.

Angela Watkinson

The Minister is right to say that there was no all-postal voting in Havering on this occasion, but the incident throws up one of the problems associated with postal voting. The people who suffered had made the effort to ask for a postal ballot paper. They explained when they needed it and were assured that they would receive it. I have received many letters on this matter. My constituents Mr. and Mrs. Lewis recounted how they boarded a coach one day and found that it contained 25 other people who had also not received the postal ballot papers that they had requested.

In contrast, a member of staff in my constituency office received four ballot papers, in separate envelopes, on the same day. She destroyed the three spare papers, but how many other people had the same experience, and what did they do with the extra papers?

Many elderly people did not understand the multiple elections that were held on the same day. I had to ask for help from the presiding officer at the polling station, as the matter was so very complicated. So I would like the Minister to look into the issue of multiple elections on the same day, especially when the voting methods are different for the component parts. It is confusing, particularly for elderly people, who have voted all their lives but are used to one particular way of doing it. Please may we retain choice for people who do not want to vote by post and want to see their ballot paper going into the ballot box?

4.20 pm
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

The issue that exercises hon. Members on both sides of the House is that of low turnout. Low turnout undermines the validity of the whole democratic process and the authority of elected representatives. That is why it is right that, with all-party support, we looked into running pilots for different sorts of voting in local elections. The obvious conclusion was that only all-postal ballots increased turnout substantially. It was therefore surely right in turn that we looked at a wider pilot, which we have just conducted, to see whether the lessons from the smaller pilots could be applied on a larger basis. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) turned the matter into a party political issue, because I agreed with some of the other points that he made.

I was concerned, as all hon. Members will have been, by the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) about what happened in Birmingham. In Sheffield there have been no allegations of widespread fraud. I am certainly not aware of any such allegations; I am not aware of any allegations in my constituency. There were no real problems with postal delivery.

The real problems, if there were any, were around the witness statement, which confused many people, not just elderly people, and the wording of the instructions that came with the ballot papers. If I had not understood the process, I would have been pretty confused by the wording. It varied from region to region; the instructions that I saw in London were far clearer than those in Yorkshire. So there are lessons to be learned by the Electoral Commission and the Government.

The problems with security and fraud in postal voting, as the Electoral Commission said over and over again at the Select Committee inquiry, are general problems with postal voting, not problems with all-postal voting. We should get back to that and get away from the party political points.

I want to put forward four basic principles for a way forward. We should be concerned about ease of voting. I disagree with the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). We should make it as easy as possible for people to vote—of course legitimately. We should be concerned about the security of the vote, about the consistency of the electoral process, and about choice.

To take consistency first, we have had the pilot projects and it is right that we should learn from them, share experiences and look at what went right and what went wrong. Clearly, many more people voted than would have done with the traditional system. That is a good thing. We should not get into small arguments about how much the percentage turnout went up. It was clearly higher, and I believe that it was higher because of all-postal voting. It is clear that in any system of voting, people have to have the right to vote by post whether because they are ill, or on holiday, or working away. So postal voting has to be part of the voting system. However, I have some sympathy with the points made by some Opposition Members and with people in my constituency who have said, "We vote in every election as a matter of principle, but we do not feel that we have voted properly this time because we have not been able to go to the polling station." So we ought to take account as well of the wishes of the people who vote every time.

Let us have consistency. Let us decide what is the best form of voting. Having had the pilot projects, it is right that we devise a form of voting that applies at all elections so that people know what to expect every time and do not have to rethink how they will vote at each election. Within that, we should have different types of voting. People should have the right to vote by post and the right to vote at a ballot station. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) that that will mean extra cost, but it is a cost worth paying to enhance our democratic process. Eventually, we may get on to e-voting as another option.

People may say that we already have that system of voting, but we can make a postal vote easier to obtain. In Sheffield, people can now tick a box on the electoral registration form to apply for a form to fill in to get a postal vote. Why not make it easier? Why not have boxes that people can tick to indicate whether they want to vote at a ballot station or by post? People should get their postal vote automatically if they tick the box, with no need for an extra form. That would simplify the process.

In terms of security, I agree that individual voter registration must be introduced. For example, we need checks on signatures to ensure that the voting system is secure. We should also implement a limit on the number of ballot papers that can be sent to an address for people who are not registered there, in the same way as we limit the number of proxy votes that one individual can exercise.

I am concerned about the registration process, probably for slightly different reasons from the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Dame Marion Roe). There is a real problem with people not sending registration forms back and being disfranchised as a result. Perhaps the Government could work with local authorities and provide a little more money for the canvassing process, because that is not being done properly in many areas. Registration officers say that in some areas up to 98 per cent. of forms are returned, but in other areas it is only 50 per cent. Resources should be put into that issue, because individual registration will make the process more complicated and difficult. In practice, no one is ever prosecuted for failing to return the form, so we could consider giving a bonus for doing so—perhaps a rebate on the council tax.

It is difficult for me to say so, but I commend the system of Westminster council, which sends out a card to everyone after the register has been drawn up, saying who is registered in their house. That is good practice, which should be replicated throughout the country.

Finally, I would just say to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that if the looks on the faces of the Liberal Democrats at the count in Sheffield on 11 June were those of people who had just scored a spectacular success at the ballot box, I would hate to see the looks on the faces of those who had just lost an election that they clearly expected to win.

4.26 pm
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

If this debate has one result, it will be that we all take the electoral system and its integrity more seriously, and I welcome that. In the interests of time I will confine my remarks primarily to my experience in the all-postal pilot region of the east midlands, where I live. What took place shook my own and my constituents' faith in the integrity of the process—so much so that even though I had probably voted more often by post than in person in the past 40 years, I went to the assistance and delivery point and put my ballot in the box, along with some 7 per cent. of those who voted in my area.

I do not like getting letters from constituents enclosing spoiled ballot papers with their protest about what they have been asked to do. There are three main reasons for the situation. First, the pilots were overambitious and, the therefore, under-explained to the electorate. Secondly, the traditional and still generally preferred default option of going to vote in person was withdrawn. Thirdly, when I first voted by post 40 years ago, there were perhaps 500,000 postal votes in the general election. This time, there were 14 million in the pilot areas alone, with probably some 17 million overall. It is a simple issue of scale.

I first became aware of problems with ballot papers when my agent alerted me to them of about half past 11 on Wednesday 26 May. By fluke, I had the chance of a long-odds question to the Prime Minister and I was able to raise the issue with him that morning. It was clear that he had already been briefed about the problems that had developed; the alarm bells had obviously started to ring. For various reasons—I shall not go into them now, although I have a full report to share with the Minister—none of the ballots in South Northamptonshire, which is one or the districts in my constituency, the other being Daventry, was delivered until 2 June. The bulk of the ballots appeared on 3 June, and a limited number trickled in up to the weekend. It was an appalling start to the process, although it was not necessarily wholly the responsibility of Ministers. It was redeemed by sterling work by the two local returning officers and their staff in Daventry and South Northamptonshire, who worked long hours, not only on election night but over an extended period to put matters right.

Several issues for Ministers arise. First, they have to face the costs of the system. I have had a helpful response to a written question from the Minister, saying that the Government will meet any reasonable exceptional costs. If we are to do this again in future, we will have to have more assistance and delivery points, and the budget will have to be extended to cover them. When I looked at the figures, almost all the costs allocated to my district council were for the printing of ballots and the postal contract. After staff were taken into account, no exceptional costs were included.

Secondly, Ministers must understand that time is critical in the process. The delay of a week reduced the number of days for turning round ballot papers to five, which made things extremely difficult for people who were on holiday. I am slightly worried about the Post Office itself—the Minister was rather complacent on that point; for example, I understand that its helpline to returning officers was shut over the weekend.

My impression is that the Electoral Commission was not very active during the election, but it must take into account all the representations and experience that have built up. I am concerned about double registrations. Like many Members, I received two Euro votes and tore one up. I am sure we all did that, but the fact that such an occasion could arise is worrying.

The whole exercise was an object lesson in not getting things right first time. In a sense, of course, that is what happens in a pilot. However, there are real worries about abuse. According to the Daventry returning officer, turnout rose, although not in all wards and not solely due to all-postal voting—his comment, not mine. That higher turnout came at the price of some public confidence in the system. The ballot turned into a dull administrative exercise instead of having the important element of ritual and performance.

My electors deserve their right to choose and to be able to go to the polling station on election day—and, when the time comes, to turn out en masse to dismiss this Government of failed initiatives.

4.31 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

We have had a far more interesting debate than the extraordinarily complacent reply delivered by the Minister in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) indicated. Concerns about the pilots were raised on both sides of the House and, despite the Minister's complacency about our electoral system, the state of the electoral roll, the state of postal voting and the conduct of his electoral pilots leave much to be desired.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) complained that the debate had been too party political, but I have to tell him that many people are concerned that the Government are using and abusing the electoral system for their political ends, as I shall explain. It pains me to say that; it is a sad state of affairs when things come to that pass.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) raised important points about the additional costs of the pilots and the Government must address those. He was right to point out that the pilots were over-ambitious. We all knew that the pilots were overambitious. Evidence to the Select Committee was that the pilots were over-ambitious. The Electoral Commission, which the Government set up to advise them, told the Government—[Interruption.] Whether we want to keep the commission or not—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Jenkin

Whether we want to keep the Electoral Commission or not, the Minister and his party set it up, presumably so that the Government could take its advice. However, they do not take the commission's advice. The Government ignored its advice about the number of pilots. They ignored the evidence given by the printers to the Select Committee that they would get in a mess. By playing fast and loose with our electoral system, the Government have paid a heavy political price in the perception of their fitness to govern, but the British people, too, have paid a heavy political price in the credibility of our electoral system.

We have heard of postmen being offered £500 to hand over sacks of uncompleted ballot papers, of a postman in south Liverpool being mugged for the ballot papers he was delivering, of the police launching allegations of malpractice in Bradford, of Burnley police planning to question 60 people about 170 suspect proxy votes, of abandoned sacks of uncompleted ballot papers being found in Blackpool, of dead people suddenly coming to life and voting, and of intimidation in Burnley, Bradford, Derby, Oldham, and Rochdale—to name but a few places.

The system of all-postal voting allows possibly countless instances of intimidation and breach of secrecy in the home or the community that may never be reported or come to light. If the Minister thinks that the only speeding offences committed on the roads are those caught by the cameras and the police, he is living in another world. [Interruption.] Listen to the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, quoted by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who said—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the Minister wishes to intervene, he ought to stand up in the usual way and intervene properly. Continual chattering from the Front Bench in that way disrupts the debate.

Mr. Jenkin

My comments must be getting under the Minister's skin, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Labour leader of Birmingham city council said—I quote from memory—that the law is so general that almost anything is allowed. The problems of gathering evidence and prosecuting are very difficult bearing in mind that evidence that will carry a conviction beyond all reasonable doubt is needed. So what is needed is not post-operative care of the electoral system after the elections have taken place, using the courts and criminal prosecutions and investigations, but an electoral system that pre-empts the problems that may arise. That has singularly failed to happen in the postal pilot schemes.

Andrew Bennett


Mr. Jenkin

I will give way very briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but this is the only time that I shall give way.

Andrew Bennett

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what he has just said is nonsense? He talks about postal ballots, but his example from Birmingham has nothing to do with postal ballots. Will he address what the Conservative party said when postal voting was extended? None of the concerns that he is expressing now were expressed in any of those debates.

Mr. Jenkin

With respect, we expressed very strong concerns about conducting such a widespread so-called pilot that involved a third of the English electorate; but yes, we were open-minded about those postal pilots. We approached them in a thoroughly non-partisan manner. The Government politicised them by forcing up the number of regions. We know why they did so: they wanted to boost the turnout in Labour northern areas of the country in a very difficult election in which they got smashed even then. The problem is that the Government have been gerrymandering the process for their own political ends and even ignoring their own Electoral Commission, which they set up for the purpose of advising them.

We have heard of plenty examples of people being disfranchised because of the sheer scale and complexity of the task of printing and distributing some 83 million pieces of paper, of ballot papers being delivered late or not at all, of incomprehensible instructions on ballot packs, incomplete ballot packs or ballot packs missing ballot papers or other vital pieces of paper. Despite all that, the Minister felt able to issue a written statement yesterday, and I shall quote from it: The elections were successfully completed."—[Official Report, 21 June 2004; Vol. 422, c. 72WS.] Well, we have heard about spin, but that is taking spin to new lengths.

I very much regret that I missed some of the speech by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff), but from the account of his speech given to me by my colleague, he certainly confirmed that what the Minister described as a myth is, in fact, dangerously true, given the problems in his constituency and, of course, elsewhere. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) described the Minister's statement as "ludicrous" in the Yorkshire Post this morning and said that the all-postal pilots led to "cash and carry democracy" in his constituency. [Interruption.] Yes, just dismiss him; he is just another Tory clone.

However much turnout may be increased by all-postal voting, it cannot be justified if the integrity of the voting process is compromised or public confidence is undermined. That is the real lesson that needs to be learned from the pilots. This is a very serious matter because voting in person and in secret is the very essence of democracy. Even the most cynical politicians and voters approach a real ballot box with real reverence. Our voting system should not be made the plaything of a single political party.

We have heard endlessly that the Minister's statement made great play of the increased turnout, but what evidence is there that all-postal voting is the key factor in the increase? The Government's claim that all-postal voting doubled turnout is, of course, not borne out by the facts; it is based on a completely false comparison. That point has been well made by many hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. The turnout in the pilot regions was a mere 5 per cent. higher than in the non-pilot regions. The Minister shakes his head, but that is a fact. The experiment could not be better controlled than by running it in some regions and not in others. I acknowledge that, yes, there was a bigger increase in turnout in the postal regions than in the non-postal regions, but not by 100 per cent.—not by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, the increase was in Labour areas where turnout tends to be lower, and we know why the Minister wanted to increase the turnout in those areas more quickly than in others.

Even a Minister—the Minister for Pensions—said that to raise turnout, initiatives such as postal voting were "simply not good enough". The Secretary of State for Education and Skills admitted: Generally, I don't think the experiments are the answer to voter apathy, and he is a member of the Cabinet, not another Tory myth maker, as suggested by the Minister. The evidence so far suggests that once the novelty of postal voting has worn off, turnout will begin to fall away. That experience has been borne out in other countries. One thing is clear from the all-postal pilot schemes run in the elections: public confidence in the electoral system has been seriously undermined. If the Government had set out to create chaos and confusion, they could not have done a better job.

The scope for malpractice in the regional referendums threatens to be even higher. Public apathy towards the proposals for regional assemblies means that few will care what happens to their ballot papers. There will be an opportunity for what is becoming known as "vote harvesting". The hon. Member for North Cornwall did not address that in his support for all-postal ballots. Supposing the real interest in the ballots is only, say, 20 per cent. participation, what happens to the 80 per cent. of ballot papers that are sent out willy-nilly? Unscrupulous individuals will go about collecting uncompleted ballot papers from people who are not interested in using them. Once again, the Government will send out live authorised ballot papers across the north of England like confetti. Once again, the front pages of local and national newspapers are likely to be flooded with stories of corruption, intimidation and fraud.

The only way to avoid that situation is to restore the choice and right to vote in person at the polling station, as my hon. Friends the Members for South Staffordshire s (Sir Patrick Cormack), for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and for Daventry (Mr Boswell) said. No one should be issued with a ballot paper unless they identify themselves in person at the polling station on the day or request a postal ballot paper on the proper form. The methods and checks on voter registration and postal voting in Northern Ireland have much to commend themselves, and I ask the Minister to consider them carefully, as also recommended by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Dame Marion Roe). The way in which elections are conducted there makes Labour's all-postal ballots look like a complete shambles organised by some petty dictatorship.

What possible justification could there now be for conducting referendums on constitutional change, no less, by a flawed method in which people in the three referendum regions can have little, if any, confidence? The ballot box was good enough for referendums on the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, so surely it is good enough for referendums on regional assemblies. But it seems that it is not and the regional referendums must be fixed, like the turnout in the recent elections.

Labour's proposals for elected regional assemblies have been received with the most astonishing outburst of apathy from the people of the north. The Government favour all-postal voting in the vain hope that they will boost the turnout to disguise that apathy. The Minister admitted that the result of the referendums would have to be ignored in the event of a derisory turnout, although he always refuses to identify the meaning of the word "derisory". Ministers know that they can expect few favours from the Prime Minister if they deliver yet another kicking for the Labour party so close to the general election. The decision to conduct the referendums by all-postal ballot was only announced last October, well over a year after the production of the White Paper on regional government. Why then? Because the results of the "Your Region, Your Say" sounding exercise proved to be truly derisory with just 8,500 responses from a potential population of 40 million people, and that is the basis on which the Government are going ahead with the regional referendums.

At this point, I had intended to deliver this sentence: "The Government are determined to hold these referendums by all-postal ballot come hell or high water, simply to avoid humiliation at the ballot box", but the Minister changed the story. He generously gave a statement suggesting that the Government would consider calling off the referendums if there was sufficient doubt about the reliability of all-postal voting. That is a serious development because, as I said in an intervention on him, it calls the holding of the referendums into question, and we know that many of his colleagues are dying to bury them before the Government are humiliated again. However, would that effectively transfer the decision about whether the referendums should go ahead to the Electoral Commission? Would it advise the Government whether it is safe to proceed with them? What would happen to the information campaign? Are the Government going to spend all that money on propaganda at the taxpayer's expense only to cancel the referendums, and what will the people of the north and, indeed, the taxpayer say about that?

Mr. Raynsford

We are providing information.

Mr. Jenkin

It is propaganda.

Is the real agenda even more cynical than it is incompetent? First, the Government want to run a propaganda campaign, then test the water with a few opinion polls to find out whether the referendums are winnable, and pull them if they are not. There is a perfectly respectable alternative—hold the referendums and use a conventional ballot box. We do not want them to be cancelled. The people of the north have been promised that choice, so why not hold the referendums on the basis of a reliable system? One of the highest duties of Government is to nurture and protect our democracy, but the Labour Government are guilty of wanton dereliction of that duty. New Labour chooses political advantage at the expense of principle, corruption at the expense of security, and opportunism at the expense of public confidence. Only by restoring the rights of voters to vote in person, in secret, at the ballot box on the day of the poll can we restore confidence in our voting system. That is what the Government should do in the regional referendums in the autumn, and new Labour should stop playing fast and loose with our democracy.

4.46 pm
The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

Neither the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) nor the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) helped to promote a proper and mature debate on an important subject because, in both cases, they chose to go over the top with ill-judged and inaccurate scaremongering.

This has been a revealing debate about the Opposition's inadequacies. A range of issues has been raised and various points of view have been expressed, and I shall start with something that should command consensus. There is a large measure of agreement that the health of our democracy has been threatened—I will not go any further because, unlike the hon. Gentlemen, I do not believe in overstatement. The health of our democracy has been threatened—not undermined—by falling levels of participation and engagement, symbolised by declining turnout at elections, both national and local, which has rightly prompted expressions of concern across the political spectrum. I therefore hope that we all agree that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

When we try to identify solutions, I grant that there are bound to be differences of opinion. Some people believe that the system of representative democracy that was entirely fit for the purpose 150 years ago is no longer as effective a means of responding to the electorate's concerns as it was in its Victorian and early 20th-century heyday. In the absence of new ways of engaging the public between elections as well as at elections, we will not succeed in reversing the trend of declining participation. Other people, particularly the Liberal Democrats, have a touching faith in the supposed redemptive powers of proportional representation, despite strong evidence to the contrary that demonstrates that declining trends of participation apply across Europe, irrespective of the electoral system, whether first past the post or proportional representation. Others believe that we need to address the means by which people express their preferences, which obviously means offering alternative voting options. The Government have been exploring such options for four years. In 2000, we ran a series of pilots that included different times and locations for voting as well as the all-postal option. In 2002, we repeated the pilots, with more extensive options for all-postal ballots, and we added electronic options, including voting by mobile phone and via the internet. In 2003 we ran an even more ambitious pilot programme with extensive all-postal and electronic voting options.

The Electoral Commission monitored and evaluated the 2002 and 2003 pilots. It was not in existence in time to monitor the 2000 pilots. Its conclusion at the end of the process was clear: that all-postal voting had demonstrated the greatest positive impact on increasing turnout. In its report on the 2003 pilots the Electoral Commission not only concluded that all-postal pilots were very successful in substantially increasing turnout, but even more significantly, recommended that in future all-postal ballots should become the norm for local government elections—not, I hasten to add, a case of the Government seeking to impose that, as was suggested in the debate, but a proposal from the Electoral Commission.

The Electoral Commission's report, "The Shape of Elections to Come", was published less than a year ago. What was the reaction of the official Opposition to the recommendation that all-postal voting should be the norm at all future local government elections? Did they object? Did they complain? Did they express fears about threats to the integrity of the polling process? No, they did not. They said nothing. To be fair to the official Opposition, they may have been a little distracted at the time by their plots to get rid of their then party leader, so perhaps we must allow that they were diverted.

However, we now have a clear example of an Opposition presented with pilots in 2000, 2002 and 2003 and a recommendation from the Electoral Commission for universal all-postal elections for local authorities who raised no objections at all, but offer the House today a concoction of exaggerated and mostly unsubstantiated claims and scaremongering and an extraordinarily ill-judged attack on the Electoral Commission itself. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton told the House he did not care what the Electoral Commission says. I believe that he will deeply regret that, and I hope he will feel ashamed and embarrassed by that remark. Fortunately, that tone did not continue for much of the debate.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) claimed that we were overstating the improvement in voting—

Mr. Alan Duncan

I am happy to say again that when the facts are staring us in the face that there is massive scope for electoral fraud, the possibility that there may be an inquiry does not matter. We can see the facts already. That is the point I am making.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman did not show much respect for facts in the farrago of exaggerated claims in his speech, and it is a telling comment about him and his party that he cannot bring himself to express regret for that extraordinarily ill-judged attack on the Electoral Commission.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall expressed the view that we were overstating the extent of improvement in voting in the all-postal pilot areas, and the hon. Member for North Essex made a similar claim, so let me give the figures. In the four pilot regions the average percentage turnout in the 1999 European elections was 20.2 per cent. This year it was 42.6 per cent.—an increase of more then 100 per cent. The increase in the total non-pilot regions—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Essex, who had a lot to say about this and claimed that we were statistically wrong, should listen, and he will realise that it is he who is wrong.

In the total non-pilot regions, the percentage in 1999 was 25.9 per cent. This year it was 37.2 per cent., so there was an increase of about 50 per cent. in turnout in the non-pilot regions and an increase of more than 100 per cent. in the pilot regions. That clearly demonstrates that there was a significantly higher turnout in the pilot regions and puts the argument to bed.

Mr. Tyler

That does not put the argument to bed at all. There was just a 5 per cent. difference in turnout. The reason why the increase in the northern areas was so great was that it was so low last time, because it was a foregone conclusion that Labour would win.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman has not been listening. The turnout in the non-pilot regions last time was 25.9 per cent., also very low indeed, but it did not increase by anywhere near the same proportion as in the pilot regions.

The hon. Gentleman went on a long diversion about the performance of YouGov. There seems to be a personal vendetta there, which I do not intend to follow. At the end of his speech, however, he said that he felt concerned about the number of assistance and delivery points available at the time of an all-postal referendum or election. That is a valid point and I share that concern. It was echoed by many other Members, including the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), in the debate, and I undertake to consider it further with the Electoral Commission. If there is to be a repeat of all-postal processes, we will need to consider that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) expressed serious concerns about alleged abuse of postal voting in Birmingham. Of course, Birmingham was not a pilot area, which reinforces the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who said that any problems that may exist with postal voting are not unique to electoral pilots, but apply to postal voting wherever it exists. As a country, we have made the option of postal voting available for a very long time, for good reasons. It is important that any allegation such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath raised are reported and investigated. I fully share his concern that proper safeguards against fraud should be in place, but it is also important that we should be careful not to overstate the problem or give any impression, whether intentionally or not, that particular sections of our community are more prone than others to behave in a fraudulent or corrupt way.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Dame Marion Roe) expressed concerns about the election register and its integrity. Over many years, there have been the sort of experiences that she has described in respect of electoral registration officers providing a review of the names on the register and significantly reducing the numbers. That is an obvious and important safeguard against people being incorrectly registered, often because they have been allowed to remain on the register for longer than they should have done. In some cases, that happens for good reasons, such as when there was no evidence that they had moved. In other cases, it can happen through a lack of proper diligence. The hon. Lady raised an important point, and it is right that safeguards on registration should be in place.

The Electoral Commission has proposed a change in the electoral registration system to individual registration to improve security. There is merit in the principle, but as the contribution from Northern Ireland highlighted, there is a worry that moving to different systems, including individual registration, can mean that a number of people who should genuinely be on the register are left off it, for a variety of other reasons. We need to look at that issue carefully, but there is merit in the proposal. We are also looking with the Electoral Commission and others at means of securing a nationally consistent register, although it will be locally compiled, to ensure that problems such as dual registration can be picked up and that safeguards and checks against them can be put in place.

In a rather wide-ranging speech covering a lot of issues that I do not have time to deal with, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) raised doubts about the all-postal ballots, but failed to comment on the fact that the turnout in his region was the highest in percentage of any region in England. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made some common-sense observations on factors affecting turnout, reminding us that we should not rush for simplistic answers. His concern about people not being able to vote in person was echoed by others, and I have already commented on that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) made a series of well-informed observations as Chairman of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government, which has conducted a thorough inquiry. I appreciate his support for pilots, and agree that their purpose is to test what works and what does not. We should not necessarily replicate all the features of previous pilots. As he rightly said, there is a need for a full evaluation. I would like to respond to the other points that have been made, but I do not have time.

Unlike the official Opposition, this Government are committed to tackling the problem of disengagement and low participation in the democratic process. We have piloted options for new ways of voting, and we have proposed constitutional reforms to bring power closer to the people. This autumn, we are pledged to give the people of the three northern regions the option of a vote in a referendum on whether to establish elected regional assemblies. We have proposed that that should be done by all-postal ballot in order to maximise participation, and that announcement was welcomed by the Electoral Commission.

To meet our commitment to hold those referendums, however, we need to move forward with the necessary orders before the House rises for the summer recess. At the same time, we recognise the concerns of those who have questioned whether it is appropriate to approve the orders before the Electoral Commission has reported on this summer's pilots. Of course, there are differences between a referendum and an election. In a referendum, there are no candidates seeking election, and for that reason, the risk of fraud is felt by some to be less. Nevertheless, we take the views of the Electoral Commission very seriously, and we are prepared to give a clear undertaking not to proceed with all-postal referendums as planned if it produces convincing evidence leading to the conclusion that it would be unsafe to do so.

That is the proper reaction of a Government who are committed to encouraging participation in the democratic process and equally committed to protecting the integrity of the balloting process. By contrast, the Opposition have pursued a crudely opportunistic stance that deserves to be rejected by this House with contempt.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 184, Noes 308.

Division No. 199] [4:59 pm
Allan, Richard Cormack, Sir Patrick
Amess, David Cotter, Brian
Ancram, rh Michael Curry, rh David
Arbuthnot, rh James Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford)
Bacon, Richard
Baker, Norman Davis, rh David (Haltemprice & Howden)
Baldry, Tony
Barker, Gregory Djanogly, Jonathan
Baron, John (Billericay) Dorrell, rh Stephen
Beggs, Roy (E Antrim) Doughty, Sue
Beith, rh A. J. Duncan, Alan (Rutland)
Bellingham, Henry Duncan, Peter (Galloway)
Bercow, John Duncan Smith, rh lain
Beresford, Sir Paul Evans, Nigel
Blunt, Crispin Fabricant, Michael
Boswell, Tim Fallon, Michael
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Field, Mark (Cities of London & Westminster)
Bottomley, rh Virginia (SW Surrey)
Flight, Howard
Brady, Graham Flook, Adrian
Brake, Tom (Carshalton) Forth, rh Eric
Brazier, Julian Foster, Don (Bath)
Breed, Colin Fox, Dr. Liam
Brooke, Mrs Annette L. Francois, Mark
Burnett, John Gale, Roger (N Thanet)
Burns, Simon Garnier, Edward
Burnside, David George, Andrew (St. Ives)
Burstow, Paul Gibb, Nick (Bognor Regis)
Butterfill, Sir John Gidley, Sandra
Calton, Mrs Patsy Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Cameron, David Goodman, Paul
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies (NE Fife) Gray, James (N Wilts)
Green, Damian (Ashford)
Cash, William Greenway, John
Chidgey, David Grieve, Dominic
Chope, Christopher Hague, rh William
Clappison, James Hammond, Philip
Clarke, rh Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Harvey, Nick
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hayes, John (S Holland)
Collins, Tim Heald, Oliver
Heath, David Robathan, Andrew
Hendry, Charles Robertson, Hugh (Faversham & M-Kent)
Hermon, Lady
Hoban, Mark (Fareham) Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Hogg, rh Douglas Roe, Dame Marion
Holmes, Paul Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Horam, John (Orpington) Sanders, Adrian
Howard, rh Michael Sayeed, Jonathan
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Selous, Andrew
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Shephard, rh Mrs Gillian
Hunter, Andrew Shepherd, Richard
Jack, rh Michael Simmonds, Mark
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Simpson, Keith (M-Norfolk)
Jenkin, Bernard Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns & Kincardine)
Johnson, Boris (Henley)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast S)
Keetch, Paul Soames, Nicholas
Kennedy, rh Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness) Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Spicer, Sir Michael
Key, Robert (Salisbury) Spring, Richard
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Stanley, rh Sir John
Kirkwood, Sir Archy Steen, Anthony
Knight, rh Greg (E Yorkshire) Streeter, Gary
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Stunell, Andrew
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Swayne, Desmond
Lamb Norman Swire, Hugo (E Devon)
Lansley, Andrew Syms, Robert
Laws, David (Yeovil) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Leigh Edward Taylor, John (Solihull)
Letwin rh Oliver Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Lewis, Dr. Julian (New Forest E) Taylor, Dr. Richard (Wyre F)
Liddell-Grainger, Ian Taylor, Sir Teddy
Lidington, David Teather, Sarah
Loughton, Tim Tonge, Dr. Jenny
Luff, Peter (M-Worcs) Tredinnick, David
McIntosh, Miss Anne Trend, Michael
Mackay, rh Andrew Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Maclean, rh David Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
McLoughlin, Patrick Tyrie, Andrew
Malins, Humfrey Viggers, Peter
Maude, rh Francis Waterson, Nigel
Mawhinney, rh Sir Brian Watkinson, Angela
May, Mrs Theresa Webb, Steve (Northavon)
Moore, Michael Whittingdale, John
Moss, Malcolm Wiggin, Bill
Murrison, Dr. Andrew Willetts, David
Oaten, Mark (Winchester) Williams, Roger (Brecon)
Öpik, Lembit Willis, Phil
Osborne, George (Tatton) Winterton, Ann (Congleton)
Ottaway, Richard Winterton, Sir Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Page, Richard
Paice, James Yeo, Tim (S Suffolk)
Pickles, Eric Young, rh Sir George
Portillo, rh Michael Younger-Ross, Richard
Prisk, Mark (Hertford) Tellers for the Ayes:
Pugh, Dr. John Mr. David Ruffley and
Rendel, David Mr. John Randall
Abbott, Ms Diane Beckett, rh Margaret
Ainger, Nick Bell, Sir Stuart
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE) Bennett, Andrew
Alexander, Douglas Benton, Joe (Bootle)
Allen, Graham Berry, Roger
Anderson, rh Donald (Swansea E) Best, Harold
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale & Darwen) Betts, Clive
Blackman, Liz
Armstrong, rh Ms Hilary Blears, Ms Hazel
Atkins, Charlotte Blizzard, Bob
Bailey, Adrian Boateng, rh Paul
Baird, Vera Borrow, David
Barnes, Harry Bradley, rh Keith (Withington)
Barron, rh Kevin Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Bayley, Hugh Bradshaw, Ben
Beard, Nigel Brennan, Kevin
Browne, Desmond Gilroy, Linda
Bryant, Chris Godsiff, Roger
Buck, Ms Karen Goggins, Paul
Burden, Richard Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Burgon, Colin Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Byers, rh Stephen Grogan, John
Caborn, rh Richard Hain, rh Peter
Cairns, David Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hamilton, David (Midlothian)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Casale, Roger Hanson, David
Caton, Martin Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Cawsey, Ian (Brigg) Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart)
Challen, Colin Havard, Dai (Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Clapham, Michael Healey, John
Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough) Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clark, Dr. Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Hendrick, Mark
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Hepburn, Stephen
Clarke, rh Tom (Coatbridge & Chryston) Heppell, John
Hesford, Stephen
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Clelland, David Heyes, David
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V) Hinchliffe, David
Coffey, Ms Ann Hodge, Margaret
Cohen, Harry Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall)
Coleman, lain Hoon, rh Geoffrey
Colman, Tony Hope, Phil (Corby)
Connarty, Michael Hopkins, Kelvin
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Howarth, rh Alan (Newport E)
Cook, rh Robin (Livingston) Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E)
Cooper, Yvette
Corston, Jean Howells, Dr. Kim
Cousins, Jim Hoyle, Lindsay
Cranston, Ross Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cruddas, Jon Humble, Mrs Joan
Cryer, Ann (Keighley) Hutton, rh John
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Iddon, Dr. Brian
Cummings, John Illsley, Eric
Cunningham, Jim (Coventry S) Irranca-Davies, Huw
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead & Highgate)
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Dalyell, Tam Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jamieson, David
David, Wayne Jenkins, Brian
Davies, rh Denzil (Llanelli) Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Hatfield)
Dawson, Hilton Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dean, Mrs Janet Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dismore, Andrew Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dobbin, Jim (Heywood) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Dobson, rh Frank Jowell, rh Tessa
Donohoe, Brian H. Joyce, Eric (Falkirk W)
Doran, Frank Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Dowd, Jim (Lewisham W) Keen, Alan (Feltham)
Drew, David (Stroud) Keen, Ann (Brentford)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Kelly, Ruth (Bolton W)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Khabra, Piara S.
Efford, Clive Kidney, David
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley E) Kilfoyle, Peter
Ewing, Annabelle King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green & Bow)
Field, rh Frank (Birkenhead)
Fitzpatrick, Jim Knight Jim (S Dorset)
Flint, Caroline Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Follett, Barbara Lammy, David
Foster, rh Derek Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Foster, Michael (Worcester) Laxton, Bob (Derby N)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings & Rye) Lazarowicz, Mark
Lepper, David
Francis, Dr. Hywel Leslie, Christopher
Gapes, Mike (Ilford S) Levitt, Tom (High Peak)
Gerrard, Neil Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Gibson, Dr. Ian Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Liddell, rh Mrs Helen Picking, Anne
Love, Andrew Pickthall, Colin
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) Pike, Pets (Burnley)
McAvoy, Thomas Plaskitt, James
McCabe, Stephen Pollard, Kerry
McDonagh, Siobhain Pond, Chris (Gravesham)
MacDonald, Calum Pope, Greg (Hyndburn)
McDonnell, John Prescott, rh John
McFall, rh John Primarolo rh Dawn
McGuire, Mrs Anne Prosser, Gwyn
Mclsaac, Shona Purnell, James
McKenna, Rosemary Quin, rh Joyce
Mackinlay, Andrew Quinn, Lawrie
McNulty, Tony Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N)
MacShane, Denis Raynsford, rh Nick
Mactaggart, Fiona Reed, Andy (Loughborough)
McWalter, Tony Reid, rh Dr. John (Hamilton N & Bellshill)
McWilliam, John
Mallaber, Judy Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)
Mandelson, rh Peter
Mann, John (Bassetlaw) Rooney, Terry
Marris, Rob (Wolverh'ton SW) Roy, Frank (Motherwell)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Ruane, Chris
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Ruddock, Joan
Martlew, Eric Russell, Ms Christine (City of
Merron, Gillian Chestsr)
Milburn, rh Alan Ryan, Joan (Enfield N)
Miller, Andrew Salter, Martin
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Savidge, Malcolm
Moffatt, Laura Sawford Phil
Mole, Chris Sedgemore, Brian
Moran, Margaret Shaw, Jonathan
Morgan, Julie Sheerman, Barry
Morley, Elliot Sheridan, Jim
Mountford, Kali Shipley, Ms Debra
Mudie, George Short, rh Clare
Munn, Ms Meg Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Skinner, Dennis
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Soley, Clive
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Southworth, Helen
Olner, Bill Steinberg, Gerry
O'Neill, Martin Stewart, David (Inverness E & Lochaber)
Organ, Diana
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr) Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Owen, Albert Stinchcombe, Paul
Palmer, Dr. Nick Stringer Graham
Perham, Linda Stuart, Ms Gisela
Tami, Mark (Alyn) Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Taylor, rh Ann (Dewsbury) Wicks, Malcolm
Taylor, Dari (Stockton S) Williams, rh Alan (Swansea W)
Taylor, David (NW Leics) Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon)
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W) Wills, Michael
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion) Winnick, David
Timms, Stephen Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Touhig, Don (Islwyn)
Trickett, Jon Wishart, Pete
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE) Wood, Mike (Batley)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptown) Woodward, Shaun
Woolas, Phil
Turner, Neil (Wigan) Worthington, Tony
Twigg, Derek (Halton) Wright, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Tynan, Bill (Hamilton S) Wright, David (Telford)
Walley, Ms Joan Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Ward, Claire Wyatt, Derek
Wareing, Robert N.
Watts, David Tellers for the Noes:
Weir, Michael Ms Bridget Prentice and
White, Brian Vernon Coaker

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.ared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House recognises that the all postal pilots in June 2004 were part of a process of testing alternative voting mechanisms for the benefit of making voting easier and more convenient for electors; further recognises that turnout in European elections had fallen to its lowest ever level in 1999 and that all postal pilots assisted in making the 2004 European election turnout the UK's highest ever; welcomes the fact that voter participation for the European elections in the pilot regions more than doubled in 2004 compared with 1999; believes that allegations of fraud have been reported disproportionately and that there is currently no evidence to show that all postal ballots are more susceptible to fraud than traditional elections; recognises that further reforms will be necessary to widen participation and engagement in the electoral system; and further believes that the integrity of elections and referendums, including the proposed referendums on elected regional assemblies, is adversely affected by declining turnout which puts in jeopardy the democratic mandate.