HC Deb 29 June 2004 vol 423 cc144-7
18. Ann Winterton (Congleton (Con.)

What assessment the Department has made of the efficacy of the recent trials for postal voting in the north-west of England. [180752]

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

The recent trials of postal voting in four regions of England proved worth while. Turnouts increased throughout the country, but were appreciably higher in the all-postal areas, where they doubled in comparison with those for the previous European elections. The Electoral Commission is statutorily obliged to evaluate the pilots. No doubt lessons will be learned from its report, which is due in mid-September.

Ann Winterton

Experience has shown that turnouts increase initially after all-postal ballots, but then fall back. Turnout increased on this occasion because there were two elections on the same day, the European and the local elections. Will the Minister acknowledge the incidence of costly administrative chaos, postal delays in some areas and alleged fraud? Will he ensure that while opportunities for postal voting will continue to be provided, the traditional democratic right to vote in person at a polling station will always be maintained in the future?

Mr. Leslie

Of course the right to cast a vote in the polling booth was maintained in the all-postal ballots, via the assistance and delivery points. There was an issue over whether there were enough of those, and we could think about that for the future.

Part of the reason for the increased turnout was our decision to combine the European and local elections, but comparison of pilot with non-pilot regions shows an appreciably higher turnout than under the conventional arrangements. We organise pilots because we want to learn lessons. We are trying out these arrangements because we want to find ways of dealing with the historic lower turnouts that have occurred in recent elections. I think that that is the right thing to do, and it has certainly proved worth while.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

The trials were very successful in Leicester. Turnout increased in all three Leicester constituencies—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Members must let the hon. Gentleman put his question. When the Minister replies, he too should be heard.

Keith Vaz

Turnout was up in all three Leicester constituencies, especially Leicester, South, where a lot of people turned out to vote against the cuts instituted by the Liberal Democrat administration. However, will my hon. Friend look at the guidance in respect of making ballot boxes available on the day for those who missed the postal deadline? Only one ballot box was provided by the returning officer, which was at the town hall in the city centre. Parking was extremely difficult, so many people could not return their ballot papers. Could we not have, at the very minimum, a ballot box in each parliamentary constituency to make them more accessible to those who cannot vote except on polling day?

Mr. Leslie

The point of having an all-postal pilot was to test the extent to which the dispatch of ballot papers to the electorate through the post helped to make it easier and more convenient for them to vote. If we had provided the same number of polling stations as before, it would have negated slightly the effect of testing the efficacy of all-postal balloting. I accept that many hon. Members have noted that they would have preferred more assistance and delivery points, and that is obviously something that will come out in the Electoral Commission's evaluation.

I also heard my hon. Friend's comments about the cuts that the Liberal Democrats have proposed in Leicester, but that is a debate for another day.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

It is extraordinary that the Government are yet again disregarding the views of the Electoral Commission in respect of the referendums.

May I take the Minister back to the statement that he made on 27 May? He said:

I am confident that the deadlines to hand over packs to the Royal Mail will be met."—[Official Report, 27 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1735.]

Will he confirm that the contracts let with Royal Mail required those packs to be in its hands on 25 May, two days before he made that statement? Will he apologise to the House for clearly misleading it in that respect? Will he tell us whether any penalty clauses are attached to the Royal Mail contracts, and if so, who will be responsible: the printers, the Government, whose fault this whole debacle was, or the hard-pressed council tax payers of the north of England?

Mr. Leslie

What a shame that, in attempting to perpetuate the story about the supposed chaos and shambles of all-postal voting that both Opposition parties have tried to peddle, the hon. Gentleman seeks to accuse me of somehow misleading the House, which I certainly did not. I underlined the fact that in law, the ballot papers needed to be dispatched to the deliverers from the returning officers by midnight on 1 June. That is in fact what happened to all intents and purposes, and within a few hours of that deadline, the papers were issued. There may well have been different contractual arrangements from area to area and from returning officer to returning officer, but the legal position and legal requirements that I set out were absolutely clear. I am glad that that was a success and that we were able to ensure that those papers were issued, to all intents and purposes, by that deadline.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government's two main priorities in using postal voting are to ensure that a larger number of people use their vote, which is good for democracy, and to ensure the integrity of the vote? Later in the year, when we have the report showing the advantages, the disadvantages and where we can improve on what was done in June, may we have a full debate on it? There is merit in taking this matter forward and we can learn from what happened this month.

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend makes some reasonable points and I am sure that we will debate the Electoral Commission's report and evaluation in due course. From some of the comments from Opposition parties, one would have thought that we were criminal in trying to address the problems of lower turnout, engagement and participation by the electorate. We have come up with the solution of trying out new techniques to engage the public, while the Opposition parties have developed no ideas or proposals whatever to engage the public more in the electoral system. That is a great pity.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

With allegations of corruption, vote tampering and voter manipulation now growing, with 20,000 spoiled ballot papers in the north-west region alone, and with concerns about the huge confusion emanating from postal voting, is the Minister really going to maintain that a short-term, marginal, 5 per cent. improvement in turnout is worth the collapse of confidence in our voting system that postal voting could entail?

Mr. Leslie

The issues about spoiled ballot papers are separate from the constant repetition of claims of fraud and malpractice. I note that, again, the hon. Gentleman has produced no evidence, but is simply perpetuating rumour, story and things that have been heard on the grapevine. If that is good enough for the Opposition, it is certainly not good enough for the police, who need to see the evidence immediately—if the hon. Gentleman has those reports. I trust that he will now produce such evidence immediately to the police, if he has it. There have been no charges yet in respect of any electoral offences in the pilot regions and no legal proceedings, despite the scare stories and the doom and gloom that we heard from Opposition Members.

I accept that the Electoral Commission will need to look at the question of spoiled ballot papers; the witness statement requirement that was foisted on the Bill by Opposition Members may well be responsible for some of that.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

We all want to boost turnout, but why can we not pilot weekend voting? Why can we not pilot Thursday voting, but make Thursday a public holiday? There are alternative ways of approaching this issue, without jeopardising the secrecy of the ballot.

Mr. Leslie

Nobody has jeopardised the secrecy of the ballot, but I accept that my hon. Friend has other suggestions that he would like to try out. In fact, we trialled weekend voting in Watford in 2003, but no appreciable effect was proven there. The right approach is to test new arrangements that make it easier and more convenient for people to participate in elections, while always maintaining the security and safety of the electoral process.