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Postal Voting

Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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What comparative research has been commissioned by the Electoral Commission on the levels of postal voting in (a) local and (b) parliamentary elections (i) in this country and (ii) overseas. [113821]

The commission has examined levels of postal voting at local and parliamentary elections, and its report "Absent voting in Great Britain" was published in March. A copy has been placed in the Library. No detailed research into comparisons with overseas levels of postal voting has been undertaken, partly because the legal framework of postal voting varies significantly between countries.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that since the publication of that report in March the May local elections have shown a dramatic increase in turnout, from around 30 per cent. to 50 per cent. in areas with all-postal ballots—including Derwentside, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones)?

Although the level of postal voting has nearly doubled, from about 4 per cent. to 8 per cent., there is scope for a far greater increase—in some countries it is over 30 per cent.—through the simple expedient of allowing people to vote wherever they are in the country on polling day, at a local post office.

The hon. Gentleman has made some good points. There has been a significant increase in the uptake of postal voting since it first became available in Great Britain early in 2001. At the 2001 general election, the number of postal votes issued was almost double the number issued at the 1997 election, as the hon. Gentleman said—rising from less than 1 million to more than 1.75 million. At the 2002 local elections some 7.7 per cent. of the electorate cast their votes by post. That is almost double the proportion of such votes in England in the 2001 general election, and probably three times the proportion at the previous local elections.

I unreservedly welcome the greater availability of postal voting, but will the commission bear in mind that all postal ballots deny the electorate the opportunity to choose how to convey their votes? Some will want the privacy that they may not necessarily have in their own homes. Can my hon. Friend assure us that the commission will not just take account of a higher turnout?

I am confident that the commission will bear that in mind. A number of factors are involved: for instance, any move to all-postal voting would no doubt change the pace of a general election, which would no longer reach a climax at the end of the campaign.

I hope the Electoral Commission will not go over the top with postal voting. There should be as common a system as possible in the United Kingdom, but in Northern Ireland, because of fraud problems, there has been a move towards photo-identity cards at polling stations. Should that not be taken into account within the general pattern?

Indeed. Let me repeat the timing of the Electoral Commission's plans. It will produce its report on the local election pilots on 31 July. That will give the House, and all who are interested, an opportunity to consider carefully whether it is appropriate to table the primary legislation that will be needed if changes are to be made.

Can my hon. Friend assure us—or, if that is not possible, pass the question to the appropriate quarters—that come the next general election, whatever method or process is used will be uniform throughout the 659 parliamentary divisions in the United Kingdom?