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Electoral Commission Committee

Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked

Turnout

24.

What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on voter turnout at elections. [113819]

In conducting its statutory reviews of the conduct and administration of elections, the commission has received representations from a range of organisations, academics and individuals on turnout and what might be done to improve it.

Is the hon. Gentleman and the commission aware that on Wednesday, the Hansard Society is holding a seminar to examine the difference in attitudes between people who are interested in politics but do not watch "Big Brother" and those who watch "Big Brother" but have no interest in politics to ascertain whether there are any lessons on turnout in the fact that fewer people voted in the recent local elections than in many reality TV game shows? Do the Electoral Commission or the hon. Gentleman have any views on whether we have anything to learn from reality TV game shows in trying to improve turnout in elections?

An interesting question. In its statutory report on the 2001 general election, in which it tried to learn lessons from the turnout, the commission presented the view that the main responsibility for persuading the public of the relevance of voting must rest with politicians. They must make it interesting and attractive for individuals to vote.

Before we follow the route of reality TV shows, in which one can vote once or 100 times for the same contestant, can we consider improving voter turnout through more traditional means, including postal votes and holding elections on other days such as Saturdays and Sundays and siting polling stations in non-traditional places such as supermarkets? Surely that would help improve the turnout, which was low in the recent Welsh Assembly elections.

Indeed, the purpose of the pilots that took place in local government elections is to test the way in which different voting systems can encourage turnout and thereby participation. The commission believes that changes in process have a role in making voting more convenient. However, it is important to be realistic about what that can achieve on turnout, given that many other factors have an impact on that.

Will the hon. Gentleman draw to the Electoral Commission's attention the experiment in Chester-le-Street and Derwentside in the recent local elections? Turnout increased by 20 per cent. through a postal ballot. An experiment in electronic counting meant that the count was covered in less than half an hour. Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that the Electoral Commission evaluates the experiments?

The Electoral Commission will present its conclusions on the pilots that were held in the May elections. It will publish the results on 31 July.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the integrity of the electoral process is even more important than the turnout, and will he bear in mind that large-scale postal voting is open to abuse?

Obviously the risk of abuse is one factor that the commission takes into account, but there has been no evidence of widespread abuse.

Postal Voting

25.

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?

Parliamentary Constituencies

26.

What plans the Commission has to discuss with the boundary commissions the population sizes of parliamentary constituencies. [113822]

None, because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the commission has no responsibility for the matter at present. Section 16 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 provides for the transfer of the boundary commissions' functions to the commission, but those provisions have not yet been implemented.

The commission will eventually have this power, though. We should look forward 10 years. Is it not about time that—in the review that follows what is now being enacted—we did away with the disproportionate effect that the geographical criterion has on our constituency boundaries? Surely there should be just one commission for the United Kingdom, rather than four for the four nations. How can we justify the existence of constituencies with 100,000 voters along with others with only 21,000 or 33,000? Surely everyone's vote should be of equal value in the ballot box. We really should not have the disparities that are caused by some spurious geographical consideration. If a person represents a large area, he should be given more sledge teams and dogs.

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could apply for an Adjournment debate.

As I have already explained, the Electoral Commission currently has no responsibility in this field, but that did not prevent the hon. Gentleman from making his point forcefully in his usual way.

On the population of constituencies, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the identification of constituency boundaries is most important, so that the electorate can identify with certain boundaries and therefore take a greater interest in the activity of the constituency in question? Does he therefore accept that the Boundary Commission should take greater cognisance of constituency boundaries when reviewing constituencies?

The hon. Gentleman has expressed his point of view on this issue before, and I know that we all very much value the cohesion of the areas that we represent.