HL Deb 17 December 2003 vol 655 cc147-9WA
Lord Dubs

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will list the regions that they propose to use as pilot areas for all-postal voting in the European and local elections in June 2004. [HL527]

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

The Electoral Commission was asked to recommend up to three regions or nations that might be able to pilot all-postal voting, and which of these regions would be most suitable to include an e-enabled element.

It published its recommendations on 8 December, concluding that the north-east is most suitable, followed by the East Midlands. The Electoral Commission also then ranked a number of other regions "which could be potentially suitable" but for which it felt unable to make a positive recommendation. These regions, ranked in order of potential suitability, are Scotland, Yorkshire & the Humber, the north-west and the West Midlands.

The Electoral Commission concluded that the remaining regions are not suitable for a pilot in time for the June 2004 elections. Moreover, they also recommended that no region would be suitable to conduct an electronic voting pilot.

The Government are immensely grateful to the Electoral Commission for conducting such a thorough and sophisticated study on this issue, ranking the regions against the criteria.

The Government accept the commission's recommendations not to proceed with any electronic voting on a regional scale in the June 2004 elections. However, it remains committed to the development of e-voting channels and will continue to work with local authorities and others to pilot these methods at future local elections.

We remain keen, however, to proceed with all-postal voting in three regions. In scaling up towards an e-enabled multi-channel general election after 2006, we believe that pressing ahead with a wider range and variation of piloting provides the best opportunity to learn lessons and develop capabilities in these newer electoral techniques.

The Government intend to pilot all-postal voting in the north-east and the East Midlands and we are also minded to proceed with all-postal voting in a third region or nation.

The Electoral Commission have been helpful in saying "that there are a number of other regions which could potentially be suitable for conducting an all-postal pilot scheme". The Government will now consider in more detail each of these further potential candidates, with a view to announcing, in the coming few weeks, where the third all-postal pilot could take place.

There are good grounds for further consideration in several of the potentially suitable regions, and it is right that we do not rush into a decision on the third pilot, given the advice from the Electoral Commission. For example, although Scotland is well placed for a pilot because it has no local elections, there were some reservations voiced by returning officers which require consideration. We therefore intend to discuss the issues raised by the Scottish returning officers with them over the coming few weeks to see if concerns can be ameliorated and any difficulties ironed out. Similarly, the Electoral Commission also took into consideration the preferences of some returning officers in different parts of regions such as Yorkshire & the Humber, and in the north-west. Further scrutiny by my department of these issues will now take place so that we can conclude which third all-postal voting pilot will proceed.

The Electoral Commission has indicated that it regards this way forward as consistent with its report and recommendations. All-postal voting in the north-east, East Midlands and in a third region or nation will not only improve the opportunity for turnout in those areas, but also give voters a more convenient method of expressing their democratic choice in the June elections. The Electoral Commission will report on the lessons learned from these pilots, so that in future these new opportunities can be rolled out on a wider scale.

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