HC Deb 21 January 2002 vol 378 cc611-2
33. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

What review the Commission plans to carry out of the operation of postal voting in general elections. [26155]

Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission)

The commission stated in its statutory report on the 2001 general election that it intended to assess the impact of extending the availability of postal voting, including any implications for electoral fraud. I understand from the chairman of the commission that that review is expected to report by the autumn. A statistical paper providing data, constituency by constituency, on postal voting at the general election was published last week. A copy has been placed in the Library.

Mr. Syms

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that encouraging response. We were all happy that it was easier to obtain postal votes at the general election, but there was some concern, because the date was so late, that many people did not receive their ballots in time to return them. There was also concern about fraud in the system. When the right hon. Gentleman reviews the budget for the commission, will he give that area more consideration?

Mr. Beith

I am sure that the commission will be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's encouragement, particularly as regards its budget. The Speaker's Committee will certainly take that into account. I know from experience that the issue of late ballots is a difficult one, although I was surprised, while preparing for today's Questions, to read evidence that some postal votes were posted to Australia and returned in time for the poll.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, although the decision to extend postal voting last year was a very welcome simplification of the system, it was announced very late and many of the applications were submitted very late for the councils to deal with and the returning officers to send out the forms? Will the Fact that people can apply for postal votes now be made much clearer on the registration forms? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that we are watching very carefully to ensure that the abuses that have taken place in the past with very much increased postal voting are not repeated in the future?

Mr. Beith

I well remember the problem of last-minute arrangements and the commission is consulting acting returning officers on many of the things that happened at the last general election, including the extent and nature of any fraud that took place, so those issues are well under consideration.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new, additional responsibilities. Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), first, will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues consider telling people all the options available, with all the dates, on the paperwork that is put through their doors when an election is called, so that they can leave it as late as they wish to use their votes? Secondly, will he consider having a pilot scheme which involves going back to the people—possibly in urban and rural constituencies won by each party—who did not vote at the last general election to ask them why they did not vote and what would have made them more likely to do so?

Mr. Beith

Establishing why people, particularly young people, did not vote at previous elections and what their attitude to voting is certainly an issue that the commission takes seriously. Going back to those who were recorded as not having voted would raise some rather difficult questions, as my hon. Friend would understand. His suggestion about what information can be made available when the information is first sent out and the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) are useful, and I shall certainly pass them on to the commission.