§ 2 pm
§ Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me time for a debate on voter participation. I genuinely believe that the problem of apathy among the electorate throughout the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance not only to my party, but to all political parties in Britain. If we do not deal with it, there is a distinct possibility that the country's whole democratic process will be in danger of collapse or near collapse.
Like many other hon. Members, I become frustrated when people do not vote. We all know of the tremendous fight people conducted over the years so that others might have the right to vote. I want to draw attention to several reasons why people choose not to vote. I hope that other hon. Members will share their experiences of why people do not participate in our electoral process.
There has been a worrying increase in the number of people who fail to take part in our electoral process. We are in grave danger of taking democracy for granted in the United Kingdom. As politicians, we should not be paranoid and believe that apathy exists only in politics. I am sure that hon. Members can describe other forms of apathy in their communities, whether it is in respect of community councils, churches, youth organisations and so on. Persuading people to become involved in organisations that affect and influence their lives is becoming more difficult.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for why people choose not to vote. We must make all the necessary changes to the voting system to encourage people to come out on polling day and ensure that they are an integral part of the electoral system. The use of electronic online voting would increase the number of younger voters. Making use of as much of today's technology as possible is certainly worthy of consideration. As politicians, we should mount an awareness campaign showing first-time voters the importance of using their right to vote and how that keeps alive the notion of democracy. There is a worrying trend of young people showing no great interest in the world of politics.
Recent surveys commissioned by the Electoral Commission noted that 40 per cent. of the electorate did not turn out to vote at the general election. Such figures are replicated at both local and regional elections throughout the United Kingdom and indeed throughout Europe. There was an abysmal turnout in the European elections. Equally worrying was a recent survey carried out by the children's BBC "Newsround" programme, which showed that only 27 per cent. of 400 seven to 15-year-olds would be concerned if they lost their right to vote. Two thirds of our youngsters do not believe that voting is important or relevant, and that rings alarm bells, at least in my mind. We must never forget that those seven to 15-year-olds are tomorrow's voters.
On the subject of young people and their participation in the voting system, it may be appropriate to refer to the voting age. I have an open mind on that, and I welcome the views of other hon. Members. Regardless of the voting age, however, we must all work 224WH hard as politicians to engage young people in politics and to convince them that they can and will influence their own lives and those of others if they participate in the voting process.
§ Anne Picking (East Lothian)
Does my hon. Friend consider that there is a case for compulsory voting? Does he share my view that if people do not participate in the voting democracy of the country, they do not have a say in what the Government do?
§ Jim Sheridan
My hon. Friend raises an important point about compulsory voting. When people choose not to vote, they should not be allowed the same opportunity as others to participate in the complaints procedures of national and local government. Moreover, I share her view that compulsory voting is worth considering. Perhaps the Minister will say whether there is any evidence that compulsory voting encourages people to vote?
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the fact that in a country where there is compulsory voting—which I believe is the case in Italy—there have been since 1945 as many Governments as there have been years. Although there have been enormous turnouts, by some standards the country has a less than satisfactory democratic system.
§ Jim Sheridan
I bow to the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of Italian politics, which I do not share, although my understanding is that the problem with the political process in Italy has more to do with proportional representation than with any other voting matter. I do not believe in proportional representation. It does not enhance people's wish to vote.
§ Martin Linton (Battersea)
Does my hon. Friend accept that international figures show that turnout in countries that have proportional systems is 10 per cent. higher than it is in countries that have our system? Does that not show that there may be some benefit in a system that is more proportional—not so much because of proportionality, but because everybody has an incentive to vote when a vote is certain to make a difference?
§ Jim Sheridan
The figures that my hon. Friend has cited may be right, but that does not necessarily mean that PR or any other exercise leads to better government, although it enhances people's choice.
As a citizen of the United Kingdom—a normal Joe Bloggs, not an anorak—I ask what would encourage me to vote? Compulsory voting is not worthy of active consideration, although I would be keen to hear the Minister's and hon. Members' views on that. What is wrong with asking people to take time out to register their vote? If a person is too lazy to go to a polling station or cannot be bothered to do that, why should that individual be free to participate in any other aspect of governmental or local authority policy? I understand that situations arise when people cannot reach polling stations for various reasons, and measures such as postal voting or increased access for disabled people are in place to accommodate that.
225WH Perhaps we should consider the time scale in which voting takes place, and whether it should be the current one day or whether voting should be spread over several days, including weekends. Where should people vote? Perhaps the general public should be able to vote in places that they frequent, such as supermarkets, libraries or workplaces. It would be extremely interesting if we could create a way for employers to allow their employees to vote at their workplaces. We should make use of new technology, such as electronic online voting, given that many everyday activities such as banking and shopping are carried out online with ease. Those are only several practical measures that are worthy of further consideration and debate.
We must examine how we politicians portray ourselves and how the press and other media portray us. Although I accept that journalists and television presenters have an important role in today's society, I think that they would recognise that they have a fundamental responsibility to report accurately the work of elected politicians. There is over-concentration by the press and other media on what politicians do in their private lives, and insufficient concentration on what they do in their working lives. That is somewhat regrettable. I firmly believe that the electorate are completely turned off by such trivia and are more concerned about what politicians can, and will, do to influence their lives.
That is not always the journalists' fault. There are many examples of the press and other media being used by our fellow politicians to spin and to undermine each other, which feeds the frenzy for trivia. Although the press and other media have a responsibility to report accurately, they are not helped by such unacceptable behaviour by politicians.
I turn to television presenters and commentators. It now appears to be sexy to hear or see the aggressive interviewing of politicians by commentators who are more interested in their own ego than in conducting a mature interview and getting mature answers. We all know who the aggressive presenters and commentators are. I find it strange that fellow politicians volunteer their services on those programmes when they know that the presenters are interested only in promoting their own egos. Some presenters treat politicians with utter contempt, and politicians who give succour to such aggressive interviewing should perhaps reconsider their attitudes.
I recall Brian Walden of days gone by, who was one of the best interviewers at getting a response from politicians. I long for the day when the Brian Waldens of this world return to the political scene and hold politicians to account instead of discussing trivia. That is not to say that journalists and television commentators should not pursue all issues of public interest with vigour and hold politicians to account for their actions.
We must consider how the public can come to perceive us, the politicians, through our good work. Politics is about opinion, but the negative campaigning becoming more prevalent in the political world contributes greatly to turning voters off politics and politicians. It is unfortunate that no Members from the Scottish National party are present. Perhaps they do not have an interest in what the people of Scotland think of their politicians. The SNP's negative campaigning is a 226WH perfect example of how to turn people off, particularly in the run-up to local and parliamentary elections in Scotland. Last time there were elections in Scotland, turnout was pathetically low. Unfortunately, parties such as the SNP concentrate on the personalities of individuals, and that reflects the lack of substance in their policies.
It is vital that, in future elections, every party—in Scotland and elsewhere—should promote the importance of voting, and that there is none of the usual petty and at times spiteful campaigning. I shall certainly urge my party to avoid any kind of negative, personalised campaigning, as I firmly believe that the general public do not wish their politicians to behave in such a frivolous and contentious manner. Perhaps we all should remember that, particularly at Prime Minister's Question Time, when we sometimes behave like bears in a trap.
British voters have, for some time, been disenchanted with the electoral system, and are now sympathetic to the notion that they have no control over their destiny or direction in life. We will never improve our notion of democracy and debate if the electorate has such a low opinion of our system, and we must encourage greater constituent interaction in all our communities to reflect people's interests and, more important, regain their trust.
We are in danger of going to war in the middle east with Iraq, and that could have massive ramifications for everyone in this country, as was more than adequately pointed out recently by the Prime Minister. He reminded us that we live in a time when citizens face extreme danger from terrorists, many of whom ignore or undermine legitimate democratic processes at every opportunity. We should remain vigilant and focused to protect our hard-fought-for and hard-won democracy. We should hold it dear.
In conclusion, we live in a country that is proud of the history of its democratic process. Over the years we have influenced other countries to follow suit, and we should be extremely proud of that. We must not allow ourselves to take our eye off the ball by allowing our own democracy to be undermined or undervalued by voter apathy. I look forward to hearing the views of the Minister and other hon. Members because this is a vital issue, not only for the current generation of politicians but for those coming behind us. We must ensure that the public genuinely believe that we have a job to do and that we get on and do it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)
Order. I notice that six hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, only three of whom have given prior notice—[Interruption.] Do we have a percussion section in the orchestra? Can the Control Room sort out that noise please?
I want to explain to those who are unaccustomed to established practice in the Chamber that we commence the first of the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before conclusion of the debate. That means that we have 39 minutes in which to try to fit in six people's speeches, so I ask all hon. and right hon. Members to make their comments pertinent and concise and not to accept or make interventions that could be covered in another way at another time.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on the thoughtful, measured and comprehensive way in which he introduced this extremely important debate. I agree that Brian Walden was an exception to the rule. The fact that he was previously a Member of this House and had real contact with real people may be why he had more idea of what they were interested in than do many of the commentators and interviewers that we suffer from in the media.
I listened to your very proper admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I want to be brief. I will refer to the written statement made by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions last Thursday about electoral pilots. That referred specifically to the May 2003 local elections, so it is strictly outwith the subject on the Order Paper. Nevertheless, this year's experience will be extremely important when it comes to deciding what it is sensible to do in relation to the general election, whenever it is held. The Minister said:I have now accepted 61 applications, covering 6.5 million electors.That means that a very large percentage of people are taking part in the experiments. At the end of his statement, the Minister said:The pilots are an important step towards our aim of holding an e-enabled general election sometime after 2006."—[Official Report, 23 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 18-19.]So there will be a period during which we can take careful stock of the situation and decide whether the lessons learned will be useful for a general election. A number of the new applications accepted from local authorities refer to all-postal ballots. Many Members have some concerns about all-postal ballots and the opportunities for fraud and intimidation and therefore for distorting the result. Ministers will have to take that carefully into account.
Leading on from the intervention made by the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), there is a real danger that by concentrating on peripheral issues—some would say gimmicks—the Government will ignore one extremely important lesson. According to the Electoral Reform Society, in the 2001 general election no less than 70.3 per cent of those who voted had no impact whatever on the result. That figure is composed not only of all those who voted for defeated candidates, but includes all those whose votes were over and above what was needed to achieve a success in that constituency.
The biggest single disincentive to voting is the knowledge that one's vote does not matter in many parts of the country. The hon. Member for Battersea was right—the House of Commons is not the only place where proportionality is of concern. Almost uniquely, our electoral system gives people a disincentive to vote because they know that it makes no difference.
I pray in aid the following figures to show the extent of the problem, because the aggregate average figure for turnout is misleading. For example, in Liverpool, Riverside, where the result seemed to be a foregone conclusion, the turnout was 34.1 per cent. The constituency has always been and is likely to remain a safe Labour seat. Voters knew that their vote would have no impact on the result. In Glasgow, Shettleston 228WH turnout was 39.7 per cent.; in Glasgow Maryhill, it was 40.1 per cent.; in Salford it was 41.6 per cent.; in Leeds, Central it was 41.7 per cent.; and in Manchester, Gorton it was 42.7 per cent. There were very low turnouts in all those constituencies because the electorate knew that their vote would have no appreciable effect.
By contrast, in marginal seats where every vote counted, the turnout was much higher. Several of the following are Liberal Democrat seats, but that is a coincidence.
In Winchester, where my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) had a majority of two in 1997, the turnout was 72.3 per cent. It is worth noting that the Conservative candidate and his wife were not registered to vote in the constituency, being still registered in Scotland. In Hexham, where the Conservative had a majority of 222 in 1997, turnout was 70.9 per cent. In Northavon, turnout was 70.9 per cent.; in Torridge and West Devon, it was 70.5 per cent.; in Somerton and Frome, it was 70.3 per cent.; and in Norfolk, North, it was 70.2 per cent. Under the first-past-the-post system, average figures are misleading.
I hope that I have made one point clear: when a general election seems to be a foregone conclusion nationally, and when locally—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. To do justice to the subject, I am suspending the sitting to give the engineers time to sort out the sound problem from which we are suffering. I will add injury time at the end. It was not so bad when the voice of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) was being amplified, but the sound is now so poor that it is pointless to carry on. With the indulgence of hon. Members, we will wait until we get the all clear.
§ Sitting suspended.2.43 pm
§ On resuming
§ Mr. Tyler
I hope that that my words of wisdom have been recorded somewhere and that they have not disappeared into the ether, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to note your assent. I hope that it was not my loud tie, worn in the interests of cancer research, that caused the confusion. I apologise if that was so.
If we cannot do anything to make votes of equal value and ensure that people can be confident every time they vote that they will have an impact on the result, turnouts will continue to drop. I shall give another illustration. When I was first elected in February 1974, I had a majority of nine. Clearly, my clever constituents had worked out that my majority would be narrow and there was a turnout of 83 per cent. in the then Bodmin constituency. In my present constituency, the majority was nearly 10,000 at the 2001 election. People worked out that the national result was a foregone conclusion and that the seat was relatively safe so the turnout dropped to 63 per cent. There is a direct correlation between people's perception that their votes matter and turnout. I refer again to the extraordinary statistic that 70.3 per cent. of those who voted, let alone those who 229WH were discouraged from voting by the way in which the system operated, had no effect whatsoever on the result of the 2001 general election.
The useful, but marginal, reforms that are being piloted at the moment are well worth pursuing. However, unless the Government are prepared to grasp the real problem at the bottom of our electoral system, we will continue to see fewer people willing to go to polling stations to exercise their democratic rights. The hon. Member for West Renfrewshire is absolutely right that this is a critical issue about which we should all be concerned, but we need to take radical action to deal with a radical problem.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We have almost exactly 30 minutes in which to accommodate five hon. Members.
§ Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate on a very important issue. He referred to the democratic deficit throughout the world. There are certain countries where we would like democracy and which do not have democracy but, in our own country, we have a democratic embarrassment because turnouts have decreased significantly over the years.
I recall, as will every hon. Member present, that a turnout of between 70 and 75 per cent. could be expected in every constituency not so long ago, irrespective of voting patterns. I also recall that when the referendum was held on the Scottish Parliament, aspirations were high and there was a 70-odd per cent. vote in favour of a Scottish Parliament. However, when the Scottish Parliament was elected, the turnout was lower.
People's first reason for voting is their aspirations. I wish that solving the problem were as easy as looking at other countries. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister says about the Government's proposals for policies that could be developed to encourage greater turnouts at election time.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) mentioned Italy. A comparison can be drawn between the situations in Italy and in Australia, where there is compulsory voting, and one can ask whether the two cases are identical. Did the countries return the same results, or was there greater confidence in Australia than in Italy? Was the situation more stable in Australia than in Italy? One can also compare our situation with that of Sweden. My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire referred to weekend voting in Sweden, which has had a flexible voting system for many years and has turnouts of more than 80 per cent. Weekend voting and voting in supermarkets have been referred to. However, turnout has been getting lower in democratic countries throughout the world, irrespective of the voting systems in place. There is clear evidence that fewer people think it is valuable to vote in the democratic process although we encourage more democracy throughout the world. There is a conflict not only of conscience but of identification. How can we convince other people that democracy is valuable if we cannot convince our electorate that voting is valuable?
230WH I do not want to repeat much of what has been said because as you rightly pointed out, Mr. Deputy Speaker, there is an issue of time—I suppose that it would be appropriate to say that I shall short-circuit my contribution.
May I reflect on turnouts? The turnout was between 70 and 75 per cent. two parliamentary elections ago, and the turnout for the Scottish Parliament elections was 60 per cent. There was a 54 per cent. turnout in my constituency at the last general election, and a national turnout of about 56 per cent. The trend is clear. I am not so sure that PR will bring about a higher turnout in the Scottish Parliament elections this year. I would like to think that it is a solution to the problem, but time will tell.
Credibility is a big issue, as is education. The system used can have an influence, but any steps taken to change the system would have to be considered very carefully indeed. However, systems do not bring about greater enthusiasm for the democratic process. People may be fined for not voting but that would not necessarily make them more interested in the result, as my hon. Friend said, and would not necessarily bring about good government. We have to ask what it is that we actually want to improve.
I mentioned education and I mentioned other countries. We have all expressed concerns over Zimbabwe, where we would like a democratic process to be introduced in the best interests of the people. However, if we cannot make moves to encourage greater turnout in this country, our arguments are less strong.
I welcome the opportunity to have this discussion and to hear from other colleagues. We are all concerned about this issue. Whatever the solution may be, we would all like to find one that encouraged young people to see how important it is to cast their vote, and to see that—whatever the system—they can influence government and opinion.
There is a concern about how politicians are portrayed. I can remember a time when, if people saw their MP walking along the road, there was greater respect—irrespective of whether the MP was female or male. That respect was greater than the respect given to MPs today. We are almost getting to the stage where, in certain quarters, MPs are frightened to mention that they are MPs. We have to ask why politicians today are considered less credible than were politicians in the past. I am concerned about the credibility factor. We all care about our constituents, we all want to see the job done and we all want to make a difference to better our communities—but do the people believe that those are our intentions, or do they believe that that is just spin and that we care about our own objectives rather than those of our communities?
I would like to hear from the Minister about the consideration that the Government have given to possible systems. Again. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire on giving us this opportunity to discuss a very important subject.
§ John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate today. It is important to members 231WH of all parties and members of none. Legislation that is passed and the way in which the country is run affect us all, including those who do not vote. There are a number of things that we can all do to improve voter turnout, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned the election in Winchester in which the Liberal Democrats beat the Conservatives by two votes. The Conservative candidate and his wife were not on the electoral register; they were still registered in the south of Scotland.
A number of things can be done to make it easy to vote: we can ensure that registers are accurate; we can explore weekend voting; and postal voting, which has already been mentioned, could improve things, although fraud is a key concern. Other things to consider include internet voting, electronic voting and telephoning voting. The best recent example of that was the telephone voting on "Pop Idol" on television, in which more people voted than voted in the last European election, and three times as many young people voted as voted in the general election. If people think that they can influence the result, they will get out and vote. We must make it easy for shift workers, the elderly, carers and those with mobility problems. That issue is covered by the fact that anyone who wants a postal vote may have one.
Making it easy for people to vote is probably the easiest aspect of this debate, but getting people interested and engaged in the process will also have to be tackled. As has been mentioned, education is vital. I support, and my party supports, giving the vote to 16-year-olds. Why should people pay tax but not be able to vote? Lowering the age would not increase the percentage of people voting, but it would increase young people's engagement.
People have been asked why they do not vote. Sometimes, the answer is that they are not interested in politics, but if they are asked whether they are interested in the health service, they say yes. They are interested in the education of their children, crime on the streets, defence, foreign affairs and Iraq, which was mentioned earlier. International development might not immediately strike a chord, but most people are genuinely concerned about the poor and starving in third-world countries. To engage people in the process, we must make them enthusiastic about it. Politicians must take a lead.
It has been said that the behaviour in the House of Commons, particularly during Prime Minister's Question Time, is an absolute embarrassment. As a newly elected Member, I found it embarrassing to sit in what has been described as a bear pit. It is no wonder that people who see that on television become disengaged from the process. Also, there have recently been allegations of fraud in MPs' expenses claims. We have no control over what is in the press—rightly so, we benefit from a free press—but the press must take a responsible attitude on the matter.
At the last general election, for the first time ever, more people did not vote than voted for the winning party. Recently, the British National party won a 232WH council seat. The BNP has never won a council seat where the vote was more than 40 per cent. Apathy is a real danger to us all.
PR would improve the situation, because it would be felt that a party had a strength of voice in Parliament that reflected the percentage of people who had voted for it. I feel disfranchised in this place because many MPs want a substantive vote in the House about sending troops to war in Iraq but are unable to vote on a subject that they would dearly like to discuss.
As has been mentioned, many seats are considered relatively safe seats. PR would deal with that.
To sum up, we must make it easier for people to vote. If people cannot be bothered to cast their vote, compulsory voting is not the answer, because it would hide the problem. People would go out and vote, but they would not want to vote. We must get people interested in and enthusiastic about the system. That calls for inspirational leadership. There is a danger to us all if people are disengaged, and we would all benefit by encouraging more people to vote.
§ David Hamilton (Midlothian)
I shall be brief. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) introduced this important subject. As several issues have already been covered, I shall speak briefly on those that have not.
The equal value vote issue is separate from the argument about the democratic deficit—people not voting. I accept that there is an argument for proportional representation, but we must be aware when we talk about it that there are different types of PR. For example, a form of PR is used in the European elections, which have a turnout of only 20 per cent. We must be clear about the type of PR we mean.
§ John Barrett
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the low turnout for European elections is more about the European system than about the electoral method?
§ David Hamilton
It says much about the European system, which brings me to my next point. It is important to recognise that people do not turn out if they feel disengaged from the decision making. For example, it is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire said, that people turned out in substantial numbers to vote for a Scottish Parliament, but only 61 per cent. turned out to vote in its first election. The PR system shouts to me of compromise—that is what it is about. The people who argue for PR normally come second in the running and are trying to take a position of power.
There is a bigger issue than PR. We must try to encourage people and bring them into the discussions. It is very important that political education starts in schools. It does not have to be dealt with in a party political manner. One of the best debates that I have heard was in a primary school. Children of primary age raised various issues such as foxhunting and so on that did not actually affect them but were important to them. I have attended public meetings that were less political than those very good discussions at Rosewell primary school in Midlothian. If we could proceed in that way, we could talk about the system and the best way to encourage voting.
233WH I am an ex-miner. In the pits we used to vote at the pit head, and the average turnout was 81 per cent. That was because the vote was taken to the people. When the previous Government argued for, and forced the unions to hold, postal votes, the turnout plummeted to 51 per cent. It is horses for courses—an old saying—and we must try to look at different options.
I agree that we should make voting more accessible. People currently have just one day in the week—a Thursday—when they can vote. That is not a great system; weekends would be better. Enabling people to vote in the big shops—Tesco and other supermarkets—would be one way forward. If we took the vote to the people, there would be an increase in the number of votes being cast.
It is important that we recognise that in the UK more elderly people than younger people vote because they appreciate the value of what they have. Voting is a gift and I cherish people's right to vote. People in many countries wish that they had such a right. I believe strongly that the Australian system, which features compulsory voting, should be considered. I know, however, that people might resent that and I do not think it would be a great idea for one Government—this Government—to argue the case in isolation from other parties. There would have to be a cross-party discussion on compulsory voting, because whoever delivered it might be rebuffed for forcing people to turn out. The onus is on hon. Members to get out there and tell people the reasons why it is important they should vote and why they should not feel disfranchised.
The situation regarding local elections is very bad throughout the country. In my area, 59 per cent. of the population voted on local government, because it was tied to the Scottish Parliament elections. However, only 59 per cent. voted at the general election. People felt that there was an issue surrounding the Government's performance and they wondered whether their votes would count. When people who have never bothered to vote come to see me, calling me by the wrong name and saying that they did not realise I was their MP, I get angry. There is an old adage that says, "If you do not vote, what are you complaining about?" People can ensure that their views are expressed only through voting.
Some of the points that I have made have already been covered well and, bearing in mind what you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will try to cut my remarks short. Electronic voting is an excellent idea, but it would apply only to a limited number of people and it could be corrupt. Whichever system we adopt, it should be a complementary system that deals with various issues. That is how we should address the issue of voting in the UK. Let us make voting appealing to people.
§ 3.2 pm
§ Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)
I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about Government measures to improve voter participation. Hon. Members will know that in 2001 we had the worst turnout since 1918. Never have so many people been turned off by politics and politicians. Turnout was as low as 34 per cent. in some areas, and in some wards during local elections it was as low as 12 per cent. In my view that is a crisis and we must consider it.
234WH We must consider whether to change the system fundamentally. We credit ourselves with giving democracy to the world—we did—but our political and electoral machinery has become outdated, in the same way that our industrial machinery became outdated after the industrial revolution. We must update it if it is to meet its 21st century job description, which is to deliver the will of the people and to encourage the people to exercise their will.
I shall mention the practical issue of trialling proportional representation in local elections. In November 2001, Lewisham council applied to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—as it was then—to have a trial additional member system in the 2002 local elections. It was refused on three bases. First, that would require a change in law. Since the law will have to change to move the European election dates that need no longer be an obstacle. Secondly, it would mean that different councillors were elected by different means under a top-up system. The Greater London Authority has shown that that can work. I do not think that Trevor Phillips has suffered very much as a result of being a top-up elected representative. Thirdly, Lewisham was told that there was no evidence that the reform of systems increases turnout. Frankly, everyone knows that those who live in safe seats are less likely to bother to vote, and that was clearly shown in the most recent general election. Turnout in the 100 most marginal seats was on average nearly 10 per cent. higher than in the 100 safest seats.
I have been instructed to be brief, and I will be, but I want to add that participation is not just down to whether people think that they can affect the result, but whether people think that the result will affect them. In other words, it is down to whether Westminster has relevance to them, and whether what happens in Westminster affects what happens on the streets or estates. Politicians have some responsibility in that respect. We have to learn to speak in plain English.
I would like the voting age to be lowered to 16. As has been said in the past, there should be no taxation without representation. I do not understand why that should not be true for 16-year-olds who pay tax. We need electronic and telephone voting, and we should consider making voting compulsory, although I hear what hon. Members say about it being unpopular. Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that I lived in Australia for some time, where voting is compulsory and that issue never came up. We think that compulsory voting would be unpopular because that is not how we do things now, but if we are to deal with the crisis that we face, we have to start doing things differently.
Finally, I would be grateful if the Minister would write to the Secretary of State about the Lewisham trial period and whether a trial can be arranged in time for the next elections.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I call on Martin Linton and ask him please to be brief. That is not an instruction, but a polite request.
§ 3.6 pm
§ Martin Linton (Battersea)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) for securing the debate, and I am sorry if not all my points are in accord with his.
235WH We are all addressing the same problem, which is that 5 million fewer people voted in the most recent general election than in the previous one, in which there were 2.25 million fewer voters than in the election before that. A cumulative loss of 7.5 million voters clearly shows a crisis in the system. I support all the mechanical, logistical improvements that have been made to our voting system. Indeed, I was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs that recommended in 1998 that we have postal voting on demand and a rolling register, and that we introduce various other reforms. I am glad to say that those reforms were introduced in the Representation of the People Act 2000.
Schemes on early, electronic and weekend voting are worth piloting. I think that we can go much further down that road. My hon. Friend mentioned Sweden. In this country, we have pilots for early voting. I succeeded in getting the deadline for postal vote applications moved to one week before polling day, and that was a great help in the most recent election. Without that amendment, the deadline would have been two weeks, so I regard the change as an important advance. However, that is still not far enough; those voting in the Swedish election can cast a postal vote in any post office in the country up until the Friday before a Sunday election. Indeed, in certain big post offices in Stockholm and other large cities, people can vote in a post office on polling day if they happen to be away from their home town. Also, in certain Stockholm post offices, if people cast a postal vote before 5 pm, it will get to their polling station before the close of polls at 8 pm. There are no real technical difficulties involved; we could go much further down that route and make voting easy for everyone.
We on the Home Affairs Select Committee never believed that such changes would add any more than 5 per cent. to voting turnout. In fact, because turnout has gone down for other reasons, we have not even had the satisfaction of such an increase. I take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) about the voting system determining voter turnout. There are two important factors: first, the difference that a vote makes to the outcome of the election—that is important, I think—and secondly, the difference that the outcome of the election makes to someone's life. That explains why so few people vote in European elections, and why the vote in local elections is so much lower than in national elections. When one takes that into account, there is no doubt—it could not be clearer—that the main reason for the low turnout in this country is the voting system. The solution, which could not be more obvious, is to change the system.
On average across the whole globe, turnout in first-past-the-post elections is 58 per cent., which is similar to the figure in this country, while turnout in proportional systems is 68 per cent. Even that understates the difference that the system makes. We already had low turnout in national elections, European elections and local elections before the last general election. Turnout in general elections has decreased from 71 to 59 per cent., turnout in European elections has decreased from 36 to 24 per cent. and turnout in local elections has decreased from 40 to 33 per cent. In the international league table of turnout, we are in 65th place. The United 236WH States, which shares our system, is in 138th place out of 163 countries. Nobody can doubt that our voting system is uniquely likely to lead to low turnouts.
I am sceptical whether compulsory voting would make much difference. The international figures show that, if one takes turnout as a proportion of people of voting age rather than as a proportion of people who are registered to vote, compulsory voting does not make that much difference because it tends to make people not register. If we consider voters as a proportion of people of voting age, we find that in countries with compulsory voting turnout is 69 per cent., which does not say very much, and in countries with non-compulsory voting it is 63 per cent. There is a difference but it is not staggeringly large. Giving people something off their council tax if they vote would be a better way of incentivising them than making voting compulsory, which would introduce feelings of guilt that would put people off voting.
My final point is that the biggest problem in this country is not that voting turnout is low everywhere, but that it is low in safe seats. Other hon. Members have mentioned the seats where there is a problem: Liverpool, Riverside; Manchester, Central; Glasgow, Shettleston; Glasgow, Maryhill; Salford; and Leeds, Central. If one looks at Winchester, Mid-Ulster and Tyrone, the turnout is good by the standards of countries such as Germany and Sweden. It is good because several parties have a chance of winning those seats. There have been narrow majorities in the past, which means that not only every voter is incentivised to vote but every party is incentivised to campaign. Multi-party fights for narrow majorities give people the incentive to vote. If we could reproduce that in every seat in the country, the system would not matter. We cannot reproduce that turnout across the country because the first-past-the-post system creates a huge number of safe seats, which turn people off voting, turn parties off campaigning and turn people away from the political system because they feel that they have no purchase on it.
There are clearly many other causes of low turnout and there may be an international trend towards lower turnout, but if one compares this country with other countries there is no doubt that the single biggest reason, which overshadows all the other reasons by a factor of 10, is the voting system and specifically the existence of so many safe seats. Each party regards its safe seats as a source of strength, but really they are a source of tremendous weakness. We could have another 2 million Labour votes in every election if the people in our safe seats had the incentive to vote. We understate our electoral support in every election by 2 million or 3 million votes because most of it is in places where it makes no difference whether one votes. We underestimate the party's popularity and strength. We have solid support in mining seats, but half the people do not go out to vote. That has spread to huge areas of the country, where people feel no incentive to vote. Let us have a voting system—I do not mind which it is—that allows everybody to go to the polling station secure in the knowledge that their vote will make a difference.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Perhaps I should remind hon. Members that conventional practice is for each of the three winding-up speeches to last for 10 minutes.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) because I could not agree more with his comments about the need to change the voting system. I am not so sure about the overwhelming popularity of the Labour Government, but I shall leave that aside.
The 2001 general election gave us the lowest turnout since 1918. Indeed, some would say that it was the lowest turnout ever in this country, given the circumstances of 1918. Only 59 per cent. of the electorate were sufficiently engaged in the democratic process to play their part in choosing the Government. It is significant that that followed on from 1997, with a turnout of just over 71 per cent., which was then the lowest turnout since 1951. Many people had identified a worrying downward trend in participation in elections prior to 2001, but why did the Governments of the day not act sooner to deal with what has now become a crisis?
My further questions concern what action is being taken to deal with the problem and whether the issues behind the falling turnouts are being addressed? In 2001, more than 60 per cent. of 18 to 25-year-olds did not vote. If the problem is not dealt with adequately, that level of disengagement will pose a threat to the long-term health of our democracy. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate. It is timely, given the urgency of the situation, and appropriate given today's launch of the votes at 16 campaign in the House of Commons.
Why are people choosing not to exercise their democratic right? We have all experienced the responses of constituents when we are canvassing. The conversations that I have had with people who intend not to vote accord closely with the points made by Hansard Society's briefing "None of the Above". It would have been unusual for anyone in 2001 to have gone a whole day without hearing the words, "What's the point? You're all the same." It is not only young people who are disenchanted with politics and politicians. There are responsibilities on us as individuals in our constituencies and within our parties to change public perception. I hope that, in my next campaign, I do not hear so much of that argument. We, as well as the Government, must take the appropriate action.
Soon after being elected in 2001, I hosted a tour of Parliament for a group of young constituents, who were participating in the Princes Trust volunteer scheme. As a new Member of Parliament, I accompanied them along the Line of Route. They questioned parliamentary procedures in the most challenging way. Since the election has become more distant, I have not had the same experience. Interestingly, not one of those young people had voted in the general election. The main reason for that was that they did not understand what was going on, so it did not seem right to vote. That is a good reason not to vote.
That was against a background of the local council having started various initiatives to engage young people in the political process. In 1997, Poole council set up a primary schools council, a secondary schools council and a youth forum. Some schools accepted the 238WH council's offer to run elections for their representatives, so that provided some practical civic education. In addition, many schools in my constituency have school councils.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Government's commitment to citizenship education. It has been part of the national curriculum since September 2002. It was recommended in the Crick report in 1998. It is early days for an evaluation, but it will be important to review what is taking place in schools and the impact that it is making. There is obviously much more to the problem than just encouraging young people to vote. They must have a true understanding and an incentive to participate in the wider realm of democracy.
On Friday, I joined Poole's youth forum for the election of Poole's member of the youth parliament. More than 70 young people attended a lively evening. It started with pizzas and ended with a disco, while the middle part focused on political debate and processes. All those initiatives are important, but it is important to appreciate that whatever we do in schools will not be enough unless we, as politicians, change—Prime Minister's Question Time is not a good role model.
Voting at 16 is the logical conclusion of citizenship education in schools. The arguments are well rehearsed and come down to the rights of young people. Young people have a responsibility to pay tax; they can marry; they can bring up a family and they can join the armed forces, and there should be corresponding rights. I therefore welcomed the confirmation, given in July 2002 by the Minister with responsibility for young people, that the Government would consider any recommendations from the Electoral Commission following its review on the voting age over the coming year. A point raised at the launch this morning was that MPs who support the cause have an ideal opportunity to give leadership in their constituencies and in Parliament to raise awareness of such an important issue. It is, of course, Liberal Democrat policy to lower the voting age to 16.
I also welcome the Government's new commitments to increase spending on youth services. One of the benefits is that there will be additional opportunities to promote citizenship education in different ways. There is also a need for more information and citizenship education for adults. It is interesting that some non-voters can be engaged in political activities—for example, marches and protests. Globalisation protests are a prime example: people think that they can make a difference, and they care about the issues. Democratic ballots are enthusiastically embraced when people believe that their opinions will make a difference on issues that directly affect them. As an example, we have only to look at the housing transfer ballots; in contrast, ballots on how local council structures might be changed had, for the most part, woefully low turnouts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West said, there was a high turnout for voting for "Pop Idol".
We have to rise to the challenges and make changes appropriate to the 21st century. We need to instigate institutional change so that Parliament has more relevance. It needs to be more representative, with more women—dare I say it?—more younger people and more people from ethnic minorities. People want candidates to be more in tune with society and more accessible. I think the Government have given good leadership by permitting all-women shortlists. Last week, I was 239WH pleased to attend the first Question Time on youth issues, but I thought it bizarre that the proceedings were interrupted twice for 12 minutes while voting took place in the House. As well as being considered as a measure for increasing voter turnout, surely there is a case for using electronic voting in this place.
Many hon. Members have suggested measures to make voting easier. Of course there is a case for making it easier in order to oil the wheels of democracy. One beneficial effect would be an increase in turnout, but we are not looking at very large shifts. It is important to make it easier, but at the same time we must be wary so that we avoid fraud, attempts at impersonation and so on. There are the simple mechanical changes. We have all noticed the improvements, such as the fact that it is already easier to obtain a postal vote. I agree with all the points that are being made, such as where we vote, how we vote and so on. Such issues need to be looked at, but the core point is changing the voting system.
I am an MP in one of the 100 most marginal seats. Indeed, it is probably near the top of the list. It was a marginal seat for the Conservatives in 1997 and it is a marginal seat for the Liberal Democrats now. It did not have a significantly higher turnout—65 per cent.—but I suppose that it just about fits the mould. However, there was a great deal of interest and activity, and I think that that interest will go forward to the next election.
The issue is people knowing that their vote counts. Statistics show that voter turnout is higher in countries that have a proportional voting system. It is significant that the Liberal Democrats' favoured option of a single transferable vote seems to produce the highest turnouts. A change in the voting system, particularly to a single transferable vote system, would offer many advantages. I oppose a compulsory voting system. The argument was put very well by the hon. Member for Battersea, but we ignore the problem at our peril. We have seen what happened in the council elections; it is vital that we deal with the matter.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
I rather disagree with the arguments that I have heard from some quarters today, especially from the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke). We all agree that voter participation is a serious matter and I am not sure that we will be able to give it the attention that it deserves this afternoon. It is one of the most critical factors facing democracy in this country—indeed, Europe and the rest of the world.
The solution, however, does not turn on voting systems. I do not disregard them because changes could improve matters, but I have examined and analysed the results of the electoral pilot schemes. It is interesting to note from a Library research paper that, when a website was used for electronic voting in Crewe and Nantwich, turnout increased from 18 per cent. in 1998 to 31.4 per cent. in 2002, which is remarkable.
There are other examples, however, of places where, for some reason, the same system was used but the results were different. For example, in Chorley, electronic counting was piloted, and turnout increased 240WH from 31.3 per cent. in 1998 to 61.5 per cent. in 2002. However, the same system was used in City of Westminster, and turnout dropped from 32 per cent. in 1998, to 27.4 per cent. in 2002. It is extraordinary that the same system doubles turnout in Chorley but decreases it in City of Westminster.
Had I more time, I could give details of other examples that show that changing the voting system will not solve the problem. Modernising voting systems with new technology will not get the right result. The problem is much more fundamental.
I was taken with the arguments of the hon. Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) who spoke about credibility and respect. They provide the key to the problem. I have spoken about the strengthening of Parliament in previous debates, and specifically about the problem of low voter turnout and respect for democracy. I have concluded that, to a certain extent, the Whip system has a lot to do with the problem, and I make no bones about making that point again. I need not repeat what I said in previous debates, but hon. Members are over-whipped. The Iraq war may turn out to be an example of a trend in the opposite direction—but people know that the bottom line is that the Whip system has tended to crush the individuality of hon. Members.
The role of the media has also been mentioned today. In many respects, unelected commentators and interviewers—who have no responsibility, who sometimes ask intelligent questions, but sometimes do not ask the right questions and none the less dominate the airwaves—have arrogated to themselves a position that is not justified and which is not necessarily in the interests of the people. Such people could make a useful contribution. There is no point in imagining that the problem will go away, but we must seriously examine it.
For example, when the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, made his statements about burglary the other day, I sought a right of reply on the "Today" programme. I set out my arguments in a letter, which astonished people because I attacked the programme for not giving me an opportunity to reply. When I got that opportunity, the following day, I was asked about House of Lords reform. That is a perfect example. People may say that MPs are ineffective, and they may say that of the Conservative party in particular, but I had quite a few things to say and had I had the opportunity to go on, it would have made a significant difference to the way in which people perceived our reaction.
There is also the question of low attendance in the House, which is a serious problem that turns people off. We hear much about the so-called yah-boo politics that goes on in the Chamber. However, it is a much deeper problem. I am not discounting the way in which the media intrude on how people perceive politics and politicians. If the public see politicians as the butt and as people who always have to answer questions from some glory boy who happens to be the key questioner at that time, however distinguished he may be, it diminishes their respect. That is the effect of seeing someone constantly being kicked into corners. It does not matter whether the politician in question is Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist or anything else. The serious question of how we deal with that issue has to be tackled and I am not sure that I have good answers. I have been on television and radio a 241WH great deal myself and I cannot complain about the treatment that I have received. However, from the viewer's point of view it is a different story.
Broken promises by Governments also contribute. I could enlarge on that, but I do not have much time. There is now a degree of cynicism, and people simply do not believe what they are told. It is significant that the percentage vote has dropped dramatically and quickly, particularly in the period running up to the 2001 general election. There is no question but that 59.4 per cent. was catastrophic. That was a drop from about 70 per cent., which was regarded as significantly low. When I was first elected to the House nearly 20 years ago, we automatically expected about 75 per cent. or 78 per cent. Now we have 59.4 per cent. That is absolutely catastrophic, and it could well get worse. The House has nothing to be satisfied or complacent about; we have every reason to take steps to ensure that we change the situation.
The situation is partly a result of the fact that people do not perceive politicians as having sufficient conviction. That is part of my point about the whipping system and the way in which it operates. I would agree with the findings of a report that claimed that the election of 7 June 2001 was seen as not being important and as not offering adequate choices. That situation arises when there is a lack of conviction at the heart of the political process and when people are simply gambling through spin doctors or the juggling of their manifestos in order to seem as near to one another as possible. That is quite contrary to assertions that it is all to do with proportional representation. I never heard such junk. Under a system of proportional representation, people's votes matter. If a person does not vote—I would always recommend people to vote—it matters. Low turnout has an effect, as it has, for example, in France, where there was massive abstention.
There is so much more that I would like to say, but I will conclude by saying that I very much believe that the fault lies with politicians. However, structural changes must be made, and the media have a great deal to answer for.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate and raising such an important issue. We have heard serious contributions from a range of perspectives in what has been a good debate. Hon. Members are right to say that drops in turnout should concern everyone who cares about democracy.
There is not yet a consensus on why turnouts have dropped. In the 2001 election, the turnout dropped to 59.4 per cent. from just over 70 per cent. in the 1997 election—which itself was a drop from the 1992 election, when the turnout was 77.7 per cent. Turnout has also fallen in European elections from 36 per cent. to 24 per cent. English local elections have shown the same general trend over the past 15 years—although the turnout in the most recent local elections in England was higher than it had been in the previous elections.
We take a lot for granted. Only 100 years ago, none of the women in this room could have voted. Many of the men probably could not have voted either. All men 242WH have had the vote for only a relatively short period; yet, after just a few generations, people take for granted the vote that was hard won over a very long period. This issue matters. If people do not vote, they do not have a voice in the choosing of their Government or the choosing of those who will speak for them. If certain groups do not vote, decisions that affect their lives will, in effect, be taken by others. Whenever there is a democratic void, anti-democratic elements, movements and parties will step into it. That is why this issue should concern us all.
There are two concerns. The first is that some groups have consistently, over a long period, been less likely to vote than others—for example, members of particular ethnic minorities, young people, and those on lower incomes. Whatever the voting system and whatever the period, those groups have been less likely to vote.
The second concern is the recent change. We do not yet know whether that change is part of a long-term trend, so we do not know whether it was just a one-off that affected the 2001 election. However, we are right to be concerned. There is no consensus on why voter turnout fell so far in the 2001 election. A range of theories has been offered. Some argue that it fell because people thought that the result of the election was a foregone conclusion; and some argue that, because of that, turnout will bounce back again when there is a closely fought election. Some argue about the fragmentation of society and a lack of party identification across the generations. Some argue that politics is too confrontational; some argue that it is not confrontational enough. There are also theories about the convenience of voting.
The fact is that we do not know why turnout fell. We will not know for some time and, by the time we do, it may well be too late to do anything. That is why hon. Members are right to raise issues that we must address immediately, regardless of the lack of consensus about what has caused turnout to fall. We have to ask what political parties can and should do. Political parties are the main forum for voter engagement—through individual politicians, candidates, local party organisations or national party organisations. I will not discuss those issues in detail now because the main issue to discuss is what we can do on a cross-party basis.
There is a perception that the Opposition are weak and that the media have felt obliged to become an opposition instead. The impact of that on people's perception of politics has not helped. Media attitudes towards politics and politicians have changed, and that has not helped either.
What can we do to address these issues? There are two areas in which the Government can try to respond. First, what more can we do throughout society, not only through Government, to promote a sense of citizenship and voter engagement and participation and, secondly, how can we address practical issues to make voting easier? Hon. Members raised issues about the voting system and the way in which votes are counted, and I shall address that in a minute.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire was right to raise the issues of education and young people. A change since 2000 is that citizenship is now a statutory part of the curriculum in secondary schools. That has the overall objective of ensuring that young 243WH people are aware of their rights and responsibilities and that they know more about our political system, our institutions and the votes to which they are entitled.
Increasingly, in addition to work being done by schools and the Department for Education and Skills, the youth service and local organisations are working to promote young people's knowledge about political institutions and their rights. On Sunday, I visited Wakefield college, which is just outside my constituency, to attend an event for the election of members of the youth parliament. Given that the event took place at 10.15 on a Sunday morning, I expected there to be me, three members of the youth service, four teenagers and not a lot more people. In fact, 100 young people aged between 12 and 18 turned up on a Sunday morning to discuss issues that concerned them and to participate in an election for local members of the youth parliament. I thought that that showed a fantastic level of interest, and it just shows that those who think that young people are not interested in politics in the widest sense or in the issues that concern them are talking nonsense. We need to give young people more opportunities to raise their worries. The young people at the college talked about local bus routes, teenage pregnancies and the required age for entry into clubs. The issues were of immediate concern to the young people, but they were interested in issues nevertheless.
This is not about only information and education for young people, but about older people as well. The Electoral Commission has the remit for voter information, education and awareness. It has started its work only recently and it focuses on increasing the participation of groups that are especially unlikely to vote. It has worked with Operation Black Vote, for example, and we should look forward to interesting work in that area.
We should make it easier to vote. It is not a panacea, but turnout increased in pilot schemes that involved only postal voting, when voting was incredibly convenient. Convenience is an issue, although it is not the only issue, and it is a reason why I am sympathetic 244WH to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) about weekend voting. I do not know how people find time to vote on Thursdays if they have kids, go to work and are busy. They may forget to vote on the way to work in the morning, and how will they find the time to vote if it is 8 o'clock in the evening and the kids are about to go to bed? It should not be a hassle to exercise one's democratic rights.
My hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and for Battersea (Martin Linton) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) raised the question of whether the introduction of proportional representation would be effective. Hon. Members have overstated their case on that one. We have had the first-past-the-post system for decades but turnout has fallen significantly only during the past few years. The voting system does not explain changes during the past five to 15 years. Additionally, when PR was introduced for the European elections, turnout fell from 36 per cent. to 24 per cent. A range of reasons why that happened can be offered, but it is clear that no simple voting mechanism will address the turnout issues that we face. There is a wide range of problems. No one has any easy solutions, although I wish that they did because I would be desperate to implement them. It is right to try as many different mechanisms on as many different fronts as possible, and to keep the debate going in this House and throughout the country so that as many people as possible are engaged in how we can increase voter turnout and engagement in our democracy.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I register my appreciation of and commendation for the good humour and patience that has been displayed throughout the tribulations of the sitting. I shall not offer an apology, because I do not think that one is necessary, but the circumstances were very difficult, and you all deserve credit.
We come now, 15 minutes late, to the next topic for consideration. My notes indicate that the subject is Humber bridge tools, but I am sure that it should be Humber bridge tolls.