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Elections: Weekend Voting

Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2008

My honourable friend the Minister of State (Michael Wills) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The right to vote is the basis of our political system. Strengthening our democracy requires the removal of barriers to the exercise of that right. So the system for delivering elections must be accessible and responsive to the needs of voters. And accessibility must always go hand in hand with the security of the system: citizens need to be confident that their vote will count, and that elections are fair and free from fraud. It is the twin principles of accessibility and integrity that underpin the legitimacy of our electoral process.

In The Governance of Britain Green Paper, the Government set out a programme of work to reinvigorate our democracy and give citizens the means to participate in decision-making at every level. As part of this programme, the Government committed to consult on moving elections to the weekend as a means of making voting more accessible, and so potentially raising levels of turnout.

To meet that commitment, I am today publishing a consultation paper, Election Day (Cm 7334). The paper invites views on the merits of moving the voting day for Parliamentary and European Parliamentary elections, and local elections in England and Wales, from the traditional Thursday to the weekend; and on the best way to do this. The paper sets out a range of issues that need to be taken into account, including practical considerations and the potential cost of holding elections at the weekend, and invites views and evidence. It makes clear that, in the event that elections were moved to the weekend, this would need to be implemented in a way which did not interfere with religious observance.

This consultation paper marks the start of a process of engagement on election day. The Government are committed to exploring new forms of engagement to encourage greater public involvement in policy-making. The Government believe that the question of when elections should be held is an issue that would benefit from this new approach. So the consultation exercise I am launching today will be followed by a citizens' summit at which a cross-section of the public will be invited to consider the barriers to voting and the options available to improve participation levels.

A citizens' summit involves bringing together a broad sample of the public to deliberate and discuss issues of national policy. The Government believe that such techniques can improve the national policy-making process by introducing opportunities for a deliberative dialogue between Government and the public and encouraging people to debate policy options between themselves, to ask questions and to make informed recommendations to their representatives in Government and Parliament. Participants at this summit will be asked to deliberate on the issues, including those raised in the consultation and to make a recommendation on whether elections should be held at the weekend. The Government will respond to the consultation exercise after the summit with their view about the intended way forward.

I also intend that the summit should discuss more widely the factors that motivate people to exercise their right to vote. The sense of a civic duty to vote has eroded over the past 50 years. It is vital for the health of our democracy that we better understand the reasons for this, and what we can do to reverse the trend of falling turnout.

The consultation process on Election Day is an opportunity for a wide debate about how the democratic process can be shaped to the needs and preferences of citizens. But, whatever changes are made, we also need to ensure that the integrity of the electoral process is protected and enhanced.

Government have taken a range of steps in recent years both to modernise the registration process and to improve access to postal voting with all-party support.

Alongside this, the Government have put in place a range of measures to combat attempts to defraud the registration and postal vote processes, including in the Electoral Administration Act 2006. Electoral registration officers have powers to compare registration data with records held by local authorities. Voters now have to supply date of birth and signature, which can be cross-checked when they apply for a postal ballot, and we have given administrators more time to carry out checks.

There is no evidence that overall levels of fraud are increasing. But the Government take the integrity of the electoral process seriously: any fraud is unacceptable, and we are examining how, consistent with the need to ensure that citizens can access their right to vote, the security of both the registration system and the postal vote process could be strengthened. In that context, we plan to consult on issues relating to the security of the ballot. Any change would have to take account of the need to ensure that we do not act to exclude citizens from the democratic process, and of the significant resource commitment that would be required to deliver reform.

The Government are committed to change to the electoral system in a balanced way so that participation increases, and the security and accuracy of the ballot are protected. I hope that all those with an interest in the health of our democratic process will consider and respond to the proposals that I am launching for consultation today.