§ [Relevant document: Sixth Report from the Select Committee on Public Administration, Session 2000–01, HC 373.] Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kemp.]2.30 pm
§ Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
It is a great pleasure to be able to introduce the sixth report of the Public Administration Committee in 2001 and to use it as the basis for a debate on public participation. The report was published in April of this year and was based on 10 sessions of oral evidence taken from 34 witnesses between November 1999 and April 2000. The Committee was greatly assisted in its work by our specialist advisers Professor Vivien Lowndes and Professor Patrick Dunleavy. An innovative feature of our inquiry was an online consultation sponsored by the Hansard Society. It was the first time that a Committee of the House had conducted such a consultation, and it has been followed by others. The Government replied to the report, and their reply was the subject of our first report of the current Session.
The background to our inquiry was our desire to know more about the innovations that were taking place in public participation in this country and to find out what lessons we could learn, what improvements we could make and how that participation contributed generally to our democratic system. I have been worrying and thinking about the question of public participation for 40 years, and I am not sure that I am getting much further in my thinking on it. As I was thinking about this debate I could not help but remember—I see some faces of the same generation here—the golden age of the 1960s, when we were students going to demonstrations and doing things to change the world. The student revolutionaries in France had a wonderful slogan, which we wrote all over the walls. It was a conjugation of the verb to participate, which some hon. Members will remember. It went: "I participate; you participate; he, she or it participates; we participate—they decide." That was the sting in the tail. Lots of wonderful participation was going on, but somehow it was not changing things much because "they" were still deciding.
We are still worrying about the same issues. The perfect text for this debate would come from the writings of the great 19th-century thinker on these matters, John Stuart Mill. Mill said, famously, thatany participation, even in the smallest public function, is useful".He meant that participation is useful in the development of citizenship. If we are serious about having a society based on a notion of citizenship, with people contributing to the common good, thinking about the public interest and taking part, then participation is essential. That is the elusive classical goal that we have pursued year in, year out, often seeming not to get much closer to it.
322WH I want to talk about the positive things that we discovered. I also want to say a few cautionary things and to finish with a warning or two. One positive thing is that we discovered a huge amount of participation. We say in our report:Our broadest conclusion from the very wide range of evidence sessions that we have held is that the period since the middle 1990s has seen an explosion of interest in involving the public more frequently, more extensively, and in much more diverse ways in the conduct of decision-making within the public services.There has been an explosion of participation, some of it extremely encouraging to those of us who have been pursuing this holy grail for so many years. For me, the most striking moment of our inquiry came during a visit to the north-east some months ago. We sat in the board meeting of a sure start project. Sure start is a great Government initiative that sought to involve community and user representatives in its organisation. At the board meeting, one single parent said that it was the first time that anyone had ever listened to her. That is what it is all about. It is important that such a person, who thinks that she is taken for granted and never listened to, has a voice and can contribute to the policy and decision-making process.
When public participation works, it works well, and we should celebrate this initiative. We should celebrate all the forms in which public participation is already possible. For many years, I was involved in training school governors. There are about 300,000—more than a quarter of a million—school governors at work in our schools. Those people must be celebrated because they do work in the public interest and they need far more support than we give them. We take them for granted and lay many obligations on them, but they are models of public involvement. I am glad that the Government are trying to spread the participatory model across the board.
There are now far more opportunities to participate. New technologies allow people new ways of participating, which we should explore. That is mentioned in the report. The report also welcomes the new initiatives and the Government's improvements to their methods of consultation. Consultation used to be a dirty word or a joke, and people thought that it was merely a statutory process. Now, through the efforts of the Cabinet Office, there has been some attempt to establish a system and to ensure that all public organisations follow a serious and co-ordinated process of consultation. We welcome the fact that, through the new deal for communities and in many other ways, the public are being brought into the decision-making process. We welcome the long-overdue initiative to develop citizenship education in schools. It is a scandal that, in terms of basic civic education, we have lost a generation.
§ Vernon Coaker (Gedling)
Does my hon. Friend agree that many schools, including the school where I was a teacher, try to offer political and civic education? A deeper question for us is how to make that civic and political education effective. That presents a real challenge to which we must give a great deal of thought.
§ Tony Wright
I am grateful for that intervention. I feel as if I am revisiting my past, as, I suspect, do other hon. Members. When I used to work in adult education, I 323WH remember writing about political literacy and arguing how important it was. We have wasted a generation, both in schools and beyond schools. Some 20 years ago, we knew how to deliver civic education. Some good materials were produced for civic education in schools; unfortunately, there was resistance to the idea.
Over the years, I have taken part in exchanges on the subject in the Chamber. The previous Government told us that civic education would be ideological propaganda. We could not get the message across that equipping people with some basic civic tools when they left school would mean that they would know how society worked, who took the decisions, and what they could do about things. Such an ideological blockage seems extraordinary. Other countries do not suffer it, but we did. We are now having to catch up, and we are paying a huge price as a result. That is why I welcome the positive initiatives that are taking place, but we want to build on them.
I shall quickly mention a few matters in our report on which we sound a cautionary note. We say that many initiatives need to be better co-ordinated, so that they are all pointing in the same direction instead of going off at different angles. We believe that the Cabinet Office is best placed to do that. We sound a warning about the explosion of what might be called official participation; almost every public programme has participation built into it—for example, it is central to the best value revolution in local government. That is to be welcomed, and it is having a good effect. The danger is that regarding the activity as a statutory hoop that has to be jumped through will devalue it. If it is an obligatory ritual, it will not achieve what was intended.
§ Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
Does my hon. Friend accept that that is exactly what has happened to the planning process? People go through the routine of making objections, but it does not affect the planning process, hence the need for the Green Paper, which is to be published shortly. That is what can happen to a good form of consultation.
§ Tony Wright
I agree with my hon. Friend. It can produce cynicism if people believe that the process is merely something that has to happen; they almost become bit players in the process, arriving at decisions that are already made. It is crucial that we get it right. I emphasise the importance of people knowing that their participation is for real, and that it can affect the outcome. We should not allow public sector managers simply to tick a box to say that they have done the participation bit; participation should contribute to the decision-making process. If it does not, we will genuinely undercut all the good things that are happening.
We have sounded some cautionary notes. We also issue some warnings. I want to go beyond the Committee's report, but I am probably not entitled to do so. The rise in official participation cannot compensate or substitute for the wider civic disengagement that is taking place. We cannot say that the officially sponsored participation that is now going on all over the place will somehow offset the evidence of a larger civic disengagement. It is not true, and we need 324WH to resist the idea. Similarly, the Committee argues that the new methods of participation—they include some wonderful techniques, such as citizens' juries and deliberative polling—cannot substitute for the decline in traditional electoral participation, because it is in electoral participation that public interest eventually has to be defined, negotiated and thrashed out. Other forms of participation will enable sections of society to put their points of view and express their interests, but it is through the formal political process and elections that public interest must somehow be decided.
People do not like political parties or politicians, and who can blame them? That comes through as the consistent theme of the evidence. However, we have to define as a society what public interest is through political parties, politicians and elections. It is through those that we have to aggregate all the sectional interests and come up with some view of the common good. Although people say that our society is alive with protest—there are animal rights people, fuel protesters and endless others involved in varieties of modern protest—that has nothing to do with an engagement in defining a public interest. Such people are engaged in trying to express a specific interest. Both aims are legitimate, but they are not the same. The fact that we have trouble with one cannot be substituted for by saying that the other is taking place.
There is special interest at the moment in the decline in electoral participation. We warned about it in our report before the general election, saying that what was taking place was no mere cyclical trend but something more important. We said that some evidence suggested that turnout in the general election might be as low as 60 per cent., and indeed it came down to 59 per cent. That is the lowest turnout in any general election since 1918, when universal suffrage began in its modern form. Some would argue that it was probably the lowest turnout ever in our country, given the circumstances in 1918.
The situation is even worse in local government. The average turnout is about 29 per cent., which shows a massive disengagement in the local political process on the part of the population.
§ Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear me say that I agree with much of what he has said. I encourage him to suggest to the Committee some further work on the narrow part of the subject that we are discussing. It is time now for the Committee or some other body in the House to study seriously the merits of compulsory voting.
§ Tony Wright
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will make some remarks on that subject in a moment.
Many explanations have been made for the collapse in local and national participation, and I shall not detain hon. Members by listing them all. They range from universal contentment to universal discontent, and we could take our pick. Some seem more useful than others. On the whole, people vote more when elections matter more. If people think that an election does not matter, they will not vote. Evidence shows that there was a 10 per cent. higher turnout in the 100 most marginal seats than the 100 least marginal seats.
325WH One of the most telling explanations was given in a letter that a gentleman—he was not a constituent of mine—sent to me the other day. People write to us to sound off and tell us what they think on various issues. He made a litany of complaints about his life. The health service was not working for him, there was crime in his neighbourhood and his neighbourhood was changing in character. He could list all kinds of things that were wrong with his life and with society. He ended by saying, "And you expect us to vote?" That was quite profound, because he really meant, "You expect me to bestow legitimacy on you when you are not making my life better."
This is not a narrow partisan political point. I am talking in a rather general way. If people feel that politicians are not making their lives better, and that they can do nothing about their circumstances, the act of voting becomes a legitimising act that they are not prepared to bestow on the system. They were prepared to do that, perhaps, when they were motivated by civic duty and thought that they simply had to vote. However, such people are disappearing. We must put the argument to new kinds of people who will vote and legitimise the system only if they think that it is doing enough for them.
There are many explanations and, to come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), many suggested remedies. I shall not discuss those except to say that some are quack remedies. Some confuse symptoms with causes. One could respond, when people stop going to church, by making church attendance compulsory and locking people up if they did not go. That would be one way of dealing with the rise of secularism and the decline of organised religion, but it would be pretty stupid and would not work. Taking the view that people should be made to vote is a similar approach. It identifies not the problem but its consequence or symptom.
Other people advance other propositions. There are no panaceas, but a more plausible answer is to consider different voting systems. No doubt other hon. Members will want to comment on that issue. There is evidence that systems of voting other than first past the post lead to higher turnouts. That is true internationally and seems to be true here.
§ Mr. Gareth R. Thomas
Does my hon. Friend think that people have a responsibility to vote? One can be frustrated with the health service with crime in one's neighbourhood, to use the two examples that he gave from the letter that he received. Someone wrote to me about animal experimentation and hunting and made the same point about compulsory voting. However, do citizens not have a responsibility to cast their judgment on those who seek to lead them and to make decisions here in Parliament?
§ Tony Wright
I have no problem with that principle. I am as firmly signed up to the idea of civic duty as anyone. However, I do not think that one can legislate for it. To do so is likely to be counterproductive. It is necessary to find another route to civic duty and virtue. It is not true that passing a law will somehow produce civic virtue.
§ Mr. Thomas
We legislate with respect to civic duty all the time. We require people to pay taxes even though they may not like the way in which they are spent. The duty to go to the polling station once every five years is, to be sure, much less of an imposition than many others.
§ Tony Wright
Let me try another argument on my hon. Friend. I have a sense that if one were to tell the disenchanted British public, who did not much want to go to the polling station, "Thou shalt go, on pain of penalty," it would make our relationship with the electorate worse, not better. That is my judgment and my hon. Friend may agree.
Other people come to the issue from a different angle, and, in a sense, I am more interested in their arguments. They say that we should reward civic virtue, not punish civic vice. They say that we should reward those who exhibit civic virtue and a sense of civic duty by, for example, knocking £20 off their council tax. They say that there should be inducements to be virtuous. I am not saying that I have signed up to that idea, but I am more attracted to it than to arguments from the other angle.
There is more interest in the voting system approach, and there is more evidence to support it. I cannot understand why the Government will not—at least at the local level, where the situation is far worse—encourage experiments with different ways of voting. I do not mean that people should vote in supermarkets or at different hours, but that local authorities should try different electoral systems. We would probably learn that we could increase turnout and encourage people to engage far more in local government. I want the Government to go down that route.
The last sentence in the report reads:It is not enough to lament the decline in electoral participation; the challenge is to reverse it".I do not have time to develop the point, but the British have a problem in that regard. There are problems with levels of interest, engagement and turnout everywhere, but the British have a particular problem with engaging in politics. We live in a top-down political culture. We do not expect much of people, other than that they should put a cross on a piece of paper every four or five years. There has never been much civic energy or civic engagement. The United States has lousy turnouts, but, my God, people have civic energy. Everyone is always organising around a variety of issues, but we do not do that. The argument has always been that we need a Government who can govern and that we want top-down, strong government. We do not involve people very much and we have destroyed local government. We have not nourished forums for civic activity; we have let them wither, and we have paid a huge price.
Our political culture is hostile to extensive political participation. That shapes the way in which we go about politics in this country and in Parliament. Parliament is our central institution, but, I am afraid, it is a great turn-off. People simply turn away from it; they see the pantomime here and want nothing to do with it. They think, "If that's politics, it's not for us." We must be grown up about the issue. I am sorry that I have made my points in shorthand. There are larger arguments behind them.
327WH The Government reply to our report was full of worthy and commendable comments. We felt, however, that they had not grasped the seriousness of what was going on. We therefore added some words of our own when we published the Government reply. We said:the situation has changed dramatically in the last few months as the crisis in public participation has deepened. The problem can be summed up in one stark statistic: 59 per cent.—the figure for the turnout in the June 2001 General Election. Not since the extension of the suffrage in 1918 has there been such a low level of participation in the electoral process. The reasons for it may be debated, but not its seriousness for our democracy. … We find it extraordinary that this collapse in electoral participation, put alongside other evidence on civic disengagement, has not been treated as a civic crisis demanding an appropriate response. Political life has simply continued as if nothing has happened. We believe that a Democracy Commission should be established as a matter of urgency to consider how this crisis can be responded to constructively and with imagination".That is what I want to leave hon. Members with. It is not business as usual—this is a genuine civic crisis.
The Government should have responded officially to the collapse in electoral participation by immediately setting up a democracy commission to find out what was going on. That would have indicated that they thought that the matter was serious and wanted to find out what was wrong with our democracy and to do something about it. We do not have John Stuart Mill to put in charge of such a commission, so I suggest that Billy Bragg would be the man. If the Government are not going to act—if there is not to be an official enterprise—then something should be done unofficially.
The response that we have had as a result of raising the issue has been interesting. A number of organisations have said to me, "This is a very good idea; what can we do about it?" I hope that a non-governmental consortium of public interest groups will come together to set up a commission and take the matter forward. It might conclude, rather as Bertolt Brecht did, that the real job is to elect a new people. However, I suspect that it will conclude that the problem is closer to home.
§ 3 pm
§ Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) on his speech and on bringing the matter before us. I very much related to his opening remarks, when he said that many of us felt as though we had been here before. I began to wince when he referred to the 1960s, "when we were students". I should like to put it on record that I was not a student in the 1960s, but if he had referred to the 1970s I would have owned up. I notice that during that exchange, the Minister was looking superior. In case he did not hear me, I was complimenting the Minister on his youth.
The report raises some of the most important issues that we have to deal with as parliamentarians, addressing not just our ability to do our jobs, but—as my hon. Friend rightly says—our legitimacy in doing those jobs. I welcome the way in which the Committee has tackled it, and many of its recommendations. Some people say that low turnout, whether in local, national or European elections, is either a sign that everybody is 328WH happy or a sign of apathy—that large numbers of people are just not interested in the issues that politics is meant to be about. Both of those analyses show a worrying complacency. Democracy works only if citizens feel engaged in the political process.
In my experience, particularly of speaking to young people, among whom low turnouts are a great problem, there is no evidence that people are not interested in the issues. They are exceptionally interested, and very willing to talk about jobs, the health service, the future of the environment and the opportunities for them and their children. They have a great wish to become involved. However, they are sceptical about the political process—or what they see as political arguments with a capital P; those made by politicians. They see them reported on television, or they read about them in the newspapers. They are sceptical about whether we reflect their concerns and are interested in the issues, at least in a way that affects their daily lives.
It is vital that we take a good, hard look at ourselves, at what we do, at the way in which we do it, and at how we can improve our connection with the people whom we represent. I should like to consider a couple of aspects of that.
First, I hope that we do not establish no-go areas before we start—areas for discussion that are out of bounds. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who is not in his place now, is an advocate of compulsory voting. I disagree; the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase were persuasive. However, we should have the debate about it—why not?
In their response to our report, the Government sanction local government to experiment with new arrangements for how people vote, where they vote and the times that they vote. I welcome that; it is very important. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase on one matter. My heart sank when I read the following in the Government's response to the Committee's report:Local authorities now have power to experiment with different voting arrangements at local government elections. These can cover when, where and how voting can take place and how votes are counted, though not the system of voting itself.If we are serious about considering causes and solutions, why should we not consider the system of voting?
It is well known that I support electoral reform and more proportional voting arrangements at Westminster and in local government, which would allow greater openness of political debate and greater creativity between and within political parties. I know that others disagree with that, and they are entitled to do so, but why can we not have the debate? Why can we not try something different in a chosen local authority area and see what happens? I have said that a change could increase connection. Is that rubbish, or could it make for a healthier democracy? It is rather strange that, when we want to examine why there is disconnection, we insist on uniformity in local government voting systems. Will the Minister think about that issue and refer to it in his reply? The Government's response to the report seems somewhat illogical in saying that voting systems are out of bounds. However, whether it is logical or not, it is wrong. If we want to consider how to re-engage people, those areas should not be off limits.
329WH When we consider local electoral arrangements, we should consider the House of Commons, too. Our manifesto promised a review of how Members of Parliament were elected. I think that we should get on with that review, which should be open and accountable, and receive evidence from people with as wide a range of interests in civil society as possible. We do not have to start from scratch, because the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are seizing that nettle and finding out what can happen by actually doing something. Why is that such a problem for the House of Commons?
Even though it is often not linked to public participation, the debate on which we are about to embark on the future of the second Chamber is relevant to how we may encourage participation. All too often, the future of the House of Lords is discussed as if it were a purely parliamentary issue. The sides are often drawn up between those who say that, if we have a second Chamber, it must have democratic legitimacy to scrutinise the actions of the Commons, and those who say that the second Chamber must not undermine the democratic legitimacy of the Commons and its ability to put through the legislative programme on which Members of Parliament are democratically elected. Those issues are important. but all too often the people left out of that discussion are the public. All too often, the debate consists of one set of parliamentarians arguing about their relationship with another set of parliamentarians. Perhaps we should start to look at those matters the other way round.
If we need a second Chamber to scrutinise the decisions of the lower House, should we not first consider how we can make scrutiny in our House more effective? Perhaps there are ways in which we can ensure better accountability to, and scrutiny by, the people who elect us, by making our proceedings more transparent and fashioning new local dialogue between MPs and constituents.
What we end up with will be light years better than the anachronistic hereditary principle. One remote institution scrutinising another is not the best way forward. We must be bolder in reforming the House of Commons. Recent modernisation measures have made more progress than ever, but we have only begun to scratch the surface. As I said about the voting system, we should not consider anything off limits.
I regret missing the speeches made yesterday in the Chamber by my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase and for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North is to be congratulated on having the courage to ask whether we need a greater separation of powers between the Executive and the legislature. That is an important issue because executive and legislative functions are different. We would do democracy a service by accepting that and adopting reforms to help Parliament exercise its role as legislature, and the Government theirs as Executive.
If we are to strengthen the connection between the political process and people, we must consider the regions. The regional dimension has already taken off in some UK nations—Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—but it must do so in England too. That process is often perceived as a way of making local government functions more strategic, which is entirely wrong. If we want politics to be closer to people, we must make it 330WH clear that regional politics is about devolving power from Westminster and Whitehall, not clotting together the power of local authorities. If regions want assemblies, we should let them get on with it. We must avoid over-prescription and develop new ways of working. I hope that we do not develop a regional version of what we do nationally and what local authorities do in towns, cities or boroughs.
Earlier, I criticised part of the Government's response to the Public Administration Committee's report. However, one part of their response made a telling point:A healthy civil society, needed to underpin effective public participation, also means a healthy and engaged voluntary and community sector. Voluntary and community organisations offer a unique opportunity for people to articulate and tackle common interests and needs, and so develop forums for debate…which give people the skills for negotiation, persuasions, open-mindedness and self-organisation which are crucial to a healthy democratic culture.That is absolutely right. My wife works in the voluntary sector. One day we compared our roles because, as politicians, we like to polish our democratic badges. We often refer to what our constituents tell us almost as if we had visited every one of them and knew exactly what they were saying. We say that because we feel that we were elected to our jobs and we have a great democratic legitimacy, and to some extent, we do.
My wife and I compared, on a day-to-day level, who had more accountability and who had more connections with life in the community in which we live, which was an interesting exercise. I do not think that I am a bad Member of Parliament or that I am less diligent than other people, but if elected politicians make such comparisons and do the sums about numbers of people, we do not always come out too well.
If we are to tackle the public disconnection from political institutions, we elected politicians need to recognise that although we are an important part of political life, we do not have a monopoly on it. That is why I very much related to what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said about his discussions in the north-east with a woman who was involved with sure start. That made the point well.
It is good to see that people in some areas of conventional political life are starting to address the issue. For instance, in the next week or so, there will be a constitutional convention in Birmingham. It will be set up, organised and promoted by the city council to consider the engagement between the conventional political process and the myriad community organisations, voluntary sector organisations and strategic partnerships that are taking off. My hon. Friend is right: there has been an explosion of such partnerships. We need to make sense of that and to work out how they can mesh together. Again, when we try to bring things together, let us not impose a straitjacket on such organisations that prevents them from making their contribution.
All too often, we go for neatness. When establishing partnerships, we too often make their boundaries the same as those of the ward, because we understand wards—they are the constituencies of councillors. However, wards do not necessarily reflect community identity. In Birmingham, that is absolutely the case. 331WH Wards are made up of between 17,000 and upwards of 20,000 people. When considering how to fashion local organisations, we need to be prepared to be flexible and to ensure that political structures relate to community structures, rather than try to shoehorn the community's feelings into things that we find convenient. That will not work.
If we can acknowledge those issues, we may stand a greater chance of helping people to fashion new political forums from neighbourhood level upwards—whether they be in the community or on-line—that will help us to achieve the important initiatives and to address the important issues that the Select Committee has brought to our attention today.
The idea of a democracy commission is imaginative. We need to hone aspects such as its functions and its establishment, but the matter is urgent and I hope that the Government will give it serious consideration.
§ Vernon Coaker (Gedling)
The speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) have raised fundamental issues. The most important points are that nothing should be off limits and that the proportions of the crisis should not be underestimated. In introducing the report, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, the Chairman of the Select Committee, was right to use the term "crisis". We often use that word inappropriately, but the level of disaffection and disconnection from the political process that is reflected in voter turnout and in other ways simply cannot be ignored, nor can its importance be underestimated.
The Committee and its Chairman are to be congratulated on producing the report and giving us the opportunity to have this debate. As has been said, the turnout in 2001 was low at 59 per cent., but when we consider that it was the lowest since 1918, and that it was down from 71 per cent. in 1997, we realise that it is a phenomenal and staggering figure.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
§ Vernon Coaker
As I was saying, this debate is important. We must recognise and deal with the low turnout and the level of apathy that that signifies. The turnout at the 2001 general election was, at 59 per cent., the lowest since 1918. The document "Social Indicators" in the Library provides a more detailed breakdown of the figures. Men are shown to be marginally more likely to vote than women. Fewer than four in 10 of 18 to 24-year-olds voted—a troubling figure—compared with seven in 10 of over-65s.
More than two thirds of the relatively affluent social classes A and B voted, compared with not much more than half of classes D and E. Turnout was also relatively low among the unemployed, private sector workers and 332WH those renting private accommodation. Another worrying figure is that three in five white adults voted compared with only 46 per cent. of non-white British citizens. Those figures are interesting, but troubling. They show that something is wrong, particularly with respect to young people, marginalised groups and ethnic communities. We must try to explain why that is and what can he done about it.
My hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase and for Birmingham, Northfield have already pointed out the contradiction between the level of interest in politics and the level of interest in decisions that truly affect people. People feel passionately about controversies in their own communities, the building of schools, the shutting down of services and so forth. Animal rights, aid and development, the environment and other national and international issues engage people. Those of us who visit schools, places of work or who talk to community groups know how passionately people feel about such matters. People are interested, knowledgeable and able to argue their points of view. Yet when it comes to voting, many of the same people who are passionate about bringing about better government or a better world do not bother. That is most worrying.
We must be honest. The Government, local authorities and public bodies will say that they often propose initiatives to involve people. The education White Paper and various other Bills highlight the role of consultation. Councils and other public bodies consult on many issues, yet we are still unable to crack the nut.
§ Brian White
Is one of the reasons why people do not engage in consultation that they do not believe that the final policy will reflect their input? Is lack of transparency the cause of the problems?
§ Vernon Coaker
That is absolutely right. Consultation takes place, but people do not feel that they can affect the outcome. We must build confidence in consultation processes so that people feel that their opinion is listened to and taken into account, and not just included in a report. It must be seen that the opinion that they have expressed influences or changes the decision that is made.
If all public consultation means—as my hon. Friend for Cannock Chase has said—is that a box is ticked, and if it does not mean that local people influence decisions or the Government, it will make not one scrap of difference to how people feel about the political system. In fact, it will make their feelings worse because the cynicism that is engendered will increase.
§ Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's point, but there is a contradiction. Occasionally, when referendums are held—something in which the public definitely have a binding influence on the outcome—there are still low turnouts.
§ Vernon Coaker
That challenges all of us, but my point is that there has been a breakdown in trust and in terms of people feeling engaged in the political process, even when such opportunities are offered, because they feel that we are going through a cosmetic or hollow exercise. Even though we may, now and again, give the 333WH public something that is not hollow or cosmetic, they feel disengaged from the process and cynical about it. The problem for us is how we reconnect people with the political process. The report talks about easier voting procedures with longer polling hours, and such matters are important. Indeed, the regulations for easier postal voting have made a significant difference, as I know from my own experience. The changes are not to be sniffed at, but they may not be sufficient on their own.
On the question of how we get more people to vote, it is important for us to re-enter the discussion about the importance of voting. At elections, people make a choice about the sort of Government or council they want. We need to start restating that fact, and the importance of civic duty, whether that is by compulsory voting—which I personally do not favour—or not. We have to persuade people of the importance of voting.
We need to empower people, yet too much is being done to them. We talk about the devolution of power, yet on regeneration boards, youth committees or youth councils, the partnership that is talked about means a token position for someone as member of the board, or there is token consultation. No real power is given to those individuals; no real power is given to the people.
If people do not have real power or a real say, why should they engage? Why should people go to a meeting if they feel that they are not influencing it and are just being tokenistic? There is an element of risk, and we have to trust our local communities. They may get it wrong, but that is a price worth paying if we re-energise the political process locally.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield spoke about voting systems. Nothing should be off the agenda, and I passionately feel that we should seriously consider reducing the voting age to 16. It is an anomaly that young people can work, have sexual relationships, pay their taxes, get married and be put in prison, but cannot vote. Newspaper photographs recently showed a 17-year-old on HMS Illustrious who was going out to the Gulf. That young person was in the process of putting her life at risk on board a ship, yet she cannot vote. I find that incredible and totally indefensible. In the great debate about voting and public participation, we should look at reducing the voting age to 16.
We also need to be more radical about councils. Why cannot councils set up youth councils? I am talking about parallel committees, made up of young people who are elected, have a budget for which they are accountable and deliver decisions and policies within their local communities. Why cannot we do that? Why is it that as soon as we get an element of risk in terms of public participation, we back off and point out all the problems? We had a youth parliament here, which met in February this year and will meet again. It has local youth councils. But why did it meet only once?
Why cannot we be radical? We are talking about public participation. Why not generate excitement? Why not generate enthusiasm? Why not generate a fresh way of looking at things? Why cannot we have a youth parliament that sits all the time, parallel to us, with real power to influence and advise us? If we want to re-engage people in the political process, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, nothing must be off limits. Some ideas may be silly and 334WH impractical, but let us engage in the debate and the argument so that we can regenerate and rejuvenate our democracy at both a local and national level in a way that will raise public participation.
We need to restate the case for our democracy. We need to restate the importance of democracy as something more than just going to the ballot box and turning up at elections, important though that is. Democracy means a range of other things, including having the power to influence decisions. People are disconnected from the political process and from us because they do not feel that they influence the decisions that affect their lives.
As a grown-up Parliament, we must understand why people feel powerless and disconnected from the process, and we must give them back that power so that they can take decisions that affect their communities, their jobs and their livelihoods. If we cannot do that, we can have good debates about public participation, but it will be very difficult for us to raise the levels of voter turnout and to reconnect people to Parliament. The fundamental reason why people are disconnected is that they feel they are powerless and that decisions are being taken for them, rather than with them.
§ Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
As a member of the Select Committee, I found much of the evidence from witnesses informative and innovative. There are many useful things in the report, including a practical way forward for the Government—should they wish to take it—to build on many of the recommended innovations. We should not confuse voter turnout with public participation. One is an event; the other is a process. Both are important, but they are quite separate and should be treated as such.
I should like to touch on a few implications for the Government and then talk about Parliament. The lesson of the report is that we should look at how our institutions run. A cultural change is needed, not a policy change. For example, when the Government were first elected, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle)—the then Minister for Science, Energy and Industry—wanted to set up a group of Back-Bench Members who had recent experience of technology and science. However, civil servants would not release papers to those Back-Bench Members and the initiative folded. Only advice from or filtered through civil servants was allowed to go to Ministers.
We need a cultural change if we are to have a plurality of views. That filtering process endangers our democracy and it should not continue. Another feature that emerged from the report was the fact that an awful lot of consultation consists of the same people talking to one another. There is a great danger of our not reaching out. We carry out the same consultations with the same voluntary and national groups and with the great and the good. We rarely get to the real people. We are in danger of deluding ourselves that we have real consultation when all we have is a sham that needs to be exposed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) mentioned some of the points that I was going to make on people's feelings that they are not involved in decision-making, and on the need for the loop to be 335WH closed. There is a lack of evidential decision making in all parties at all levels. The Performance and Innovation Unit and the report have shown that we need much more focus on evidence and that consultation is not a one-off event. Consultation needs to be built into the process at the beginning, during the valuation of policy, during the implementation and during the review, and on to the next course of action.
The report clearly showed that, as a Parliament and a Government, we do not review well what we do. We are good at creating new legislation, at responding and at creating new forms of governance, but we are not particularly good at reviewing coherently our initiatives. We can learn in that regard from local government innovations. Birmingham city council was a classic example of a change in working methods, and its way of governing itself gave us good and useful lessons.
Much is happening in the Government and local government, but it is not always coherent. The report gave examples of good—sometimes very good—practice. Many people changed their way of working because it was the fashion; they thought, "Oh, everyone else is doing it and we had better do it," without fully understanding why the changes were necessary. A range of practices were not thought about at all. We must ask fundamental questions, such as the purpose of consultation and participation, rather than just assuming that it is a magical holy grail.
The way in which we report politics also creates problems of participation. Media reporting is destructive. It is easy to get on to the media; I just have to criticise the Government. However, that is not the best way of taking forward political debate. We do not recognise a plurality of views, and that is one reason for voter disengagement. One has to be either 100 per cent. with the Government or opposed to them. Shades of opinion or emphasis do not exist. We need plurality of participation.
As was said earlier, the report also, and rightly, highlights the implications for Parliament. Debates in the Chamber are available online the next day on BBC Parliament, but there is no facility for interaction. The Committee report is the basis of our debate. What is wrong with having a coherent summary of a forum that occurred two or three days earlier, so that our debates are informed by the input of people's views?
There are several ways of doing things. The report on Select Committees was published in March and recommended the reform of the Committee web pages. It is now almost December and nothing has happened. That is an indication that the pace of change in the House is a problem. Our Committee had moderated consultation. Every Select Committee should have an online forum when producing a report so that people can contribute to it. The Select Committee can set questions and assess the responses. I am not suggesting that Members do that themselves, but there should be a moderated way of consultation that does not just involve oral and written evidence. In Standing Committees, we are not allowed to use personal digital assistants, and cannot access information using laptop computers. Those innovations should be introduced into Parliament.
336WH There is an assumption that the parties should not engage in the process and that, with the creation of primary care trusts, learning skills councils and other bodies, we must have a commissioner to make appointments. We are supposed to take the party-political element out of the process and assume that if we were all reasonable, sat around a table and were neutral, without any political ideology, there would be reasonable participation. The dissociation of party politics from the decision-making process is part of the problem. We should not have "You're right, you're wrong" politics; we should return to coherent political discussions in which we recognise that there is more than one way of achieving objectives.
The appointment process does not allow for the fact that people do not have the time that they once did to sit in a committee meeting all evening. There must be other ways of encouraging people to participate in organisations, apart from sitting in committees. Frankly, the same things are said in meeting after meeting, and not much is achieved. The assumption must be challenged that the way forward is to have committees.
The report said that there is often a lack of definition about consultation. We do not know why we are having that consultation, but we believe that it is a good idea. There are no clear boundaries to the consultation, which causes frustration. We should recognise that and the need to change the ownership of the process.
Consultation is not passive, as we have assumed, and should be part of engaging in politics, including campaigning. It should be part of the implementation of politics, and of solutions. We have not won the argument for public services. If we had, the privatisations of the 1980s would not have taken place. Participation is about taking the debate forward at all times; it is not an academic exercise in which evidence is received and judicially weighed up. It is a question of engaging in a political process, and that is the fundamental lesson of the innovations mentioned in the report.
One innovation was the Milton Keynes referendum, in which the participation rate was more than 40 per cent. People voted for a 10 per cent. increase in council tax. The referendum was not held simply to find out what the people of Milton Keynes thought, but to have their backing so that the Government could not cap the local authority if it introduced the increase that was needed to keep services going. That was a clear act of going to the people and asking them to endorse a strategy. As in other local authority areas, those people could easily have said that they did not endorse the strategy and that the increase should be 5 per cent. That was a clear way of engaging with the local population and ensuring that they were part of the process.
The statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on the national health service is a good start to the debate. However, I will make a suggestion to the Government that they may find interesting, or brave. Why not have a referendum on 7 May 2002 on whether people want the NHS to be funded by taxation, social insurance or privatisation? If we put that to the people, we would get massive backing for an NHS that was free at the point of delivery and was funded out of general taxation. That is the right way forward, and if the 337WH Government were to hold that referendum, we would get a massive turnout in the local elections next May and an endorsement of the current health service strategy.
If the Government wanted to propose a 1p or 2p increase in taxation to fund the NHS, they should put that on the ballot paper and get an endorsement from the people. That would engage the public. There would be a fundamental argument about whether we wanted public services in this country, and we would see a reinvigoration of British politics. The Government would win such a referendum; we would see massive backing for the NHS and the extra funding to support it.
This is a process, not an event, and consultation and participation should be seen in that context. The system should be inclusive and not "one size fits all". The report highlighted the patchy landscape, but it is incumbent on the Government to tell the authorities and parts of Government that are not taking the subject seriously to do so, and to use the many examples of best practice to ensure greater participation. The language that we use in this place, by government and in our consultation documents does not relate to language in the real world. We must re-engage people on their terms, not ours.
§ 4.1 pm
§ Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth)
As a Select Committee member, I will concentrate on the experience that I gained in my political life as a councillor, a political organiser and a Member of Parliament. I liken our recent experience of public participation to that of an alarm clock; people tend to keep pressing the snooze button until they finally get the wake-up call. We finally had the wake-up call in June, when we had, as has been mentioned, the lowest turnout since 1918. We must act on that.
I will concentrate first on my experiences in local government. I was first elected in 1980. During the ensuing years up to 1997, when. I was elected to this place, I could see that power was gradually being taken away from the local authorities and transferred to unelected quangos. There was a lack of interest, and people were not getting involved in local politics. That transmitted itself to the general electorate, and many people were no longer aware of who provided services.
I can give some examples. Some 15 to 20 years ago, we had a department of the Highways Agency in my town, where people could visit when they had problems. Cuts meant that it was moved about 30 miles away, and inquiries are now made by a telephone call. That intervention has taken the personal contact away, and the same could be said about local police and fire stations, which were taken away throughout the same period. An element of democracy was taken away from the general public with them, and the Government seemed to be taking away some of powers and decision-making processes from local people and their communities.
Moving on to my experiences as an organiser, back in 1983, we worked on the basis of always concentrating on our support. We could put the electorate into different categories: those who never voted; those who only voted in general elections; those who always voted for an Opposition party; those who always voted for our party; and those who decided on the day. We never did anything with that information apart from try to 338WH concentrate on our own supporters. As a political organisation, we must take some of the blame for the lack of participation in elections. We never tried to find out why those people never participated in elections, specifically local elections. We could only surmise.
However, I am glad that, during the past few years, there has been more dissemination of information to the general public. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) mentioned sure start and our visit to Newcastle, and we have had similar experiences in Great Yarmouth. People feel valued when they take decisions. We pass the money down and they determine how it is spent, within certain parameters. That can only be a good experience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) mentioned the younger generation. From my contacts with them during the last three or four years—either youngsters paying school visits to Parliament or during my visits to schools—I have found that they feel disfranchised. They do not feel a part of the system. I try to encourage them to participate wherever possible and to encourage them to communicate through me.
For too long, as elected representatives, we have believed that we represent only those people who have a right to vote. We represent everybody. I think education is partly to blame and I can use my own experiences at school as an example; the only politics that I was taught at school was civics, which was about the history of kings and queens. It was not about the parliamentary or local government systems and the effect that they have on our lives.
Youth councils were also mentioned. When I visit schools, I try to encourage people to start their own youth organisations within the school, and many are doing this. I also try to encourage them to have their own representatives from each school on a youth council, where they have their own elections and their own debates. They participate in mock elections, and elect a youth parliament. We should encourage many more youngsters to participate at that level.
We should reduce the voting age to 16. We expect people to go to fight for the country at the age of 16 or 17, pay taxes and do everything else that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has mentioned, but we do not accept that they have the experience to vote in elections. These anomalies have gone on for far too long.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) talked about the responsibility of the press. The electorate looks to their views. I can understand the concerns of the general public over the past few years following the stories about sleaze and other issues. However, I get frustrated when it is widely reported in the press that Members of Parliament have voted themselves a two-and-a-half-day week and, later on, that we apparently have voted ourselves a four-day week. They cannot make up their mind.
I know from my work load that this is certainly a full-time job and I hope that my constituents recognise that as well. When one goes into politics, there is only time for that job if one wants to do it properly. I would find it difficult to do two or three jobs, whether a directorship or otherwise, and I want to concentrate completely on my constituents. I hope that they recognise that fact.
339WH On different voting options, I would need to be persuaded to have anything other than the first-past-the-post system. We messed about with the European elections in the past two years and that was disastrous, as it took away local accountability from the European Members of Parliament; the electoral process left a lot to be desired. We must look at trying to encourage people to participate but we must examine all the avenues.
I do not accept that compulsory voting would work. If we have to resort to compulsory voting and threats of fines or imprisonment, we will have failed the country and ourselves. I hope that we will not take that approach.
My final point is about the consultation process. A recent consultation in my constituency was on the serious issue of dualling one of our dangerous roads. The problem has existed for 20 or 30 years; finally, in 1998, the Government agreed to a road study. The question went out for consultation, which was fine. The consultation document was issued, and I asked for people's views. People responded, albeit in small numbers. The consultant's decision, which came out a few weeks ago, was that the road would not be dualled, but widened. However, in the intervening period, 20,000 names were added to a petition. In four and a half years, only that issue produced a mailbag of more than 3,000 letters. Of those, perhaps only two supported the consultant's view.
We held a public meeting with the consultant, at which about 350 or 400 people turned up to question the decision. People from all walks of life attended; business people, environmental campaigners, tourism industry operators and the general public, including people who have lived in the town or area all their lives. However, their experiences did not count for anything. The consultant behaved as if it were a paper exercise; people put their views forward, the consultant had carried out his public duty and this was what was to happen. I hope that will not happen in this case, but my experience is that it will.
If we want to respond to the public or to hold ourselves up as public servants who listen, we will in some instances have to admit that perhaps the public do know best, particularly if they feel as strongly about an issue as they do about the one to which I have referred. Perhaps they have answers to the problems. If we carry out consultations and encourage people to give their opinions, we must not simply treat the process as a paper exercise; we must take their views on board. It is not always the case that the experts or the politicians know best.
My final point is about the recommendation for the establishment of a democracy commission. I support that. There is a long overdue need to find out why people do not participate in local, parish or general elections. I support the Select Committee's report.
§ Martin Linton (Battersea)
I agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) should be congratulated on securing the debate. He is particularly well qualified to introduce it, as the 340WH Chairman of the Public Administration Committee. However, he has another qualification. I do not want to embarrass him, but I will. The table showing the largest falls in turnout in the last election is led by Regent's Park and Kensington, North, in London. No. 2 is Newport, East but Cannock Chase is in third place. I am sorry to say that my hon. Friend's turnout went down from 73 to 55 per cent.
§ Tony Wright
I am so glad that my new hon. Friend was able to join us today. What he says is true, but did he also spot that we were perhaps the only traditional Labour seat to increase the Labour share of the vote?
§ Martin Linton
I am happy to hear that. I made the point in jest because turnout in my constituency fell by a worrying amount. We all face that problem and are mystified by the low turnout in the last general election. My worst experience was that of talking to a voter at the bacon counter in Asda. She was secretary of a community action group on affordable housing—an issue on which I had achieved a result. I had succeeded in convincing the Minister to call in a planning application, which resulted in the construction of 156 affordable homes. One would have thought that she would feel that political action could provide a result. She warmly congratulated me on my re-election, but five minutes later she mentioned that she had been at her sister's and therefore unable to vote.
I return to the distinction between voter participation and turnout made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White). It reminds me of an interesting story about the 1997 election related by my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins). In Wythenshawe, a ward called Benchill has two distinctions. Of 8,000 wards, it is No. 1 in the deprivation index for the entire country, and had a 12 per cent. turnout in the local elections of the same year. Some may have preconceptions about the people who live in that ward and their motivation. However, a few weeks after the elections a ballot was held on a housing transfer in the ward, and the turnout was 80 per cent. It is not the case that a certain type of person does not vote: we must look for a different explanation. People must be able to identify a connection between the process of voting and changes that affect them.
The report is valuable because it focuses on participation, and what motivates people to vote and to take part in the political process. If we can persuade people in wards like Benchill to take part in a housing transfer ballot, it challenges us—not them—to encourage them to participate in parliamentary and local government elections.
Not every part of this country had a low turnout at the last election. One constituency had an 81.3 per cent. turnout. It is worrying that the victor in the three constituencies with the highest turnout was Sinn Fein. They say that politics is a matter of life and death in Northern Ireland, and sometimes they say that even the dead vote, which may be a partial explanation for the high turnout. The top 14 turnouts at the last election were in Northern Ireland, which has only 17 constituencies. That is an astonishing figure, but what is the reason for it? People in Northern Ireland felt that 341WH they had a lot to win or lose. They felt that voting would make a difference; that is the missing feeling in elections and political participation in the rest of the UK.
I do not want to repeat figures endlessly, but it is not only in parliamentary elections where the turnout went down—from 71 per cent. to 59.4 per cent. at the last elections. It has also decreased in local elections from an average of 41 per cent. between 1976 and 1996, to 29.6 per cent. at the last election. In the last two sets of European elections, turnout decreased from 36.5 per cent. to 24 per cent. The trend towards low turnout exists at all three levels.
§ Brian White
Does my hon. Friend accept that the cause of the high turnout in 1990 was the fact that local electors were faced with the poll tax?
§ Martin Linton
I am happy to have that pointed out, because it corroborates the hypothesis that the inclination to vote depends on the extent to which a person believes that their vote will change things. The international figures referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase show that voting systems affect turnout. They show that what is known as competitiveness has the biggest effect on voter turnout. Democracies are divided into those where the majority party gets more than 50 per cent. and it is a foregone conclusion which party will win, and those where the majority party receives less than 50 per cent. The United Kingdom would be in the latter category. The average turnout is 71 per cent. for competitive democracies and 61 per cent. for non-competitive ones—a 10 per cent. difference, according to how far ahead the largest party is. The biggest influence is whether the voter believes that his vote will make a difference.
In their response to the report, the Government said that they did not regard changes to the voting system as a panacea for the current weaknesses in local government. I would not want to present them as such, but it would be perverse if, when considering voter participation, one did not consider the issue of the voting system. I am sure that we still have a long way to go to persuade my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) of the importance of changes in the voting system.
Beyond competitiveness, systems are the biggest factor. The average turnout in all first-past-the-post countries is 58 per cent., very close to the turnout at the last UK general election. In countries that use the alternative vote—the system that the independent commission is proposing—it is 66 per cent. and in countries with proportional representation it is 67 per cent. There is a difference of almost 10 per cent. in the voting turnout, according to the voting system.
We must come to terms with the fact that the United Kingdom is way down the list in the international league table of voting turnouts. We are at Nos. 39 and 40. exactly level with Ireland. Above us, the Maldives is at No. 36, the Comoros Islands is at No. 37 and the Cape Verde Islands is at No. 38. Those figures are based on the turnout in the 20 years before 1997. With our latest election turnout, we shall be even further down that list. In western Europe, we were already 19th out of 25. I am sure that, with the fall that we have had recently, we shall now be near the bottom.
342WH Voting systems make a difference. That becomes even more obvious when one considers the question of marginality. Marginal constituencies produce high turnouts. The highest turnouts after the Northern Ireland seats are, interestingly, for seats such as that of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). Other seats with high turnouts include some in which there have recently been by-elections, such as Eastwood, or Monmouth. It has been dinned into the electorates in those constituencies that every vote counts, because they have had close-fought by-elections, even if they have large majorities now.
Interestingly, Hexham is the Conservative seat with the highest turnout. It was not the most marginal in the recent election, but it was in 1997. People's perceptions and expectations were of a close fight in Hexham and that is why it appears at the top of the list for turnout, with more than 70 per cent. No one who examines a list of marginal seats can doubt for a moment that people vote mainly because they believe that the result is in doubt.
§ Martin Linton
The expectations and perceptions of the voters and the behaviour of the parties are equally important. The high turnout in Winchester was not in the election that the hon. Gentleman won by two votes, but in the subsequent by-election and election in which people knew that they must vote, because they had realised that the previous result would have been different if their family had stayed at home and watched television.
If we turn the equation round and consider the constituencies that had the lowest turnout in the election, we find safe seats, which are at the opposite extreme. Liverpool, Riverside had a 34.1 per cent. turnout. Manchester, Central had little more, as did Glasgow, Shettleston and Glasgow, Maryhill. Lest anyone think that the phenomenon is limited to Labour-supporting constituencies, Kensington and Chelsea, which is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, had the ninth lowest turnout at the election. The movement of people in those constituencies is significant, but the fact that they have in common is that they are all considered safe seats. That takes away the motivation to vote.
Another aspect of the problem is ease of voting. As a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, I did plenty of work in the previous Parliament to ensure that we did everything possible to make it easier for people to vote, in terms of early voting and postal voting. I was fortunate enough to move the amendment that changed the postal vote deadline to a week before polling day, which I am sure made a lot of difference to people during the election. We encouraged the Government, who eventually accepted our recommendations, to introduce many experiments in postal voting and flexibility of polling stations.
No one could say that turnout went up because of those improvements; on the contrary, it went down. However, among non-voters who were asked why they 343WH did not vote, the reason most often given—by 21 per cent. of respondents—was that the polling station was too far away and too inconvenient. The second most often cited reason—given by 16 per cent.—was that they were away on election day. That difficulty could obviously be dealt with by better provision for early voting. Eleven per cent. said that they did not receive a polling card—the third most often cited reason. Only the fourth most often cited reason—given by 10 per cent. of respondents—was that they were not interested in politics.
People might think, as I do, that those reasons conceal a lack of interest in politics. None the less, ease of voting is important, although it will never be more than marginal and will be overwhelmed by other factors. Half of what needs to be done to make voting easier for people has been done. Within the context of those reasons, we should not dwell too long on ease of voting.
I should like to talk about compulsory voting, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) mentioned in the House on Tuesday and in an intervention today. Bizarrely, countries that have compulsory voting have only a 69 per cent. turnout, and those that do not have a 63 per cent. turnout. Of course, those figures measure turnout by percentage of the entire eligible population. In some countries with compulsory voting, 95 to 97 per cent. of the people registered vote, but many of those who should register do not do so. The process is not mechanical. One cannot make everyone vote simply by making it compulsory, because those who are inclined not to vote will not register, even though it is illegal not to do so.
My suggestion—I made it in the Home Affairs Committee and the same point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase—is that, bizarre as it may seem, the best way to increase turnout would be to offer people an incentive to vote, such as £5 off council tax. That would be easy for electoral registrars to manage, as they would have both the council tax list and the voting register. My response to those who consider that idea cheap or unworthy is that one should not think of voting simply as a civic duty. We all regard it as a civic duty but it is also important to give legitimacy to an elected authority, whether it is a local authority or Parliament. We need people to vote. It is important for the legitimacy and authority of a local council that a high proportion of people take part in council elections. Just as it is important not to have a high refusal rate in opinion polls because that distorts the results, it is important to have a high turnout in a council election if people want a council that represents their views. If councils and councillors have an interest in achieving a high turnout, it does not seem unreasonable to give voters an incentive. As opinion pollsters sometimes give participants some small consideration, such as a book token, for stopping to answer a few questions, it should not be beneath the dignity of democracy to find a way to overcome the inconvenience of voting and to persuade people to vote.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there are turnout differentials between age groups? If so, the 344WH effectiveness of the incentives chosen could be affected by such differentials. My perception is that there is a higher turnout among older people, but I do not know.
§ Martin Linton
Yes; there is indeed. I believe that at the most recent general election the abstention rate among 16 to 24-year-olds or 18 to 24-year-olds was 25 per cent. Those in the youngest voting age group are the most likely to abstain. I am not suggesting that young people should be given free tickets to a disco as an incentive, but it is even more in the interests of politicians than of voters that the number of people who vote should be increased. It is not enough for us to preach morality or civic duty; we must give people a good reason to vote.
One could argue for a long time about whether people have a duty to vote or whether it is in their interests, but we must recognise that people's attitudes to voting have changed over the past 30 years for one simple reason: there has been a voyage of discovery for voters. For example, tactical voting has arisen because although people used to think that they should vote for the party that they believed in, they gradually realised that, in many constituencies, it was a waste of time to vote for that party. Therefore, rightly or wrongly, they adapted their voting behaviour to the system. The same thing has happened with voter turnout. In many constituencies, people have observed over the years that voting is unlikely to make a difference. We should not be surprised that, following that voyage of discovery, voter turnout has plummeted, especially in seats that are regarded as safe.
There has been a move away from thinking in collective terms about a duty to vote and a move towards thinking in individual terms about whether going to the polling station is worth while. The problem is that voter turnout or lack of participation, like all problems, has many different causes. We can isolate different causes and reach any number of different conclusions but, of all the possible causes, few are under our control. One possibility may be political education. Citizenship will be in the curriculum in the next academic year, which may help in the long term. However, the one element that is overwhelmingly under our control is the voting system—in other words, the way in which people's wishes are translated into action.
The Government are wrong to say that voting systems are irrelevant to the debate. Although the voting system is no panacea, it is the one element of the equation that is under people's control. For instance, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) only 34.1 per cent. of people voted—barely one person in three. People knew that their vote was extremely unlikely to affect either the choice of a Member to represent the constituency or the re-election of a Labour Government.
When there is a double break in the causative link—the constituency is safe and the overall result of the election is hardly in doubt—it is not surprising that we have a problem with voter participation. Although it is important and worthy to consider the reasons for that, which must include alienation among the youth, why do we not grab hold of the most immediate and obvious reason and do something about it?
§ Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)
The debate has been enjoyable. Those who have listened to it might doubt whether there is a problem, because there seems to be an enormous amount of agreement. A number of progressive Members spoke my sort of language. I suspect that those hon. Members who are not present—one might describe them as more aggressive or less progressive—would take a different view. It was surprising and refreshing to hear arguments, not from the usual parties, in favour of proportional representation, and even an argument in favour of a penny on income tax. That was an unexpected bonus.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) has done a great deal of work on the Committee. I had great fun, but my participation rate was not as good as it should have been. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that his Committee has a major role in ensuring that that work is seen through in this Parliament. If the suggestion for a democracy commission does not run, perhaps the Committee can run with it and keep up the pressure, because important work needs to be done.
It is a crucial area, and there are no easy answers. However, one of the most important things that we have to do as politicians is to begin to restore trust—not only in ourselves as politicians but in the electoral process and the institutions that are meant to look after it. We have focused on elections as being the link between the public and decision makers. It is important to stress that public participation comes in a large number and range of forms. Yes, it includes elections, but the enormous amount of work carried out by voluntary groups has a great impact.
Last week on the Floor of the House, we debated the role of non-governmental organisations and how we could encourage individuals to take part in them. They, too, have an important role to play. Even attending a meeting of school governors or a school fund-raising fete is a form of public participation, as is making a formal objection on a planning issue. Participation comes in a range of guises. We should not be too downhearted because, although I have no figures to support it, the evidence is that many people take part in organisations that influence public decisions in one way or another. We may be failing as politicians because we assume that we are the only act in town, and that the only benchmark of public engagement is elections. But we would be fascinated by that thought, would we not?
Let me say a little about elections. The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) highlighted the turnout in elections. I was thrilled to bits that, except in Northern Ireland, Winchester had the highest turnout in England; it was 72 per cent. I have no illusions about why that was. I managed to create a campaign that put fear into some people that it would be another close result. People were terrified that if they did not go out on polling day, the same thing would happen again. The result was an extremely high turnout. That taught me a lesson, because there was no apathy at all, and people knew that their vote mattered and came out in large numbers. I accept that Winchester has had high turnouts in the past, but people were certainly engaged in the process in June.
However, the crucial point that I tried to make in an intervention on the hon. Member for Battersea was that we are not simply talking about something that 346WH happened in an election campaign of four or five weeks. All candidates like to suggest that they will do an excellent job as a Member of Parliament and that they have signed up to work hard for their constituents. From evidence that we have gathered by considering the 100 most marginal seats, we can see that sitting on a majority of two is the greatest motivation to make us do as we say that we will. Seats that are hotly contested do not produce the kind of hon. Members that exist in all parties, who simply sit back because they know that they will automatically get re-elected. If the election is fiercely contested, candidates will work extraordinarily hard for their constituents, which motivates individuals and restores their confidence in the electoral process.
§ Tony Wright
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea began a train of argument that prompts me to ask, is the conclusion of that argument that we should all pray for the revival of the fortunes of the Conservative party?
§ Mr. Oaten
The conclusion that I draw is that we should all pray for the continued growth of the Liberal Democrats. The serious conclusion, however, is that several factors are at work in marginal seats: politicians who work hard and engage to gain the trust of their constituents and Opposition parties who do the same thing. That creates a healthy democratic process, which, I suspect, does not happen in a vast number of safe seats.
It is not simplistic to suggest that the low turnouts are simply the result of apathy. The electorate will be engaged if their vote counts, so as a Liberal Democrat the simplistic solution that I propose is that we should change the electoral system so that everyone's vote does count. I shall not bore hon. Members with the detail of how we could make that change, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has already made a strong case for it.
I could argue against myself, however, and point out that a downside of some proportional representation systems is that they take away that unique relationship between politicians and their constituency, as happened in the European elections. That troubles me. It is also arguable that public confidence in politicians can be engaged and restored if people know who their politicians are—see them, engage with them and trust them. In some proportional representation systems that engagement is lost but, broadly speaking, such a system would help to make votes count more.
Some argue that the low turnout was due to satisfaction, and that the electorate were comfortable and satisfied with the result. That is not necessarily the case. On Monday, I attended a seminar organised by the BBC in which that organisation considered its role in re-engaging the public in politics. The meeting did not take place under the Chatham house rule, so it is fair to mention an aspect of the BBC's research that especially interested me. Many people told the researchers that they were proud that they had not voted. They were not suffering from apathy or too satisfied to bother; they had made a positive decision not to vote. The figures were interesting, and we should consider them because they may suggest a third reason why people did not get involved and vote.
What can we do about this? The Home Office is already considering some simplistic ideas for making it easier to vote. It is nonsense to make people vote only on 347WH a Thursday, in some cold village hall. We must move with the times and I am encouraged by the example of Watford, where voting took place over several days although, disturbingly, the evidence suggested that that made only a small difference to the turnout. That is disappointing, but postal voting could be extended in other ways, perhaps even by insisting that all voting should be done by that means. The Home Office is apparently considering that possibility.
We must look beyond ways to make it easier for people to vote. We need to pick up on the argument made this afternoon that people do not believe that it is worth voting. Globalisation and the growth of non-governmental organisations have had an effect, in that people—especially young people—seem to be much more interested in those organisations. That is where they think the action is. They see some issues as global issues. That makes it difficult for us to argue, at one level, that we are relevant.
I have in several contexts encountered people who tell me bluntly, "We are not voting, because Westminster cannot sort this out." Perhaps some of the Euro-sceptics will argue that things are shifting towards Brussels and that that explains why those people feel disengaged. However, at local council level quite informed individuals say, "What is the point in voting? I may have attended the protest meeting on the planning issue and registered my objection, but I have made discoveries about the councillors' ability to make a difference on that issue, even if they were listening." In some cases councillors are even gagged by national legislation whose effect is that if they have taken an opinion in advance, at a public meeting, they cannot vote on the decision in question. All those factors undermine and break down the democratic process. I would not vote if I thought that, as a result of current trends in legislation, my councillors could not make a difference on a planning committee.
Another factor is at work. The question is not just whether we have power but whether we are seen to be relevant. That is entirely a matter of the perception of this place. I have never felt comfortable with being an hon. Member who has to refer to other hon. Members by their constituencies. I would much rather say that Tony Wright made a really good speech than that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase did so. I occasionally still slip into saying "you". I do not like some of the stuff that we surround ourselves with here, and I know that when people come here and listen to our debates they do not relate to what happens here—particularly young people. They see us bobbing up and down trying to catch the Speaker's eye and talking in archaic language. We move around as if we are in a museum. We must grapple with reform. Those issues may appear insignificant, and perhaps many hon. Members would laugh and accuse me of just tweaking at the edges in wanting to deal with them, but they are important symbolically because they affect people's perceptions of this place.
The way in which we, as Members of Parliament, go about our day-to-day business is also a matter of concern. We need to be more professional, and are obtaining more resources to enable us to be. We need to be more accountable. I have asked time and again why 348WH Members of Parliament should not at least be required by law to produce an annual report to try to demonstrate some accountability to their constituents. I have done it. I was the first to do so, and it helped me to build a bond and relationship with my constituents. That builds trust, and in return for that comes participation.
There has been an assumption in the debate that the issue is all about elections and democracy and trying to persuade people to become involved in influencing us. We have missed another trick. I am quite keen to take some things away from the democratic process and politicians and return them to communities, bypassing democracy and allowing individuals at local level to take control and be empowered—to run schools, perhaps to run hospitals, to be part of mutual organisations, to engage in and manage the working of their communities. That could mean taking tough decisions; for example, we could decide that democracy as we understand it is not the best way to provide some of the services in question. Let us take some risks, as other hon. Members have said, and allow and empower people to move outside the democratic process which, perhaps, does not work.
I want to conclude by mentioning some of the recommendations and other points in the excellent document produced by the Public Administration Committee and focusing on the ways in which the Minister could respond on some of the issues that need to be tackled. It is disappointing that the Government's response does not show them to be as willing as I would wish them to be to take action on the recommendations. I suspect that the Minister will provide satisfaction with respect to the e-democracy work that the Government are doing. They deserve some praise for that, because there has been progress. However, we need to be even more creative and go further. I do not know whether hon. Members receive as much e-mail as I do in my office, but the time is not far off when the balance between snail mail and e-mail will drift towards the latter. We must be able to tap into that trend. Government Departments must be able to tap into it and use it more than they do.
I know that this fact is endlessly quoted, but it is generally thought that more people voted on who should be evicted from the "Big Brother" house than in the general election. There was a lot of multiple voting, but nevertheless people have been using technology to express an opinion in many ways. We should think about that.
What progress is being made with respect to young people? The Government's response said that the Minister for Children and Young People would shortly be publishing a set of common core principles with respect to participation by young people. I hope to hear when that is to be published and what progress is being made. Also, it would be useful to know who the Minister for Children and Young People is. I did not know that one existed. It would he interesting to see the work in question, which is relevant to some of the issues that we discussed in relation to young people.
I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who talked about the need to give 16-year-olds the vote. Intellectually, the next logical step is to reduce the age at which people can stand for election. I was 349WH elected as a local councillor at 22, because I could not stand at 21. I do not know whether that age limit has changed, but I suspect that it has not.
§ Vernon Coaker
My understanding is that the relevant age at the moment is 21. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The suggestion is that, at the very least, that should be reduced to 18—a suggestion with which I would also agree.
§ Mr. Oaten
I favour a move in that direction, because it seems illogical to suggest that someone who is entitled to vote cannot represent people. The Minister—a successful, young Minister—may have strong views on the subject.
I am disappointed that the Government have rejected consideration of more public participation in science issues, which was an important suggestion by the Committee. There is a need for an honest, open debate on the subject, especially at a time 'when the public have lost trust because they hear scientists say one thing and Ministers another. The problem started with Edwina Currie and eggs, and has gone through to foot and mouth and BSE. There is much confusion, and it is a classic problem on which more could be done. I did not understand why the Government were hostile on the subject, other than for cost reasons. They should do much more about it.
The people's panel has been set up, and the Government have used it. I have criticised it in the past, not because of the principle, but because it is unclear about its direction. I understand that the MORI contract with the people's panel is due for completion in January 2002. I have not given the Minister much notice before he replies, but it would be useful to have some early suggestions as to what he thinks that the panel will do in future. I should also like him to confirm whether it has been used in the past six months. If not, has MORI still been paid for that period?
The debate has been encouraging. There is no simple solution, but I am greatly encouraged that several colleagues feel the same way as me. I hope that the Minister will reinforce the impression that I have gained, after speaking to other hon. Members, that there is a desire at the heart of government to tackle the problem.
§ Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
I agree with the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) that the debate has been helpful. It was opened in a characteristically thoughtful and constructive manner by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), the Chairman of the Select Committee. He was clearly passionate on the subject, as well as extremely well informed. I welcome the fact that he tried to focus—all other hon. Members who spoke did the same—on solutions rather than problems.
I agreed with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman said, even about the lack of wisdom involved in the Conservative Government's attitude towards civic education. The Minister and I might have become a little worried about his description of the wasted generation 20 years ago who missed out at school on the chance of 350WH understanding about public life and how politics operates. Neither the Minister nor I would be here if that were true of the entire generation.
§ Mr. Collins
I am grateful for that gracious remark.
I was also interested in the hon. Gentleman's comment that new forms of participation would not compensate for the wider problems of civic disengagement. He suggested that the new technologies, the development of voluntary groups, and the expansion of a range of other means by which citizens could influence the decisions of public authorities did not offset or even render irrelevant the reduction in turnout at general and other elections. There is a clear consensus that that problem affects all political parties, and we need to discuss that.
The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who is not in the Chamber now, made the case for compulsory voting in an interesting intervention. I lean towards the consensus among the bulk of hon. Members who spoke, which was that that would treat the symptom rather than the cause. We must also recognise that the corollary of compulsory voting is almost always giving the voter the option of going to the polling station and marking a box "none of the above". We might find that an alarmingly large number of people would do so. I am not sure whether that would confer greater legitimacy on us.
One of the themes that has emerged in the debate, and which I want to develop, was first raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). He talked of the scepticism among young people about whether the political process can make any difference. They are very interested in issues, but do not think that the political process will make any difference to them. Many other hon. Members touched on that point or aspects of it.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), after giving us some striking and interesting statistics, said that he had found, as I have, a great deal of passion about issues among all age groups, but real scepticism about whether the political process can make a difference. He spoke of a breakdown in trust, and I will speak about the factors that have contributed to that. However, he also said, and this goes to the heart of the matter, that at elections people should realise that they are making a choice about the sort of Government that they want.
All the parties represented here must realise that part of the problem is that people think that how they vote makes little difference to the sort of Government that they get. They would argue that, however they vote, they get the same sort of people taking the same sort of decisions in the same ways. Despite our different perspectives, we probably all profoundly disagree with that. They wonder why they should bother. We must tackle that problem, which is linked to what the hon. Gentleman said about people feeling that they do not influence the decisions that affect their daily lives. The hon. Member for Winchester touched on the fact that Parliament and other elected institutions do not affect people's daily lives to the extent that they once did either.
351WH The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South—
§ Mr. Collins
I am sorry. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) said that consultation often involved talking to the same sort of people all the time. He is right, and we must recognise that whether consultation takes place at local government, national or European level, there is a danger that a very small number of probably not very representative pressure groups will always respond. Fortunately, those pressure groups often come from different perspectives—they may include business groups, women's groups or environmental groups—and so one does not get a uniform response. Therefore the situation is not quite as dangerous as it would be if it involved a single block of people responding in the same way. Consultation is not simply an echo chamber. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the proportion of the electorate who take part in it is very small.
Like the hon. Member for Winchester, I am something of an enthusiast for the internet. I have been an internet user since 1994 and like him I have been receiving lots of e-mails. The cross-over point between e-mail and snail mail is getting quite close, but we must also recognise that those who have access to and regularly use e-mail are probably not representative of the wider electorate. They are often more literate and articulate and they probably have more money, because they can afford access to the internet. Therefore, the internet is not necessarily the answer to the problem either. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East concluded by saying that there was a case for bringing party politics back into some decisions, so that people did not think that the party political process was irrelevant. He was right, and he touched on a point that I will try to develop later.
The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) was close to defining one of the problems when he spoke about turnout in local elections beginning to decline when people saw powers being taken away from local authorities and given to unelected quangos. If that process did not start when my party was in office, it certainly got a lot worse during that period, but it has not got any better since.
The hon. Gentleman identified the problem. The electorate are not stupid or idle; they do not need to be educated or compelled to take a different view about the political process. In most respects and on most issues the electorate are more astute than we are. They stopped voting in local elections because they saw that local councils were losing power and relevance and the ability to make a difference. They have stopped voting in general elections because they can see that Parliament is losing its ability to influence their daily lives. That process certainly started before 1997, but it has continued since. We must recognise that it culminates in the failure of democracy.
An independent Member of Parliament was elected on 7 June 2001. He is not present, but I hope that he will not mind if I refer to him. As we know, he was elected 352WH on the simple but clear issue of saving a hospital in his constituency; there was a rebellion by the people against all the political parties. He was elected by the kind of huge majority that would warm the cockles of any hon. Member's heart. None the less, he and his constituents know that there is no prospect of his election saving that hospital. That constituency is a microcosm, but we see the wider phenomenon time and again.
The problem combines two phenomena. More voters conclude that they will make no difference to decisions that affect them, however they vote. Others think that voting will confer legitimacy on a political system of which they have a declining sense of ownership and do not wish to support. We saw that in the European parliamentary elections. By definition, I represent a constituency with an above-average number of Conservative voters and, therefore, of Eurosceptics. There is no doubt, however, that voters in European elections have increasingly said, "I don't approve of Europe so I'm not going to vote in the elections to the European Parliament." I tell them that they will have a European Parliament whether they want one or not. I say that they must decide whether to elect someone who wants to go down a route that they like or someone who wants to go down a route that they do not like.
None the less, people feel that voting does the institution and the people in it a favour, as several hon. Members said. People feel that voting in a parliamentary election is doing Members of Parliament and other parliamentary candidates—as believers in the parliamentary institution—a favour. They do not think that they are doing something for themselves. If people feel that an institution's legitimacy is declining—that is undoubtedly true of the European Parliament and, worryingly, increasingly true of this institution—we cannot be surprised if turnouts are lower.
Those two phenomena are clearly true of Parliament. This place is much less able to take decisions than it was 50 years ago. Many of the reasons for that are rather desirable and result from policies that my party introduced in its various times in office. When people vote in a general election, they are not taking decisions about who will control their electricity and water or run British Steel, British Airways and British Telecom. Members of Parliament no longer take such decisions. Nor do they make decisions about court cases. The Home Secretary no longer has the final right to decide how long a convicted murderer should stay in prison or whether a matter should be referred to the Court of Appeal. Powers have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
Courts have become much more powerful and have taken powers from Ministers and Parliament through the judicial review process, which has been going for more than 20 years, but has accelerated under the Human Rights Act 1998. We should also consider European institutions and the growing power of Downing street and the Executive. The electorate do not need political education and are not wrong to believe that Parliament is less important than it was—it is we who must recognise that it is less important. If we want to increase voter turnout, we must tackle fundamental questions about Parliament's power in ways that we have not done before.
353WH My final point is not intended to suggest the route that we should take. It offers a stark contrast, however, between the understanding of the powers and role of elected politicians in this country and in other countries. A few years ago in the United States, I and some parliamentary colleagues of all parties were taken on an expedition. We were taken from the buildings of Washington DC into the state of West Virginia, not far away. It rapidly became clear which senator was the longest serving and most relevant to the state of West Virginia. The first clue came when we crossed the River Potomac on the Senator Robert C. Byrd bridge. We then drove along the Senator Robert C. Byrd highway past the Senator Robert C. Byrd industrial park and ended up at the Senator Robert C. Byrd library. I do not necessarily advocate that Members of Parliament should have quite so much control over the appropriations process, nor that sense of vaingloriousness, but I bet that voters in West Virginia had a clear idea of what their senator had done for them. If we want to improve voter turnout in this country, perhaps we should ensure that constituents know what their Member of Parliament is doing for them.
§ 5.5 pm
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie)
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) opened the debate by setting out an important series of principles. Talking about public participation is akin to examining the state of politics today, but he touched on the fact that public participation needs to be increased not only to enhance our legitimacy but because it is valuable in itself for its contribution to the process of civil society. The sense of empowerment experienced by the citizen who feels that his views are taken into account when public decisions are made is unquestionable. We must find ways of investing in the concept of social capital and supporting the networks and relationships between individuals in communities that enrich society and spark new opportunities for everyone. That is the challenge we have been discussing today.
The topic is extremely wide and I apologise in advance because it will be difficult to cover in any depth all the subjects that have been mentioned. For example, the question of the separation of the Executive and the legislature is too wide for me to deal with now.
The subject of the sixth report of the Public Adminstration Committee was entitled "Public participation: issues and innovation". The Committee recommended several improvements to the way in which consultation is carried out. It suggested ways in which local democracy could be improved and other tools could be used to better effect in finding out what our citizens want. It is a good report, which has been welcomed by the Government. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and members of the Committee for all their efforts. The Government have replied to the report and dealt with many of the specific points that it raised. The Government recognise that there is a problem with low voter turnout and general civil disengagement in our democracy. We are not complacent about the problem and it is clear that we need to find out why it is happening and establish what the solutions are. I want to set out today what action the Government are taking to improve public participation in our democracy.
354WH I shall begin by talking about e-democracy, which the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) mentioned. The Government are looking closely at ways in which we can harness the power of new technology in our drive to strengthen our democratic processes. I am pleased to be able to report that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has announced the formation of a new Cabinet Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons, to look into the issue in more detail. That Committee will consider ways of strengthening the democratic process by engaging the public and their elected representatives through the use of the internet and other electronic means. The formation of the Committee is a clear indication that the Prime Minister and the Government recognise the importance of the issue.
The e-envoy unit at the Cabinet Office, in conjunction with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, is developing early proposals to put to the Committee about a possible policy on e-democracy. Those draft proposals will look at two separate, but interdependent, tracks. First, they will consider the issue of the electronic means by which the public can participate in decision making and the use of new technologies to give citizens enhanced opportunities to participate in the democratic process between elections. Secondly, the proposals will deal with the issue of electronic voting and the use of new technologies to ensure that people have better opportunities to take part in elections.
Those are possible ways in which we can facilitate greater interaction. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) touched on that in his contribution. None of these things is a panacea in respect of participation, but I hope that they will help to re-engage voters and reconnect them with the electoral system.
§ Brian White
On the issue of personal identity and how the Government relate to individuals, is the Minister comfortable with the myriad different personal identities that the Government have? When will the Office of the e-Envoy report on its personal identity consultations?
§ Mr. Leslie
When we examine the mechanistic issues of voting we can look in depth at the degree of trust that the public have in the systems that they use to cast their votes. The issue of e-voting will, I imagine, prompt a series of questions about authenticity, identity and security. It will take some time to address those questions. The Government have already demonstrated their willingness to be radical and to pilot new ideas. We should like to see such matters ironed out as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for Winchester and my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea (Martin Linton) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) had one view when it came to electoral reform and the voting system used in local government, in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) was not quite convinced of that. The Government are concerned about the low turnout in local elections, but we do not believe that a change to the voting system is the solution. There is no solid evidence that the introduction of proportional representation is the 355WH answer. However, we remain open-minded and will continue to monitor developments elsewhere. For the time being, there is insufficient evidence to support changing a tried and tested system. However, we shall take other measures—
§ Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)
We have heard that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) was elected on this specific issue. In the previous Parliament we had the hon. Member for Tatton, who was also elected on a very specific issue. Will the Minister agree that neither of those hon. Members would have been able to present his particular point of view if we had had a system of proportional representation?
§ Mr. Leslie
I am glad that there are now two Members who are not convinced that there should be a change to the voting system.
§ Mr. Leslie
The number grows by the second. That is the kernel of the debate. The point about the constituency link is a good one. It could be debated for hours. I see that the hon. Member for Winchester is champing at the bit.
§ Mr. Leslie
Absolutely. We want to keep an open mind. However, we have also to consider whether—in the light of the evidence from the European parliamentary elections and the Scottish and Welsh elections, where different voting systems were used—a change in system was of great significance in the context of public participation.
§ Tony Wright
I am sorry to interrupt. I am puzzled about how we will accumulate the evidence about different electoral systems at a local level if we do not have any experiments.
§ Mr. Leslie
The problem is that experimenting with different electoral systems is different from piloting new voting mechanisms. If there were to be one council elected using one voting system and another elected via a completely different one, or perhaps the representatives of one ward elected in a different way from those of another, the legitimacy of some candidates might be called into question. I suspect that the Government would feel—certainly I do—that, for that reason, we need to be more careful in piloting on a geographical basis.
§ Martin Linton
Is my hon. Friend not aware that a lot of evidence collected by international organisations 356WH devoted to the study of elections already demonstrates that the electoral system that produces the lowest turnouts is the one that we use?
§ Mr. Leslie
Those are absolutely the pieces of rigorous evidence that I feel that the Government should consider in a lot more depth. We can pick up a lot from that international learning, and my hon. Friend has more knowledge and experience on such matters than most of us.
Talking of local government electoral pilots, however, I should mention that in May 2000 we organised 32 local authorities to run 38 pilot schemes to experiment and innovate—for instance, on early voting, electronic voting, all-postal ballots, mobile ballot boxes and weekend voting. All-postal ballots were the only experiments that increased turnout significantly. Turnout rose in some places when other means were used, but all-postal ballots resulted in turnouts that were up to a third higher than in comparable areas.
The hon. Member for Battersea spoke about the ease of voting. The Government have been concerned about that since the general election, and we are now inviting other local authorities to apply for a new round of pilots for the May 2002 local elections. The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has allocated £3.5 million to help local authorities to apply for such experiments. They will be evaluated by the Electoral Commission. We also need to consider whether elected mayors may be another way to engage people, and encourage them to believe that local government is reconnecting.
On local advisory referendums, the Government are committed to legislating when parliamentary time allows. We need to put those powers on a statutory basis, and that will certainly be one area on which we will seek to develop policy in the near future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield touched on regional governance. We remain committed to taking forward that agenda. We believe that, if people want them, elected regional assemblies can play a part in bringing democracy closer to the people, strengthening accountability and helping to reinvigorate the political process.
Ministers, led by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and in liaison with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and other Cabinet Ministers, are working on the forthcoming White Paper on regional governance. That will set out the Government's plans for taking forward our manifesto commitment on elected regional government. During the run-up to publication of that White Paper, we want to encourage a wider public debate; we want to encourage all to express a view.
Elected regional assemblies will not be imposed. Local people will be given the choice through regional referendums, although we are keen for progress to be made. It is critical that we get the proposals right and that people have the opportunity to contribute to the shape of regional governance.
§ Mr. Collins
As the Minister was somewhat eloquent in his earlier remarks on the need to be cautious on the introduction of proportional representation for local 357WH government, can we take it that that the White Paper will not automatically commit the Government to introducing proportional representation for regional assemblies? Would the Government even consider asking that question in a referendum?
§ Mr. Leslie
That is an interesting point. I have not drawn a conclusion on that. I certainly believe that the Government will be considering it, but when the White Paper is published all will be revealed.
Turning to the question of public consultation raised by the hon. Gentleman and others, the Cabinet Office has taken a number of important steps to improve the standards of public involvement. Some of them were mentioned in the Committee's report and the Government's response. The code of practice on written consultation, published in November 2000, was launched by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Consultation is a central plank in the Government's commitment to encouraging greater openness.
The new code is binding on all Departments. It covers consultation with all sectors of public interest—business, trade unions and other pressure groups, as well the voluntary sector. The Government will evaluate the code in the latter half of next year. There is some cynicism about the extent to which views are genuinely listened to, which is why we included in the code a requirement for Departments to summarise views expressed in the Government response to consultation and to give clear reasons for rejecting options that were not adopted.
Early evidence suggests that the standard of consultation by central Government has improved since the code came into force in January. My hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Cannock Chase highlighted the critical fact that consultations need to be meaningful, rather than simply a statutory hoop and inconvenient barrier for Departments to overcome. In my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament, I feel extremely frustrated by consultation exercises that make one feel as though boxes are being ticked without anyone listening. If I feel that as an. MP, surely we need to do more to engage the public.
From my experience, I feel that young people need to be engaged in the political process. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling and the hon. Members for Winchester and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) touched on the issue. Although young people are the most likely people to be online, they are least likely to vote. I agree with the Committee that, if we are to tackle low public participation, we must start with young people.
§ Vernon Coaker
Will the Minister consider reducing the voting age to 16 and the age at which people can become Members of Parliament and councillors from 21 to 18? Will he try to ensure that that idea is included in any discussions on the subject? I do not expect him to say yes.
§ Mr. Leslie
The Government have an open mind on the age at which members of the public can stand for elected office. In terms of public participation, I am not sure that we will be especially successful at convincing 358WH 16 to 18-year-olds to vote if we cannot convince 18 to 24-year-olds to do so. The problem lies a little deeper, and Select Committees have been considering it in much more depth.
Only about 39 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds cast their votes at the last election. The Minister of State for the Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who has responsibility for young people, has asked the Government's children and young people's unit to investigate the reasons for lower levels of political engagement among young people. That work was launched on 29 October, when 60 young people presented their views and opinions on what needed to happen to encourage them to engage in the democratic process. The unit is extending the consultation process, and is working with other organisations and stakeholders including political parties, the media and the Electoral Commission to explore the issues raised.
The plan is that by the spring, in the light of the consultation, recommendations will be made by the Government, the political parties and the media on what they can do to encourage young people to engage in the democratic process. The burden is not only on the Executive. Many people, especially those of us in Parliament, must share in tackling it. We must ensure that we find ways to engage young people in the political process, not least perhaps by considering citizenship education. The issue of civic literacy and social responsibility was alluded to by my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling, for Cannock Chase and for Great Yarmouth.
Following the Government's proposals in "Excellence in schools", an education White Paper, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—he was then the Secretary of State for Education and Employment—set up an advisory committee to provide advice on effective education for citizenship in schools. We believe that citizenship education is central to creating a modern and inclusive society. The subject will help to develop pupils' formal knowledge of how political processes work, how decisions are made and how individuals can play a part. It will also help them to develop greater understanding of the democratic process and the institutions that underpin democracy in our country. It will provide opportunities for pupils to take responsibility and action in their neighbourhoods and communities to change things for the better.
The hon. Member for Winchester and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield talked about engaging the community and the voluntary sector, which is an important subject which cannot be ignored. The Government agree with the Public Administration Committee that effective public participation in central and local government decision making requires a healthy civil society, a hallmark of which is an effective and engaged voluntary and community sector. The work of voluntary and community organisations is fundamental to achieve our aim of a fairer, more socially inclusive society.
The Government are doing much to improve that area; for example, there is an active community unit at the Home Office which provides funding for voluntary organisations to increase their effectiveness, including those that promote volunteering. The Home Office sponsors the Community Development Foundation, 359WH which is a non-departmental public body whose mission is to promote community development by enabling people to work in partnership with public authorities, government, the corporate sector and voluntary organisations to regenerate and strengthen their communities. The aim of that work is to create a step change in voluntary and community involvement by promoting increased activity in both and by supporting the development of active communities. It is important to note that many regeneration schemes have capacity building—that is not a phrase on which I am especially keen, and no one knows exactly what it means, but it suggests that the schemes look for ways of channelling the voices of local communities. In that way, when resources are available for less well-off communities, those sums can be spent on things that the local population wants.
The Public Administration Committee, and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, asked whether we should have a new democracy commission. The Select Committee may have to consider in more detail the work of the Electoral Commission, which was established only a year ago. That body does not simply have a remit for technical mechanistic functions of elections, but has an explicit aim to promote the awareness of democratic systems and develop programmes of voter education. A dialogue on that matter between that body and Parliament would be fruitful. To create a separate democracy commission would be premature and might cause confusion, given that the Electoral Commission has only recently been established.
Earlier in the debate, we heard a fascinating exchange between my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase and for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who is no longer in his place, on the question of compulsory voting. Although I can see the superficial attractions of any remedy that might raise civic engagement, the Government do not believe that compulsory voting would guarantee genuine and meaningful democratic involvement. Compelling grudging participation is surely less desirable than engaging and enthusing citizens. That is the true challenge that we all need to face.
Although I accept that enormous policy areas remain on which more work must be done, I believe that the Government have made substantive progress in a number of positive ways. We created the Electoral Commission, which is considering many issues realised by the Select Committee and will address as a high priority the problems of lower voter turnout. We are setting up the ministerial committee on e-democracy, and will conduct a wide-ranging public consultation on that area. That should lead to the implementation of new ideas, to increased public participation and improved voter turnout through new technology. Another component is the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which will open access and change the culture proactively to put Government information into the public arena. We do not have to debate that in detail today, but it is an important factor.
The hon. Member for Winchester asked a series of questions about the people's panel, which we first created to seek public views on improving public 360WH services, not on specific policies but on how they use the services that we all enjoy. We shall, however, examine new ways of finding out consumers' views on those vital services and of ensuring that we continue to have feedback and dialogue on such practical issues of public policy.
§ Brian White
There have been a number of similar panels with quite a range of experience. Will the Minister allow a review of those when he considers winding up the people's panel?
§ Mr. Leslie
Our research into the public's opinion of the services that they use needs continually updating. Local councils have been innovating in a number of ways and have conducted deliberative research. Central Government can learn lessons from local government in that regard, just as we can send guidance notes down to local councils. The issue requires greater investigation.
§ Mr. Leslie
The contract for the people's panel runs out in January 2002. MORI is carrying out several analyses. We have decided to consider ways of taking matters forward into a second phase, although I do not have an announcement to make on that. I shall certainly inform the hon. Gentleman if and when we reach a firm decision.
A number of the schemes that I mentioned promote best practice in public participation. We can only try our best at administrative and ministerial level to engage the public and improve our consultative practices. We published the code of practice to improve the standards of public consultation across central Government. We are expanding consultation through the network of consultation co-ordinators and by producing best practice material. We have even given the public access to national consultations via a central register of consultations on the website, for those who have the time and inclination to visit it.
I hope, therefore, that hon. Members will see that the Government have been actively tackling the issues. We are not complacent and we genuinely welcome the fresh thinking of the Committee and of hon. Members present today. I thank the House for finding time for a debate on this important subject. I hope that we shall continue to have a useful dialogue on this enormously wide-ranging subject.
§ Tony Wright
I thought that there was a convention whereby I as Chairman thanked those hon. Members who had taken part, Mr. Cook. I am talking just in case that is true. Do I stand corrected?
§ Tony Wright
I get the impression that I should be brief, and I shall be exceptionally brief.
I was going to take up some hon. Members' comments, but I shall not do so now. We heard some fascinating contributions, which were full of good ideas. 361WH I was intrigued to hear about the politician in Virginia who had all those buildings named after him. I wonder whether something similar might be the solution to the collapse of electoral participation in Cannock Chase, which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) mentioned.
My most depressing moment during the election was when I stood not on Attlee crescent or Bevan way, but on William Morris drive on an estate where no one was taking any interest in the campaign. That was civic death. The fact that it happened in a street named after William Morris, who was the epitome of civic engagement and energy seemed—well, hon. Members will get the point.
We have heard some good ideas. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde's remark about the trouble with socialism being that it took up too many evenings. Participation 362WH does, of course, take up people's evenings, and they are pretty jealous of them these days. However, people are also full of ideas about how we might move matters on.
Finally, there is a misunderstanding about our proposal for a democracy commission. That is our fault, not my hon. Friend the Minister's, and I welcomed his comments about the e-democracy initiative. I had a meeting with the head of the Electoral Commission, who was also anxious about that misunderstanding. The Committee proposes a short-lived commission which will find out what has been going wrong and to put solutions in place. There is an urgency about the issue that requires such an initiative, preferably from the Government. I hope that our report and this debate will contribute in some way towards moving the issue on.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Six o'clock.