The Electoral Commission discharges its statutory responsibility for promoting public awareness of electoral and democratic systems through programmes of education and information. The Commission has also made a number of recommendations for changes to the law, aimed at increasing participation.
I cannot be the only Member to have noticed the sense of pride and of fulfilling a rite of passage that many young people feel when they vote for the first time. It must be the view of Members in all parts of the House that we need to encourage a culture of participating in elections. Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Electoral Commission to consider the value of issuing something like a flag day emblem to everybody who votes, and possibly taking a leaf out of the blood transfusion services’ book, so that when people have voted a number of times—when they become regular voters—they get some permanent emblem?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that participation in local elections has increased slowly in the past three years, which is welcome. Will he commend to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission these two ideas, in which the Department for Constitutional Affairs appears interested: first, holding a countdown to democracy day to encourage people to register in time to vote and, secondly, introducing a campaign to publicise the last day for postal voting? If those two things were to happen, many more people would be able to vote.
The commission’s total budget for public awareness in 2006-07 was £7.379 million. The commission spent £3.65 million on advertising activities associated with the elections in May 2006. It is open to new ideas, and I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the best ways to increase participation in elections is to ensure that polling stations are conveniently located for voters? The Electoral Commission should consider issuing clear guidelines on how far voters are expected to walk to a polling station. In the last local election in my constituency, the London borough of Barnet placed one polling station in a marginal ward about 40 minutes’ walk away from a less well-off area and right in the middle of a more well-off area, which gerrymandered the result.
I know that the Electoral Commission takes the view that it is not possible to specify the maximum distance that an individual should walk to a polling station. However, the Electoral Commission is involved in such issues. For example, it has recommended a change in the last date for registration, so that it is closer to the date of an election, and it has also recommended clearer powers for returning officers and registration officers to encourage participation at a local level, which relates to the hon. Gentleman’s question.