HC Deb 24 March 2004 vol 419 cc1027-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Margaret Moran.]

9.1 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)

In the 2001 general election, voter turnout dropped to its lowest level since the advent of universal suffrage: just over half of those eligible to vote did so. There has been much discussion about low turnout and declining participation in elections. I am sure it is an issue that concerns us all. We speak and seek to govern for the majority, but we are fast approaching a situation in which the majority may not bother to vote at all.

The last general election saw a turnout of some 59.4 per cent.—a new record low, surpassing the previous low of 71.3 per cent. achieved in 1997. In local elections, particularly in local by-elections, we can only dream of such turnouts, as actual turnouts often average less than 40 per cent. In local authority by-elections, participation levels that were once unheard of, between 10 and 15 per cent., are pretty much run of the mill. The predictions for the future are that this trend of decline is set to continue, with pitiful turnouts predicted for the forthcoming European elections, which might be saved only by the fact that they are being held on the same day as the local elections, and probably a new low in the next general election.

We may well look back to the 1997 election, when 30 per cent. of the electorate did not vote, as some kind of golden age. That is a sad indictment of our current system, as we seem content that such a large proportion of our electorate did not take part in the process. We also seem content that a large and growing number of people do not even register in the first place. No doubt many hon. Members have looked at the electoral registers, as I have done, and seen examples of properties that we know are occupied, but which do not appear on the register. Some colleagues have seen quite sizeable drops in their electorate.

We require individuals by law to fill out registration forms and give correct information, yet we appear to do nothing about it if they do not. Arguably, we have never recovered from the effects of the poll tax and the huge numbers of people, particularly younger people, who left the register in an attempt to avoid the tax. A cynic might argue that that was one of the main aims of that Conservative policy.

What are we doing to encourage registration? Not a lot, I would say. Yes, the Electoral Commission has had poster campaigns and some councils are more diligent than others, but the reality is that we are only scratching the surface. Furthermore, when I asked the Department for Constitutional Affairs for an estimate of the extent of the problems that we face and what is being done about them, I was told that in the main, it does not keep such information. Why not? Unless we know the extent of the problem, we will never tackle it effectively.

Our last experience of elections in Wales was the Assembly elections last year. My party and I were pleased with the result, but I do not think that anyone could, or indeed should, find the turnout acceptable. My own seat held the unenviable record of the lowest turnout in Wales, of some 24.9 per cent.—less than a quarter of the electorate. Why was the turnout so poor? I am sure that we could all find reasons to explain away the lack of participation. In areas such as the north-east and the south-east of Wales, which voted against devolution in the first place, turnout was certainly lower than in the pro-devolution areas. Anglesey, Ynys Mon, had the highest turnout of just over 50 per cent., but still hardly a level that we can be pleased with.

The Assembly has an uphill battle to convince many people in the north that it is not just a Cardiff-based institution, and without doubt there is still a lack of understanding among the electorate as to exactly what its powers and responsibilities are. The method of election did not help, either, with a bizarre system of proportional representation that in many cases gave the losing candidates in the constituency election a seat in the Assembly through a back-door method of selection via the regional list.

In addition, there was the ludicrous situation of Clwyd, West, where the only candidate who stood a chance of not getting elected to the Assembly was the sitting Labour Member, as the Tory, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru candidates were all No. 1 on their party lists, and barring some miracle were certain to be elected. Despite rejecting those three candidates at the ballot box, the voters of Clwyd, West—and, indeed, the rest of north Wales—find themselves supposedly represented by those individuals in the Assembly. Furthermore, despite the fact that people voted by a clear majority for Labour on the party list in north Wales, not a single Labour list member was elected. Apparently, that is democracy in action, but I think that most people find it rather difficult to understand—or, more to the point, to justify.

There are lessons that we can learn from the Assembly elections, but we would be making a grave mistake if we believed that simply addressing those factors would make a meaningful difference to turnout. The problem is that we look to explain away poor turnouts on an election-by-election basis, and do not look at the long-term trend, which is getting worse. We are in denial, and like anybody in denial we look for excuses rather than addressing the problem.

In the 1997 general election, turnout was apparently low because Tory voters stayed at home. In 2001 they apparently did it again, and many Labour voters thought it was a foregone conclusion, so they did not vote either. That may or may not be true, but it does nothing to address the problem that we face. Likewise, we find further comfort in blaming the press and the media for encouraging cynicism and complacency among the electorate.

We have all become used to the accusations—"They're all the same. It doesn't matter which lot get elected, because they won't change anything. It's hardly worth bothering. They're not interested in ordinary people. They can't relate to you, particularly if you're young, and they don't care about the old. They're only in it for themselves." Oh, and by the way, we all spend at least 95 per cent. of our time on holiday, as Nicky Campbell never tires of telling us on Radio 5. Again, with the press that we have, I cannot see that changing in the foreseeable future. We will not return to the reverence with which the media used to treat politicians in the 1950s, and we should not do so. We must live with that situation; we must get on with it. We face a simple choice: either we accept the growing disengagement with the political process or we do something about it. The situation will not change by itself, and all the evidence points to its getting worse in the future. As individual politicians, we can only do so much. We can make ourselves more accessible, hold more surgeries, knock on more doors, consult more and listen more, but that does not necessarily mean that we can improve matters on our own. Because of their hard work and public standing, some hon. Members may be able to count on higher levels of personal support than others, which may enable them to hold their seats in difficult times and difficult elections for their parties. However, there is little evidence that individual politicians have any real impact on turnout itself—at least in a positive way.

Our attempts to improve turnout have therefore focused on changes to the mechanism of voting itself. Experiments with postal voting have, without doubt, proved successful, and I welcome the changes that have made postal voting easier. Where we have had all-out postal voting in local elections, there have been sharp increases in turnout, and I personally regret that we will not have postal votes in Wales this year. However, it will be some time before we can judge whether that is a short-term change in voting patterns or a significant breakthrough.

With postal voting, there is also concern among us, as politicians, that we will somehow lose control of the election process and that our traditional forms of campaigning must change. We would no doubt all have sleepless nights at the thought of voters filling out ballot papers and sending them off before we have had a chance to canvass them. However, would that not be a price worth paying if we could significantly improve participation in our elections?

I am further encouraged and drawn to postal voting by the opposition of the Conservative party—there must be something in it, if the Conservative party is against it. It therefore comes as little surprise that Conservatives in the other place are doing their best to derail our proposals.

Some would argue that all we must do is change the method of election from first past the post to some form of proportional representation, and suddenly large numbers of people would flock to polling stations and take part in the democratic process. Our experience in Wales, and indeed in Scotland, demonstrates that that is unlikely to be the case.

Arguments over voting systems have always tended to be carried out among academics rather than among people. I have never come across a dedicated non-voter who quotes the electoral system as their reason for not voting. Equally, reform of the other place, and some of our other hobby-horses in this House, are low down on their lists too. Ultimately, we must decide whether we are serious about increasing voter participation. If we are not, we must carry on as we are—perhaps we can tinker a bit here and there, with voting on Sundays, using the internet, voting at supermarkets and votes at 16, but we are still likely to see decline.

If we are serious about making a change, we must consider compulsion. To some, that would be an acceptance that we have failed in all other means of voter re-engagement—perhaps it would—and no doubt it will upset the liberal elite. However, are we really comfortable with a situation in which turnouts for future general elections may be less than 50 per cent, and perhaps in the long term even less than 40 per cent.? Are we really saying that it is too much to expect and require the citizens of this country to go out and vote once every four or five years to take part in the political process? Even if they choose ultimately to vote for "none of the above" and spoil their vote, is it such a great infringement of civil liberties? I think not.

Experience from around the world shows us that compulsory voting works, and is accepted by the citizens of countries where it operates. Voting is regarded not only as a right, but as a civic duty. For example, Australia has had compulsory voting for many years. There is a small fine for those who do not take part without a valid reason, but the numbers are not great. Nobody would argue that Australia is anything other than an open and democratic country, yet over the past 30 years it has consistently achieved turnouts of around 95 per cent. of the electorate. Australia's lowest turnout since 1972 was 94.2 per cent.—a level that we have never achieved, and will never achieve, unless we are prepared to change our present system.

America, on the other hand, illustrates the dangers of the direction in which we may be heading. Turnout in the congressional elections in 2002 was just 52 per cent. of the registered electorate; but when one looks at the percentage of voting age population—an estimate of those eligible to register to vote—the percentage drops to a staggering 36.5 per cent.

Requiring people to take part in the democratic process is not the thin end of the wedge of a totalitarian society—on the contrary, it engages people who would otherwise not take part in, and be ignored by, the political process. Importantly, it makes politicians and political parties seek to engage with the electorate as a whole, rather than only with those who vote. We need only look to America, where in certain states whole sections of the population are effectively disfranchised and ignored by the political parties. After all, why appeal, or have policies that appeal, to people who are not on the register and do not vote?

Even in this country, the employed are twice as likely to vote as the unemployed, the old more likely than the young, and the middle class more likely than the working class. There is a real danger that we in Britain could go down that road. We need seriously to explore and study the options surrounding compulsory voting, including incentive-based and penalty-based systems. The international evidence is there. We must find a reliable and workable solution to this long-term problem.

The Government rightly talk about the rights and responsibilities of our citizens. It is a right—a precious right—to be able to vote. In many countries, people are still fighting and dying in the pursuit of that right, yet many in this country simply cast it aside. With rights come responsibilities, and the time is now right for us to enshrine that responsibility in law.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing this opportunity to debate a vital issue that is essential to this Parliament namely, the degree to which we secure participation in our democratic system and in our elections. All hon. Members accept as a top priority the fact that if we do not have good levels of participation, that reflects ill on the nature of our society. A civilised society is one that has active citizenship and where, if elected representatives are to act with a strong mandate and to be held accountable for their actions, as many citizens as possible must be active and participating.

As my hon. Friend notes, turnout and participation varies enormously in many different ways. It varies from area to area and in terms of ethnicity, social class, educational background, occupational background and age. No matter which way one cuts the cake, there are different lessons to learn about the extent to which people are willing to participate. Of course, we as politicians have a key role—perhaps it is a burden on us all—in stimulating debate, making politics more interesting and presenting a real choice to the electorate. When we near general election periods, we naturally find that there is more interest among the population as they feel that their choice is more obvious. We do not do too badly in Britain in that respect.

By coincidence—or perhaps not, if my hon. Friend has timed his request for this Adjournment debate very well—the Electoral Commission and the Hansard Society launched a joint audit of political engagement today in Portcullis House. In it, they looked at a whole series of influences among the general population. A survey was undertaken, and my hon. Friend will be delighted to learn that the audit demonstrated that, for example, people who have recently had contact with their local Member of Parliament are much more likely to be satisfied with their performance than those who have not-62 per cent. were satisfied, as against 38 per cent. who were not. That is a nice thing to note. In fact, the audit report comments that familiarity with politicians…breeds favourability, not contempt. That is something of which we can all be proud.

Among the good things in the audit was the finding that 41 per cent. of people were satisfied with their own Member of Parliament, while just 13 per cent. were dissatisfied. It also found that people view individual Members of Parliament more favourably than MPs as a collective, and that 74 per cent. agree that voting is a duty, while 75 per cent. said that they wanted to have a say in how the country was run. There were, however, less good aspects to the findings. Only 50 per cent. of people said that they were interested in politics, and less than half the public say that they are well informed about politics, in terms of both their perceived and assessed knowledge. So the audit presents a mixed picture. I pay tribute to the Hansard Society and the Electoral Commission for their work on it.

I think that my hon. Friend would be the first to acknowledge that first-time voters are especially important in ensuring that we maintain the momentum in democratic participation. Research has shown that those who vote at the first opportunity tend to continue to participate on later occasions. Conversely, those who do not bother see no reason to change that habit, and tend to stay away from the ballot box on a more permanent basis.

Our approach has therefore been to attack this issue in a number of different ways, not least through schools. Citizenship education is just one of the mechanisms for raising awareness and educating people about how decisions are made, who makes them, why decision makers make their decisions and how they can be influenced. In England, we already have a good level of compulsory citizenship education for 11 to 14-year-olds. That has been the case since Sept 2002. There is no statutory curriculum in Scotland, but I understand that the Scottish Executive have produced guidance to ensure that the breadth of the curriculum includes social and democratic responsibilities. In Wales, my hon. Friend will know that citizenship education forms part of the personal and social education framework that was implemented in September 2000. In regard to Northern Ireland, I understand that our ministerial colleagues are considering their own proposals for citizenship education.

Other useful initiatives have taken place in recent years. The creation of the Electoral Commission has been useful, as it has helped to lead and innovate in participatory democracy policy. It was set up in November 2000, and its remit includes voter education as well as keeping electoral law and processes under review. It also develops publicity and awareness materials, and there have been television advertisements to encourage registration in elections. The commission's innovations are constantly being proposed, and it is quite prodigious in producing reports, to which we are keen to respond as best we can.

There are other ways in which we can improve participation. Technically and administratively, through the mechanics of the electoral system, we can remove barriers to participation and we are trying to take action in many different ways in that regard. My hon. Friend mentioned the electoral registration process, and we have had a great deal more accuracy recently in that regard, although when certain population changes have come into play, they have made it appear as though the registers have shrunk in some areas. Obviously, such changes will always have an effect on the quantum of the register, but we now have increasingly accurate electoral registers. They are locally administered, and rightly so.

We also have new help for voters with disabilities. We are piloting electronic voting, and telephone voting has been piloted in local elections. There has also been postal voting on demand in the ordinary run of elections. Earlier today we debated yet again our attempt to achieve piloting of all-postal voting, which we know for a fact has a positive effect on turnout in general—there tends to be a considerable increase. Depending on the passage of that legislation, we hope that as many regions as possible of the four that we have identified can benefit from that.

My hon. Friend referred specifically to the experience in his locality of the 2003 Welsh Assembly elections. I know that the turnout, which was only 38 per cent., disappointed him and other colleagues. That is obviously a challenge, predominantly for the Welsh Assembly, and many of the remedies rest in its own hands. However, the Electoral Commission usefully published an official report commenting on turnout. While it says that this is not wholly a Welsh issue, it highlights specific areas in which it may be able to undertake extra activity. For example, it feels that there was an information deficit on the nature of the Welsh Assembly. Clearly, that is a matter for the Assembly to address.

The Electoral Commission feels that voters had particular views on the Welsh Assembly that did not necessarily encourage them to turn out and vote. However, the Government support the current devolution settlement and we do not think that there is any particular evidence that changing the settlement at that level would affect public engagement. The Electoral Commission also says that the election campaign was too low key. All the political parties have a role to play in ensuring that we pep things up a little to make the campaign more interesting for all concerned.

As usual, enthusiasm among younger voters was at a relatively low level, but the citizenship efforts being undertaken by the Welsh Assembly Government will help with that. In Wales, particularly for the Assembly elections, there may also be a need for more convenient voting methods. I assure my hon. Friend that we will discuss with the Welsh Assembly Government whether any powers are needed to enable innovation in voting mechanisms for Welsh Assembly elections. I hope that he will monitor that and keep a close eye on developments.

My hon. Friend also concludes that it is perhaps time that we started to consider the age-old question of compulsion—compulsory voting and whether the attraction of being able to remove at a stroke worries about turnout should come upon us. I see aspects of the attraction, but, as he knows—I read the Fabian Society pamphlet he wrote some time ago with a colleague of ours—there are disadvantages. I would worry about the sense of the voting process being criminalised. If people did not attend the polling station, would they be behaving in a criminal manner? That would be a big step for us to take in our civilised society. There are serious issues that need considering.

Turnout, of course, involves more than attendance at the polling station. Political disengagement is the deeper problem and failure to turn out is merely a symptom of it. As one of my officials helpfully pointed out when we were talking about the debate, "You can force school children to do cross-country running, but you cannot make them enjoy it." I do not think that compulsory voting would necessarily force everybody to engage with the political process. It is not wholly a solution. Of course, enforcing the process of compulsory voting would also be a mammoth task, and perhaps disproportionate to the nature of the offence. Therefore, while I hear what my hon. Friend says, some potential disadvantages would need to be overcome.

Nevertheless, I do not want to rain on my hon. Friend's parade completely. In 1998, the Home Affairs Committee reported that while compulsory voting might not be desirable, there should be a public debate on it. I gather that the Electoral Commission has said subsequently that it wants to examine the issue in more detail, and it may well be researching some of the wider international experience. He should therefore watch that space. In the meantime, however, I am afraid that the Government have no plans to pursue the possibility of compulsory voting.

Parliament is sensitive to the need to act to improve participation in the electoral process, however. As a Government, we have taken significant steps forward, and are working hard to take further steps. The more fundamental question is how we as politicians can enthuse the public and engage their interest further to make that political process work, but I at least congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the subject today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Nine o'clock.