HC Deb 16 September 2004 vol 424 cc513-58WH

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee Session 2003–04 HC 400–1, and the First Special Report from the Committee Session 2003–04 HC 973, containing the Government's response to the Electoral Commission's observations on the Report.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]

2.30 pm
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to begin the debate on the seventh report of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee on postal voting. It is perhaps not the best of afternoons to have the debate. Sadly, there do not seem to be many people here who have not been involved in most of the Committee's deliberations. No doubt, one or two will at least read what the Minister has to say.

I begin by putting on record my appreciation of the work of the advisers to the Select Committee, David Godfrey and Professor Colin Rallings, who did an excellent job in keeping the Committee on track, and, as always with Select Committee work, of the witnesses and people who sent in evidence. Select Committee reports depend on good witnesses and good evidence, on which we can base a report.

We started the inquiry into postal voting long before the question of all-postal voting became a political hot potato. The report is concerned with the question of postal voting, rather than the all-postal voting that has become an issue. I briefly want to mention the all-postal voting experiment, but I want to concentrate on the problems of postal voting and the issues that we must address.

I praise the Government for the experiment. Those who have criticised them have been very unfair, as it delivered an increase in the number of people voting. That was of considerable importance, particularly with regard to the credibility of Members of the European Parliament. The experiment was also useful because it demonstrated some of the problems that have to be addressed, the first of which was the timetable. If we are going to send out postal votes, we need a longer time span for the election. Many of the difficulties that occurred in the experiment related to the restrictions of the timetable.

There is also the question of whether there are enough security printers in the country. One of the advantages of the experiment taking place in four regions was that it demonstrated that local authorities pushed the number of security printers almost to the limit. If we had tried the experiment across the whole of the country, it would have been difficult to find sufficient security printers to deal with the task.

The experiment also demonstrated that there are variable standards in the way that local authorities administer local elections. Some of them do so to an extremely high standard, but one or two were found wanting. It was sad that Stockport received a lot of bad publicity during the campaign because of the way it administered the all-postal vote system. It would have been much better if Stockport had got publicity for all the good things it did, but it did not and that was sad.

I say to the Ministers that their officials did not do very well with the regulations. I understand the argument that regulations should not be made in a Department until the absolute last minute because an excuse might be found for not making them, but the regulations for all-postal voting should have been worked out before Christmas. It was totally unacceptable that one or two local authorities had to publish notices of poll based on what they hoped would be in the regulations, rather than on what they knew for certain. In future, people making regulations in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister need to do so more quickly, or should at least have done the work to enable the regulations to be made quickly.

A lot of people have said that there was a great deal of fraud. That is absolute nonsense. I have read what the Electoral Commission has said, I have talked to various police forces and the Committee has collected extra evidence, and there is not a shred of evidence that there was more fraud in the regions with all-postal voting than there was elsewhere. The worst allegations of fraud come from Birmingham and that has nothing to do with all-postal voting. Those issues must be dealt with. I will talk about them later, but as far as I am concerned, the all-postal voting system did not make fraud any worse.

Sadly, the Electoral Commission does not come out of this very well. First, it told us that postal voting was a great idea, based on the experiments in previous years, and now it tells us that it is not a good idea. Last time round, people expressed views from the newspapers and the feeling was that, judging from the experiments in previous years, postal voting seemed popular, so the Electoral Commission decided that it was a good idea. This time, partly thanks to the work of the Opposition and other groups, the suggestion was that there were lots of problems. That was the glib reaction expressed in many in briefly conducted polls. The Electoral Commission is not coming up with particularly valid judgments.

The Electoral Commission seems totally out of touch with the real world. Back in May, it published guidance on how the political parties were to operate in the context of the postal-vote system. None of the political parties was prepared to sign up to it because an awful lot of the proposals were stupid. Telling candidates that they should not handle postal-vote envelopes was absurd. Anyone who has done any electioneering knows that if someone says, "Can you post this postal ballot or hand it in?", candidates are not going to say, "Oh no, I can't touch that. You've got to get someone else to do it."

As an aside, the Electoral Commission does not have much idea either when it comes to how it is demanding that political parties' treasurers organise their finances. It assumes that all political parties can have a treasurer who has got a degree in accounting. The old Speaker's Conference, which used to organise such things, had strong political representation. Perhaps the Electoral Commission needs swiftly to import people who have knocked on a few doors and acted as agents or treasurers.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

The hon. Gentleman is very critical of the Electoral Commission. Is it not possible that the Electoral Commission changed its view on all-postal voting in the light of the experience of 10 June, so its change is based on empirical evidence? Would it not have been better if the Government had listened to the Electoral Commission before 10 June in respect of the pilots on all-postal voting?

Andrew Bennett

The Government were sensible to go ahead with the pilots in the four regions. As I said earlier, the fact that we got the number up to four demonstrated some of the difficulties, particularly with the security printers. The pilots were worth while experiments. The question is how we take them forward. We should not criticise the Government in that respect; we should recognise that the pilots were useful. All that I am saying is that the Electoral Commission needs to improve its understanding of the way in which the political process works. The political process has worked in this country, with total public respect and with people not believing that there was widespread fraud, for a very long time—mainly at a time when electoral procedures were dealt with by a Speaker's Conference. All that I want is for there to be more realism in the Electoral Commission.

On the key issue of postal voting, it is important to remind people that postal voting in this country goes back a long way. I think that the first attempts to use it were made in 1918. Perhaps that did not influence that election, but it is alleged that in 1945 postal voting made a significant difference to the outcome. We have always believed, throughout recent times, that postal voting has its place. Quite clearly, it enables service people to vote. During the '70s, '80s and '90s, people were entitled to postal votes for incapacity and if they worked away. All that proved cumbersome. People originally had to get a doctor or perhaps a health visitor to certify that they were incapable of walking to the polling station; and, with perhaps less proof, they needed to show that their job might take them away for longer than the period in which the polling station was open. We need to be reminded that, rightly and with all-party support, postal voting became available on demand in 2000. Anyone who wanted a postal vote could have it and, as I understand it, that is likely to be the position for some time. Although that was a good idea, it has had a few consequences that perhaps were not thought through at the time and that have only now become evident. We must address those problems fairly quickly.

The first problem is with registration. So long as we have household registrations, there will be problems with encouraging postal voting or all-postal votes. With household registration, there is nothing to stop the householder putting down the names of people whom he or she hopes will be in the household. At that particular point, no crime has been committed and there is no verification of that information. However, without householder registration the situation becomes complicated, particularly for people with youngsters reaching 18 and away at college. One cannot send back the form until little Johnny has signed it.

We may have to consider a different form of registration. One possibility might be to require anyone aged 18 to go to the town hall and register themselves as a voter. I have a suspicion that an awful lot of people would not turn up, but perhaps giving them a tenner when they did so might be a more efficient use of resources than a complicated registration system. We would also have to ensure that when people moved addresses, their names were moved from one register to another. It is not impossible, but it must be thought out carefully. Without individual registration, dealing with fraud will be difficult; with it, we could end up with a significant number of people not on the register. We must guard against people losing the right to vote because they have not signed up at the right time.

One question that must be asked is how important voting is in a democracy. I think that it is only part of a democracy. We should emphasise that the important thing in a democracy is to give people the right to vote, but not necessarily to demand that they use it. For example, supposing that in this country 52 per cent. of the population voted for an extreme right or left-wing Government and 46 per cent. voted in the opposite direction and 2 per cent. did not bother to vote at all, would that be a happier, more democratic country than a situation in which 40 per cent. did not vote, 40 per cent. voted for party A and the other 20 per cent. voted for party B? I suspect that in the example in which fewer people voted, there was much more political consensus and it was a much more attractive place to be. The important thing is to get people on the register and able to vote, not to demand that they actually vote.

Mr. Davey

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but is he not really saying that turnout is not the only measure of how well an electoral system is working?

Andrew Bennett

Yes, I am certainly saying that, but I am also emphasising that it is important that those who do not vote choose not to do so, and that it is not just that we have made it too difficult for them to vote. It is important that we encourage people to vote and make voting easy for them, but we should not complain if they choose not to.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

Like the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), I think that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) has made an interesting point. However, it goes against the consensus purveyed by the Government, which is easily taken up without much thought and which is that a low turnout is somehow a bad thing and means a sick democracy. He is saying a bit more than the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton says. Is the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish saying that a low turnout could be an indication of contentment rather than anxiety, and that a hotly contested election is an indication of discontent?

Andrew Bennett

Not quite, but that is the direction of my argument. I would argue strongly that the successes in politics are those times when a party manages to convince not only the electorate, but the other political parties that what it has done is a good idea, so that a whole series of policies develop that are not challenged. That is a considerable success in a democracy. If policies are not challenged, people may well feel that the difference between the parties is not so great as to make it absolutely desperate that they stop watching "Coronation Street" and dash to the polling station.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con)

When there is a low turnout, many people on the doorstep say they are not voting because it is a waste of time, there is no interest, and it will not make any changes. That applies particularly to local government. However, in my experience, particularly of local government, there is sometimes a high turnout from fear of losing the party in power, and that is quite the contrary. There is a spectrum of reasons behind low turnout, so we have to be careful.

Andrew Bennett

I accept that. I just want to emphasise that we should not simply say that something is a great success because vast numbers turned out. There was a fair bit of eastern Europe where there used to be practically 100 per cent. turnout, but we would not say that it was particularly democratic. All that I want to emphasise is that we should be much more concerned to make it possible for people to vote, and less concerned about whether they choose to vote.

If we are to make postal voting work, I suspect that we will have to lengthen the electoral timetable. Most people will ask whether that really matters. The only reason that I can think of for not extending the electoral timetable is the problem that arises when a candidate dies between nominations and polling day. I understand that that is pretty rare in local government, and in national Government, we would have to go back to 1955 to find an example. In Manchester, Moss Side, the Conservative candidate died before the election and a further election had to be held afterwards. Obviously, if we increase the timetable by a week or a fortnight, which might seem sensible, we increase the risk of someone dying before polling day and the need for a separate election.

We have to recognise that the more we encourage people to vote by post, the less we have a polling day—a day when the country decides—and the more there is a spread-out period. With all-postal voting, the political parties realised that they should send their key campaigners to the three northern regions of the east midlands early in the campaign, because most people would vote a week or more before polling day. If there is polling on a choice basis, with perhaps 40 per cent. of people in a particular area voting a week before polling day, we cease to have that event. The most obvious example is that of Spain. I suspect that, if an awful lot of people in Spain had voted up to a week earlier, they might have voted rather differently. In the newspapers, there is a bit—although I did not look at it very carefully—about American ballot papers being sent out next week, well before the presidential election.

In one Scandinavian country people can vote by post and if, having done so, some event occurs that changes their mind, they can ask at the town hall for their ballot paper to be altered. I do not think that that is a practical proposition, but it reminds us that if the process is spread out with a postal vote, people may make a choice over time.

Mr. Jenkin

Correct me if I am wrong, but if people in this country vote by post and change their mind, they can vote at the polling station and that is the vote that will be counted.

Andrew Bennett

I am happy to accept that, but let us assume that 40 per cent. of people in Denton and Reddish were voting by post and 20 per cent. of them wanted to change their vote at the polling station. Considerable chaos would ensue. I am sure that people in Denton and Reddish would not want to change how they voted, but I do not think that we want to encourage that. I want to get the message across that if there is all-postal voting, or large numbers of people are voting by post, it will become less of a one-day event; the event will be spread over a longer period.

The declaration is one of the worst things involved in postal voting. It is crazy that people have to ask someone else to sign—thereby saying, "You are you"— and send in the declaration. That leads to other problems. If there is to be a declaration, there has to be a system of verification. I have not been able to find out—and there was no evidence in the inquiry—where that verification is done. I suspect that if someone signed as Mickey Mouse to verify another's paper, it would go through without anybody noticing. If people put their name down as John Smith, rather than drawing attention to themselves by using a funny name, nothing would be done about it. There is no point in including the declaration or the verification.

The fact that there has to be a declaration presses towards family voting. It is one of the problems that has to be weighed up. If there is to be postal voting, there will be a tendency to increased family voting. There does not need to be any pretence. In this country under traditional voting systems, there was a lot of family voting. On knocking on the door and asking, "How are you going to vote?", the person would look over their shoulder and shout, more often than not to their husband although not always, "How are we voting?" It was clear there was going to be a discussion and the household would plump in a particular direction.

I have had quite a few discussions on doorsteps about how the younger son would vote and have often been assured that he will "vote the same as us"—or words to that effect. In such circumstances, when someone got to the polling station they could ignore the collective decision of the household, although I suspect that most did not. The problem with postal voting—particularly if someone has to sign—is the temptation for the dominant person in the household to want to see that the crosses have gone in the right place. We have to accept that that was always a problem, but it is possible that postal voting makes it a bit more of an issue.

Sir Paul Beresford

There is a slight variation, which all hon. Members knocking on doors will have met, where the wife, perhaps, comes to the door and shouts loudly, "I always vote Labour!" then hisses, "That's for his benefit. I assure you that the rest of the family will vote Conservative", or vice versa. With postal voting, a dominant father, for example, could enforce that in his family.

Andrew Bennett

Not necessarily. It is easy for that to be enforced if there has to be verification and other household members have to be asked to do it. People may be able to get a friend to verify the ballot paper, but if they are putting their own cross on it, it is much easier to say, "I picked it up, cast my vote and put it back in the postbox, so it is all done and dusted", without having to discuss it with the other members of the household. I accept that there is a possibility of family voting and undue influence by one person, but it becomes worse if a declaration has to be made.

I also want to discuss electoral fraud.

Mr. Davey

Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the declaration point, I would like to say that my constituency has many properties that contain many people in different flats but which have only one postbox or which have many postboxes in a common place. One of the reasons why some of us felt that the declaration was very important was because in some parts of the country an unscrupulous person's ability to vote harness is much greater. That is a different problem from the household issue that the hon. Gentleman talked about.

Andrew Bennett

Yes, I understand the argument about houses in multiple occupation. However, where somebody wants to cheat, will they cheat a little or a lot? If they are going to cheat a lot, all they do is pick up the ballot paper, get somebody to sign the declaration and put it all back in the envelope. They have then voted on behalf of somebody else.

If the process were to be verified because there were individual voter registration or because somebody checked off the declaration and the name on it was of somebody who was known to the town hall or if the town hall could ring that person up and say, "Did you genuinely do it?", that would be all right. However, none of that happens. People sign the declaration and there is no way that anybody in the town hall can check the verification or whether it really was the person. So they are a waste of time. I accept that there is a problem with postal votes in houses in multiple occupation, but what we are doing is even worse.

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

While I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend said, it was not the case that there was no attempt after the pilots this June to carry out verification checks on a sample of voters. One of the interesting conclusions in the Electoral Commission's report was that verification exercises were conducted, but none showed that there had been instances of fraud. Obviously, the matter will depend on how widespread those checks were, but I think that we should take that evidence into account. Those post-election verification checks with a sample of electors to see whether they voted the way that they appeared to have done all tended to support the case that it was a fair and proper election.

Andrew Bennett

I accept that point, but I am a bit sceptical about how effective the checking up was, because there was a lot of evidence about just how impossible it was to do that effectively. As far as my ballot paper was concerned, I got a colleague in the House of Commons to sign—perfectly legitimately—for the verification. How easy would it have been for someone in Stockport to contact that individual, who did not have to put their name, address or any other such detail on it, to check that they had signed? It would have been very difficult. I am very sceptical about that whole process, but I now want to discuss fraud.

Fraud has always gone on in our elections and there is a potential for it to increase if there are extra postal votes. All the evidence to the Select Committee indicated that it was how seriously the police and electoral officers treated fraud that was crucial. The sad thing is that over a period of, perhaps, 15 years, nobody has really seen it as that important. I understand that a police officer considering which crimes are most important would not rank someone putting a cross on a ballot paper that they are not entitled to mark very high in their areas of concern. We have to get it across to the police that if someone wins an election by fraud, a significant amount of money is involved. Somebody getting into the House of Commons as a result of winning an election by a handful of votes that are fraudulently returned would enjoy at least three to four years of salary—possibly five—and considerable expenses. Actually, it is a serious crime, not only because it undermines democracy but because considerable amounts of money are involved. That applies even to local elections, as someone who is elected to a local authority is likely to get allowances and other things. We must consider those matters and get across the message that electoral fraud is very serious indeed. We must ensure that the police and the returning officers treat it seriously.

The rest of my comments shall be brief, as I have gone on longer than I intended. The Ministry of Defence was involved at the beginning of postal voting, but we were disappointed at the session with people from the Ministry of Defence by the evidence that they were making very little effort to ensure that people in the services had the opportunity to vote. I understand the problems: probably the last thing that people in a fighting situation want to be involved in is postal voting. However, a significant number of troops are serving in places where they probably do not have all that much to do. They might actually be happy if someone ensured that ballot papers got to them so that they could vote.

Another issue is that not enough has been done for people with limited sight or other impairments. It is sad that, for the referendum in the north-east, it was decided that the new local authority boundaries would be set out on paper maps. That may well cause problems for people with poor sight.

Finally, who benefits from higher turnout if we have postal voting? All the evidence shows that it does not make any difference as to who wins. It appears that if the number of votes goes up because of postal voting, the proportion for each party is the same as it would have been with a smaller number of votes. Postal voting by itself does not make a difference to the outcome of an election.

Mr. Jenkin

In the case of the referendum in the north-east, which is on a proposal that does not excite much widespread enthusiasm among the public, is it not fair to conclude that a postal vote is being used to inflate the number of people who vote to try to make the result look more credible than it would otherwise be? The Minister has made it clear that the Government would dismiss a derisory turnout, so they are trying to disguise the apathy.

Andrew Bennett

If 75 per cent. vote yes and less than 25 per cent. vote no, that will be pretty decisive.

Mr. Jenkin

On what sort of turnout?

Andrew Bennett

I would suggest that the turnout is not nearly as important as the majority that we get.

I want to deal with the question of whether there is a party political effect if everyone has an equal chance to vote by post. If one political party is much more active and able to identify who their supporters are and to ensure that most of their supporters who need a postal vote get one, the outcome may be affected. I have made this point in the House on more than one occasion. I won in 1974 with a majority of 203. The fact that my party activists got almost 500 postal votes for Labour supporters clearly had an influence on that. We have to recognise that an election may be affected if it is easier for a party that has many workers to get more postal votes than a party that does not.

In conclusion, I wish to stress the urgent matter of individual registration. We must review the consequences of that and of campaigning in the context of more than one voting date. Above all, we must emphasise that in a democracy the important thing is that people can choose whether they wish to vote. It is as well for us politicians if people occasionally indicate that they do not think it is worth bothering.

3.5 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con)

First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I make an apology. I have to leave in about 20 minutes, so I will be succinct. I hope to return to hear the Minister, who could be quite interesting on this issue. I add my thanks to the other representatives, the advisers, those who sent in evidence and—in particular—the witnesses. It was curious that all the witnesses were very cautious. Normally one gets more of a spread on both sides of an argument, but during our inquiry there was deep caution and concern. I agree with much of what the Select Committee Chairman said and I shall try not to repeat it. However, when I get home, I shall repeat one thing: it is clear from the Chairman's comments that I decided to become an MP because of the salary. I shall then stand well back as the gunfire comes at me. I was enlightened by that comment.

There is real concern about low turnout. I am interested in the Select Committee Chairman's view of that, although I do not completely agree with him. During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the turnout, even for local government elections in London, was much higher. I was involved in some elections in which both the Conservative and Labour parties—the Liberals were a little out of sight then, and still are—really stirred it up. There were 60 and 70 per cent. turnouts in many of the wards which, for a local election, was considerable.

There is a legitimate reason to move forward on this issue, but the Government's reaction was too fast and knee-jerk, and some pretty dubious suggestions were put forward—not just by the Government, but by others as well. The idea of text-message and e-mail voting, which was floated but fortunately did not go further, was a little hare-brained.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab)

I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman, my colleague on the Select Committee, feels that electronic voting is hare-brained. When I voted through the internet in one of the Government's electronic voting trials the year before last, I found it very simple and straightforward. I felt more than entirely reassured by the receipt of a letter from the electoral registration officer, which had a code number with a silver cover over it. That gave me enormous confidence that it could not have been tampered with and that nobody else could have used my vote. I appreciate that there have been concerns in the States about large-scale electronic voting, but I do not think that we should write it off yet. I have constituents who enjoyed voting electronically and I am looking forward to the Government returning to it.

Sir Paul Beresford

I suppose that I had better explain. My slight concern about the issue comes from my eldest son, who works in New Zealand on computer systems and networks and on keeping hackers out. By the time he finished explaining things to me, I was pretty concerned.

We all recognise that when the Deputy Prime Minister is in a hurry, nothing stops him. He was certainly in a hurry about this issue: on 10 June, people in the east midlands, the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and Humberside voted—about 30 per cent. of the English electorate. Many of the concerns expressed to the Select Committee by experts came to the surface to some degree. The Select Committee Chairman touched on printing difficulties, and some of the evidence that we heard was borne out. He touched on various answers to the problem, but not on the fact that one of the potential printers of the papers required for that election declined to participate. We asked him whether he felt that it would be possible to produce the papers fraudulently. He thought that it would take him about an hour with a photocopier. We have to consider that carefully, but such problems are not insurmountable.

The Chairman did not consider the doubts about postal voting. I have had some difficulty in my area with postal deliveries, postal collections and return postal deliveries. Many people are deeply concerned, although this may be more a question of voter concern than reality, about posting their vote but not being sure that it will get there. There is real satisfaction in going into a polling station, putting the vote into the ballot box and being 99.99 per cent. sure that it will at least be counted. When one drops a letter into the post box, however, one cannot be sure that it will get there. I tested this accidentally recently when I sent 300 letters to people who were expecting them. They were all in the same A5 envelope, they all bore clearly printed labels, and they were all expected at a certain time because they were posted first class at a certain time. Twelve failed to arrive. Four—two lots of two—were supposed to arrive at the same houses as two others. In other words, two houses were each expecting four envelopes. Both houses received two envelopes—a failure rate of 4 per cent. That might not be typical—it might have been an isolated occurrence—but anything like that failure rate in a marginal election could make quite a difference.

I know that postmen and the Post Office are politically unbiased, but when we are using the post office to deliver propaganda for a political election, there is the occasional lurking concern in some areas that the vote will not get there. There is often the feeling that makes a cynical person—and I am not one of those—suspect that this could be a trend with the postman.

Concerns about pressure and intimidation were put to the Committee by barristers who specialise in election fraud, by representatives of disabled groups and by the Metropolitan Police special branch, one of whom was an Asian officer who stressed the dominance of the male as the head of the family and beyond as a dominant person in religion. He was quite emphatic about the possibility of using postal votes that had been collected. That, in fact, was one of the allegations made by some of the press, although it has clearly not been followed up.

The family issue is valid. I know that the Chairman put it to one side, but it is very easy for a dominant member of the family to dominate if we have postal voting. That may not be a factor in a large general election, but in a local election, particularly in a ward or where planning permission is requested, such pressure can influence a vote and swing the ward in a direction in which someone illicitly wants it to go. Such corruption warnings were given and anyone, particularly someone with local government experience, can recognise the possibility of bribes in a postal vote.

If a contractor wants to build a property for which he requires planning permission, he can influence the decision by collecting and buying votes. He will not waste his time if the vote is not postal, because if he pays 100 people £100 to go to the ballot box and vote, he has absolutely no idea whether they have all simply put the £100 in their pockets and voted exactly the opposite way. If he has the opportunity to collect postal votes, however, he can influence a very close election.

Voter personation was mentioned. Many pointed out that there was little or no way of being sure that the postal vote received actually came from that voter. We touched on houses in multiple occupation and we should also discuss student accommodation, particularly where voting happens to coincide with the holiday period.

Postal voting increased voter participation. During our inquiry I could not, unfortunately, persuade two New Zealand local government politicians whom I met to come to the Committee. I do not know whether the Committee would have been able to see them, but it would have been interesting to do so. One represented Labour and one the National party—the Tory party in New Zealand. One was the mayor of Auckland. He said that the vote went up quite dramatically the first time, but then started to die away. There was interest at first—"Give it a try"—and then it was back to the usual boredom. What horrified me was that he said that although he could not prove it, he had the impression over time that about 50 per cent. of the increase was down to some sort of fraud: a farming or harvesting of votes. I was deeply concerned. What concerned me even more, although I did not say it to him, was that he did not seem to care very much.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab)

Because he won.

Sir Paul Beresford

This mayor won by such a majority that it would have made no difference. Nevertheless, something should have been done.

The Committee did not really talk or get much evidence about the expense of postal voting, although I have gleaned evidence from elsewhere. Postal voting is much more expensive and the Audit Commission has put forward a number of suggestions that local authorities ought to undertake to offset the costs. What often bothers me about members of the Audit Commission—I say this as an ex-member—is much the same as the point made by the Committee Chairman about the Electoral Commission: they are not always in the real world. They look at the figures; they are auditors. They ought to sit down, look at the suggestions that they have made, try to apply them, and then ask the people who will apply them. As I understand it, the suggestions that the Audit Commission has brought forward will greatly contribute to the excess of costs.

I believe that our system of attendance on polling day at the polling station is the right way forward. We need to expand the choice for postal voting. I do not think that we should encourage it, for the reasons that we have put forward. People have a feeling of duty when they actually go and vote. One can see the smile of satisfaction as they leave. It is curious, but it seems to work.

The Minister of State with us today—in fact, we are so outnumbered with Ministers and officials that it looks like a cover-up, but that would be unfair—said several times that little or no allegations of fraud were made to the commission, that that is correct, that the media have reported more instances than were recorded, and that we are going to learn from them. However, one of the themes that I wish to pick up on from New Zealand is that people who wish to commit fraud are learning, too. We need to recognise that and to take preliminary steps early to try to stop it.

There is much credit in a mixture of methods. We need some postal voting—that is absolutely obvious in plenty of cases. We need postal voting for people who are not here, who have gone on holiday, who are ill and so on. But we also need to encourage voting in the traditional way.

The real problem comes down to politicians. If we can get people interested in politics at local and national levels, they will come out and vote. Sometimes that is done by fear: in local government, I used to do my best to encourage people that a Conservative vote was safer for their pocket and for better services, while a Labour vote meant that the next day they would in effect be living in Labour Lambeth. It used to work. I am sure that the Minister will be able to come back with the equal and opposite, but the crunch is that it is possible to get people to take voting seriously. It is possible to persuade them to come out. I agree with the Chairman of the Select Committee that they should not be forced to vote, as the Australians are.

3.19 pm
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. I welcome the Committee's report and the comments that were made by the Chairman of the Committee in presenting it.

I speak as someone who represents a constituency that I think has the longest experience of all-postal ballots. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as my constituency neighbour, will appreciate that point. I am pleased that, in the Committee's report, Gateshead, in particular, receives the gold star for turnout in the various elections for which it has participated in all-postal ballots. As my constituency also covers part of the city of Sunderland, I am pleased that in Sunderland, too, turnout more than doubled as a result of the all-postal system.

Until this year, the experience of all-postal ballots was entirely positive in my constituency. Certainly we were not aware of any concerns about fraud, and all of us were greatly struck by the increased turnout that resulted from such ballots. In the course of canvassing and talking to people during the elections for which we experimented with all-postal voting, I was struck by the views that constituents expressed to me about the all-postal system. Indeed, what I learned during the pilot schemes has made me increasingly disenchanted with the traditional system of voting on a Thursday in person. That system was introduced in very different circumstances from those that pertain today. When Thursday was first decided on, few women worked and men in work tended to work quite close to their home, so voting in person on a workday seemed natural and feasible. I have been struck by the number of people I have come across who live in typical households made up of two persons, both of whom work longish hours and who find that voting in person is not always easy, given their lifestyle.

Of course, the point may be made that people can apply in advance for a postal vote, and under the old system of postal voting that is true, but having the ability automatically to receive a postal vote means that people do not have to concern themselves in advance with whether they will be available to vote in person at the upcoming election. People do not always know their commitments so much in advance that they can arrange to receive a postal vote. Even so, I think that in all our constituencies more people have applied to vote by post recently than was the case in years gone by. Again, that shows that postal voting responds to today's needs in a way that should at least give us pause for thought if we are considering abandoning that way of voting in future.

As politicians, we are all keen for people to take an interest in politics and to turn out and vote at every election, but in areas that are perceived as safe, not marginal, people sometimes do not feel the overpowering need to vote that perhaps we wish they did. Certainly people pointed out to me that although they were not averse to voting, if circumstances were such in their busy lives and they felt that they lived in a non-marginal area, they might be less tempted to vote in person, even though they were happy to vote by post. All of us who have canvassed in what are perceived as safe areas, know that if a by-election takes place in winter when the evenings are dark or when the weather is inclement, or even when there is something good on the telly in competition, people cannot always be persuaded to leave their homes and go to the polling station. That does not mean that they are totally averse to the idea of polling, but they may not see it as the highest priority that we might wish they did. The point was repeatedly made to me that something that can make voting more convenient should not of itself be rejected. If it can be done satisfactorily and in circumstances that do not give rise to greater difficulties than the traditional method of voting, it should be welcomed and we should proceed with it.

The June postal ballot in the elections in the north-east proved to be less popular and turnout was somewhat reduced in areas such as the one that I have the honour to represent. I believe that that was largely related to the requirement for a witness statement. Those areas had had three years' experience of operating a system without a witness statement, so it confused and perplexed them. They did not understand why it was necessary when it clearly had not been necessary previously.

The requirement for a witness statement, combined with the fact that we had two elections and a larger number of candidates than in previous all-postal ballots, made the system seem more complex. The fact that the witness statement necessitated the use of two envelopes and several pieces of paper gave rise to some practical problems, such as people mislaying envelopes or pieces of paper. Indeed, I and workers in all parties felt somewhat uncomfortable when canvassing that people should have to ask us how to complete the ballot papers. That simply did not happen before because the previous system was so straightforward; it worked extremely smoothly.

I urge the Government to continue in their resolve to make voting easier and more convenient. The experience in my area has on the whole been beneficial. However, I recognise that some like to vote in person. In addition to all-postal ballots, I like the idea of having collection points in libraries and other public buildings so that people can vote in person if they wish.

I felt that it was uncharitable of the official Opposition to criticise authorities such as Gateshead for providing more collection points during the recent elections. It was not a sign of weakness. Those authorities recognised that, despite the complexities of the witness statement and the way in which the system was organised this time, some people much prefer to vote in person. I also think that people should be given the choice. It makes a great deal of sense to have collection points of the sort used by Gateshead. Indeed, even during the first three years of operation in my area when the all-postal system was simpler, the collection points in local libraries and elsewhere proved popular.

Mr. Jenkin

Please let me clarify the matter. Officials in the right hon. Lady's constituency may have felt that they had been criticised, but it was not intended. We were criticising the system that led officials, such as those in Gateshead, to feel the need, unexpectedly and in an unplanned way, to respond to the shortcomings of a system that was obviously overloaded—perhaps because of the number of elections taking place or because of the need for a witness statement. That was one of the unexpected shortcomings of the system and officials conscientiously did their best to address it by opening more delivery points.

Joyce Quin

I am certainly happy that the hon. Gentleman does not mean any criticism of officials in my local authority area. However, his party and the Liberal Democrats pushed hard for the witness statement, which was a complicating factor. I am rather sorry that my right hon. Friend the Minister gave way in Parliament to that request, because it was largely unhelpful. However, I am glad that my local authority responded as it did to help people who otherwise would have been occasioned further difficulty by the way that the all-postal ballot was conducted.

In conclusion, I say to Ministers that I hope that we can combine the best of the old and the new. I hope that we will not abandon the experiments, which have been largely successful in increasing turnout, but that we can combine them with a greater number of balloting points and ballot boxes in local areas, to maintain high turnout for the future. We must allow people who want to vote in the traditional manner to do so without making it difficult for those who have become used to, and greatly value, the postal ballot system.

3.31 pm
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

One of the sad things about the past few months is that the procedures by which we conduct our elections have become a party political issue. That has not been true in the past; we have been able to sit down and discuss how we conduct elections. The party political football has been well and truly out in recent debates and has been kicked backwards and forwards in a totally unhelpful way. I hope that today will mark the beginning of a different process, in which we discuss issues that genuinely concern many people and work towards an electoral system that we all feel confident in and can adopt for the future.

The fundamental problem that led to the discussions was that a general concern about low turnout was felt across all parties, political commentators and the public. People were worried that turnouts at local and general elections were falling and asked what we should do about it. One way was to examine the method of voting to see whether we could remove barriers that might discourage people from going to polling stations.

Parliament, the Electoral Commission and the Government together recognised the problem and agreed that we should consider alternative methods of voting and conduct pilots in different local authority areas throughout the country to find out whether they worked and pushed up turnout. I have criticised Ministers on the odd occasion, but we should not be in the business of saying that it is their fault if some pilots did not work. The whole idea of a pilot is to test something to see whether it works. If it does not, it is not repeated but lessons are learned.

I thought that pilots involving weekend voting, including one in Watford, might be successful and that people might vote in greater numbers, but it had no effect on the turnout in Watford. I thought that moving from Thursdays to Saturdays and Sundays might work, but I was proved wrong. We also tried voting in supermarkets but that did not make a great deal of difference.

We tried e-voting. I am perhaps a little less enthusiastic about that than my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) or the Minister. We held an experiment in some wards in Sheffield at previous local elections. We encountered an awful lot of technical problems that had they been repeated with a 50 per cent. turnout or more at a general election, would have given us real difficulties. However, I am not writing that system off completely, and I am sure that we will come back to it in the future.

All-postal ballots were the only different form of voting carried out in the pilots that proved successful in substantially increasing turnout. It happened repeatedly, including at Rotherham and Doncaster near my constituency. It was successful and there was a desire to find out whether that method that had been piloted at local authority level of increasing turnout would work on a larger scale.

Mr. Edward Davey

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to discuss all-postal votes and away from pilots, may I say that I agree with him that the Government were right to examine different forms of voting and pilot them as they did? Of course, it prompts the question about whether a particular idea is piloted sufficiently and whether it will work at a particular election, place and time. I am sure that he will agree that any pilot procedure can be improved and that different results can come from different pilots, as was the case for the different all-postal pilots. Does he share my belief that some of the ideas—particularly weekend voting—could be piloted again, and might prove more successful?

Mr. Betts

Generally, I would not be against that; it would not alter the method of voting. I shall come on to future changes of that kind later. There may be some sense in thinking again about weekend voting, perhaps over two days, for general elections in this country; many countries in continental Europe have that.

The European elections provided an opportunity to study a pilot of all-postal balloting in a wider area. In the end the argument that took place was about whether there should be two, three or four regions; it was not about whether to extend the pilot to the European elections but about the scale on which we should do so. A larger-scale pilot was right, because it showed problems, such as the printing difficulties, an issue that people might not have thought about initially. The smaller pilots probably would not do that.

Whatever the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, it said when it presented its evidence to us that it could not see particular problems with all-postal voting that did not have to be tackled with postal voting per se. We pushed them on that issue and they gave clear evidence to that effect repeatedly.

I agree with the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), about the difficulty in following some of the arguments of the Electoral Commission. The commission has now said that the referendum should go ahead in the north-east on an all-postal basis but that any referendum that might take place in due course in Yorkshire and the Humber should not happen in that way. However, its review of what happened in Yorkshire and the Humber in the recent European elections is hardly a damning indictment of the pilot.

The review states: Yorkshire and the Humber is not traditionally an area with a high number of allegations of electoral fraud or malpractice", which is true. It also states: The number of allegations of electoral fraud or malpractice reported during the pilot process was low. The only reason for the commission's concern is a perception that postal voting opens the process to more abuse. It has obtained that perception by running an opinion poll, as far as I know. It has not had floods of letters and complaints from people in the region.

I went to a presentation by the Electoral Commission on its report, and what seemed to emerge from that was that the public felt concerned, probably because of all the publicity about Birmingham and other areas that were not dealt with on the basis of all-postal votes.

Mr. Mole

My hon. Friend has put his finger on the point. In coverage of the progress of the European elections one of the witnesses, a Liberal Democrat Lord, seemed almost to want to prove, in his television appearances, the point that he had made to the Select Committee in evidence before the elections. He produced anecdotes that were repeated in the media, the strongest example of which was 16 proxy vote frauds that had nothing to do with the postal votes. Yet all that was muddled by the media into the view that there was a problem with the European election because of postal votes. The fraud that was found could have happened under the traditional system.

Mr. Betts

That is right. There is no evidence as far as I can see that the all-postal voting pilots in the regional elections were more subject to fraud and abuse than the ordinary voting systems that were used in the rest of the country at that time.

Mr. Davey

The hon. Gentleman was questioning the view of the Electoral Commission, and its consistency, but does he agree that its report, "Delivering democracy? The future of postal voting", was published after the Government had taken the decision not to go ahead with all-postal votes in the referendums in Yorkshire and the north-west? It was the Government's decision. The Electoral Commission makes it clear that it is relaxed about all-postal votes in the north-east referendum; again, that was a Government decision. The hon. Gentleman seems to be blaming the commission for Government decisions.

Mr. Betts

I am sorry if I gave that impression; it was not intended. I was merely commenting on the fact that the Electoral Commission had said that it would not recommend all-postal voting for a referendum, whenever that might happen, in Yorkshire and the Humber. That is in the commission's recommendations. I am in no way implying that it was responsible for the decision in July to postpone the referendum in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Having criticised the Electoral Commission a little, I should go on to say that its report "Delivering Democracy" is helpful in many respects, and I hope that it will form the basis for all-party agreement on the way forward. Essentially, it accepts—as I hope all parties do—that postal voting on demand is here to stay. Nobody, I hope, would say that people should go back to filling in ridiculous forms—with doctors' signatures, nurses' signatures and all the other paraphernalia—to get a postal vote. I hope that we can at least get agreement on that. If we do, we then have to consider how postal voting is conducted, because that is the essential issue.

Postal voting on demand can ensure that people have ease of voting, that we keep turnout as high as possible and that we do not put barriers in people's way, but we must also address the safety and security issues. Attention has already been drawn to the fact that the witness statement in no way ensures that postal voting is done properly, because anyone can sign it. In fact, all it does is ensure that some people are so confused by the process that they do not exercise their vote. I do not know whether anybody else has experienced this, but I talked on the doorstep to a husband and wife who both had postal votes, but neither thought that they could sign the other's witness forms, because that was somehow wrong and someone independent had to do it. That sort of confusion is rife and we should do away with the witness statement.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee, who said that we must move to a test. The obvious test would be individual registration, with a signature on a registration form that could be checked, at least on a sample basis, to see whether the right person was voting. However, I should throw in a caution at this point. The great worry is that individual registration would deter some people, particularly the young, from registering and would cause additional complications. That is a real worry, and I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that if we go down that road—I think that we will, because there is general agreement on the issue—we must look at local authority processes and procedures to ensure that canvassing is effective, particularly in areas where returns of registration forms are traditionally low. That will probably mean making extra resources available.

Generally, I am not in favour of ring-fenced grants for local authorities but, in this instance, there may be a case for them in the first year or two to encourage the process to be set up properly. Perhaps we could reach agreement with local authorities on that. There may even be a case for some sort of financial incentive to register; we could certainly look at the idea of penalising people who do not register. Not sending back the registration form is actually an offence now, but can anyone tell me the last time someone was prosecuted for it? Perhaps things should be the other way round, although I do not know whether there is any way in which we could introduce a financial incentive. When we had household registration, we could have given a discount on the council tax, but that is more difficult with individual registration.

Mr. Jenkin

If any function undertaken by local government is truly a national function undertaken on behalf of central Government and, indeed, Parliament, it is surely the formulation of the register used to elect us as Members of Parliament. It would therefore be perfectly legitimate for the Government to use local authorities as paid agencies to ensure that the electoral register was properly formulated.

Andrew Bennett


Mr. Jenkin

I phrased it in the way that I did because the term "ring-fencing" is misleading in this context. Local authorities use the register for their own elections, but they have also compiled a national register for national elections on behalf of central Government. Central Government are perhaps obliged to undertake expenditure to ensure that that is done properly.

Mr. Betts

That is quite an interesting point, and I am sure that the shadow Chancellor will support the spending commitment that the hon. Gentleman has just given.

Mr. Jenkin

It was not a spending commitment.

Mr. Betts

Oh, it was not a spending commitment.

We must take further steps on safety and security, although it is not just a matter of postal votes. By and large, postal votes go to the address on the register, but where there has been postal voting on demand in other circumstances, one worry has been the number of postal votes that have ended up at the same address. We have to look at that issue to see whether we can restrict the number of postal votes that go to a different address from that on the register. We already restrict the number of people for whom an individual can act as a proxy in elections to prevent such misuses of the electoral system. Perhaps we must consider that issue, too.

We have to review the whole issue of election offences. Perhaps the police can set up a special unit to advise their forces up and down the country who do not always take the issue terribly seriously. It is not considered the same sort of problem as burglary or theft, but actually, stealing and misusing votes to get someone elected who should not be is a serious offence, and we ought to get the police properly to address it.

On the other hand, we must be careful about the guidance given, and all the parties were right not to sign up to the Electoral Commission's suggestions early this year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned, being asked to take away a completed ballot paper in a sealed envelope from someone two days before the deadline, when they have filled it in and are desperate to take it to the post, and having to say, "I'm sorry, I am a member of a political party so I can't take it" is really nonsensical. We have all had that happen to us, and the person is distressed and upset because they do not know who will be the next caller who can take the postal vote to the post box for them. So we must be sensible about this, and the Select Committee endorses my hon. Friend's very helpful suggestions about having a bit more practical political input to some of the guidance.

However, although I support postal voting on demand and trying to do everything possible to get postal votes to people that want them, I feel in the end that there must be an element of choice in voting. What came back to me in the pilots in Sheffield was that postal voting is very popular, particularly among people who would not otherwise have bothered to vote, but some of the people who vote at every election felt a little cheated by not being able to go down to the polling station. There were collection points, but not many of them. That was so particularly with elderly people; we have all met such people, who refuse a postal vote even though logically they ought to have one, because they actually want to vote in person. They have always done so and they believe that voting is a duty and their right.

We have to run a parallel system and there is a cost to that, because postal voting on demand will probably rise, which will take it naturally to 25 per cent. or more in most constituencies over time, and we must run all the polling stations as well. The Government must look at that. I think that it is a cost worth paying for democracy, and we should seriously consider it. When the Electoral Commission comes back with its proposals for a general form of voting, I think that it may advocate that direction, saying that we shall have voting at polling stations in the normal way, and voting by post, as well as the additional ability gradually to bring in e-voting.

I also think that it is sensible to get to a position fairly quickly in which we have the same form of voting at all elections, so that people know what is coming. This time, despite all the publicity, I met many people who said, "A ballot paper has arrived, but we didn't actually ask for one." People were still not expecting the vote to come through the post despite the fact that there had been an advertising campaign telling them that that was how they were going to have to vote at those elections. Getting consistency in how people vote is important for the future.

I also think it is important to make voting easy. Currently, even if someone wants a postal vote on demand, they have to apply for a form to fill in. Why should there not be simply a box for people to tick on the registration form, saying whether they want to vote by post or in person, or ultimately by e-voting? It seems that simple, and we should allow it to happen, particularly with individual registration, which will go hand in hand with that.

Mr. Davey

I have just filled in my electoral registration form today and there is a box to tick for postal votes, at least in the royal borough of Kingston.

Mr. Betts

There certainly is in Sheffield as well, but it is a tick to get a form to fill in, not a tick to say that someone wants it automatically. That is the difference, and I think we can move one step further down that road.

We must also look at the information that goes out on postal voting. The information that went out in Yorkshire and the Humber—I think it was the same in the other pilot areas—was incredibly complicated. I know that the witness statement did not help, but it was very difficult to follow, and I met several people, whom one would normally expect to be able to follow such instructions, who got it wrong. The instructions in London were much easier to follow, despite the complications of the elections there. I hope that we can learn from that as well.

Finally, I have one or two more suggestions about how to improve our voting system. To ensure that people know that they are on the register, a useful thing that Westminster council does—I do not always support or give credit to Westminster council for the way in which it runs its affairs—is to send, once the new register comes out in February, to every person who is registered, a card saying, "You are registered on our electoral list." That does not go out at election time, but in February, so that everyone can check. For general elections in particular, when there is no time between the declaration and the election to get on the register, that is a good idea and could be introduced on a national basis.

The information given to political parties and others this time, on who had voted in postal votes and in the pilot areas, was useful and helpful. Such day-to-day information should be available for all elections, because postal voting on demand will increase the number of people voting by post, even in elections where there is a choice.

Finally, let us consider moving the date of the local elections to June rather than May. If more people are going to vote by post and there is more party work to do, we should at least do it in slightly better weather. There is general support for moving the date to June from May.

3.50 pm
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) on a balanced and well informed speech, reflecting the Committee's work. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) introduced the Committee's report and gave a good account of it. Although I do not agree with everything in the report, it was helpful. The amount of evidence that was taken and how it was dealt with did the Committee credit. Fortunately for this debate, the Electoral Commission's report came out last month, which enables us to reflect even more on the experiments last June.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish was right to separate postal voting and all-postal voting. It is helpful to look at the debate in that way, because we can get more agreement. He rightly wanted consensus and, with that division, it is easier to move forward. Postal voting is voluntary and all-postal voting is compulsory. That important difference has marked the debate and assures those of us who have always been concerned about all-postal voting, but are more relaxed about postal voting on demand.

As the Chairman said, postal voting has a long tradition in this country, has been well used and is well understood by those who have wanted it. The extension made a few years ago received all-party support and continues to do so; it was an extension of choice, after all. The change makes it easier for people to vote; I do not think there is any disagreement on that. From the pilots and what happened in June, however, we have seen that if there is going to be more postal voting on demand, we must be a lot stricter on the controls and the legal framework around it. That came out in the Committee's report and in the Electoral Commission's report.

The Government should look at the matter urgently. Are the Minister and the Department looking to the forthcoming Queen's Speech to see whether a small Bill can be introduced to tighten the relevant legislation for the next general election? We should take on board the significance of the lessons learned and move quickly. Although there is perhaps not enough time to conduct a full review of every aspect, there is certainly time to tighten up certain issues. It is interesting that the Committee and the Electoral Commission pointed to one or two areas that could be tightened up with no further ado.

For example, there is agreement that we need an updated offence of undue influence in relation to postal voting to ensure that it is legal for a party worker to take a sealed envelope to the polls, but an offence for someone to put pressure on an individual. The commission also proposed a new offence relating to the fraudulent completion of postal vote applications. That must be pushed forward quickly, as it makes an awful lot of sense.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe talked about how the police needed to be encouraged to take the matter more seriously. He was right about that. I have known councillors who have been concerned about how elections were carried out and so tried to get the local police interested. They furnished them with fairly incontrovertible evidence that an electoral offence had been perpetrated, but they were not interested. It took a long time to get them to start investigations and then some of the trails went cold. The police must act quickly if there is evidence of electoral fraud. We could tighten up the legal framework. In some areas, there is a case for moving very quickly.

There has been some discussion about the options for tightening up the security of the system, in particular the choice between household voter registration and individual voter registration. The Chairman rightly highlighted the problems that will arise if we go down the road to individual voter registration. There is some consensus about it being the way forward, but he was right to point out that it is not without its problems. If we eventually consider legislation on that, we must take into account those logistical problems to ensure, through local electoral registration officers and elsewhere, that we do not accidentally disfranchise a group of the population. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) mentioned the young. We must not see further disfranchisement of young people.

However it is the right way to go. If we have more postal voting, there are genuine concerns as to how household voter registration could affect elections. There could be pressure from the strong member in a household. I raised in an intervention the case of houses in multiple occupation, flats and other types of dwellings. There are problems that could be alleviated with a proper and rigorous form of individual voter registration.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish is quite right; any form of registration only works if there is a proper checking and verification system. It was interesting to hear the Minister say that a lot of sampling was carried out in the June elections, which, thankfully, showed that there was little fraud. We need to discuss both the resource implications and the skills that are required to do more sampling if we continue to develop postal voting. That will be the case whether we have household voter registration or individual voter registration. It is important to have verification. Verification of individual voter registration will give greater assurance to the House and to the public once the benefits in respect of fraud are more widely understood.

Before I come to all-postal voting, I should like to talk about postal voting on demand. It is important, as the Electoral Commission looks at its foundation model for voting, that we consider the needs of the disabled, particularly those with visual impairment but also those with mobility problems. That group of people are concerned about the impact of all-postal voting and we must take care that we do not disfranchise them. As we develop these so-called multi-channel options, we must ensure that we take into account the needs of people with different forms of disability.

It is quite reassuring that the home assistance option is referred to in some of the reports before us. It may be necessary for those who are severely disabled. They have probably been disfranchised ever since democratic elections were introduced and we should look for new ways to ensure that they can take part in our democracy.

There has been a bit of debate about turnout today and whether people are not turning out because they are content and happy or because there is little difference between the parties. I would add another thesis—these theses need testing and I see a political PhD research project coming on—that, unfortunately, some people do not vote because they think politicians cannot change things. On one level, they are right; we have accepted a free-market approach to managing the economy, which means that many choices—some of the big things that affect people's lives—are outside the realm of politics. But it is a good thing, not a bad thing, if politicians do not have all the power over people's lives, as it means that people are freer and not dependent upon political decisions. There may be a group of voters who think that they have the freedom to take responsibility for their own lives and how an election turns out makes relatively little difference to them.

We should be careful how we react to a low turnout, because it sends many complex messages. The Chairman of the Select Committee was right to say that we should not just gnash our teeth, that we must get everybody voting because otherwise it could lead to a restriction on freedom, not an enhancement of it.

I hope there will not be too many groans when I suggest that in respect of turnout and different ways of voting, we should consider piloting different electoral systems for local elections, which has not been done. There are different electoral systems for Europe, Scotland and Wales and Westminster, but—

Andrew Bennett

It didn't do much good for Europe.

Mr. Davey

It is contestable whether that was to do with the electoral system. What I would like are experiments and pilots with different electoral systems for local elections.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) wishes to intervene he will be responded to, but the proceedings are being transcribed elsewhere by Hansard reporters, not by the sub-editor in the Chamber, and they may not have heard what was said.

Mr. Davey

The single transferable vote form of proportional representation will be used in the 2007 local elections in Scotland. We are looking forward to seeing its effect on the elections, how it impinges on the abilities of local government to deliver services to the constituents, and how voters react to it. It will be an interesting experiment; I hope that that type of system could be piloted elsewhere in the UK if a council were to apply to the Government for the right to do so.

We should not discard some of the ideas that have been piloted previously. As I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe, weekend voting, especially in general elections, has a lot to recommend it, although for religious reasons it would have to be carried on throughout the weekend, on a Saturday and a Sunday. Weekend voting takes place in many other countries; it could have a big effect and prove very popular. It would be highly controversial and consensus among all parties would be needed if it were to take place at a general election. Obviously, there could not be a pilot study in a general election, so there would have to be clear agreement among the parties for it to go ahead. Have the Minister and his colleagues thought about holding a debate on the issue? It is all very well to try things at local elections, but there have been few suggestions for pilots to increase turnout at a general election. I am glad that the Government have never suggested an all-postal general election, but we may want to apply some of the other methods at a general election; perhaps it is time for a debate on the issue.

The Minister knows that the Liberal Democrats have always been against all-postal ballots for local elections because of concerns about fraud. Despite what I said in the House recently in response to the Minister's statement, we were against the Electoral Commission on the matter, but with one proviso: we were prepared to consider it once individual voter registration had come into place, which was in tune with the commission's thinking. However, we were very concerned about adopting all-postal votes as a rule for local elections before individual voter registration.

If we had that now, would it be acceptable? If one looks at the reasoning behind the commission's change of mind on the matter, it has nothing to do with fraud or with whether there is individual voter registration. The commission changed its mind because of what people had said to it in surveys about their wish to have a choice.

Andrew Bennett

As I understand it, it was not what people were saying to the commission, but what people were saying to their pollsters. I believe that people reflected the view that was being expressed in the newspapers at that time. I do not think that the results were particularly useful the first time when they said it was such a good idea, because all the media coverage then was saying that the pilots were a good idea, and I do not think that they are particularly helpful now, because it seems that most of the media are talking about fraud and other problems, and that again has influenced people's instant reaction.

Mr. Davey

The hon. Gentleman may be right; it may have been an opinion poll. I am just taking the information from page 7 of the commission's report, where it states, "Our survey found that". I accept that that survey may have been commissioned from the pollsters, but that was not clear from the text. The hon. Gentleman may be right to suggest that the response might be different if an opinion poll was done now, when the media are not covering the subject. However, that was the commission's logic in its report, and it would have to answer for that. I was merely describing to the House what it said.

Mr. Betts

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that when the commission did its survey of the pilots and produced its report, it found no evidence of any increase in allegations of fraud or malpractice in those pilot areas, compared with earlier elections held by different systems in those areas? His concerns about fraud are therefore misplaced, according to the evidence in the commission report.

Mr. Davey

I had moved away from fraud and on to choice, but I do not wish to try to wriggle out of answering the question. We did have concerns about fraud, and we still do. Just because we do not know that fraud has taken place does not mean that it has not. [Interruption.] Hon. Members laugh, but that is an important point to bear in mind. Presumably, people want to try to hide fraud. No one is going to say, "I am going to commit fraud and make sure that everyone knows about it." Moreover, the commission said in its report: Nevertheless, we recognise that in pilot areas prosecutions may be brought up to two years after the close of poll ... As a result, the Commission is not yet able to conclude whether the increased use of postal voting across Great Britain has led to an increase of fraud or malpractice. The commission itself therefore reserves judgment on that matter. I therefore do not accept that the pilots in June have proved the case that there is no increase in fraud with respect to all-postal votes.

Andrew Bennett

The logic of the hon. Gentleman's view—that because fraud has not been identified it has occurred—could indicate that there was widespread fraud in the last general election. Is his argument not a little doubtful?

Mr. Davey

It is not doubtful at all. It is possible that there was widespread fraud at the last general election. However, that is unlikely, given the systems that were used. I argue that it is much more difficult to commit mass fraud when one has to turn up in person than it is when one can harvest votes being sent out through the post. It is possible that there was fraud, although I hope that there was not. The sampling exercise that was undertaken suggests that there probably was not, but that does not mean that the likelihood of all-postal voting creating more fraud has been disproved.

Joyce Quin

The hon. Gentleman said that he has always been opposed to all-postal ballots because of concern about fraud. He also said that prosecutions could take place up to two years afterwards. But was there any evidence of fraud in the local elections that used all-postal ballots in May 2000, which is more than two years ago? If there was not—as I believe—did that not cause him and his party at least to re-evaluate their view?

Mr. Davey

I understand that there was not much evidence of fraud, but that does not mean that because there is a much greater likelihood—because of how the system works—it will not happen. We have seen in the experience of postal voting experiments, not just in this country, but in others that have tried it, that voters' use of postal votes changes over time; for example, postal voting initially increases turnout, but the increase falls away over time.

Mr. Raynsford


Mr. Davey

The Minister says no, but all the evidence that he has produced, and that from Australia, shows that turnout does not necessarily drop to what it was previously, but it does drop in relation to the first experience of postal votes.

Sir Paul Beresford

The Committee pursued Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, on that point when he was giving evidence. His response, along with that of others, was that in their opinion all-postal voting posed no greater security risk than voting in conventional polling stations. He said that the dangers cannot be eliminated entirely—because I do not think attempts to defraud the system will ever be eliminated entirely: they were there in the conventional system—but can be coped with. That makes the point.

Mr. Davey

My argument is not that all-postal votes inevitably mean fraud and will, always and everywhere, result in an increase in fraud, but that they are more open to fraud. We can debate that further, but the evidence shows that that is so. I was trying to move on to choice, which is the key issue in the Electoral Commission's recent report and it appears to have changed its mind.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe gave the graphic example of the old lady whose experience of voting was of leaving her flat and going to the polling station; it was part of the social experience of voting. Governments and political parties must recognise and respond to that.

Whether or not the survey undertaken by the commission would have been different if it had done it differently, or at a different time, my experience is that people want choice. I did not put as much weight on choice prior to June as, it now appears, the general public do. It did not seem such a big issue then, but increasingly that is what the public are saying. It is their voting system and we have to listen carefully to them.

Given that the commission has made its decision, what is the Government's position? The Minister began to make it clear, but he was not crystal clear in his response to the statement. Is it now policy that no more council elections will be held using all-postal votes? Will the Government continue with pilots? Will they have future mass pilots, or mass voting by the all-postal method, or have they decided that there will be no more all-postal votes in this country? If they were to make that decision, it would not be out of tune with the Select Committee report, which said, in recommendation 1: Provided that the Electoral Commission's evaluation of the June 2004 pilots is positive, we recommend that the Government does not hold any more pilot schemes. In other words, they should not push it across the country. The commission's evaluation has not been positive. There is a suggestion that the Select Committee, quite rightly, wanted to see the evaluation. We have seen it, too, and it is not positive; it says that there are real concerns among voters. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government have listened and have now changed their policy.

A separate issue arises from all-postal voting and referendums. We debated that before June. I still think that, despite the choice issue, there is less concern about all-postal ballots at referendums, partly because it is a one-off question and partly because the incentives for fraud and the logistical problems are fewer. However, as we learned from the experience in June, the point of choice is relevant, even in a referendum. The only way that I can see the Government getting round that, at least for the referendum on 4 November, is by ensuring that there are more assisted delivery points for people. The Minister said in the response to the statement that there would be more delivery points—I think that he said at least 50,000.

Mr. Raynsford

At least one per 50,000 of the population.

Mr. Davey

That is helpful, but I would point out, as I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) would agree, that there are some areas in the north-east where the whole council area is in remote countryside. To have one point per 50,000 people will not make much difference in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I hope that the Minister can give the commitment to my right hon. Friend that there will be many assisted delivery points in that area of the north-east on 4 November.

We have seen the logistical problems with all-postal votes. Some Members seem to think that if we tease out the problems, we can still go ahead, as we will know what the problems are. However, there is a question in my mind about whether the problems can ever be dealt with satisfactorily. The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) talked about the reliability of the postal service, and I must make a confession. Before I came to the House, I was a management consultant, and I specialised in postal services—

Mr. Raynsford

You're to blame!

Mr. Davey

I was about to say that it was not in this country. I worked on projects for postal administrations in many other countries, including South Africa, Belgium, Holland, the United States, Japan and Taiwan, and I visited postal administrations in many other countries. I got to know far too much about how post offices, collection, sorting and delivery work. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I will not say much more about that, other than that the difficulties of guaranteeing 100 per cent. reliability are legion throughout the world. Not one postal administration chief executive anywhere in the world would put their hand on their heart and say, "We can achieve 100 per cent. reliability." They just will not do that, understandably. They can reach up to 98 per cent. reliability relatively easily if they manage their businesses properly, but achieving 100 per cent. would require massive investment in extra staff, machinery and overall capacity. If we will always have problems in achieving 100 per cent. reliability, a lot of voters will be disfranchised.

Andrew Bennett

The hon. Gentleman might be upset if that 2 or 3 per cent. were all Liberal voters, but has he any evidence from his experience of the postal service that a particular party would be affected? Surely letters going astray would be totally random and therefore very unlikely to affect the outcome of the election.

Mr. Davey

The hon. Gentleman says that, but I speak as a Member who was elected in 1997 with a majority of 56 votes. One of my colleagues was elected with a majority of two, while another has a majority of 12. I am afraid that his argument does not work. There may be no bias, but if 400 votes do not arrive because the form is not delivered to either the voter or the electoral registration office, there does not need to be any bias for a skew to affect the outcome of the election. We must consider that concern, and I thought about it more when I listened to the hon. Member for Mole Valley and remembered my days as a management consultant.

My final question to the Minister is for him to look into the future and tell us which Department is likely to be in charge of elections in the future. We have the slightly odd position in which the new Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister seem to share responsibility for elections. It is clear from some of the wording of the Electoral Commission's report that it believes that to be sub-optimal. The Minister quite rightly said when he made his statement that the report does not say exactly which Department should be in charge. However, there have been some heavy hints, and I wonder whether he would like to speculate on them.

4.20 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) and his Committee on their report. It has been extraordinary timely, from its evidence, which contributed positively and constructively to the then raging debate about all-postal voting, to its production.

The hon. Gentleman criticised the way in which the postal pilots had worked. I may be a bit old-fashioned, but for him to criticise the officials about the timing of the regulations does not match the rigour with which he tackles the question of ministerial accountability. The one thing that Ministers do is lay orders on the Table of the House. Ministers chose to pursue the all-postal pilots and they should have been aware and properly advised of the difficulties they might encounter when preparing those orders. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that he was a little unfair on the officials, one or two of whom are perhaps not sitting very far away from him, and that our job is to hold Minister's to account and not to blame officials who cannot answer for themselves.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the scope for fraud in the all-postal voting system. The Minister could help us more with that in his winding-up speech, because we have had a broad discussion about that scope for fraud. My argument, which I think has gained increasing acceptance during our debates, is that all-postal voting is an invitation to fraud, simply because people get sent their ballot papers whether they have asked for them or not. It would be extraordinary if one were to walk into an ordinary polling station and pick up as many ballot papers—all perforated, verified and ready for putting into the ballot box—as one wanted. However, that is more or less what we do with postal voting.

Admittedly, ballot papers are distributed to people's personal addresses but, particularly in an election or a referendum where the turnout is likely to be low, we are taking the risk that unused ballot papers, ready and verified for use, will be used by people for whom they were not intended. That is why the phrase "vote harvesting" has passed into the currency of our language. One can imagine an organisation effectively exploiting blocks of flats or waste paper bins to obtain large numbers of those ballot papers.

In this debate there has been much discussion about what additional offences are required on the statute book to make it easier to police postal voting, whether it is on-demand postal voting or compulsory all-postal voting. However, with the current state of electoral law, particularly with regard to postal voting, it is very difficult to check what fraud has taken place. I should like the Minister to elaborate on exactly what checks the Electoral Commission undertook. Did it, for example, identify the witness on the witness statement and check that they had actually signed the statement? Did it go out and find those witnesses? How many people who voted forged the witness statement, even though they were perhaps the right person voting but could not be bothered to get a witness statement?

All sorts of difficulties arise under the system used for the pilots. I accept that the pilots were successful, in that they successfully proved that the system was full of flaws and difficulties, but I do not think that the system is a sound basis for conducting the next or future elections, and I am pleased to hear that the Electoral Commission came to the same conclusion.

Andrew Bennett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but why did not he or his party express them when postal voting on demand was extended in 2000? All the problems that he identifies still apply to those who ask for a postal vote. It is just as easy to write in and fraudulently claim a postal vote for someone as it is to do all the things that the hon. Gentleman mentions. The problem is not the pilots; it is extending postal voting, or the right to apply for it, to everybody.

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman wants to accuse my party and the Electoral Commission of being inconsistent, but we have all been on a learning curve throughout the introduction of all-postal voting. I confess freely that I was preoccupied with other matters when postal votes were being developed. My personal experience of the issue comes from getting the job of shadow Secretary of State for the Regions, taking an interest in how the referendums would be conducted, talking to organisations that were preparing for other referendums, and hearing their anxieties about all-postal referendums and sharing those views with my colleagues, the Electoral Commission and others. That has all led to progress in the argument.

I did not come to the debate with a predisposition against all-postal voting; in fact, I am on record in the House of Commons as having said that we had no objection in principle to all-postal voting. I am bound to say that I have hardened my view against it as time progressed.

It is a little invidious to accuse the Electoral Commission of changing its mind. I have had intensive discussions with the commission, which has had an extremely difficult job in producing dispassionate advice without causing political explosions. It is the Electoral Commission's prerogative to alter its view in the light of experience, and that is what it seems to have done with regard to all-postal voting.

Mr. Betts

May I suggest that the Electoral Commission eventually came down against all-postal voting fundamentally on the issue of choice? Although it found a perception that fraud would increase, it found no evidence in any of the pilot areas that there had been an increase in fraud or abuse of the system since previous elections. That was true of all four pilot areas.

Mr. Jenkins

I shall come on to that; in fact, I will deal with it straight away. There is always a problem in trying to prove a negative; one cannot do it. The obstacles to proving fraud in elections are great. Paragraph 52 on page 28 of the Committee's report reads: The Police cannot undertake any investigation into allegations of such offences until a report has been submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service… or, in the case of offences contrary to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, to the Electoral Commission. The CPS must assess whether offences may have been committed, and whether to proceed. So the police cannot start investigating properly until certain hoops have been jumped through. The report goes on to say: Proceedings for minor infringements may not be in the public interest if… The offence could not have influenced the result of the election process". At a stroke, that ensures that a large number of allegations may simply never see the light of day in officialdom, because there are an awful lot of hoops to jump through. We do not want an electoral system that is vulnerable to accusations of abuse.

Mr. Betts

I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstood the point. Certainly, what he described was a situation in which we will not get prosecutions because it is not in the public interest. However, what the Electoral Commission reported on in its investigation into the pilot areas was allegations of electoral fraud and malpractice. It says that there has not been an increase in allegations. The point about public interest would not apply to allegations.

Mr. Jenkin

I would be interested to know the definition of "allegation". There was certainly plenty of reporting and anecdote. I repeat the beginning of paragraph 52: The police cannot undertake any investigation into allegations". The reference is not to prosecutions. The police cannot start investigations into allegations until they have gone through certain hoops. Until we have more offences on the statute book and until it is far easier for the police to commence investigations and pursue prosecutions, we cannot begin to think of a large-scale expansion of postal voting. However, that is only one of the problems.

Sir Paul Beresford

Where my hon. Friend is right—although he did not go into this—is that most of the public do not make an accusation because they do not think it is important. I can remember a by-election when I should have done something about a situation, but did not. After a local government battle in a ward on the edge of Lambeth, I was running my eye down the electoral roll and I noticed that some of the entries could not have been right, because there were seven or eight people to a one or two-bedroom flat. When we checked, it started to look unpleasantly smelly. Interestingly, when we re-did the register for the next round, it went back to normal. I should have done something about that. In fact, I did not bother because we won that ward hands down. However, most people just shrug their shoulders.

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valuable point. We have dwelt enough on this issue, but the obstacles to pursuing an investigation are legion. Just because very few of them have been pursued that is not an indication of the reliability of the electoral system. Whether or not there are allegations, the fundamental flaw is the issue of how we can check and verify all-postal voting. If somebody walks into a polling station and casts their vote, their name is crossed off on the list. To organise the act of personation at polling stations on a large scale requires enormous effort and this can be checked because it can be investigated. However, much of what was alleged in relation to postal voting was difficult to check and easy to carry out. I submit that confidence in all-postal voting was inevitably going to decline as the system was seen to be vulnerable to that kind of criticism, even if fraud was not actually being carried out on a large scale.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) made a point about turnout and the experience of the Auckland mayor. I wonder whether he caught the disease of not doing anything about perceived fraud from the Auckland mayor, who himself did not do anything about the rather suspicious increase in turnout; 50 per cent. of the increase in turnout was a result of fraud.

We must be careful about the claims about turnout. I plead with the Minister not to go through that argument again. All-postal voting is not the panacea that some have cracked it up to be. In the end, turnout and disillusion with politics—whether people feel it is worth voting—are about politicians and what we do. There are all sorts of reasons why people feel that it is not worth voting, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said. I do not think that inflating the turnout artificially with all-postal voting—I realise that I am saying this in an inflammatory way—is necessarily the be-all and end-all of resolving these questions.

Mr. Mole

The hon. Gentleman will be aware, I am sure, that the report comments that changes to the voting system are but one method of increasing turnout. We have to consider all the other issues as well. However, I have become disturbed by the undercurrent to the debate that turnout does not matter. I have seen a worrying increase in recent years of political commentators making the observation that a Government elected by 40 per cent. of the vote, with a turnout of 60 per cent., commands only 25 per cent. of support among the population. As long as that argument is wheeled out to criticise the legitimacy of the decisions made by the governing party in Parliament, all of us have to worry about the faith and confidence the populace will have in the decisions we make. It is important to recognise that those people the hon. Gentleman describes as having formed part of an artificial inflation of the turnout have cast their vote in as much faith as anyone who voted at the ballot box.

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman uses the correct word, which is "legitimacy". I am saying that an increased turnout at any cost is not necessarily the path to increased legitimacy, and there is nothing absolute about an increased turnout.

The right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) gave a strong defence of postal voting, and she put the arguments in favour of all-postal voting extremely well. Listening to her, I dare say that this debate will continue, even if the Government consolidate Monday's announcement that they will not continue all-postal voting in any shape or form. The right hon. Lady made a point about increasing receiving points, but they are not polling stations. They are not somewhere where one can go and be verified in person against an electoral register, and draw a ballot paper knowing that it has had an impression, or holes, put in it. They are not a substitute for polling stations, and I shall return to that point in my concluding remarks.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) complained that the debates about all-posting voting had become party political. He makes an important point. I do not intend to start casting blame as to why that happened because it would be counterproductive, but for everyone involved in democracy and our politics who believes in the integrity of the system, there is a terrible price to pay when people start taking risks that break the consensus between the parties so that things become party political.

This is not an accusation, but an observation; it is unfortunate that the process of all-postal voting got muddled up with the disagreement between the two main parties about elected regional assemblies. The Government put themselves on a collision course with the House of Lords about the number of pilots that were to be included, and they happened to coincide with the areas in which the Government wanted all-postal referendums to decide on the matter of elected regional assemblies. In the Minister's more honest moments—perhaps as he looks into his shaving mirror—he might admit that this has not been the Government's finest hour. It has not been the most deft handling of policy. If we could have avoided the early disagreements about that, postal voting may not have become the battleground for the parties that it became.

However, let us not despair of party politics. The tension between the parties has illuminated the issue, and perhaps much truth has emerged as a result of good, old-fashioned adversarial politics. The Electoral Commission made it as explicit as it decently could that the decision to go ahead with the north-east referendum on the basis of all-postal voting is not its decision. Can we imagine what the political fallout would have been had the Electoral Commission changed its mind and said, "We recommend that the referendum does not go ahead on the basis of all-postal voting"? It would have been an utter humiliation for the Government, who preempted the Electoral Commission with the orders.

I underline the point again that the Electoral Commission has an extremely difficult job disseminating its view as dispassionately as it can without creating huge political explosions. Do we really think that it is the job of the Electoral Commission to instruct Parliament to reverse a decision that it has already taken? It is one thing to advise the Government and contribute to the public debate, but it is another thing to disrupt a process that is already in progress.

I quote from the Electoral Commission's statement on the implications of its report "Delivering democracy?", issued at the same time as the report on 27 August. It states that its conclusion on the north-east referendum is that the referendum should proceed as an all-postal ballot without major changes to the process. In reaching this view, the Commission is strongly influenced by the fact that the referendum process is already underway". The statement gives a list of comforting factors, which I acknowledge, but that point is clearly in a different league from the other points that the Electoral Commission makes. It states that it would be a far greater risk to the process if significant changes were to be made now than if the referendum were to continue as planned. The Electoral Commission does not spell out what the risks are, but they are probably political rather than technical risks.

It would be quite easy to hold a general election on 4 November if the Prime Minister wanted to call one. It would be quite easy to hold a by-election in any of the constituencies in north-east England on 4 November. We issued the writ just last week for a by-election on 30 September. I have made the point before that, if we wanted to revert to the old tried and tested ballot box for the referendum, Parliament could choose to do so. It is a little invidious of the Government to hide behind the Electoral Commission as the authority for proceeding with what they were desperate to proceed with for their political reasons, rather than consider what the consensus would be for the referendum, if it were to go ahead at all.

I have already mentioned fraud and quoted from the report about how difficult it is to get prosecutions. I commend the comments of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) about helping the visually impaired deal with postal voting, and it would be very helpful if the Minister would respond to some of the points in the RNIB brief, which I have no doubt he has in his folder, and say what he will do, regardless of all-postal voting, in order to make postal voting accessible to blind people.

In summary, we have been on a journey on the question of all-postal voting. The most telling argument against all-postal voting is the risk of vote harvesting, and I do not believe that any number of additional offences on the statute book could correct that risk. We look forward to the Government's new foundation model for voting, but the all-postal voting experience demonstrates that we should be sceptical about innovations in the electoral system. The excitement of politics and the press are easily triggered, which does not improve public confidence in innovative electoral systems.

I note the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley concerning electronic voting. It takes just a moment's thought to realise how clever hackers have become and how vulnerable an electoral system could be to hacking. We get used to banking and using our credit cards online, but it is a constant battle for the financial institutions to protect themselves from hacking. Are we really going to trust our solid and dependable, but perhaps less expert, returning officers and local government officials with such a big challenge, given that public confidence will be undermined as soon as anybody starts throwing allegations around?

We need to underline the importance of consensus in how we approach the development of our electoral system; consensus is important for public confidence. There is consensus about the need to improve choice and about increasing postal voting on demand to match people's modern lifestyles and the fact that we work so far away from our homes, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West. There is also consensus about the offences that the Electoral Commission recommends should be put on the statute book. I reiterate the question asked by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton: will there be a Bill during the next Session—perhaps in time for the next general election—to improve the list of offences on the statute book?

I borrow my final point from the widely respected columnist Matthew Parris, who wrote a very moving article during the row about all-postal voting during those elections. He pointed out that the journey to the polling station is not an individual, but a collective, communal and public act. Throughout the world, the ritual of democracy reflects something that has become embedded in the culture of democracy almost wherever one is in the world. Everybody understands the process of marching off to a ballot box, drawing a ballot paper and casting a vote.

To atomise another aspect of our national life, so that voting turns into something akin to filling in a bank mandate or a proxy form for a building society meeting, is not how we want our democracy to figure in the lives of the people whom we represent. If we think that democracy is truly important, it should have a special place in our society. Voting is like going to a public meeting or going to church, synagogue or mosque. It is, if you like, part of our religion and way of life. I use those words technically, rather than in the traditional way. If we were lightly to cast aside the rituals of our democracy, that would be very dangerous. That is one of the lessons that we should learn.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jenkin

I am just about to sit down, but I will give way.

David Taylor

I read the same article by Matthew Parris, and I was equally moved. However, is it not the case that only a distinct minority is involved in the sorts of activities to which the hon. Gentleman referred—going to church, etc.—and that, if we are not careful, by the time the next general election comes, only a minority of the electorate will vote? Surely the Government need to take positive action to head off that eventuality.

Mr. Jenkin

If turnout went down by that much, that would reflect badly on us and what we are doing. I come back to my perhaps slightly inflammatory way of expressing the point: simply inflating artificially the turnout figures would not resolve the problem of how people felt about politics and politicians. If we revert to a voting system that people trust less, we might do even more damage to the reputation of politics and politicians. We should look more to our own actions and the honesty with which we address subjects of this nature, rather than artificially inflate election figures to make ourselves feel better.

4.49 pm
The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

We have had a welcome and thorough debate. A great deal of ground has been covered, and I pay tribute to the Select Committee and its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), for the thorough and thoughtful way in which they approached the inquiry and explored a number of issues that are terribly important for the future of our democracy.

I shall try to address the points raised by Members in a moment. Before I do, it is right that I put the issue of postal voting in context. As the Chairman of the Select Committee rightly pointed out, postal voting has been part of the democratic apparatus in the United Kingdom since 1918. However, over time its application has been greatly extended, and that is right and proper. Any voting system needs to adapt to meet people's changing preferences and lifestyles, and there have certainly been significant changes during the past 86 years. It is right that we take account of those and ensure that our electoral process is fit for the purpose and encourages people to participate. For that reason, the Government have considered increasing the opportunities for postal voting and piloting other voting methods.

Since the passing of the Representation of the People Act 2000, approximately 100 electoral pilots, including many all-postal voting pilots, have been conducted. In my written response of 21 July to the Select Committee's report, I made it clear that the Government welcomed the report and its support for the use of postal voting. I agree with the Committee that it has proved popular. The substantially larger number of people choosing to vote by post since 2000 demonstrates that, and it is also reflected in the increases in voter turnout that were recorded at the vast majority of all-postal ballot elections.

We know that changing the voting mechanism is not a panacea—I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) about that. Indeed, it is only one element, albeit an important one, in encouraging political participation. However, there is no excuse for not considering it, particularly when we face a serious problem of declining levels of participation and turnout, and of people casting doubt on the validity and legitimacy of our democratic process.

We clearly must think about more fundamental issues as well: how we engage with the public, conduct our political debates and engage those sections of the population, particularly the young, who have shown the most dramatic disengagement from the political process. That is a real challenge for us, but it would be quite wrong to say that those are the only things that we need to do and that we should not be thinking about how we might make it easier for people to vote, because that can, as we have seen through the pilots, make a significant difference.

The electoral pilots programme has provided us with a considerable amount of data and experience of new voting methods. It has also helped to make the process of voting in recent elections more convenient for millions of people. Piloting electoral innovations is the best method to identify ways in which the voting system may be improved in a controlled and informed manner, while at the same time—this is absolutely fundamental—ensuring that we maintain confidence in the system's integrity. Our electoral pilot programme will continue, in order to test electronic voting methods and other electoral innovations as we proceed towards our ultimate goal of a multi-channelled general election—I know that some people will ridicule that as jargon, but it is the easiest way to say it.

For several years we have had the commitment to work through pilots towards a multi-channelled general election at some time after 2006. In other words, it was simply unrealistic to think about that for the next general election, because the timetable for the necessary preparation made it impossible. However, at some time after that we should be aiming to work towards it. I hope that that answers the question about our intentions in that direction asked by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey).

An important aspect of any voting method is that it should be as secure as possible and in no way more open to fraud than existing arrangements. As we all know, and as has been stated in the debate, it is impossible to be entirely protected against fraud in the electoral process. The existing system, which has been with us a long time and has many safeguards implicit in it, is, sadly, open to certain possibilities of fraud. They have been encountered from time to time. However much one tries to tighten arrangements, there is always a risk. The important point is that we do not expand opportunities for fraud or open up new ones. We must do everything that we can to maintain the public's confidence in the integrity of the voting system and we must have safeguards in place to minimise the risk.

Mr. Jenkin

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that public confidence also depends on a broad measure of consensus between the political parties? That is one of the lessons of the past few months: we can restore public confidence in the voting system if everybody agrees about it, rather than if one party is imposing its will on another party about the system to be used.

Mr. Raynsford

I agree with that point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) made in his important speech. It is right that we should aim for consensus and it is a shame that party political divisions have entered the debate. The hon. Member for North Essex said that he thought that that was in part because the issue of all-postal voting in the June pilots was entangled with the dispute between his party and the Government over the programme for regional referendums in the northern regions. There is an element of truth in that, but I refute the idea that one party sought to impose a particular option.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have been piloting not only all-postal ballots but other options since 2000. We indicated clearly our intention to have much more extensive pilots in 2004 to test the scaling up of the application of all-postal ballots. We asked the Electoral Commission to advise us on up to three regions for all-postal pilots and one region for electronic pilots. In the event, the commission recommended against electronic pilots. I shall not go over the ground that we have covered endlessly before about how we came to the idea of four regions, but the hon. Gentleman should recognise that that was clearly part of an ongoing process in which we had always indicated our intention to extend the pilots. Until June this year, that was done in a generally amicable way, with a large measure of agreement. I hope that we can move back to such consensus, and I see some evidence from the considered way in which the Select Committee approached the issue that we can achieve that objective.

David Taylor

It is hugely important that we remain alive to the possibilities of increased fraud, but the June experience in the east midlands was very positive; things went well. Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the lack of consensus that we have seen in the run-up to June and since is rooted in hyperventilating opportunism and synthetic angst from Opposition parties that are just trying to make a partisan point?

Mr. Raynsford

As I was saying, I hope that we can move back towards greater consensus, so I will not rise to my hon. Friend's invitation, as I fear that it would not encourage the more consensual spirit that I have advocated. All I will say is that he is right to highlight the fact that the overwhelming evidence from the people in the regions where there was all-postal voting was that they welcomed it. As we have established, the opinion poll was carried out at a time when there was extremely negative media publicity about the whole process. However, the Electoral Commission's report shows that even against that background, the people who were questioned said by a margin of two to one across the country, and by a rather higher figure in the north-east, that they preferred all-postal voting. We should remember that. We are not talking about something that is deeply unpopular; on the contrary, all-postal voting is getting a strong vote of confidence from a significant majority of people in the regions where it has been tried.

There is a hugely important point, which I shall come on to, about the significant minority who do not like all-postal voting. That is where the importance of choice comes in and where we agree with the commission that the model should move forward on the basis of greater choice than is possible with an all-postal framework alone.

Joyce Quin

Can my right hon. Friend understand that there will be disappointment in my area if all-postal ballots cannot continue? In addition, despite the fact that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) that generally the experience in June was positive, there were difficulties, such as those relating to the witness statement. In my area, we are worried that the experience in June will outweigh the even more positive experience of our first three years of all-postal pilot experiments.

Mr. Raynsford

My right hon. Friend makes a number of valid points. As she knows, Gateshead has probably had more experience of piloting than almost any other area. That has been very positive. The high turnout achieved in the first pilot was sustained through the second and third pilots. Only with the fourth pilot was there a dip. That is relevant to the argument that things may improve to start with but there is bound to be a fall-away. There was no evidence of a fall-away in the first three years, although there was evidence of one in the fourth year. The evidence suggested that that was associated with the introduction of the witness statement, which clearly caused serious problems for many voters in all parts of the country, particularly in the north-east where voters were not used to the witness statement and wondered why on earth it had been introduced. We have further evidence about this issue; it is one of the difficulties that I have to tackle.

The commission's clear recommendation was that there be no more all-postal ballots. Before we received that recommendation, we agreed to a very small number of all-postal local by-elections in areas that had had them before, so that there would be continuity and people would not suddenly be presented with a different way of voting. Another reason for that decision was to test whether the turnout would be different without a witness statement.

A local by-election in Darlington was held at the end of August—not a particularly promising time for the participation rate—and the turnout, at 39 per cent., was 5 per cent. higher than that in the same ward in the June pilot. The only difference was the absence of a witness statement. That is significant. I shall be frank with the Chamber: one of the things that made me uncomfortable about the commission's recommendation that there be no more pilots was that it would make it impossible for us to test whether there was merit in proceeding without a witness statement in an all-postal ballot area that had previously required one and where there had been a fall in turnout. That is a purely objective comment on the difficulty of reconciling our wish to continue to have pilots, so that we can acquire evidence about how best to proceed, with the commission's recommendation that there be no more all-postal ballots.

We said that we would respond to the commission, and we will do so. Obviously we shall also take the many other factors into account, but it is sensible for the Chamber to be aware of the serious issues that must be considered as we move forward.

Mr. Davey

I understand the Minister's point that the Government have already indicated that there will be pilots in by-elections and that there should be an all-postal vote to test the point about the witness statement. Those pilots aside, is he saying that he has not yet decided to accept the commission's recommendation that there be no more all-postal ballots? Is he saying that he has already rejected that, or has he accepted it? What is he saying about that main recommendation for most elections?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman is normally more acute than that. He heard me very clearly when I said that we have not yet responded to the commission's recommendation, but that we will. I was setting out one of our dilemmas. He will be aware of that difficulty, particularly in the north-east, where, as I said, a pilot took place in June and a referendum will take place in November. It is likely to confuse the electors if the local council by-elections, which are to be held in the intervening period, are conducted completely differently. We need to consider such issues carefully, and we will do so before we respond to the commission's recommendations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is a sensible way to proceed.

An important aspect of any voting method is that it must be as secure as possible and command the confidence of the electorate. The Select Committee itself concluded that evaluations of all-postal voting had suggested that, with sufficient safeguards in place, it was no more prone to fraud than conventional voting. Although different points of view have been expressed this afternoon about that, there is no objective evidence that all-postal voting has opened up opportunities for greater fraud.

The Electoral Commission, in its report on the June 2004 European parliamentary and local elections, concluded that postal voting should remain part of the UK electoral system, noting that postal voting on demand continues to enjoy very high levels of public support and increasing levels of use. The commission also concluded that successful elections were delivered in the four pilot regions, and stated that to date it is not aware of any evidence to suggest any widespread abuse of postal voting either in or beyond the pilot regions. Those are rather important conclusions that have not necessarily been given the publicity they deserve.

The extensive public opinion survey conducted by the commission found that people in the pilot regions were satisfied with all-postal voting by a margin of two to one: 59 per cent. against 29 per cent. It was also encouraging to see in the commission's conclusions that the all-postal elections in the north-east, north-west, east midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber helped to deliver a significantly higher turnout in each of the regions, with double the numbers voting compared with the previous European Parliament election in 1999.

Mr. Jenkin

May I reiterate my question? What did the Electoral Commission do to try to convince itself that there was no evidence of fraud?

Mr. Raynsford

I had not forgotten that, and I was going to come back to it when I responded specifically to the hon. Gentleman's comments. However, as he has raised the point now, let me do so.

On page 50 of the report, the commission gives the following description: In 2003 we recommended that Returning Officers should conduct post-election checks on security statements returned in all-postal pilot schemes. These checks would allow some auditing of signatures of Declarations of Identity against existing electoral records. It goes on to say why it was not able to issue final guidance because of the timetable in 2004, but obviously the previous guidance was still there. The report goes on: At the time of writing many Returning Officers are still conducting these tests and the Commission will continue to gather their evidence with a view to providing final guidance … Those Returning Officers (in both pilot and non-pilot regions) that have conducted such checks report that no evidence of fraud has been found. That is the process, and it is important evidence. We know that there are public concerns. A lot of media publicity has been given to allegations of fraud, but the objective evidence does not show any increased fraud in the areas where all-postal voting took place.

Mr. Jenkin

I am disappointed that that is all that the Minister can give the Chamber. The only signatures in the records of a returning officer are the signatures of householders. The witness statements may be signed by people who are not even voters. I am not convinced that the checks are comprehensive. That is the problem: until we have individual voter registration, it is impossible to run the kind of checks that electoral officers need in order to verify the voting system.

Mr. Raynsford

I entirely agree that individual registration is crucial, and I will deal with that in a moment. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the commission did not claim that the method was comprehensive, but it did say that it would allow some checking, because in those cases where the signature was that of the householder it would be possible to make the check. It was not the commission itself but electoral returning officers who were asked to do that, and their having done so, the commission concludes that there is no evidence of fraud. It states: Of those samples examined, at most only one or two signatures have required further checks, usually done by the election staff. That seems to be evidence that the Select Committee should consider. If somebody is convinced that the whole issue is riddled with fraud, they will probably not accept that evidence. However, if they look at it in an open-minded way and try to consider what evidence there is, either one way or the other, they will see that no one has come forward with any evidence suggesting greater fraud in the pilot areas where all-postal voting took place in June as against other parts of the country.

The area where the issue of vote harvesting was most debated and highlighted was the west midlands, which was not a pilot area and where the problem was to do with major allegations relating to activities in certain communities. That was nothing to do with all-postal voting, because it was not an all-postal pilot.

Sir Paul Beresford

The Minister needs to understand the concerns of the Opposition if we are going to take sides, especially from the point of view of the Committee and many of the witnesses. That concern is not that there is or is going to be fraud, but that there should not be fraud; the opportunities to inflict it on our system should be seen beforehand and stopped. That was the constructive approach taken by the Select Committee and I hope that the Minister will accept it in that spirit.

Mr. Raynsford

As I said, I wholly accept the need to proceed carefully, using pilots to establish the evidence, acting on the evidence to maintain the confidence of the public in the integrity of the voting system and to ensure that there are as many safeguards and checks as possible to deal with the risk of fraud, whatever form it may take. As I said, too, unfortunately there can never be an entirely fraud-free system; the existing system sadly remains open to fraud in some respects, and we must do everything we can to minimise fraud, not just in the existing system but in any new arrangement that is introduced.

The Electoral Commission's report contains some important recommendations; we will consider them most carefully and respond in full in due course. Prior to that response, however, I shall comment briefly on some of the recommendations, which are designed to make voting more convenient, to increase the administrative capacity to run elections, and to build greater public confidence in voting arrangements.

Above all, the commission proposes to develop a new model of voting as a basis for future multi-channel elections. The commission said that it would undertake to work with the Government, electoral administrators, political parties, and experts in access and security to design the new approach to voting, which must be capable of offering electors both choice and security. A multi-channelled approach has consistently been the long-term aim of the Government's electoral modernisation strategy. As we work out the detail of that strategy, the commission's efforts in developing a new model will be of immense value, and we look forward to discussing with the commission and others how it will be taken forward. To that end we will continue to consider how we can strengthen and improve safeguards and measures to combat fraud and coercion.

We note that some electors had less time to complete and return their ballot papers than originally desired, and that the ensuing media attention will have had an impact on public confidence. We acknowledge that there is a debate to be had about the number of assistance and delivery points provided at future elections; moreover, we are aware that some significant problems were experienced with the witness statements in June. We agreed to dispense with the requirement for a witness statement in the all-postal referendum that is being held in the north-east on 4 November. I have already referred to the fact that in Darlington, in the all-postal by-election without a witness statement, the turnout was five percentage points higher than in June when the witness statements were used.

I want to respond to points raised by hon. Members in the debate. The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, talked about the benefits of piloting, the significant increase in turnout achieved and the problems associated with the tight timetable before the June pilot. I entirely concur with his remarks. He rightly highlighted problems related to printing industry capacity, an important issue to which further attention needs to be given. He also spoke about the varying performance of local electoral administrators, which we all need to think about, and highlighted issues relating to fraud, saying that there was no evidence of more fraud in the all-postal voting pilot areas than elsewhere. I agree with that, as I made clear to the Committee.

My hon. Friend addressed the issue of individual registration, and rightly stressed the potential risks associated with it, as well as the important benefits that it could deliver. He spoke of the possible need for incentives to local authority electoral administrators to ensure that the register is as comprehensive as possible, and to avoid people simply slipping off the register as a result of a move to individual registration, which are genuine worries. We are keen to support the move to individual registration, because it has obvious benefits, but we do not want it to happen in a way that reduces the number of people able to exercise their democratic rights because they simply slip off the election register.

In Ireland, when there was a move to individual registration, about 10 per cent. came off the election register. Some should have come off, perhaps because they were not correctly registered previously, but others undoubtedly came off because the new system was less convenient. As we know, many young people may not trouble themselves to register in person if it is left to them, whereas their parents would have registered them previously. We need to think carefully about how to address such important issues and we certainly should not rush things.

Sir Paul Beresford

We can learn from the experience in America, where there were accusations in Florida that a number of Democrats moved out of the cemetery and then went back to the cemetery. That is an indication that we must be extremely careful in following up registration.

Mr. Raynsford

I am a little astonished that the hon. Gentleman should choose to make allegations about the Democrats in the state of Florida, in view of the outcome of the last American presidential election and the questions about hanging chads, but I shall not develop that one. All I would say is that I agree with him about the importance of having a system that ensures a genuine, authentic register that does not include people who should not be on it, but which, equally, does not discourage registration from people who ought to be on and who will lose the right to vote if they are not included. That is the challenge and it must be handled carefully.

There was a debate in the Committee about turnout and about whether we should try to increase it. I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish to be arguing that we should not be unduly worried if we do not have the highest possible turnout. However, I did not understand him to be arguing that we should not be at all concerned about low turnout. We should be concerned about low turnout and we should do all that we can to encourage participation.

In a free society, where it is the right of people not to vote if they so choose, there is no reason why we should be troubled if 20 per cent. of the population do not vote. When turnouts in both national and local elections are as low as they are in many areas, however, there is a cause for concern. A turnout of 15 or 20 per cent. is not a sound basis for the maintenance of a democratic system and we must address the issue seriously.

I apologise that I cannot deal with all the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish raised, but I hope that I have done his key points justice.

The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) supported my view that low turnout is a problem and rightly highlighted the importance of the political parties in encouraging participation by presenting themselves in the most effective way to the electorate. Although I have no doubt that he would present his party and his views differently from how I would mine, it is absolutely right that the electorate's political representatives should argue the case, present their different policies and, hopefully, achieve engagement.

The hon. Gentleman talked about pressure and intimidation—this came up in a number of other contributions—where members of a family could be subject to a dominant member. In a postal vote it might be easier for the dominant member of the family to intimidate other members into voting in the way that he or she wants.

I understand the argument, but those pressures exist irrespective of whether there is a postal vote or not. We have all seen evidence of strong members of a family coercing other members to vote in a particular way, including taking them down to the polling station. That practice is as open to the risk of intimidation as the senior or most dominant member of the family keeping a close watch on how other members fill in their postal vote forms. For that reason, there is a strong argument for making it possible for people to vote at an assistance and delivery point, where they can vote in total privacy and there is no question of their vote being seen by another family member. I accept that there is an issue, but I do not think that it is a problem as uniquely associated with postal voting to the degree that the hon. Gentleman implied.

I have dealt with the issue of diminishing returns over time. I think that the jury is out on that. Certainly, those members from areas that have done extensive all-postal voting in this country say that they have seen no evidence of it, other than in association with the problem of the witness statements in June. Only time will tell.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) rightly highlighted Gateshead's important track record; the big increases in turnout achieved over the years in which elections have been conducted by all-postal means, and the positive experience of her constituents and their support for all-postal voting. She spoke of the difficulties of the witness statement, and I hope that she is reassured by my clear commitment that the witness statement will not be used in the all-postal referendum in November. Indeed, it was not used in the local authority by-election that subsequently took place in the north-east. My right hon. Friend urged the Government to continue their efforts to make voting easier. She supported postal voting and giving people the choice to vote in person. From what she has heard today, she will know that we are sympathetic to that approach.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe spoke of the importance of pilots, highlighted the fact that some had not worked so well in supermarkets and in terms of weekend voting, and expressed a degree of scepticism about electronic voting. Whatever we feel now about electronic voting, it is inconceivable that demand will not grow for it during the next 20 years. That will be related simply to changing lifestyles. It is clear that many younger people find it much easier to communicate by using mobile phones or the internet than by going through the processes and rituals that we regard as part and parcel of the democratic process.

We would be making a serious mistake if we did not continue to test electronic options, knowing all the time that we have to be absolutely certain that proper safeguards are in place to avoid the risk of fraud. For reasons that every hon. Member will understand, people's anxieties and concerns about fraud are genuine. Well run pilots are vital to test and check the process, and we need to continue that evaluation to see whether an electronic component in a multi-channel election is a good option to offer in due course. I believe that it will be; we should be working towards that end, which is why we will continue to pursue the electronic option.

My hon. Friend also stressed another important point; the need for a consistent pattern of voting at all elections. In a period when pilots have been taking place and when alternatives such as weekend voting or electronic voting or voting in supermarkets have all been tested, some degree of confusion is inevitable. It is implicit in the process. We will look closely at the Electoral Commission's proposals and its new model for multi-channel voting. It is right that we should try to ensure greater consistency in order to avoid confusing the public. It will not be achievable immediately, because if we are to test further elements before we achieve a form of multi-channel voting about which everyone can feel confident, variations are likely. Nevertheless, the message about trying to move towards a more consistent pattern is sensible.

My hon. Friend also made an important point about the need for good information and guidance to be given to the electorate. When it has been done well, it has a big impact on helping people to understand the process. However, I remember that in a local authority election in a previous year the ballot paper was a huge, lengthy piece of paper that was difficult to manage; that resulted in about 10,000 spoilt ballot papers, because people could not manage it. Getting things designed well, getting the language right—using plain English, so that people can understand—and good communication are all important.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked about legislation, as did the hon. Member for North Essex. I should make it clear that we recognise the importance of new legislation both to tighten up on safeguards, to provide new offences, relevant to the likely pattern of future voting, and to deal with issues such as individual registration.

I hope that both hon. Members will recognise that this is complex territory and that legislation must be got right. I could not recommend going ahead with a quick Bill before the next general election without being confident that it was the right legislation. I would walk straight into the trap of being accused of acting precipitately and without building consensus. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that while we are committed to legislating and will do so at the earliest opportunity, it is premature to ask for that legislation to be rushed through in time for the general election.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked about the importance of exploring ways of encouraging higher turnout and why we did not try proportional representation. He may disagree with me, but I have no evidence to suggest that proportional representation of itself would have any impact on turnout. That is not to say that we have not extended options for proportionate voting. We have done so in bodies such as the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Authority. We are offering it in the English regions.

Mr. Davey

I actually asked whether the Government would pilot it in the way that they piloted weekend voting, supermarket voting and all the rest. Why have the Government shied away from piloting this idea?

Mr. Raynsford

That should be fairly obvious to the hon. Gentleman. We have been piloting methods that we think may have a chance of increasing turnout. As I made clear, there is no evidence that proportional representation is likely to do that. I said earlier that I would try not to say things that would exacerbate a party political divide. I will move rapidly on.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we would think about different means of voting at a general election. I have answered that in response to the earlier point. We are committed in the long term to work towards a multi-channel general election, but not at the forthcoming general election. He talked about fraud. That has been mentioned by others and I think that I have covered all the points that need to be made there. He talked about choice and asked what our policy is. I have made it clear that we are in favour of a multi-channel approach towards elections. There is no change in our policy on that. I have also talked about what we will do in relation to further pilots. I said that we would give a full response to the Electoral Commission's report in due course.

The hon. Gentleman very sensibly asked whether more assistance and delivery points could be made available in rural areas. He mentioned Berwick-upon-Tweed. His right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) should make representations to the regional returning officer who is the chief executive of Sunderland. I am sure that he will listen carefully. Our guidance is that there should be a minimum provision of one assistance and delivery point for every 50,000 electors but that where there is a case for providing more, the regional returning officer would certainly have the discretion to do so.

The hon. Gentleman asked about people with disabilities. He will know that the vast majority of disability organisations have welcomed all-postal voting and see considerable advantages. The RNIB disagrees because it believes that all-postal voting disadvantages people with a visual impairment. The RNIB paper, which was full of claims that all-postal voting disfranchised people with visual impairment, did not provide evidence that such people had voted less as a result of all-postal pilots. However, let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to ensuring that people with visual impairment should be able to exercise their democratic rights.

We have made specific arrangements in the north-east, which will repeat the arrangements that applied in the June pilots where returning officers will be required to make arrangements to attend or to make arrangements for one of their clerks to attend any voter who cannot reasonably be expected to obtain assistance at an assistance and delivery point.

It being half-past Five, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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