HL Deb 08 January 2004 vol 657 cc300-17

2.12 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill now be read a second time.

An important part of the Government's programme has been our focus on democratic renewal. We have endeavoured to bring government closer to the citizen by listening to people and giving them more opportunities to influence the decisions that affect how they live their lives.

Through measures such as the development of national, regional and city government, as well as the modernisation of local government, we have sought to empower individuals and communities. Through the introduction of postal voting on demand, improved accessibility to voting for those with disabilities and the piloting of innovative voting methods, we have sought to make participation in the democratic process easier, more convenient and more in line with modern lifestyles.

This is all being done against a backdrop of decreasing democratic participation, one aspect of which is the reduction in the number of people turning out to vote. In the 1999 European parliamentary elections, just 24 per cent of those eligible to vote did so. That compares to a poor turnout even then of 36.2 per cent at the previous election in 1994.

In local elections turnout figures have fluctuated. But we have gone from a situation in the 1980s when turnout almost every year was more than 40 per cent nationally to a situation where turnout was 34.9 per cent last year and 32.8 per cent in 2002. Clearly. there is a problem.

It must surely be a fundamental responsibility of any government to attempt to address a situation where only between one-quarter and one-third of people are taking part in important elections. Doing so, however, is complicated and involves looking at the many and varied reasons for people not voting or not bothering to vote.

One part of our strategy has been the modernisation of the electoral system. The European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill forms part of this wider programme. Pilots of innovative voting methods, including all-postal ballots and electronic voting, have taken place at a number of local elections over the past three years. The evidence so far is that postal voting has increased turnout by an average of around 15 per cent and, in some cases, turnout has doubled.

The Bill, if passed, will provide for the programme to be extended to a European parliamentary election for the first time, enabling piloting on a far greater scale than ever before.

Our programme of piloting began with the Representation of the People Act 2000. Both all-postal and electronic methods of voting were piloted successfully in 2000, 2002 and 2003, and a great deal of experience has been built up. The independent Electoral Commission has evaluated every pilot scheme since 2002. Its surveys have shown that people have found new methods of voting to be convenient, quick and easy to use.

In the most recent pilot schemes, which took place last year, 61 local authorities took part. In the 33 all-postal ballots, the average turnout was 49 per cent. That again compares extremely favourably with turnout in the same local authority areas in the previous comparable elections, in which only 33 per cent of electors turned out to vote.

Although electronic voting pilots have not provided the same jump in turnout, they have also been extremely valuable. Electronic voting, where people can vote through a number of channels including the Internet, telephone, digital television or text messaging, is likely to increase in importance as more people become comfortable with the relevant technology. Electronic voting, therefore, can offer the electorate a choice as to how they cast their ballot. Across the 15 pilots held in May 2003, where electors could choose between using one of the e-voting channels and more traditional procedures, more than a fifth of voters chose to cast their vote electronically.

We have taken the view that an incremental approach to introducing all these new voting methods is the right and prudent course to take. We have learned much from the pilots that have already taken place and expect to learn more from the scaled-up pilots that the Bill will allow. This approach means that we must always take matters forward with a sense of caution and responsibility.

On electronic voting, although we were keen to hold a limited e-voting pilot this June, the Electoral Commission has recommended to us that no area is yet ready for this innovation at a regional level. As announced last month, we intend to follow the commission's advice and run all-postal schemes only.

We have said that our long-term aim is to hold a general election at which voting is available in a number of different ways, using both conventional and new technologies. Electronic voting therefore remains an important part of our future programme.

I turn to postal voting. It may be useful if I briefly explain the mechanics of how all-postal voting would work if used at elections in June. At all-postal elections, ballot papers will be delivered to an elector's home or a specified alternative address no later than one week before the close of poll, and usually between two or three weeks in advance.

To vote, an elector simply completes his ballot paper, places it in the envelope supplied and puts it in the post. To combat fraud, secrecy warnings will be included in voting literature and voters must sign a security statement in order to confirm their identity.

Alternatively, people can choose to go to a staffed delivery point. At these points, electors are able to deposit their ballot paper in person. A secure area where ballot papers may be completed in an environment similar to a polling station is also provided.

It is likely that we shall require at least one staffed delivery point to be provided in each principal local authority area, and that in each area at least one of these points will remain open until the close of poll.

When arguing the merits of all-postal voting, some say that the current system of polling stations and ballot boxes works perfectly well and that it is entirely easy and convenient. For many that may be true, but it is not the case for everyone for example, people with limited mobility or those who work long hours or unpredictable shift patterns. For those people it may not be easy or even possible simply to walk to the nearest polling station on election day. The same may be true for people who commute long distances to work or for those with care responsibilities.

I now turn to the Bill and briefly outline how the legislation is structured. Clause 1 provides a power for the Secretary of State to make an order requiring that the 2004 European parliamentary election should, in certain regions, be conducted as a pilot of innovative voting methods. The order will set out the regions chosen for piloting and, in broad terms, the method of voting to be used. So that there is proper opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, this order is to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

The Bill states that the order cannot be made unless the Electoral commission has first been consulted. The Government therefore wrote to the commission last September, asking it to recommend up to three regions suitable for holding an all-postal ballot, and additionally to advise which of those regions might be suitable for the piloting of electronic channels alongside the postal vote.

The commission conducted a public consultation and reported on 8 December. It recommended the north-east and east Midlands regions as suitable to hold all-postal pilots. It also stated: there are a number of other regions which could potentially be suitable for conducting an all-postal pilot scheme". The Government are currently considering in more detail each of those further potential candidates. We hope to announce shortly whether or not we intend to proceed with any other region.

Although the order to be made under Clause 1 will provide the essential framework for where and how pilot schemes are to be run, the pilot order provided for by Clause 2 will set out the detailed mechanics of the scheme. We are engaging stakeholders in the process of developing the content of the pilot order. In particular, representatives from the pilot regions, the Electoral Commission, political parties and groups representing people with disabilities have been engaged. We are seeking to ascertain their views on the issues that arise from the pilots and to develop the policy and mechanics in a way that best meets the needs and practicalities for both electors and administrators.

Clause 2 also provides that a so-called marked register will be made available to political parties and candidates prior to the close of poll. In amending the Bill in another place to include that provision, we have been responsive to a request by all the main political parties. A marked register in this context means a list of those electors who have returned an envelope purporting to contain a ballot paper, which political parties can cross-reference with the electoral register.

The purpose of providing that information is to facilitate the parties in their role of getting the vote out. While in a standard election, parties can use tellers to gain a picture of who has or has not voted and target resources as a result, with an all-postal vote that is not possible. Targeted campaigning helps the parties better to engage the public, which is in the interests of everyone who wants to live in a healthy democracy. Provision of a marked register is intended to aid that and is something on which the Electoral Commission will specifically report.

One issue often raised in relation to remote voting methods in general is that of security. In its extensive evaluation of the pilots held at the 2002 and 2003 local elections, the Electoral Commission found no evidence of an increase in fraudulent activity. Nevertheless, we consider that there is no room for complacency on the issue. The Bill therefore includes provisions extending two offences. Those are general measures that have been informed by the Electoral Commission's recommendations on the future of all-postal voting.

First, Clause 6 extends the power of arrest without a warrant for the offence of personation to activity outside a polling station—clearly helpful where remote voting is widely in use. Personation is the name given to the offence committed under Section 60 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 when someone votes as someone else but without the other person's consent. At this stage, that extension applies solely to regions where pilots are taking place in the 2004 European parliamentary and combined local government elections.

The second offence provision is contained in Clause 7. That clause provides that the magistrates' court is given a power to allow an extension of time up to a maximum of 24 months after the date of an offence for a prosecution to be commenced. The application must not he granted unless the court is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances and that the investigation of the offence has been pursued with all reasonable diligence. Those additional measures will improve the security of postal voting and aid us in building confidence and trust in the new system.

An important part of our approach is to maximise the lessons learnt while minimising the risk. That is why London, where mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections are taking place, and the region to be combined with Gibraltar under the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003—which the Electoral Commission has recommended to be the south-west—are excluded from holding pilots this year. It is also why, in pilot regions, by-elections for Westminster and other bodies will be prevented from taking place within a six-week period around the date of the European parliamentary election. It is felt that each of those exclusions is required to avoid unnecessary complexity.

The situation for local government by-elections in England and Wales is slightly different, in that they may be combined at the discretion of the returning officer. That will not add unduly to complexity, as local elections will already be taking place.

A key aspect of piloting is learning lessons, and in this the role of the Electoral Commission is vital. Its evaluation of previous schemes has helped shape and develop policy, and Clause 4 provides that that, will continue. The provisions of Clause 4 are modelled closely on the relevant section of the Representation of the People Act 2000. The main difference is that the Bill also provides for the assessment of the impact of marked registers, on which it will be essential for candidates and political parties to feed back their views and experiences so that proper evaluation may take place.

In conclusion, the Government have never pretended that the problems of low turnout can be solved simply by altering the way in which we cast our vote. Declining democratic participation matters enormously, but it is being experienced worldwide, with many and varied explanations for why that is. The key to our approach must always be to attempt to engage better with the public, to show that voting matters and makes a difference and that the participation of an individual can force real change.

However, it is also legitimate and important to consider whether the methods by which we cast a ballot are the best available. It is important that we measure our institutions and practice against the needs of people today. Where change is warranted, we should not shy away from acting.

Some say that the current system of polling stations and ballot boxes works perfectly well and that it is entirely easy and convenient. For many of us this is true, but it is not the case for everyone. The evidence is clear that all-postal pilots appear to lead to a significant increase in turnout, which is why it is important to make steady, progressive investigation of them.

I present to your Lordships a Bill with the purpose of seeking how best to engage the electorate and to investigate how we can improve participation in our democracy. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Filkin.)

2.26 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, as the Minister accepted, the Bill is the latest of the Government's efforts to increase voter participation in elections. Various pilots have been undertaken in local government elections since 2000, including all-postal and e-voting. Voting hours and venues were increased for both local and general elections as a result of the Representation of the People Act 2000. The result so far seems to show that more electors vote if there is no option but to do so by postal ballot, but that neither e-voting nor extended voting hours and venues have much role to play in improving turnout figures.

Although the Bill does not specify the exact nature of the pilots to be undertaken, as the Minister said, the Electoral Commission was asked to consider a number of matters, including the possibility of putting two pilots on to a larger canvass: e-voting and all-postal. I thank the Minister for clarifying what Mr Leslie, the Minister in the other place, said, when he accepted the arguments of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, supported by the report from the Electoral Commission, that there was neither sufficient time to bring a large pilot forward for e-voting nor sufficient evidence of beneficial effect, and agreed that that aspect would not be taken further.

If the Government had decided to proceed with e-voting, I should have had to say that we would oppose it in Committee. Given that the Minister has, I believe, made clear today that they will not, we will probably be satisfied, although we will need to consider whether it would he better to state in the Bill that we will not pursue that option.

We accept that there is evidence that all-postal voting has had an impact—at least at local level, because that is where it has been tried so far—and that there is justification for trialling it on a larger plain, but we do so with considerable reservations. First, we should not jettison our tried and tested form of personal presentation at polling stations lightly. That has been the bedrock of our democratic election process for years and has stood the test of time and probity well.

Secondly, there is still no evidence that other methods of voting bring in to the system anyone who did not intend to vote in the first place. What it did was to make it easier for them to do so—a fact that in itself may be a good thing, but should not lead us to the delusion that any increase in numbers is demonstrating that recalcitrant voters are attracted to vote by changes in the method. We must understand that, whatever we do, people will not vote if they do not want to.

That is the nub of the problem. It is the basis of all the relevant legislation, including this Bill. As the Minister admitted, the problem has not yet been satisfactorily analysed or answered. But there is more than a little evidence that electors do not vote because they see no effect for themselves from doing so. The relevance of electing to office representatives with little ability to deal with the problems affecting the people may escape them. Disaffection with local politics has barely been touched on by the major reorganisation that took place introducing Cabinet members and ranks of councillors.

The Government's ability or unwillingness to control European laws and regulations that are beginning to make Parliament look effete does not encourage participation. There is perceived to be little evidence, particularly in European elections—which we are mainly talking about—of a direct relationship between the people and those seeking election. The closed-list system removes the vital link between the voter, the representative and a constituency, and reduces the choice to one of party rather than person. We spent a little time debating that matter last Monday.

One of the difficulties of the Bill, in seeking to ensure that the order is practical and proper, is that it addresses only the fact that there is to be an order after consultation with the Electoral Commission. That consultation has now taken place, so the Bill is slightly deficient already. The Bill gives details, but no timing, of the elections. I must therefore assume that the Bill is confined to, and will be completed by, the end of polling day of the last election, and that it takes into consideration only elections in 2004—the regional and local elections in June. I assume that that is the length of application and status of the Bill. As the Minister said, London is excluded from consideration as a pilot area, as is the south-west and Gibraltar, which has been tagged on.

There are, however, fundamental practical considerations to be addressed. The Bill will have to give us the opportunity to do so, as the only other possible opportunity will be when the order comes forward for affirmative consideration, at which stage it would be too late to make changes. The first consideration is the electoral regions to be included in the order, followed by the confidentiality, security and probity of any pilot scheme. We must consider an electoral region's ability to handle not only the European elections but also any local elections taking place within it.

On the first point, unlike the other place, where the Electoral Commission report was available only at the end of the debate, this House has the advantage of seeing it at this early stage. The Electoral Commission was asked by the Government to give its views on which three European electoral regions would be in a position to cope, not only with European elections but also with local elections involving voting for all those authorities within the area. Another consideration is how regions could deal, at what is now very short notice, with the innovatory procedures, when they get the official sanction to go ahead.

The Commission has recommended that there be just two regions: the East Midlands and the north-east. The East Midlands has a small number of local elections, and the north-east has considerable experience of such pilots. It was on that rationale that the Electoral Commission based its recommendations. However, the Minister has now confirmed what was said in the other place: the Government are still looking for a third region, and they do not accept that just two regions should take part—that is the only interpretation that I can make.

The Minister in the other place gave no further indication of which other region he might wish to promote. However, given the people who took part in the debate in the other place, there are suspicions, or at least a smidgen of an idea, that the region might be Scotland. But that proposal has already been rejected, not just by the Electoral Commission, but by Scottish local government and electoral officers themselves, for perfectly cogent reasons. The Minister has said that he is still considering the matter. I hope that the decision will be in the pipeline before we consider the Bill again—it cannot be taken until we deal with the legislation—and that there will be some indication whether there will he three regions or two. I suspect that it will not be long before we go into Committee; if it is too far off, the Government will not get through their timetable.

There are concerns over the process. All postal voting is totally reliant upon the expertise of Royal Mail in delivering without error papers to all those entitled to receive them and to return them to the election office in good time, again without fail. We can all recall missed letters and strike action, which has meant no mail at all. Recently, in London, we had a strike for more than 10 days—practically an entire electoral period. What would be the fall-back position if that happened in any part of an electoral region, and what statutory responsibility would there be for setting up alternative methods of delivery that could be implemented at short notice?

There are also concerns about the method used for verification of voters, and about houses in multiple occupation and student hostels, to which votes may be delivered that are no longer relevant but that could be scooped up and misused. There are questions, too, about timing and the ability of political parties to make their views known to the electorate before they vote, in what I assume will still be a three-week campaign. Other concerns relate to the role and timing of election broadcasts and the necessity to provide practical, straightforward and non-partisan explanatory material to enable voters to know how to vote—the Minister did not mention that today. The need for provision of daily marked registers, which caused much concern and discussion in the other place, has now been accepted. I hope that they will be available daily; otherwise they will be of no use.

My final question relates to the security of the poll. When are envelopes to be opened? Will it be days in advance of the close of poll, as they come in, or on the day itself, as happens now? Who will be in attendance when they are opened? What are the arrangements for verification and identification of the voter, and how will that process be separated from the vote itself? How can people be assured that their ballot papers have been received—that is important in an all-postal vote rather than one where just a few people have postal votes? The problem of impersonation has been dealt with in the Bill, and has quite rightly become a matter of considerable sanction.

A further question is the practicality of providing a secret ballot for those with disabilities, who will have to rely on someone else to help them to either complete or read the forms, That has never been an easy issue, but I understand that the Disability Rights Commission has made recommendations on how postal voting could be handled, and that in previous pilots they have not been issued.

For generations we have voted in polling stations with the option of a postal vote, the availability of which has been increased over time to encompass all those who have requested it. This next step stops the option of having a discreet local station in which to go and place one's vote. That choice would be gone. I am not at all clear that it is replaced by the announcement that there will be one delivery point in each ward. It might be fine for delivery, but will people be able to complete their postal vote there should they want to?

We must therefore be sure that the Bill is strong enough to ensure that problems do not arise, and that the received wisdom for completing a voting paper—sitting at home, in an office or wherever encourages greater voting—is borne out, and carried out in a way that does not enable a criticism of fraud to be levied at it.

This may be a small Bill; it is certainly not a perfect one. But it is one which will receive not only considerable scrutiny, but should also, as I said, include far more detail on the face of it than appears likely at present, rather than leaving all that to the orders that are implicit within the legislation. It will undoubtedly pave the way to the Government's ultimate goal of all-postal voting at a national election in the future.

It is, too, the first time that a national election will be held with different electoral regions voting in different ways. There must be the possibility that, ostensibly, the results could be skewed. We shall be moving amendments in Committee to deal with the matters that I have outlined today. My noble friend Lord Attlee and I look forward to the ensuing discussions.

2.41 p.m.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, my overall view of the Bill is that, at present and on balance, it may put forward as many problems for our democratic system as it puts forward solutions. It proposes a mechanism for changes to voting systems that are, I think, at least premature. Since those advocating changes also advocate safeguards, and those safeguards cannot all be in place in time for elections in June, I am not convinced that the changes should be made now. There are also significant other problems with experiments such as all-postal voting elections that I shall address.

But first, perhaps I may say that I believe that experimentation is important in voting methods. My party and I have generally supported the principle of pilot projects. It is particularly welcome to us that the Electoral Commission, whose establishment we so strongly supported, is able to put forward proposals independently of the Government and parties. But it is still for Parliament to approve changes. Wherever possible, changes to voting systems should carry greater consensus than simply the support of the governing party.

By combining this year's elections, a major electoral experiment has already been agreed for this year. It is one that my party and I wholly support, even though a significant number of colleagues in local government had strong views that it would not be in their interests to do so. Nevertheless, we supported the Local Government Act 2003, allowing the postponement of the local and the London elections from May to June. We thought that it would be far better to have one polling day for all the elections rather than to have two sets of elections five weeks apart, which is something that undoubtedly contributed to the voter fatigue that resulted in the 24 per cent turnout in the European elections of 1999.

We would have supported a significant further level of experimentation had the Government shown willingness to learn some of the lessons from the unpopularity of the closed lists in the 1999 elections and decided to allow voters to have slightly more freedom in choosing, if they wanted, to rearrange the order of the lists presented to them by the parties in the European elections. Giving more power to the voter and less to the parties must be good for democracy and good for participation. But we did not see government willingness to consider what I believe would have been a very worthwhile experiment this time around.

Incidentally, it seems strange to me that we are dealing with an issue today that, perhaps, could have been dealt with earlier when we were considering the Bill on European elections extending representation in the European Parliament to the people of Gibraltar. It seems that there must have been somewhere in the process of government a last-minute change of mind about the issue of postal voting in 2004. I fear now that at this late stage we are in danger of acting in haste with insufficient time to prepare for experimental methods of election by 10 June, especially if the Government—as they may—seek to go further than the Electoral Commission has recommended and try to adopt postal voting in the third pilot region.

Indeed, in discussions with Ministers about the principle of the elections being combined on 10 June, I thought that it was clearly understood that the combining of the European, the local and the London elections this year would be the only departure from previous practice, and that the issue of all-postal voting in certain regions, as a further level of experimentation at the same time, would not be raised at all by the Government. I wonder whether the Minister might explain this apparent late change of mind.

On the general issue of experimentation in this year's elections, my own representation to the Electoral Commission argued for consideration to be given to a different area of experimentation altogether. The further experiment that I would like to see this year is weekend voting. Before we consider issues such as widespread extension of compulsory postal voting, we should have had a good opportunity to look at weekend voting. The elections in June would have been an ideal opportunity to do that.

Rather than opening polling stations between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. on a Thursday—often causing disruption to many schools and, therefore, disruption to pupils' education—it would have been practical to find suitable venues to open during the day on a Saturday and Sunday giving a choice of polling day, and over a period of time, when many more people are free than on a week day.

I understand that returning officers and electoral officials were consulted but were not enthusiastic about issues such as storing ballot boxes securely on the Saturday night. But I do not believe that that problem could not have been overcome. The interests of the voter should be paramount. That is the experiment that should be in this Bill.

Perhaps I may now turn to some of the problems with all-postal-vote elections or "compulsory postal voting", as I prefer to call it, as put forward in the Bill. Some of these problems need to be addressed before there is much more widespread all-postal voting. Some issues are fundamentally problematic. The trade-off between increased turnout and other problems with the democratic process may not be worth it. Of course, all-postal voting has generally raised turnout, but it has not always done so. The health of our democratic process cannot be judged by turnout alone.

One of my principal concerns with all-postal-vote elections is the lack of secrecy for many voters. The Secret Ballot Act 1872 was one of the most important democratic reforms in the history of this country. There is a danger that compulsory postal voting undermines it fatally. It may even be an issue under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and this should be scrutinised carefully by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Of course, a voter can do what he or she likes in the privacy of the polling booth. Members of the same family may go to the polling station together, but they vote individually in conditions of secrecy. When the postal votes all arrive at home, there is no such guarantee. In my experience, I have often canvassed voters who have said, for example, that they vote for our party but that their husband does not know. It may be possible for them to keep that information from their husbands in future, but they may find themselves voting in another way altogether for the sake of a quiet life. The principle of a secret ballot would have been destroyed.

Concerns about privacy apply to all voters, but they have been raised by organisations representing disabled people. Thanks to changes introduced a few years ago, a blind person may he assisted in a polling station by a presiding officer on how to fill in their postal vote. But a blind person receiving a postal vote at home may not be able to vote without a visitor, a friend, a relative or someone filling in the ballot paper for them, and so undermining their right to secrecy.

Homes in multi-occupation are a particular problem, as raised by the noble Baroness. Lady Hanham. In areas where many students live, or in areas such as where the Brent East by-election recently took place, I have often delivered literature to houses with a huge number of residents—sometimes in double figures. How do we really know what happens when 10 postal votes are left in a communal hallway? It is often the case in those places that the 10 residents are a different 10 people from those on the electoral register to whom postal votes will have been sent.

There may be very few problems in many areas and there may have been few problems with the pilot schemes so far. However, what would have happened in a closely fought and important by-election such as that in Brent East last September if it had been an all-postal vote election? I canvassed large numbers of households in that election, where many people told me that the person who was on the electoral register had moved away from the district. In an all-postal vote election, a postal vote would still have been delivered to the previous occupant.

A huge concern for me about the principle of all-postal vote elections is connected to the timing of the election campaign. Traditionally, parties and candidates, the media and all those involved in the election campaign, including the Royal Mail, who deliver to election addresses, know that their work should be completed by polling day. However, in an all-postal vote election, ballot papers are supposed to be delivered at least one week before polling day and usually two to three weeks in advance. Experience from pilot schemes suggests that most voters return their ballot papers almost immediately after receipt.

When are people best able to judge between the parties and election candidates? Surely it must be when they have the most information at their disposal and have been subject to the most intensive campaigning and debate between the parties and candidates. That time is on polling day and not two or three weeks before it.

There is no doubt that many election results would have been different if voting had taken place a week or two earlier. Perhaps the 1992 election might have been a totally different story and Neil Kinnock might have become Prime Minister if the ballot had taken place a week or two earlier. Perhaps some would have welcomed that and others regretted it, but the results of elections will change if one changes the time at which people cast their votes. It is unhealthy to change the time at which people cast their votes to a period that is two or three weeks before the normal polling day and before the parties have been subject to proper campaigning scrutiny. We will reach a situation where people will have voted before the media have covered the election issues, before the parties have delivered their literature, before the election broadcasts have been transmitted and before there has been a proper and democratic discussion of the issues. Is that wise for the health of a democracy?

There are also many logistical difficulties with the all-postal vote process. Above all, we may reach a point where politicians avoid the detailed scrutiny of an election campaign by having voters cast their votes at such an early point.

Political parties and agents are often familiar with the failures of the Royal Mail to deliver election addresses by polling day. That failure was widespread in the 1999 European elections, when the Royal Mail was given for the first time the task of delivering perhaps two or three million election addresses across entire regions. It will be asked to carry out a similar task in this process. How can we be sure of its capacity to deliver postal votes in time for them to be completed, posted back and counted?

Let us look at some of the lessons from the pilot schemes. Last year, hundreds of voters in Stockport were disenfranchised by a failure to deliver their postal votes. In Liverpool at the last general election, a wildcat postal strike meant that many postal voters were simply unable to return their votes. In one ward in the Metropolitan Borough of Dudley last May, 52 postal votes were delivered only on polling day itself and a further 58 were delivered after the election was over. There is no proper redress in our system for those voters or for affected candidates. Last month, the candidate who lost that election by a mere 40 votes failed in his legal action to have the election result overturned and re-run on the grounds that the returning officer had done enough by giving the postal votes to the Royal Mail. The fact that they had not been delivered to the voters could not change the result of the election. In a by-election in the Hill Rise ward of Islington last October, industrial action was taking place in the Royal Mail and a large proportion of postal voters was disenfranchised. Concern was expressed at the time and assurances were given by the Royal Mail that special measures would apply to make sure that postal votes were returned in time to be counted. However, one in three postal votes was returned to the returning officer after polling day and too late to be counted.

I ask noble Lords to imagine a national election where one-third of the votes was not counted. It would make the conduct of the 2000 US election in Florida seem like a model of perfection, with its hanging chads and all its other problems, if it became known that so many votes in our system were not counted because of a postal problem. We have witnessed recent industrial action within the Royal Mail and we know that an election that uses postal votes may be a tempting target for some people.

Of course, there are some answers to some of those problems. A declaration of identity, with a witness signature, to accompany a postal vote may not an infallible means of avoiding fraud, but it is a necessary minimum safeguard and acts as a significant deterrent to fraud. That is one change that could be made to the Bill. There should be no all-postal vote experimental elections in June without that as a minimum safeguard.

In the longer run, the Electoral Commission is right to argue for individual registration of voters, to be accompanied by a signature of that voter, thereby enabling at least a cursory check to be made that a postal vote has been returned by the person to whom it was dispatched.

More use of postal voting should mean a change in our system to allow more days after the normal polling day for postal ballots to be returned and counted. It was not until the scandal of the theft of the US presidential election in 2000 erupted that many voters there became aware that absentee ballots were still supposed to be counted several days after polling day and usually after what is called the "result" is known.

In Australia, for example, absent votes can be counted up to two weeks after polling day. The votes cast at a polling station are counted and declared immediately. The postal votes are then counted as they come in, each day, for a two-week period thereafter and the results published on a website. The final outcome in a close election may not be known for two weeks.

For election junkies such as me, it is quite fascinating to watch the changing results. I remember seeing an Australian politician destroy her career by denouncing her electorate and her party for voting her out, only to find that the postal voters actually made the difference and that she had been elected by a small margin.

That system may of course leave a short period of uncertainty about the final outcome of the election. However, more importantly, it helps overcome the fundamental problem of people having either to vote before they have experienced the campaign or to vote so late that their vote is not counted.

Postal votes should not be dispatched until seven days before polling day at the earliest. There should then be a week for them to be counted afterwards. We should also have systems that ensure that postal voters do not lose out on the last week of campaigning. There should be a facility for election candidates to have a sample of their literature included in the postal vote mailing.

I have expressed strong reservations about the extension of all-postal voting or "compulsory postal voting". I have suggested some measures that may mitigate the problems, only some of which could be in place by June. The Bill must therefore be amended to provide for what safeguards can reasonably be provided in postal ballots, such as a declaration of identity and a witness signature.

The Government should also indicate that they will go no further than the Electoral Commission has suggested in having the two proposed all-postal pilots in the northern and east Midlands regions. I welcome their acceptance of the Electoral Commission's view that experimentation with Internet, text and telephone voting is not appropriate at this stage. The evidence so far is that there are problems with the secrecy and reliability of those methods, but no compensating benefits in the form of increased turn-outs.

In conclusion, the fundamental problems that we are seeking to address lie rather with ourselves as politicians and our political system than with particular voting technologies. We should not lose sight of that.

3 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, with whom I have worked in the past. I have enormous respect for his experience, but I do have certain very fundamental differences from him in respect of this Bill. I do not intend to go into those today, but I am sure that we shall be able to debate them in Committee.

First I declare an interest as chair of the HS Chapman Society, an organisation that provides a non-partisan forum for election junkies such as myself and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, electoral practitioners from all parties, electoral administrators, party solicitors, the Electoral Commission and anyone interested in the UK's electoral systems and practices. The society has a particular interest in increasing democratic participation and the legislation designed to bring that about.

As has already been said, this Bill marks a further stage in the scaling-up process of introducing innovative election methods, some of which many people scoffed at when we first introduced them in 2000. No one would argue that changing voting methods is a panacea for increasing the level of voting. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to the reasons why many people no longer vote and she was right to point out that they are complicated and not simply about how you go to the polling station.

The reasons for the fall in voting turnout were identified by the Electoral Commission as: circumstances on election day that prevent people from going to the polls; distrust of politicians; the inability to distinguish between the parties; and the belief that a vote will not make any difference. However, the commission's investigation also showed that, when presented with the chance to exercise a right to vote from home, more people took up that opportunity. That is something which we must take very seriously.

A 16 per cent increase in the ballot may not be a triumph for democracy, but it proves the validity of the process of change and cannot be ignored. Therefore it is right that we now build on the experience we have already gained and continue to develop it, as proposed in the Bill.

We should look closely at the position in New Zealand, which offers a proven example. New Zealand has developed all-postal voting at local elections, a process built on since 1965. However, in 1992 one council reverted to polling station voting. Turnout fell from 46 per cent to 26 per cent, but rose back to 45 per cent at the next all-postal vote election.

In Committee in the other place it was suggested that, rather than select specific pilot areas, a pilot postal ballot should be conducted nationally. I consider that a flawed argument. Political climates change over time and the only comparison which could be made with a national pilot would be with a national election held at some other time. That would be absolutely the wrong way to make a comparison. The only true comparison and valid means of testing the system is to compare the turnout in adjacent areas with one region having a postal ballot and the other using the traditional method of voting at polling stations. Such an incremental approach would help to build up electoral confidence in the system, which is extremely important.

I think that the Government want to respond positively to the demand made in the other place for a marked polling register. Such polling progress information is of value not only to political party campaigning and to electors by eliminating unnecessary calls on those who have already voted and helping each party target its canvassing activity—which may again help to increase turnout—but it is also a useful tool for returning officers by assisting in the prevention of double counting and fraud, a point to which I shall return.

I refer now to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, about the canvassing practices of political parties and the effect of early voting by post. It is up to political parties to re-examine how they conduct their electoral campaigns so that they fit in with the system rather than the system having to fit in with them.

Returning to the marked register, concerns have been expressed about voter privacy, but there has been a long tradition in this country of number takers outside polling stations identifying electors after they have voted. I stress the word "after" voting. Although it has sometimes happened, it is illegal to interfere with electors on their way into a polling station. The same principle would apply here. There will be no identification of how the elector voted, merely that they have returned their ballot paper envelope.

The Electoral Administrators Association, of which I am a member, is generally in support of this legislation but is concerned that the necessary resources must be provided to cover the administration and cost of distribution of the marked register. It is an extra job that will require further resources and staff. My honourable friend Chris Leslie gave an assurance in another place that extra resources would be made available, but in order to reassure electoral returning officers, I should be grateful if my noble friend on the Front Bench could confirm that extra moneys will be made available to cover the costs of the pilots.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, also talked about people being disenfranchised. I think that one of the largest contributors to disenfranchisement is the fact that people do not register to vote in the first place. It has been suggested that we should wait for individual registration before bringing in these additional pilot studies. I have discussed this matter with electoral returning officers, whose view is that the two issues should be tackled quite separately. They see no reason for delaying the Bill until we have individual registration. EROs have also expressed the view that it would take a considerable time successfully to implant in the minds of the electors the concept of individual registration. Therefore it would not be appropriate to introduce it at this point.

A further concession rightly made by the Government is that to enable ballot papers to be delivered to a specific polling place on the main polling day—a "staffed delivery point". I must admit that I have a problem with that phrase. People understand the concept of polling stations and so to overcome that minor problem perhaps we should have two lines, one for the polling station and one for the delivery point. However, I hope that it will be stressed to electoral returning officers that care must be taken in determining the site of these delivery points, that they must be accessible and should be well publicised.

I hope also that there will be some flexibility as regards numbers, so that we shall not be restricted to the present suggestion of one in each local government area. Account must be taken of the geography of each local area, as well as the type of population. If it is an area with a high proportion of elderly people, then that should be taken into consideration.

The most contentious issue has already been identified by previous speakers; that is, the possible increase in the opportunity for fraud, impersonation and malpractice. Every effort has to be made to reduce the opportunity for these and the question is whether the Bill achieves that. I believe that we should welcome Clauses 6 and 7 which lengthen the time limit for the prosecution of malpractice to a maximum of 24 months and extend the offence of impersonation to outside the polling station. It is also encouraging to note that other measures will be taken through the piloting order and secondary legislation. I hope that, if necessary, further widespread consultation will be undertaken to make absolutely certain that maximum security is achieved for our elections.

I was also pleased to read what the Minister had to say on 4 November last year in Standing Committee B. The Government, through the Electoral Commission, do take action positively to test whether systems are prone to malpractice and fraud by means of spot checking whether people on the marked register have actually voted and by checking the signatures on declarations of identity.

I do not always agree with the Electoral Commission. although like the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I fought very hard for its establishment. However, credit must be given to it for the many measures which have been taken and will continue to be taken to alleviate the possibility of fraud and to improve the facilities for reporting allegations of election offences. It must continue to be stressed that there will be severe penalties for taking such action.

The potential for fraud exists in any system. It is not a new problem resulting from postal voting. Those of us who were involved in the elections at the time will remember the scandalous misuse of the proxy vote in the late 1980s and 1990s. We must look at such examples so that we find ways of making sure that such misuse does not happen again.

Until now, there has never been a process for ensuring that people presenting themselves at a polling station are who they say they are. I was saying to my noble friend Lady Gibson that I was not certain whether I could tell this little story, but maybe I can, because it is so very old. I was standing in a local government by-election many years ago when one of my supporters came to me at the end of the day and said, "I'm sorry you didn't win because I voted for you nine times". So I know from practical experience that this has happened in the past.

A MORI poll conducted for the Electoral Commission showed some concern by electors but, in the main, voters in the pilot areas generally had positive things to say about the trials that had taken place last May. Nearly 90 per cent of electors agreed that all-postal votes made the whole process easier to use and more convenient. Importantly, they also felt that it allowed voters not to worry about missing polling day. We all know how often someone says, "Oh gosh, was it last Thursday? I'd forgotten". So I hope that that problem will be solved.

The Polls Apart report by Scope noted that postal voting appealed to the majority of disabled people who completed the survey. Some 91 per cent of those who responded found it very easy and 84 per cent found postal voting very convenient. Only 4 per cent did not find it convenient.

I close with two quotes from focus groups that were conducted by MORI. The first is: My wife she never votes, I always do. But she did this time with a postal vote". The second is: I think that if it is going to increase turnout even just slightly so that more people are being represented, then it can be a good thing". If the electors are reassured that postal voting is a secure method to use—and I believe that every effort is made to ensure that—then more people will respond positively, and we will see an increased participation rate at elections. Ultimately, we have to transform our electoral process so that people feel the value of going out to vote, widen access and modernise democracy.