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Elections (Turnout)

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 8 May 2008

2. What additional measures the Electoral Commission has considered to increase public participation in elections. (204052)

In addition to its long-standing voter registration campaigns, the Electoral Commission in advance of last week’s election piloted a text message response service, extended its face-to-face voter registration activity and undertook additional work with local authorities and community groups to encourage voter registration.

Clearly, something worked to encourage participation last week. It might have been the prospect of defeating Labour candidates—[Hon. Members: “You lost out.”] Or other candidates—that is very true. Will the hon. Gentleman talk to the Electoral Commission about whether having as places to vote the places where most people go on voting day—railway stations, bus stations and shopping centres—is the logical thing to do, rather than making people go to places that, for many of them, are not on their beaten track, which means that many of them therefore decide to choose not to visit them at all?

The Electoral Commission has indeed carried out research on that general area, and rather than deal with the detail now I would prefer to write to the hon. Gentleman to let him know the overall package that the Electoral Commission has brought to bear on the issue and the extent to which it has piloted similar efforts. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and bring that to his attention.

Although it is true that the Electoral Commission has run voter registration campaigns, we all know that there are millions of people in this country who are not registered to vote who ought to be registered to vote. The non-registration rate varies between perhaps 5 and 25 per cent. in some parts of the country. What can we do to get a much more effective voter registration scheme under way across the country, so that we get the millions who are not registered on to the register so that they can vote?

The Electoral Commission runs a three-week campaign in advance of every election to encourage voter registration. The commission has previously piloted a registration week, but its view is that a three-week campaign, rather than focusing activity on a single week or day, allows more flexibility for local authorities to participate and that the cumulative effect of advertising over a longer period generates a higher response. The Electoral Commission’s main concern is that there should be individual registration. It thinks that that would encourage registration and diminish the risk of fraud.

One of the ways in which participation is supposed to increase is by campaign spending by candidates. Will my hon. Friend please pass on to the Electoral Commission something that is a surprise outside the House as well as inside it, which is that in eight years the former Mayor of London apparently had no personal donations but they were all channelled through a political party, to the surprise of most who watched?

The rules on these matters are actually quite complicated; they overlap and the rules for regulated donees are different from the rules for candidates during the candidacy period. There is a specific question on this issue and if that question is reached, I will deal with it in some detail then.

Is it not the case that the most effective way of increasing participation in any election is by having 100 per cent. postal voting? The hon. Gentleman will know that, after the parliamentary by-election on 22 May in Crewe and Nantwich, the next most important occasion in the electoral calendar this year will be 3 July when we hold a mayoral referendum in Bury. Will he raise with the Electoral Commission whether all mayoral referendums should be required to have 100 per cent. postal voting?

As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that specific issue, I will indeed raise it with the Electoral Commission as he has requested.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House appreciate that people fought and died to get the vote. Is it not about time that people took responsibility themselves? They are able to register and it is up to them to do so. Why should we always go out of our way to make it easy for people to do something when, if they believe that voting is important, not only will they register but they will go out and vote?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our predecessors who created the system of secret voting, with a possibility of tracing that secret vote in extremis, certainly knew what they were doing and developed a system that has enormous credibility and trust. Although the number of cases of fraud may be quite small, it takes only a small number of such cases to diminish credibility and trust, with a corresponding diminution in the value of our democracy.

Will the hon. Gentleman look into the situation, such as that in Chorley, where registration in rented areas is always lower than anywhere else? Unfortunately, that does not show up because the figures are calculated on a macro-level and across council wards, which have a greater rate of registration at 70 or 80 per cent. However, the figure at a micro-level can drop to something like 30 per cent. What can we do to ensure that people in rented accommodation are treated equally to those in private accommodation?

One of the advantages that the Electoral Commission sees in individual registration is that it will pick up people who are not covered at the moment by the heads of households whose duty it is to register people to vote. That might be relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s point.