HC Deb 25 May 2004 vol 421 cc1435-6
19. Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab)

What steps the Government are taking to ensure wider participation in the democratic process. [175299]

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

The Government have taken several significant steps to encourage wider participation in the democratic process: for example, introducing citizen education in schools; combining this year's local and European elections on the same day; making voter registration easier; and piloting all-postal voting.

Mr. Bailey

I thank the Minister for his reply, and I applaud the measures that have been taken. Does he agree that improving participation in the democratic process is a matter not merely of making voting easier but of engaging people and enthusing them from an early age? What steps is the Department taking, with other Departments, to engage people in the political process, especially young people?

Mr. Leslie

The work of the Department for Education and Skills, with our Department, has proved particularly successful—not least because citizenship education has been part of the national curriculum for the past two years, as a compulsory subject for 11 to 14-year-olds, which is intended to improve political literacy and social responsibility, and awareness of wider community issues and how decisions are made locally and nationally. That is a major step forward, which over time will produce greater awareness and participation among all our citizens.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Does the Minister accept that, for the first time for a very long time, many of my constituents will be enfranchised to vote in the local elections on 10 June? Many of my constituents leave home before 8 o'clock and often do not get back until after 9 o'clock. Why on earth cannot polling stations in local elections always open at 7 am and close at 10 pm? If that is good enough for European elections and elections to the House, surely it is good enough for local elections. Would we not then have greater participation?

Mr. Leslie

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. There is a strong case to standardise opening hours for polling stations—something that the Electoral Commission has recommended. We do not have a legislative vehicle at present for that, but I will certainly bear in mind the strong case that he makes.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

I have not met many hon. Members who are in favour of compulsory voting, but has the Minister considered rewarding people who vote, perhaps by tweaking their tax code or by giving a modest increase in benefits if they are benefit recipients?

Mr. Leslie

Perhaps the greatest reward that we can give to our electors is a Labour Government, providing quality services to a consistently high standard. I hope that that reward will continue long into the future.

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

One of the merits of our traditional system was its simplicity—people would just put a cross on the ballot paper and the person with the most votes won. The trouble is that the system has become very complicated, which is probably turning people away. Let us just consider London on 10 June: people can vote for the London Mayor, under a supplementary vote system, where they express a first and second preference; they can vote for the London assembly, with an additional member system, by voting for a candidate in an additional, top-up party list and they can vote for the European Parliament with a closed party list. So they have five votes with three completely different systems—without the added complication of whether to vote in person or by post. Surely that growing complication, with a multiplicity of voting systems and methods, is causing a lot of disapproval and misunderstanding. Is it any wonder that people say, "Stuff the whole thing—we're not going to bother to participate at all."?

Mr. Leslie

I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would ask me about the d'Hondt mechanism for counting results, but he did not get round to that one. I recognise the likelihood that some areas will have several different ballot papers in June's elections, but I would caution his underestimating of the electorate's intelligence and their ability to cope with such things. Most people can manage to understand that they have a ballot paper, that they cast their vote and that they see the results when those ballots are counted. That is the nature of our democracy at present.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend—sorry, hon. Friend; I have promoted him. [HON. MEMBERS: "In time."] Does he agree that we might achieve greater enthusiasm for the democratic process if the editors and owners of certain tabloids refrained from frequently commenting unfairly on hon. Members?

Mr. Leslie

I have found that most newspapers tend to be very fair and reasonable with politicians, and I have great relations with many of them, but my hon. Friend has concerns about certain of the red-top tabloids. All I can say is that the House needs to keep a close eye on the truth in matters that relate to hon. Members.