HC Deb 07 September 2004 vol 424 cc596-8
21. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

What recent representations the Department has received on the report of the Electoral Commission on all-postal ballots. [187658]

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

The Electoral Commission's report on the June all-postal voting pilots was published on 27 August, since when there has been some media comment but no formal representations made to my Department.

Bob Spink

Given that the report found all-postal voting to be hopelessly flawed, unsafe and lacking in public confidence and support, will the Minister encourage the House to reconsider its decision for all-postal voting in the north-east and to go back to the tried and tested ballot box, which would be much more secure? He might find that the Electoral Commission would support such a decision.

Mr. Leslie

I do not see the hon. Gentleman quoting verbatim from the Electoral Commission report, and that is not quite the understanding of that report as I read it. In fact, some interesting aspects of the report have not been aired, reported or commented on. For example, turnout was significantly higher, the majority of the public were satisfied, the majority—69 per cent.—found all-postal voting more convenient and there was no evidence of increased fraud perpetrated in postal ballots.

John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend accept that millions of people want to continue to use the polling station, not to vote by post? Leaving aside for a moment the potential for abuse—which has been highlighted by the Electoral Commission not just recently, but in a succession of reports and comments from that body—can he guarantee that polling stations will be available in all elections, and if not, why not?

Mr. Leslie

I certainly think that there are lessons to be learned from the all-postal pilots, one of which is that the public prefer to have convenience, but they also like a variety of options for how they cast their ballot. That is the direction in which the Government will be developing policy for the future.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con)

Does the Minister realise that many of us in the north-east feel that we are being treated like second-class citizens? If an all-postal ballot is wrong for the north-west and wrong for Yorkshire and the Humber, why is it right for the north-east? May I give him a piece of advice? He should take the advice of his colleague, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer), and make ballot boxes available in polling stations.

Mr. Leslie

Of course, there will be assistance and delivery points—effectively the ballot box scenario—in that particular referendum. The Electoral Commission considered that very question and concluded that there should continue to be an all-postal ballot in that referendum. That is the judgment of the Electoral Commission and I commend its report to the hon. Gentleman.

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

Over the past few months, Ministers have been utterly complacent about their policy on all-postal ballots and they have derided us whenever we expressed well-founded concerns about the scope that exists for malpractice. My hon. Friends have been proved right: elections through the ballot box are trusted; elections through the post box are not. The Electoral Commission has totally disowned the all-postal ballot that the Government are foisting on the north-east in its regional referendum, and it is deeply perverse of the Government to insist on proceeding under a system that is both loathed and discredited.

If the Minister is to act as the guardian of our electoral system and protect the integrity of our democratic processes, will he now confirm, as my hon. Friends have already asked him to do, that the north-east referendum will be either conducted under the tried and trusted system of ballot boxes at polling stations or, failing that, abandoned altogether?

Mr. Leslie

I answered the question about the north-east referendum a few moments ago, in response to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). In respect of the other spin that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is engaging in trying—to denigrate the all-postal pilot, which was, after all, worth a try, as the Electoral Commission said in its report—the commission concluded in its ICM survey of public opinion in those pilot regions that the majority of the public were satisfied and found it more convenient, and even that the majority of the public wanted all-postal voting for future elections. We must consider that when looking at the report. My feeling is that the public like to have a variety of different options when they cast their ballot. That will be the direction of policy development for the Government.