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Westminster Hall

Thursday 6 March 2003

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Election Turnouts

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper) : I welcome this chance to discuss the important issue of increasing voter turnout, particularly through weekend voting. It is useful to debate those issues, because we have recently closed the consultation on weekend voting and combining the local and European elections in 2004. We have not yet considered all the responses to that consultation paper, nor have we taken any decisions on the way forward. We thought it right to give hon. Members the chance to debate some of the issues before any decisions were taken.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): I am sure that the Minister has anticipated what I am about to say. She said that she hoped that we would have a chance to discuss this matter, but she will recall that we discussed many of the same issues only a few weeks ago on 28 January, so I hope that some of my comments during that debate have been taken into account and that she will refer to them on this occasion; she did not do so at the time.

Yvette Cooper : I assure the hon. Gentleman that we always treat seriously the points that he makes in every debate.

It is right to give hon. Members the chance to debate this matter, particularly some of the issues concerning weekend voting and combining the elections in 2004, which we did not concentrate on in our debate at the end of January. That thoughtful and interesting debate about voter participation was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan).

Voter turnout has been falling, and compared with 15 years ago, millions more people are choosing not to vote. Since the mid-1980s, the number of people who vote has dropped by more than 5 million. At the last general election, 6.2 million fewer votes were cast than in 1987, when I first cast my vote, and the percentage of the electorate voting fell from 75 per cent. in 1987 to 59 per cent. in 2001. In the most recent European elections, 5.1 million more people stayed at home compared with the 1989 European elections, and in the local elections turnout dropped by around 2 million from 1986 to 2002.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Has the Minister given any thought to why there was such a dramatic drop in turnout for the most recent European elections? Does she recall her right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary, who is now the Foreign Secretary, saying that as a result of his introducing a system of proportional representation he expected the turnout to

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rise significantly? In fact, it fell. Can the hon. Lady explain why the then Home Secretary's prediction was so wrong?

Yvette Cooper : There are a series of reasons why voter turnout falls, and I shall come to that subject later. In the debate at the end of January we discussed some of the issues concerning proportional representation. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that many people have suggested that proportional representation might increase voter turnout, and the European elections were an example of the PR system. Some supporters of that system are here now, so many of the issues may be raised this afternoon.

Many of the issues related to the turnout at the European elections are complicated, and not determined simply by the particular electoral system in place. It is interesting that there is no consensus at this stage on the reason for a drop in voter turnout. Such drops have happened in many western industrialised countries, and a range of theories have been offered by academics, journalists and politicians to explain why that has happened. Many traditional theories assumed that as populations became more educated, and had more information, voter turnout would increase, but that has not been the case. Theories about declining social identification, changes to social structure, a decline in deference and generational differences abound. There are also theories relating to political party behaviour; some argue that politics is too confrontational, and that is why people do not vote; others argue that politics needs to be more confrontational, and that we need more public rows to provoke people into voting.

There are also theories about the specific circumstances of the last general election and the expectations that surrounded it, such as whether it was perceived to have been a foregone conclusion. It is too early to say exactly what happened at that election, or what the different causes for the turnout were; it is too early to be clear whether we are looking at long-term trends or fluctuations. However, we cannot afford to wait until it is perfectly clear why voter turnout has been falling; if we wait, turnout may have fallen to the point at which the health of our democracy is seriously undermined.

Three challenges face us in addressing voter turnout. The first is the challenge for political parties, which is extremely important because parties are the vehicle by which people exercise their vote, campaign and conduct debate throughout the country. Political parties and politicians need to accept responsibility for the changes that are taking place, and they must address them. However, that is not the main subject of the debate this afternoon.

The second challenge is for the wider society and institutions to promote greater awareness, and to support voter education and a stronger sense of citizenship. I include in that the promotion of citizenship education in schools, and the role of the Electoral Commission in promoting information about elections, democracy and our political institutions.

Mr. Cash : The Minister will appreciate that one thing that causes people a great deal of concern is broken

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promises. I shall not engage in a cheap exchange, because one side can say as much as the other, but does the Minister not agree that if the Electoral Commission and others are to engage in voter education through schools, it is terribly important for them to be conscious of the huge responsibility to make certain that that education is unbiased and meets the criteria of a democratic society.

Yvette Cooper : The purpose of setting up the Electoral Commission in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was to establish an independent organisation, separate from political parties and the Government, to promote voter information and education throughout the country in a non-party political, non-partisan fashion. The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to get into party political discussions, so I shall point out that the Opposition's weakness at the general election and their failure to offer clear alternatives to the voter had a significant impact on turnout.

Today we should concentrate on how we can make voting more convenient, and make it fit into people's lives, but no one should assume that convenience is a panacea for raising voter turnout, or that it is the whole answer. Some of the trials significantly raised voter turnout, and it is therefore right that we should explore ways in which we can make voting fit into people's lives so that they exercise their democratic rights.

The recently closed consultation canvassed the ideas associated with holding elections at the weekend. We should explore weekend elections, and have views on the idea. Unlike most of our European counterparts, this country has historically voted on a Thursday, but it is unclear why we have become so committed to that particular day of the week. The folklore is that the original reasons for choosing a Thursday involved a process of elimination. Sunday was no good because voters might be influenced by the sermon. Monday was too close to Sunday, and a persuasive priest might still hold sway. Tuesday and Wednesday were market days, while Friday was pay-day, which meant that voters might be influenced by alcohol. On Saturday they might still be drinking, or might be too hung over to vote. As a result, Thursday was the only day far enough away from the influence of both pulpit and publican, so that is the day on which people were trusted to cast their votes.

An international study by the Chicago election board in 1999 found that of the 34 countries studied, three quarters held elections on a Sunday. Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Finland all hold at least some of their elections on a Sunday, and their turnout levels are generally higher than ours. However, one cannot use that evidence alone, and one cannot make simple comparisons between one country and another. Recent academic work by Mark Franklin, which attempts to address some of the other factors, found that in a range of countries, voting on a rest day—in this country, that would be over the weekend—has a significant positive impact on turnout.

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It is not too hard to see why that might be the case, because for people who work and have kids, or lead some other sort of busy life, voting on a busy Thursday can be a hassle, and it should not be a hassle for people to exercise their democratic rights.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): People who work and have kids will almost certainly have some form of child care for their children while they are working, but that will not be the case on a Saturday. In the light of the contradictory comments that the Minister made about how, rather disappointingly, the more educated people become the less likely they are to vote, can she see that kind of contradiction in her argument? A Saturday election would be detrimental for working mothers with children.

Yvette Cooper : No, I do not think so. If we held elections over Saturday and Sunday, arguably people would have considerably more time in which to make appropriate arrangements, or to take their children to the voting booth. The case should not rest on a specific example: we can all imagine the people who rush to pick up their children at the end of nursery school or school and then struggle to get out to vote in the evening. Equally, Thursday might be more convenient for people who work shifts or weekends.

The question is what is likely to have the broadest impact on the greatest number of people by making voting more convenient. Mark Franklin's evidence, which we should take seriously, suggests that voting on a rest day could increase turnout. The consultation specified that weekend voting would mean both Saturday and Sunday, so as to recognise religious concerns, but we need to know people's views about weekend voting. We must also recognise that the only pilot that has been carried out on weekend voting, in Watford, was not successful; interestingly, voter turnout fell. However, the people of Watford voted the weekend after the Thursday on which everyone else voted. When the nationwide election results had already appeared in the Friday and Saturday papers, setting out the local elections as a done deal, everyone in Watford was expected to go out to vote. It is interesting to ask, therefore, whether pilots on weekend voting can be successful in small areas, when people in other areas still vote on different days.

We must also take account of cost. Weekend voting, in direct terms, is likely to be more expensive, especially if it is held over two days. It involves the higher costs of staff working at the weekend. On the other hand, an awful lot of schools would not have to close for the day, with all the hassle that that can create. There are mixed issues surrounding weekend voting, so we think it right to consult and take people's views before deciding on the way forward.

Personally, I am inclined to think that there is a case for further trials, perhaps as part of a programme, and on a much larger scale than the Watford example. We need to hear the House's views, however, and we need people to consider and debate the issues. The European elections might be the right elections in which to trial weekend voting, given that the other countries are voting in their elections at the weekend; but we must recognise the considerable logistic and practical problems to be overcome if weekend voting is to be introduced in time for the 2004 European elections.

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The case for making voting more convenient, however we do that, is strong. I have concentrated so far on weekend voting, but various trials are already under way for different approaches to voting in pilot programmes across the country. It is worth reflecting on the progress made in those trials, and on the next wave of pilots. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister leads the programme of pilots for local authority elections, and there have been a series of pilots on postal voting, e-voting and other mechanisms. The results in the all-postal vote pilots have been the most significant. Average turnout in the pilot areas was considerably higher than in the country as a whole. In Crawley the turnout rose from 19 per cent. to 34 per cent. In Gateshead it rose from 30 per cent. to 57 per cent., in North Tyneside from 36 per cent. to 42 per cent., in Stevenage from 29 per cent. to 53 per cent., and in Chorley from 32 per cent. to 62 per cent. Those all-postal ballots had a considerable impact on voter turnout.

Mr. McLoughlin : The Minister has pointed out what happened in the postal votes, but can I point out what happens in my constituency, which covers two local councils? In Amber Valley, which has elections every year, the turnout is very poor, but in Derbyshire Dales, which has elections every four years, the turnout is significantly better. Does she think that there is anything to be said for the idea that people are getting a bit fed up with continually having elections forced on them?

Yvette Cooper : There is evidence that reduced frequency of voting can be correlated with higher voter turnout. A balance has to be struck between achieving the right level of accountability to the public and to voters—giving them the opportunity to vote often enough to maintain accountability—and maintaining turnout. Those are complex issues. That is why we have asked the Electoral Commission to examine the issues surrounding the timing and frequency of elections.

Mr. Cash : I was slightly worried that the Minister might not have read what I said in our previous debate, and she has just given a good illustration of why I was right to worry. She has mentioned the experience in Chorley, and on 28 January I said that:

She did not answer that question before. Can she answer it now?

Yvette Cooper : The Westminster pilot was an e-counting pilot. The all-postal pilots—Crawley, Gateshead, Greenwich, Havering, Middlesbrough, North Tyneside, North West Leicestershire, Preston, Stevenage and Trafford—did not involve separate counting methods, and all showed a significant increase in turnout.

Mr. Cash : What about Chorley?

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Yvette Cooper : The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I also mentioned Chorley. Chorley held an all-postal and e-counting pilot. Chorley, Hackney and South Tyneside all had all-postal and e-counting pilots. Turnout in Chorley and South Tyneside increased but Hackney, which had an e-counting and all-postal pilot, experienced a 3 per cent. decrease. The e-counting pilots included Broxbourne, Epping Forest, Rugby and Westminster. That was a different group of pilots, of which Westminster was the only one of the four that showed a reduction. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that results have been varied, but overall the Electoral Commission, which assessed all the pilots independently, concluded that the all-postal pilots had a significant impact in increasing voter turnout.

Concerns about issues such as fraud and voter identification have been raised in relation to all-postal ballots. We should take those concerns seriously, and address them. In its report on the first wave of pilots, the Electoral Commission said that it could find no evidence of widespread fraud, or problems of voter identification. Nevertheless, we should take the possibility seriously, which is why the commission recommended further pilots of the all-postal vote approach, which we have accepted.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Is the Minister also considering the other factor that remains of concern with all forms of remote voting, whether postal or electronic, which is that electoral law requires us to ensure that voters can vote free from coercion and undue influence? That is clearly difficult when voting takes place at a remote location. Is that point being considered? In some ways it is more significant than the issue of fraud.

Yvette Cooper : It is embedded in the Human Rights Act 1998 that we should have free and fair elections, and it is important that we can be sure that they are taking place. As the hon. Gentleman says, we must be able to ensure that people can make their own choices free from undue interference or improper influence. We already, rightly, accept the principle of postal votes for those who choose to have them.

The solution that some have suggested to the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises is a multi-channel election. People would be able to choose to vote through one of many different routes. They would be able to vote with a postal vote or by going into a polling station. Our broad interest is in the idea of a multi-channel election being introduced in the future, which would give people options. The debate is not yet closed on that. We need to keep debating and discussing it as the pilots go on.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): In Stroud we have an e-voting and a texting pilot, which is as it should be. We should experiment with such methods. My worry is about what we mean by choice. That is all fine for those who have different ways of accessing the electoral system, but there will be others who have a limited choice. That could be overcome only through postal balloting, which seems to be the most successful alternative method. When the Minister evaluates the situation, will she consider how many people genuinely

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can make such choices? We cannot have discrimination in favour of people who are IT-literate and have access to the relevant means, and against people who do not.

Yvette Cooper : My hon. Friend is right. That idea affects not only voting but all kinds of areas in which we try to deliver services, opportunities or information through new technology. We must not introduce a different form of exclusion, whereby those who cannot get access to information technology cannot get access to a service. When we are talking about the right to vote, that is more important and fundamental than in any other context, so clearly it is a consideration.

My hon. Friend raises a broader point about turnout, which is that people who are on the lowest incomes, have the least education or come from particular minority ethnic groups are the least likely to vote. That is a troubling fact for democracy. The issue is not simply the overall turnout; it is the differential turnout between different groups. Clearly, that should have a serious impact on anyone who is concerned to ensure that everyone has an equal right to vote and an equal chance for their voice to be heard.

The postal ballot pilots have already demonstrated that there appears to be a significant willingness to vote so long as it is easy, and that that willingness is greater than the actual number of votes being cast under the existing system. As long as that is the case, that means that there are people who would vote if it was easy, or if the opportunity was there, who are not currently voting and are therefore not having their voices heard in a democracy, or being counted when it is decided who should represent them and take decisions on their behalf. That is a serious matter, and means that even for those who oppose all-postal votes, there are serious issues that need to be addressed. We cannot simply accept the current position.

I know that many Members want the chance to speak, so I will make my conclusion brief. There will be a further series of 59 electoral pilots in this year's May elections—nearly double the number held last year. They will include e-voting pilots, most of which will offer a range of e-voting channels, including remote voting via the internet, text messaging, touch-tone telephones and, for the first time, interactive digital television. The pilots will be the biggest ever test of e-voting in the UK.

We have also concluded the consultation on combining the European parliamentary elections with the local elections in 2004. That reflects the point made by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) about not asking people to turn out to vote too many times in a short period. Members' views would be welcome before the Government take a final decision on whether the elections in 2004 should be combined on the same day.

Declining turnout is clearly one of the biggest challenges faced not simply by political parties but by all those who care about democracy. We are here this afternoon as democratically elected representatives. We stand where for centuries elected representatives before us have stood to debate the concerns of the nation. Of course, most of our predecessors were not elected by the

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whole nation that they purported to represent. Many of us will have taken constituents to the little cupboard at the back of the Crypt, at the other end of the main Westminster Hall building, where, as the story goes, the suffragette Emily Davison hid in the Palace of Westminster on the night of the 1911 census so that, at a time when women were not allowed to vote, she could record her address that night as the House of Commons.

Votes for women, and for all men, were hard fought for and hard won. Emily Davison threw herself in front of the king's horse to draw attention to her case, yet four generations later, millions of women are not using the vote that Emily Davison died fighting for. Our political institutions depend on the legitimacy of the ballot box. As the ballot box gets lighter, the legitimacy of our political institutions becomes weaker. Most importantly, when turnout declines too far, anti-democratic movements and parties can more easily step into the void. None of us should kid ourselves that there are any easy answers to raising voter turnout.

Mr. Cash : I have listened to the Minister's peroration with great interest, but I am bound to reflect on the fact that only yesterday the Budget date was shifted, which is bound to affect the Welsh and Scottish elections, not to mention others. Can she equate that with her espousal of democratic procedures?

Yvette Cooper : For heaven's sake! That is not remotely relevant to the important issues that we are discussing. The judgment about the timing of the Budget must be made according to many considerations, but it has nothing to do with voter turnout. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to make cheap party political points, because Westminster Hall was intended to be a forum for more considered debate that may, on many issues, cut across party lines. The issues related to voter turnout should concern any democrat, whatever their political party or affiliation. If we are concerned about democracy, we should work hard to address them.

3.1 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): There is much in the Minister's excellent speech with which we can all agree. Part of it might have been made on the Floor of the House. The moving bit about women getting the vote might have been said by her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Minister for Women, who has been speaking in the Chamber today in the debate on international women's day. I am grateful to the Minister who is here with us for making available the speech that she gave last month to the Association of Electoral Administrators—although I suspect that it was written on a word processor, as chunks of it reappeared in a very similar form in the speech that we have just heard.

I suppose that it makes sense for the Lord Chancellor's Department to have responsibility for elections, but that responsibility seems to move around somewhat. It used to be with the Home Office, then with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and it is now with one of the few Departments that does not have an elected Minister at its head.

My contribution will be fairly brief, because I see that there are some serious psephologists in Westminster Hall this afternoon. The Minister gave several reasons

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why turnout dipped at the last general election, to which I would add just one. As the two major parties are closer together than they have been for some 40 years, many voters, as well as thinking that the election was a foregone conclusion, genuinely thought that it would not actually make much difference who won it. Indeed, some Labour MPs believe that the Prime Minister is at heart a Conservative, so the wider electorate might be excused for making the same mistake.

The European election was touched on earlier, and I believe that the adoption of a multi-member proportional representation system did have an effect. People prefer to vote for a face, not a list, and the election of Members for a large amorphous region such as the south-east somehow lacked the relevance and immediacy of an election of one Member for a smaller parliamentary constituency. The mechanics of elections, to which I shall return in a moment, can influence turnout.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I agree with the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. He may recall that Liberal Democrats—and, I believe, some of his party—argued strongly that we should have either open lists or smaller constituencies and a single transferable vote, which to some extent would have overcome the disadvantage to which he refers. It is important not to brand all PR systems as identical.

Sir George Young : I agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that I believe that people prefer to vote for one person—a face—rather than a list of people. That should be an important component of a successful electoral system.

The Minister spoke about declining turnout and voter apathy, which must concern all of us. In some cases, disenchantment with the main parties manifests itself in the election of independents, and Wyre Forest showed what can happen when an MP does not get on top of an important local issue. I regard such election results as worrying but healthy. Too many independents in the House would obviously lead to problems in delivering a coherent political programme, but if there are a few—and the threat of more—that keeps us on our toes. We have seen that with independent mayors in London, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. It is more worrying, and less healthy, when people turn to parties that really are nasty, such as the British National party and the National Front. The best answer to that is for the mainstream parties to show that they have sensible policies to manage the issues that worry people.

For many people, the solution to disenchantment is simply not to vote. I remember that when I first went out canvassing people were reluctant to admit that they were not going to vote, and found all sorts of reasons to conceal the fact. People are now open about it. Only 39 per cent. of 18 to 25-year-olds voted at the last general election, and the British social attitudes survey in 1999 showed that only one in 10 of that age group considered themselves "quite interested" or "very interested" in politics. For some of those young people, not voting has become part of a culture, and a statement that they are at arm's length from the democratic process. They will sign petitions and engage in single issue politics, and they are interested in what happens locally, but in the fast-moving, consumer-based society in which they live,

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which gives them relevant choices and instant results, voting once every four years for a remote assembly is old fashioned.

There is no point in blaming those young people. They are perfectly entitled not to vote, and for many it is a conscious decision. They simply do not like what is on offer—so we must ask why they are not voting. There are two responses. One addresses the mechanics of voting, including Sunday voting and voting by text message. The other response concerns the motivation for voting, and that is by far the most important. Most people do not vote not because it is inconvenient, or because they do not have the time. They do not vote because they do not want to vote.

There are all sorts of theories for that, and the Minister advanced some of her own. I will mention another. The Hansard Society sponsored a meeting at my party's last conference; similar meetings were also held at the other two party conferences. At it, the makers of "Big Brother" explained why more people voted for Kate Lawler in the third series of "Big Brother" than voted at the past general election. They pointed out that the two houses involved had some similarities. They are both difficult to get into—150,000 applied for "Big Brother"—and both houses are filled by media-seeking self-publicists.

However, the short answer to the question about why one captured the imagination of the British nation and the other did not was simple. Viewers empathised with the contestants in "Big Brother" because they behaved like human beings. They spoke the same language and had the same problems and emotions, and viewers found it easier to relate to them. They find it difficult to relate to us because we do not seem to live in the same world as they do. There is also an opportunity for interaction and involvement with "Big Brother", and there may be lessons for Parliament about making it more interactive and relevant.

On that theme, the former editor of "Newsnight", Sian Kevill, said that:

There is a message in that for all Members of Parliament. We need to consider what we can do as individual MPs to re-engage people and get on the same wavelength. We could start by recognising that our opponents get some things right and we get some things wrong. We should also recognise that there is little appetite for conventional adversarial politics. I think that we should change the format of Prime Minister's questions, which I regard as a switch-off rather than a switch-on. It reinforces people's worst prejudices about politics and politicians. It should be a serious exchange on a few themes with a view to eliciting some useful information.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that people do not mind the clash of view or opinion and ferocious debate when they think that it is real, but that they think that what they see in

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Parliament is cosmetic and unnecessary confrontation? Does he agree that we need confrontation when ideas clash, rather than just as a stage performance?

Sir George Young : A lot of Prime Minister's Question Time is synthetic, and people would not normally behave like that; it is an act that they put on. It would be better if they did not do that, and asked questions in the usual way.

We all have our answers to the problem of voter apathy—I mentioned a few—and they are far more important than the mechanical ones, which I shall come to in a moment. We need to make people want to vote, and then we can ask how we could make it easier by changing how, when or where they vote. The basic question about Sunday voting is that if postal voting is freely available, do we need to change a well tried system to introduce weekend voting?

In the pilot schemes run by local authorities in 2000, which the Minister mentioned, postal voting was the only new electoral arrangement that had significant potential for increasing turnout at local elections. The Library analysed the results in a very good paper—02/33—and the Electoral Commission carried out its own analysis. It said:

It found that postal voting had again proved a success in improving voter turnout, although not in all the pilots. In Trafford, the pilot scheme produced an election turnout of 50 per cent., which is a significant rise from the 15 per cent. in 1997.

On the specific proposition of weekend voting, will the Minister say whether she means the weekend after the Thursday when we would usually vote, or the weekend before? General election campaigns are already lengthy, and I was alarmed to discover that the Electoral Commission is consulting on making them even longer by harmonising them with other elections. I hope that that move towards bureaucratic tidiness will be resisted. There is genuine election fatigue towards the end of the campaign, which would be made worse if it were three days longer. In any event, we are in permanent campaigning mode these days, and the campaign is much less significant than it used to be.

In its study of the previous general election, the Independent Television Commission found that 70 per cent. had little or no interest in coverage, and 40 per cent. switched channels to avoid it. The consultation paper published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the experiment in Camden, in which voting was possible the weekend before the usual election day. Only 1.1. per cent. of the 28.4 per cent. who voted at all did so during the early voting period.

How good are the Government's arguments in the consultation paper for weekend voting? They argue that more leisure time at the weekend means more opportunity to vote. However, many of those who are disaffected have enough leisure time, and if time is an issue, as it is for some, they may vote by post. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) does not regard the Government's argument that an election should be held on the same day as elections in

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the rest of Europe as a strong one. We have different systems and different cultures, and that argument is unlikely to find favour with the public.

What really alarmed me was the proposition that the general election would take place on two days. It would be seriously bad news for the polling stations to be open for two days. Given all the other means of voting, do we really have to have an election for two days? I suspect that the second day would be like the extra hour that we now have at the end of polling day for local elections, when very few people actually vote, and we irritate many more by asking them why they have not voted—adding under our breath how close the race is locally. The same would happen if the general election were held over two days. Very few people would vote on the second day, and there would be a disproportionate effort for very few extra voters. I accept that the schools would not have to close, but in my constituency many people vote in a village hall, not a school, and taking a village hall out of play for two days over a weekend is serious local politics.

There are other issues, including exit polls and what the press and other media would be allowed to say on the second day, when perhaps more than half the country has voted, but the other has not. The sheer fatigue of a second day of chasing up the non-voters who do not want to be chased up is a strong argument against two days of voting. I understand the religious sensitivities that would be offended if we plumped for either a Saturday or a Sunday, but surely those who have religious objections to one of those two days could vote earlier by post, or by proxy on the day. Two days of polling seems dotty. It is tinkering with the system, not addressing the underlying causes of voter apathy.

To conclude, I am not sure that I would look for alibis such as changing the day on which we vote. The answer lies far closer to home, and relates to how we conduct ourselves as politicians, how we motivate our electorate, and how relevant and effective they perceive us to be. If we get that right, they will vote on Thursdays, as they used to.

3.14 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I agree substantially with the remarks of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). Tinkering with the system helps us to avoid examining the real problem.

When one reaches a certain age and moves into one's late 50s—although by Chinese standards, I suppose that I am no great age—one has seen quite a few years in politics. The first elections that I took part in were in the early 1960s. In the borough where I lived—Southend-on-Sea—40 per cent. was regarded as a very low turnout. My father stood in a number of elections in which the turnout was 60 per cent., and that was regarded as not uncommon.

As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire observed, in those days—although he may be speaking of a slightly later time—voters were at great pains not to make any admission that they would not vote. Officially, the only people who did not vote were Jehovah's Witnesses. Sometimes one was impolite enough to suggest to someone that they might be a Jehovah's Witness if they declined to vote, and they would then explain that there was some other reason. However, such admissions were rare.

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Now, non-voting is worn like a T-shirt of honour—I think that would be the appropriate expression. People will say that they are not voting as though that were something to be rewarded. I suspect that, to some extent, the background to that is the media culture in which we now live. All of us in the House, and those on local councils, are regarded as scallywags or fools, or as people who are out of touch. The aim is to portray democracy in a way that cannot be attractive to the vast majority of voters. There is a dangerous tendency in the popular newspapers, television programmes and radio interviews to treat politicians—irrespective of party—as the accused. There is no understanding that people may go into political affairs out of a sense of high calling, or because they wish to make the world a better place. The assumption is that politics is about sleaze, self-advancement and pettifogging arguments about things that do not affect people. That is not true today, and it never was true.

In the period after the second world war, the newspapers were very partisan on both sides. It may now seem surprising, but in those days the Daily Mirror was a firmly Labour newspaper, and even the Liberal party had the News Chronicle. Those papers put forward their own political views strongly, but those views were argued on the basis of politics, not on the basis of the personality of the political opponents whom they faced.

It is therefore not surprising that after the second world war there was a generation of people, particularly people who had come back from the forces, who believed that politics was a channel through which the world could be improved. It is not surprising, either, that in the 1950 election the turnout reached the highest level that the UK has ever known. It was 84 per cent., and in some towns and divisions it was 90 per cent. That is all the more surprising when one considers that the election was not held on a bank holiday weekend, but in February. It was the middle of winter, and in some parts of the country there would have been snowfall, but people were so committed to taking part in the democratic process that nothing would induce them not to do so. They saw it as their duty and their privilege to take part in the elections.

We need to try to rekindle that view of politics, so that elections become a meaningful exercise for everyone in the country. That will not be a simple task, with the baying background cacophony of the popular media, pretending that we are all shams and frauds, and that nothing can be achieved.

We ourselves are not blameless. The pettifogging arguments that take place about nothing in particular are not very edifying for the general public. However, it is remarkable that people take delight in coming to see Prime Minister's Question Time, which is an elaborate stage show. Perhaps people separate that out in their minds and consider that it falls into the realm of entertainment. However, I suspect that—even if this debate is being broadcast now—the nation's televisions are not firmly tuned to that channel.

What can we do about all this? A number of things. First, we can try to conduct politics in a more adult and intelligent way. That applies to all parties, although not to all politicians, as many of them conduct themselves in that way already. However, we should put some constraints on the head offices of all the political parties,

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because when an election approaches they enter into the most inane buffoonery, which has no beneficial effect whatever.

I represent one of the governing party's most marginal seats, and received great and bountiful benefits from head office during the last election. There were a series of huge, expensive posters on film themes, but one had to be very keen of sight to detect that they were urging the election of the Labour candidate. One might have thought that the picture was about to play at the multiplex cinema.

Nationally, such things may seem like clever ideas, and they may appear very smart to the advertising agencies, but they are completely meaningless to the average voter. For some strange reason, head office delivered to my constituency office footprints that were supposed to be laid out at the entrance to the Labour hall. At that point, my agent drew the line. He said that we were not going to make ourselves a complete laughing stock by putting footprints down on the way to the hall. Those are some examples from the Labour side of the political fence, and I suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House have had similar experiences with their political organisations.

Another important reason for the decline in participation is the lack of contact between candidates and the voters. We think that we meet hundreds and thousands of people, but we do not; we have a lot of people to do that for us. When I first went into politics all those years ago, candidates canvassed people; you knocked on the doors of their houses one after the other, and asked them if they were going to vote for you. If people wanted to raise anything they did so there and then, on the doorstep, and they could judge what manner of person the candidate was and what sort of effort he or she was putting into the local community.

There was a lot of canvassing, although the number of people canvassed was always exaggerated. As hon. Members know, the 100 per cent. canvass is an impossibility. I have called at one house about 20 times in the last 20 years and never found anyone in, although I am sure that someone lives there. Members need to meet personally the people whose votes we are seeking. We need to get back to engaging them in conversation and giving them our time.

Our head offices tell us that telephone canvassing, or "voter ID", is the answer. I had a strange experience of telephone canvassing shortly before the last election. I went to see a lady of 90, and was sitting in her bungalow talking about not terribly political things when the telephone rang. The lady jumped and asked me if I would mind her answering the call, as it might be her son. The caller turned out to be a political canvasser; thank goodness it was a Conservative, rather than one of our own. She said to me, "That's very strange. It was someone wanting to know about the Conservative party. Why would they be asking me about that?" That lady is very intelligent, and well involved in political issues. In a way, that call was an affront.

We all say that we do not like being canvassed by double-glazing salesmen who telephone us out of the blue just when we are going out. The more humane of us try to be polite when we turn them down but others are as rude as possible. However, when it comes to politics, we are told that telephone canvassing is the only way, as

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it is much more accurate. But we all know that it is not accurate at all. Most of the people who are telephoned have to be re-canvassed, because the responses are so negative that they do not provide an accurate picture. There is also no human contact in any real sense. I was quite pleased that my Conservative opponent used that method. I thought, "By golly, the poor chap must be so depressed each day when he gets up and asks his agent what the returns are."

We need to reinvolve ourselves in the community, which is not as easy as it was. In the past, political initiation took place through our parents, other family members, trade unions, Churches and fairly tight communities. However, much of that structure of society has weakened. Indeed, in some cases it no longer exists. It is much more difficult for people to become involved, because the mechanisms whereby they learn about these matters are a long way away. Things are beamed into their living rooms or delivered on to their doormats, so the bonding in society that is often a precondition of voting does not take place.

People can probably gather from what I have said that I am not a great enthusiast for weekend voting. It never does any harm to have been around a long time and to have read some history, because then one knows that this country has had weekend voting before. In many areas, the old rural district councils voted on Saturdays until 1974, so there is a precedent. In our county, we would help our friends across the border on the Saturday on the condition that they had helped us on the Thursday.

I do not have figures on whether the turnout for those elections on a Saturday was higher than the turnout for the other elections on a Thursday, because all turnouts were higher in those days. We could probably find the figures and discover whether weekend voting made a substantial difference, but it probably did not.

There is an argument for postal voting, provided that it does not lessen even further the amount of political activity that takes place. An agent who was not from my constituency once said, "Well, there's postal voting now, so when election day comes round, we don't have to do anything." That will reduce turnout yet again. As I have said, there may be a case for postal voting, but we should not be deluded into thinking that because the turnout for some of the local election postal votes is higher than the turnout with other forms of voting, there would be the same effect in a general election. Such votes are moving towards the maximum level of likely voters. Unfortunately, a large section of people in our society do not vote, cannot be persuaded to vote and have no interest in voting.

I am very hostile to some of the experiments on many-sided ways of voting. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is no longer in his place, referred to that earlier. We do not want some groups in society to have an advantageous position in the electoral system. Many poorer and older people do not have all the electronic gadgets with which people can vote so easily. They will therefore be at a disadvantage, whereas those who have such gadgets and that type of lifestyle will be at an advantage. Elected politicians should be

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mindful of the fact that if some people vote and some people do not, the result may well be different from what it would otherwise have been.

We should tackle the core of the problem, which is our own behaviour and the cynical society that has been created for many people. We should try to restore idealism and activity to politics, so that it becomes an integral part of people's lives and communities.

3.28 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): We have already had three substantial speeches in this debate, which once again shows the value of this Chamber for debating an issue of this type. Some of the themes to which I shall refer reflect what has been said.

I was struck by what the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) said about the 1960s. I first stood for Parliament in 1966, having already been elected a county councillor. Obviously, there have been all sorts of changes since then, but I should like to draw attention to the contrast between the turnout when I was first elected to this place in February 1974 and the turnout when I was elected last time. In 1974 the wise electors of the then Bodmin constituency knew that the race would be close—indeed, in the end there was a majority of just nine—so they turned out in large numbers. We had an 83 per cent. turnout, in a scattered rural area with snow falling. In June 2001, in our customary balmy summer, my turnout in north Cornwall was 63 per cent.—a fall of 20 percentage points. The big difference was not in the natural climate but the political climate—the electorate took the wise decision that I had a relatively safe seat and was likely to be returned. The critical issue with turnout is whether your vote counts.

I want to focus on the mechanics first, before the motivation. The Minister was right to offer no panacea for improving the mechanisms, but in her peroration she made an important point about the legitimacy of Parliament. I wondered—I have not had the chance to check—whether she agrees with her boss, the Lord Chancellor, that the second House of Parliament can remain legitimate by being wholly unrelated to the electorate's wishes, with no democracy, no ballot box and no opportunity for the electorate to influence the composition of that House.

The mechanics are important, which is the reason for this afternoon's debate. Part of the equation—perhaps only a small part, but we should not ignore it—is trying to keep pace with the times and make the process of voting more accessible to the voter. To that extent, I congratulate the Government on introducing the pilot schemes. Even if we discover that they have little value, they will have fulfilled a significant function. My office has averaged the various experiments—with the result that all postal ballots come out at plus 14.93 per cent., which is significant.

What of electronic counting? One might think that it makes no difference whatever. It probably does not, but three of the elections—North Tyneside mayoralty and council and Chorley—were all-postal ballot votes as well. We can largely discount electronic counting; I cannot imagine why electors should turn out more enthusiastically because a computer will do the

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counting. Extended voting hours produced a result of minus 7.15 per cent., electronic internet voting plus 6.32 per cent., and early voting 1.7 per cent.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I hate to be picky, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that aggregating the figures as he suggests is difficult unless one knows the relative weighting of the numbers voting in each election?

Mr. Tyler : The hon. Gentleman has much experience and a distinguished academic career in this subject area; I was about to make precisely the same point. Furthermore, the points of comparison are often difficult. I shall return to that in a few minutes in the context of my wider thesis that all these pilots of are dubious value in the longer term, precisely because of the difficulty of comparison.

I shall quote from the Electoral Commission report on the pilots of last August. Brief reference has already been made to one sentence, but I want to cite the whole paragraph:

That is the mixed bag to which the Minister referred, and it is important to return to the more deep-seated issues to which the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and the hon. Member for Braintree have already referred.

Let me deal briefly with weekend voting. My colleagues and I support the idea of a pilot, because the case cannot be proved one way or another unless we have a go at it. I do not support the view expressed by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that we should just have one day—Saturday or Sunday. That is not just because of religious sensitivities. The Jewish community and other communities would not wish to vote on a Saturday, but we want them to take a full part in the process. Proxy voting is not an answer. Similarly, some Christian communities will find Sunday inconvenient, or perhaps even against their principles. Two-day voting is also a matter of convenience. Some people work all day on Saturday and do not work on Sunday, and vice versa. If we are to have weekend voting it should take place not on just one weekend day, but on both. Moreover, weekend voting should be combined with the European elections of 2004, because almost all our continental partners vote on a Sunday. There is some merit in the whole of that weekend being a Europe-wide electoral occasion, rather than its being confined to just one day, with us as the odd ones out.

The Local Government Association research report "Elections: the 21st century model", which was an evaluation of the May 2000 local electoral pilot, notes that one authority—Camden—conducted its local election in the weekend following the traditional Thursday polling day, and turnout declined there more than in any other authority in the country compared with 1999. The Electoral Commission also noted a fall in turnout in 2002 to 28.4 per cent. when there was a

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repeat pilot of weekend voting. It is by no means certain that we will see a major increase in turnout as a result of this one little tweak.

Mr. Cash : I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman intends to go on to deal with this, but one of the things that has intrigued me about the Lib Dems is that of the 10 seats in England with the highest turnouts in the 2001 general election, five were won by Lib Dem candidates. I am quite surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned that. I think that there is something important there, not least that it demonstrates that where there is a fight going on, quite often in marginal seats—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara): Order. The debate is about turnouts.

Mr. Tyler : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), but I obviously must not pursue him too far down that route, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He sounds as if he will support my view that turnout can be greatly enhanced if every vote has a reasonable opportunity of affecting the result. That is the critical issue.

Martin Linton (Battersea): Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of pilots, will he reconcile his first comment that there should be a pilot with his subsequent comment that the previous pilot could not be taken as evidence because the results were probably affected by completely different causes? I doubt that a pilot would work in this area, because we will not know whether it has succeeded or failed, as the fact that the election is at a weekend is only one of many different factors. Indeed, that is probably one of the weakest factors in influencing whether people vote. We need to go over to having a general election at a weekend if we are to have any idea of the real effect.

Mr. Tyler : The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. My thesis is that comparability is extremely difficult in this area. That is why I will return to the careful analysis of the real life results of the 2001 election rather than going for averages. That will also be an answer to the hon. Member for Stone. We should not spend too much time tweaking here and tweaking there with these pilot schemes. We should go back to the motivation, and more radical reform.

I should like to quote back to the Minister the comments she made in this Chamber earlier this year. She said:

She has made similar comments again this afternoon. I hope that she and her Department have that over the door of their office. I believe that there are much stronger reasons for reviewing our electoral processes than she and her colleagues have previously given credence to.

Mr. McLoughlin : I agree with a number of the points the hon. Gentleman has made. It has been suggested that if people were allowed to abstain in an election by marking a box saying that they wished to abstain, it

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would increase turnout. Does he think that that is the case? Would he welcome a box marked "None of the above" on the ballot paper?

Mr. Tyler : There is a genuine argument for that, but the aim would be achieved much more effectively if the choice were put the other way round. Rather than giving people the negative option, we should give people a preferential option to be positive. There are good examples of that. Currently we do not have compulsory voting in this country, so if people want to say "None of the above", they stay at home—as they clearly do. It is surely preferable to present them with a ballot paper enabling them to state their least bad option, which turns the negative into the positive.

As I said earlier, the biggest single factor is surely the perceived value of the impact of one's vote. I cited the case of the turnout figures in my constituency in Cornwall, but there are more recent examples. The average figures for the 2001 election are all from the same day—this is not making a comparison between different years, which is much less reliable than looking at figures from the same day—and if we look carefully underneath them we see that the foregone conclusion syndrome, which was to some extent a national one in June 2001, was even stronger in certain constituencies.

I have cited in this Chamber the turnout for Liverpool, Riverside of 34.1 per cent. I believe that the turnout there is always around that figure, because they weigh the Labour majority there, rather than constituents looking with interest to see who might win. Compare that with the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who in 1997 had a majority of just two. There, if anywhere, people knew their vote was likely to be of significance to the outcome, and he had a 72.3 per cent. turnout—more than twice that of Liverpool, Riverside—on the same day. That is a genuine comparison, rather than the pallid comparisons that we have been looking at.

A system of voting that allows a greater degree of proportionality will reflect the views of the majority of the voting public instead of a minority. We all know what proportion of the adult electorate actually voted for the present Government, despite their large majority. Such a system would also provide more diversity among the electoral representatives, which would do more than anything to engender a better connection between public and politicians, and more participation in elections. Surely we should be addressing that issue.

In that debate, the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) said:

That is a real live difference, and it is extremely important that the Government address it.

The Scottish Executive have just published a draft Local Government Bill that proposes a proportional system for the purpose of returning local councillors. A lengthy and extensive consultation process was

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undertaken before that stage was reached. Even in Wales the subject is now back on the agenda. There may be progress—depending, I suspect, on the result of the Assembly elections. Northern Ireland already benefits from single transferable votes and has a marked tendency towards improved turnout. The Library tells me that in Northern Ireland, where a system of single transferable votes is operated in all European elections, turnout has been significantly higher than in the rest of the UK.

Mr. McLoughlin : The hon. Gentleman says that the single transferable vote has led to a higher turnout in Northern Ireland. Will he acknowledge that in the Northern Ireland elections to the United Kingdom Parliament, which are carried out on a first-past-the-post system, the turnout is also higher? The fact that it is higher for another system, too, does not lend his case much credence.

Mr. Tyler : I cannot confirm or deny that. I think that the discrepancy is much greater in the European elections than in general elections, but someone else can investigate that matter. An extremely valuable and well based independent review of electoral systems is currently being undertaken under the auspices of the Constitution Unit, under two distinguished chairs, David Butler and Peter Riddell, and I look forward to seeing what it produces. I hope that we shall have at least an interim report early in the summer. It will be interesting to see what comes forward from that.

The Government, including the Minister's Department, have already been tasked to undertake, lead or set up a more general review after the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and local elections have taken place in May. Perhaps the Minister will tell us a little more about that. I hope that she will be able to confirm, although she could not do so on a previous occasion, that she will pilot a single transferable vote system in the London borough elections of 2006. Lewisham has already offered to undertake such a pilot and others will, no doubt, follow if encouraged. That would be helpful.

As others have already said, the discussion of the various small-scale pilot options does not really provide a panacea; indeed, the Minister herself said that it did not. Weekend voting is probably worth looking at, but it is of marginal value compared with the radical change needed to reinvigorate the sense of purpose and commitment that we want the electorate to have in relation to the parliamentary system. To achieve that, we must have equal value voting systems. All the pilots will be dismissed simply as gimmicks if they are not accompanied by a more rigorous review of all the real options; they are like cutting our toenails when we need a hip replacement.

3.46 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): We are discussing a fundamental dichotomy: the wished-for health of the democratic system on one hand and the main purpose of the voting that takes place in that democratic system on the other, which is to decide which party has won and therefore gets power, either locally or nationally. To achieve that result, the parties will

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undertake certain actions relating to those elections, which may or may not add to the first half of the dichotomy—the health of the democratic system.

I doubt whether this afternoon, between 2.30 and 5.30 in Westminster Hall, we shall between us come up with the panacea for the malaise that prevents people from voting. Inevitably, we will be talking to some extent at the margins. It is important to make points about the health of our democratic system and the extent to which we as politicians should behave better to encourage that and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) said, to connect better with our voters. However, the dichotomy that I set out to some extent emphasises that it is difficult to see how, unless one legislates fundamentally to change that dichotomy, the things that cause people to be turned off voting can be tackled.

For example, attack campaigning is clearly seen to work. A number of studies show that, so if one is a party manager, seeking to undertake the second half of the dichotomy—to get one's party to win an election—one might decide to undertake attack campaigning, even though that does not help the health of democracy. Although people say that they are very annoyed by telephone canvassing approaches, that method works by and large, so people are likely to use it to try to advance their political purposes. Part of the problem connected with the dichotomy is that the discussion on who is going to win the spoils of power in an election might relate, perfectly coherently, to what slice of a cake is cut for a winning side, whether or not that cake is getting smaller because fewer people are going out to vote. If we are not careful, we could end up with two parallel discussions about the academic health of democracy and about how to win elections. We must recognise that both are relevant to our electoral system.

I believe that a system of proportional representation is morally right for this country and may well increase turnout, but in countries that have had proportional representation for a long time voting figures are declining although they are higher than in countries with a first-past-the-post system. The trajectory of voting over a period should be examined to inform our discussions.

The idea that turnout is a sign of democratic health is fundamental. It is important that people exercise their right to vote and decide one way or another how their lives should be run through the political process. I cannot think of a better system—this spills over into elections for second chambers, nominations to quangos and so on—of organising people's right to take decisions on behalf of other people. Having a system whereby the legitimacy of that election is guaranteed because many people have taken part in it is important in the first part of the dichotomy. What can we do now to guarantee that?

This afternoon, we are debating not changing the voting system, but weekend voting and new systems of voting that may increase turnout. Setting those aside, what happens at the moment? As my hon. Friend the Minister said, we vote on Thursdays and there may be good historical reasons for that. I can think of another reason: that the candidates are usually so tired at the end of the election that being able to have Friday off, as well as the weekend, before they have to take decisions as a result of winning the spoils of election is no bad thing for

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democracy. We ask people to vote on a Thursday in one place and if they do not turn up at that place they do not get a vote. We ask them to vote on a slip of paper that seems to have been printed by the last remaining letterpress printer in the country. We then ask them to fill in their preference on that letterpress-printed piece of paper using a carpenter's pencil attached to the wall by a piece of string. Finally, we ask them to do that in a horse box that has been set up in a school hall. That is probably one of the most bizarre activities that we ask people to do in their daily lives in expressing their opinions, preferences and thoughts. That might inform our thoughts on how to increase turnout and create the reinforcement to ensure that people are able to vote, although it may not necessarily be the answer to all our concerns about our democratic system.

It is true that some people may be disadvantaged by not having access to different forms of democratic participation that other people have. It is also true that the daily life expectations of society have changed radically. We do not all set off for work and return home at the same time. We do not all work in the same place, and we have different working practices. We used not to go to garden centres and the shops on a Sunday, but now we do. Several things have changed that relate to the assumptions that we make about our daily lives and what makes us vote. In the context of those changing ideas about our lives, it is important that we take that different way of doing things into account.

I was pleased to see the pilots that were originally set up by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and subsequently set up by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. We must consider whether those pilots are worth pursuing as far as local elections are concerned. Pilots were introduced for the 2002 council elections, and we shall see a further 41 this year; those relate mainly to e-voting, but also to other forms of participation.

I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that it would be a good idea to agree with local authorities to have pilots on proportional representation voting systems, possibly under the public service agreement mechanism. For the Government to say to local authorities that high performing local authorities can have a great deal more freedoms but not the freedom to determine how to set up the voting system for their area may be viewed as a drawback to the otherwise admirable introduction of a system to enable local government to enjoy freedoms and flexibilities.

I shall spend a moment talking about the problems of pilots. As important as pilots are, there is a problem—this relates to my original point on how elections work—with the idea that we could select a better voting system, which overcomes faults and meets the needs of our lives, by examining the outcome of a pilot based on one local election in one area. Voting is by and large based on habit. Politicians know that, and apply that knowledge when deciding how their local electoral organisations will go about contacting voters. The political parties of all the people in the Chamber will have a note in their party office of who always votes, who votes in general elections but not in council elections, who votes in council elections but not always in general elections, who occasionally votes and who never votes. That information is in addition to information about whether people have always voted Labour, Liberal Democrat or

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Conservative. An element of the parties' approach is to ensure that those people who sometimes vote in council elections are encouraged to come out and vote in an election. Those people who always vote are also canvassed to ensure that they vote. The people who rarely or never vote are often set aside, not part of the efforts of the party. Parties operate in that way because voting is habitual.

However, when parties consider their longitudinal records, they will observe not only that electoral turnout is declining but that those people who vote habitually tend to be members of the older generation. The very oldest voters will die off, or perhaps I should say die—please excuse my infelicity—and the next generation of voters do not have the same habits. Not only do young voters not have that habit of voting, but they have a contrary habit, which I personally find concerning for the health of democracy: they have the idea that it is cool not to vote. Many see it as a positive thing to say, "No, I'm not voting. You're all the same, and that's the end of the matter." The question is whether those cohorts will acquire voting habits as they grow older, or whether the non-voting habit will pass on through the generations. In future, people may have an endemic habit of not voting very often.

Mr. Cash : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could enlighten us as to why the turnout of young people has dropped to such an extent. What does he think would encourage them to vote?

Dr. Whitehead : There are a large number of reasons why young people do not vote. I am not sure that we have either time or the breadth of discussion this afternoon to go into those reasons in detail. There is clearly a combination of factors that I have already mentioned, such as the assumed lifestyle of young people, the dissociation from tribal loyalties in voting, the idea that politicians are divorced from the concerns of young people and a large number of other factors.

I was attempting to illustrate the danger for the democratic process if a cohort emerges that has a habit of not voting. That may pass on through the generations, and we shall end up with a population who do not vote. Voting may become a minority activity carried out by rather strange people who debate with one another. The net result could lead to very strange outcomes in which a very small number of voters in the grip of a particular enthusiasm gain representation despite the antipathy of the vast majority of the people who do not vote, or do not wish to. That was the precise outcome in some of the recent European election turnouts.

On the analysis of the pilots, I concluded that I was not sure that we could draw hard and fast conclusions from the offer of a particular voting method on one occasion, because voting is habitual. That phenomenon is not just something that occurs in elections. If someone sets up a park-and-ride scheme to get people out of cars and into buses, that scheme has to run for between 18 months and two years before anyone has the confidence to use it. That is usually about the time that the money for the pilot runs out and the local authority decides to discontinue the scheme, claiming that it has not been a success.

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Some of the results of the 2002 pilots showed that there was no enormous change, even if we discount the fact that they might reflect the stopping of a decline. However, if we continued the process over a period, people might develop voting habits that were of far greater long-term benefit because they would be encouraged to vote in a way that was aligned with their lifestyle, rather than in the peculiar way in which they have to vote currently.

Martin Linton : Does my hon. Friend agree, in that case, that the Government sometimes suffer from what one might call pilotitis—a wish to have a pilot of every possible scheme, instead of having the courage of their convictions and making the reform?

Dr. Whitehead : I would not like the phrase pilotitis to be widely used. It does sound like something terrible that happens when people sit on radiators. My hon. Friend has a considerable point, which I was about to come to. The operation of pilots can tell us something, but not everything. Indeed, the hon. Members for Stone (Mr. Cash) and for North Cornwall raised that point earlier—albeit incorrectly, in the case of the particular significance of the Chorley election. The vast majority of authorities using electronic counting experienced an increased turnout, which is counter-intuitive inasmuch as the general voting public do not care how their votes are counted. One of the best increases in turnout, however, was based on that particular section of the electoral pilots.

Taking on board the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), my view is that pilots may be important, but if we base our entire future philosophy of elections on them, we may miss fundamental points about trends and habits. Frankly, the only way in which we can deal with that, short of having widespread placebo election experiments in which we run entire elections in parallel using different methods, is to bite the bullet and change things.

Mr. Tyler : I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I hope that he would agree that bringing together the local elections and the European elections in 2004 is valuable for reasons other than pilotry. I think that he would agree that voter fatigue is a problem, because having two elections within five weeks of each other may well be a disincentive to turning out.

Dr. Whitehead : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Looking at the turnout in general elections and council elections in recent years, in 1979 council elections and the general election were held on the same day—that is also true of the most recent general election—and there was a much higher turnout in the council elections, for obvious reasons. I am uncertain whether the turnout for European elections will drag down the turnout for local authority elections. However, I agree in principle that the idea is an interesting way in which to address voter fatigue.

In conclusion, if we agree that pilots have limited validity in deciding how to change electoral behaviour to make turnout increase, which would enhance the legitimacy of our election to our seats, the decision comes back to the House. To some extent, we have to

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follow our noses. We should consider how the current voting system looks to those people who do not habitually engage in politics. In my canvassing for the previous election—this relates to why some young people do not vote—I found a number of people who simply did not know how to vote. Those people have not been to vote with their parents and find the process mysterious. They may well say that it is cool not to vote simply because they think that the process is more complicated than it actually is.

The Government should therefore press ahead with systems that bring our voting in line with how we live. We have to make a judgment because we do not have the empirical evidence to allow us to decide whether the leap will be beneficial. If we go down the weekend voting route and put together different methods of voting, it will make a difference. We will never know whether it made an empirical difference because we cannot judge the decision in the same way as a social science experiment. It is, however, our responsibility as politicians to make it happen.

4.8 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): It is a pleasure to follow the previous contributions to the debate. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) started the debate by dividing up the issue into motivation and practical factors. Voting is like planning a crime: one needs motive, means and opportunity, all of which have to come together for voting to occur.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) started talking about motivation, and he made some important points about the generational shift. I want to talk about that in the context of the way in which the concept of civic duty is changing. I shall start by talking about some of the opportunity questions, which relate to the opening hours and locations of polling stations, and the means questions, which are about novel forms of voting, such as postal votes, electronic votes and various other forms of remote voting.

Means and opportunity issues are important. The hon. Gentleman sensibly relayed the observation that going to vote is like going back 30 years for a lot of people. It is an odd experience. We are used to it because we live in the political world. However, he helpfully described the way in which the voting system appears to a lot of people outside political circles, who think of it as going back in time.

E-voting has rightly gained a lot of prominence and is seen as a way to bring voting into the 21st century. I am keen on e-issues, but even I am somewhat sceptical about the way in which e-voting is being heavily oversold as a turnout improver. E-voting certainly adds a layer of convenience, and I would never want to stand in the way of that. In such debates, there is sometimes a sense that voting should be made difficult and that barriers should be put in the way so that only people who are serious about voting get to do it. I count myself well out of that school. Voting should be made as easy as possible. There is no justification for trying to make things difficult and no advantage in doing so.

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The potential for e-voting is sometimes oversold on the basis of being related to the number of internet users. About half the country has access to the internet. In particular, the younger age groups, which we want to target, have that access. I have started to consider the matter, in conjunction with people who work in the area of e-democracy, and I suggest that the realistic potential audience for e-voting is somewhere nearer 15 per cent. than 50 per cent. That proposition is based on the fact that the comparators for people who are likely to use e-voting are, much more accurately, people who are already using e-banking or e-government services, who are a very much smaller subset of the total number of people who have access to the internet. People who feel comfortable transacting online are not equivalent to people who are online in a more general sense. The experience of e-government bears that out. We get nothing like the usage figures that one might imagine from looking at the number of people who are online.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test also made an important point when he talked about the problem of continuous pilots or pilots that change from year to year and the fact that habit is an important element in getting people to vote. I had an e-voting pilot last year and I am going to get another, slightly different, one this year. Rather than seeing new people voting, I saw people who already voted shift from using the traditional paper method to the e-voting method.

The hon. Members for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) picked up on the fact that the method of voting can influence who votes, and who votes can clearly influence the outcome. From a politician's point of view, e-voting is incredibly tedious because all that happens is that an electoral officer comes up and says, "You got this number and they got that number." That is it. There is no fun or excitement. Right at the beginning of the count, the officer comes out with a little scrap of paper and says, "There's your result, mate."

It was, however, exciting news when the results from the e-vote in one of the wards in my constituency that the Liberal Democrats normally win showed that we were three to one ahead, whereas our vote was down on the paper vote. The experience showed something that other studies bear out, which is that Liberal Democrat voters tend to use the internet proportionately more than voters for other parties do. Therefore we were three to one ahead, but we were three to two on the final count, which is exactly comparable to the result that we get every year.

Looking at the figures, it is fairly safe to say that we saw Liberal Democrat voters voting online, instead of going to the polling station. The Conservative voters who always went to the polling station kept going to the polling station. To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, I may have a potential problem if the e-voting pilot is taken away, because my supporters, who have got used to voting online, may feel miffed and not turn out to vote at all if the service is suddenly withdrawn. There is still more work to be done in teasing out some of the issues, but I had not considered the fact that habit is so significant. That is something to take away from the debate.

A more significant aspect of the debate is the question of civic participation and the recognition that democracy is about far more than voting, which is only a

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small part of it. If we become too obsessed about voting, voters may say, "You are interested in us only at election time." To me, the key to increasing turnout is what happens between elections, not what happens at election time. We should be focusing far more on the tie-up.

Again the electronic agenda is important. It is not the fact that someone makes a virtual cross in a box on a screen that is significant in increasing turnout, but the fact that someone who engages politically to vote on the internet will engage all the rest of the time. People may become involved in politics and political issues because they now have a set of tools that were not previously available. Such tools may fit more comfortably with their lifestyle and way of working, particularly if they are a younger voter. Therefore, the linkage is important. If e-voting has a value, it is as a link to e-participation.

The office of the e-envoy published a White Paper last year. I believe that it was published under the auspices of the Leader of the House. I know that the debate on it and many of the representations stressed the point that e-participation was important, rather than simply the voting, whereas the White Paper was more or less evenly split between the two. I believe that people want more work to be done on participation. I hope that the debate that is taking place in the context of the Lord Chancellor's Department's responsibility for elections is linked in a joined-up government fashion to other debates about the wider democracy agenda that are taking place in the office of the e-envoy and other forums.

Earlier, I expressed my concerns about the possibility of coercion and undue influence under all forms of remote voting. It applies to postal voting as well. I was interested in the Minister's response that she envisaged a multi-channel approach. That was helpful, but it means that I must counter the point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire about weekend voting perhaps not being necessary if there is a large amount of postal voting. At present, I am very keen to see a multi-channel approach develop whereby, even if postal voting is available, there are also supervised polling places.

The key distinction between a polling station and any form of remote voting is that a polling station is a safe environment in which an individual can vote without coercion and undue influence. Obviously, there are situations in which one would be concerned about that. I think particularly of a man in a household who controls access to voting by controlling the computer. He would be setting up the voting procedure. Particularly when it comes to a husband and wife—or man and woman—situation in a household, the possibility that the man will direct the voting is obviously much greater than if the man and woman go to a polling station together but split up and go into separate booths to vote.

Some of those issues lead me to suggest that polling places will continue to be important no matter how far we go with remote voting. In that respect, we have not sufficiently explored the advantages of supervised electronic voting as opposed to remote electronic voting. An advantage of electronic voting methods and machines is that they can be linked to a central network, so that people can vote at any polling station anywhere

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in their district. They would not have to go to a particular polling station, which is an advantage in itself.

Such a system could allow us to provide more polling places as improvements in the technology reduce the costs. A polling place that is, essentially, a kiosk can operate with a lower staff ratio. A supervised electronic polling kiosk could be far more easily rolled out to multiple locations than the traditional paraphernalia of a paper-based polling station.

I stress that more polling places should be made available. Online banking is a good analogy for many things that are taking place in the online world. The banks have rapidly realised that online banking does not allow them to close all their branches. Many people want and value the branch network. In fact, banks are putting micro-branches in all sorts of places. Learning from that example could help us make polling accessible to people. Micro polling stations would be good for people. They would make it easier for them to vote but also give them certainty that they can vote free from coercion and undue influence.

I want also to cover the discussion about participation: whether people feel that they should participate and whether that leads them to vote. Important research is taking place at the moment, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, in the democracy and participation programme. It is led by Professor Paul Whiteley of the university of Essex and is starting to report now. Its findings will be illuminating to this debate. In particular, research carried out by Rachel Gibson, Wainer Lusoli and Stephen Ward of the university of Salford examined young citizens' political activity via the internet. Some of the research results are being released at www.ipop.org.uk.

The section of the population that the study considered is one that we could try to engage and persuade to vote via the internet. The results showed that while only 10 per cent. of those in the 15 to 24-year-old age bracket were currently engaged in real world politics, 30 per cent. had been active and carried out a political activity via the internet. The study also picked up on a small but notable group who engage in only virtual politics, eschewing entirely the traditional offline options. Rather than being a privileged elite, however, those people are more likely to be recent recruits to the internet and of a lower socio-economic status than those engaging in traditional politics. The study also found that a clear majority of those who used the internet to contact a political organisation—63 per cent.—claim that they would not have done so if they had had to rely on traditional means. That research programme is starting to pull out some interesting results about changes in behaviour, and I hope that we shall be able to feed some of them into the debate. The debates on civic participation and on voting should be seen as running together.

My next point relates to civic duty, which I mentioned earlier. It follows on from the comments of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test about the generational shift and relates to the British election survey 2001, titled "Britain (Not) At The Polls, 2001", which was conducted by Clarke, Sanders, Stewart and Whiteley and published in 2002. They examined several of the hypotheses that we have debated today about why

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people did not vote, but the one that struck me related to what is often termed the end-of-deference debate. People nowadays do not feel that they have to vote, whereas before, they continued to vote out of a sense of duty and guilt.

That important theory has been alluded to already. The Minister spoke about it in the context of women voters, and we often pick up the idea from older voters that as people died for us to get the vote, we must use it. The study's authors picked up a potential shift in attitudes by asking people whether they thought that failing to vote was a serious neglect of their civic duty. That was upping the stakes, as they had previously asked whether not voting was a neglect of duty. In the 18 to 25-year-old age group, only 41 per cent. thought that it was a serious neglect of their civic duty; in other words, three out of five felt that it was not. In the 66-years-old and over age bracket, 86 per cent. felt that it was a serious neglect. The difference is stark, and it was much more marked in that question than in the general neglect question. Younger people felt that they should vote, but they did not feel that it was serious not to do it. That is an important distinction.

The authors suggested that those answers show the generational shift that has been described. We have spent many years pursuing freedom, and that has included the freedom to choose not to participate. As the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said, one factor may be that people say that they are choosing not to participate when they are scared to do so because they do not understand. I have experienced that. I have knocked on someone's door and said that I am the candidate for this constituency for this election, and I have had to start defining terms immediately, when asked what a candidate is and what the constituency is. The notion that everyone has an easy association between their Member and constituency is false. I have had to explain, "Sheffield has six constituencies. You've heard of David Blunkett. He's one MP, and I'm another." People often start at a low base, and in such cases people may be scared to look ignorant. That is prevalent, but the wider belief is that people no longer feel that they have to vote, and if they choose not to, we cannot make them. That attitude is significant.

The study examined that aspect of the dynamics of civic duty in its conclusions, which are worth quoting. It says:

which is the one about serious failure if one has not voted. It continues:

In other words, dropping to 40 to 50 per cent. will be the norm.

There are questions about whether democracies are legitimate once participation has dropped to 40 to 50 per cent. The United States is clearly an established democracy that functions at that level, but there is no suggestion in the United Kingdom that any of us would

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be comfortable with that. That generational shift may be the factor that finally tips us out of a comfortable situation in which participation has always been 70-odd per cent, although it occasionally slips down and picks up again, or slips down on elections that we all perceive to be relatively unimportant, such as the European ones. Interestingly, they were not seen as a crisis of democratic legitimacy, although the turnout was far lower than for the 2001 general election, which focused our minds because we all share a sense of the relative importance of general elections. The study highlighted the fact that dropping down to 40 to 50 per cent. at general elections is a real prospect as the generational shift takes place. We should all worry about it.

To conclude, I want the new methods to work, not fail. We should improve the opportunity to vote and the means of voting, but we always need to ensure that the integrity of the election is not compromised. I fear that it takes only one election result to be seriously challenged, or only one set of accusations about coercion or undue influence that cannot be properly resolved, for a whole new voting method to be written off in the minds of the public.

More important, we must improve the motivation of voters, especially by tackling civic duty head on. The democratic participation agenda research programmes will generate a lot of research and give us plenty of food for thought. We can make real progress if we get out of our cosy political environments and find out what is going on, and if we find imaginative new ways of conducting politics, rather than sticking a modern veneer on things and doing them in the way in which we have always done them.

4.27 pm

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). I agreed especially with his concluding remarks, which built on the remarks made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). Both made very good contributions to the debate.

I shall repeat many of the points that have already been made. However, I do so with some trepidation, as last summer—a few months ago now—I held a meeting for young people on voter apathy, but no one turned up. I therefore do not feel best placed to contribute to the debate, although the problem was more to do with timing and organisation than with the young people. I was the problem, which is one of the issues that we face.

The situation is serious. I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that competitive elections help, but participation in elections is declining, whichever way we look at it. The figures for 2001 reflect that trend. As we know, 59 per cent. of people voted, but the figure declined to 39 per cent. among young people, as hon. Members pointed out. Among under-35s, the figure was only 45 per cent. Those figures trouble us all, and say something about the health of our democracy. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, if we consider the differential turnouts and break the data down so that we can focus on the detail, we see that in some parts of the country, particularly some cities, a very small minority of people vote. If we break the data down by age, we see that a very small number of young people in those areas vote.

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To understand what is going on, however, we must look beyond those figures and some of the measures that we are taking. There are problems with the formal political process. I make the obvious point that when we go to meetings or hear issues debated, there is no lack of interest in those issues or lack of desire to debate many of the great policies of the day. However, when it comes to making a statement about the formal political process through elections, people seem to see it as irrelevant. We must therefore find ways to make the formal political process much more relevant to people and to how they understand things are working. In other words, we have to increase the desire or propensity of people to vote.

The Minister and the rest of the Government are introducing various pilots, which I welcome. I have no problem with weekend voting. We could debate whether that should take place on a Sunday, a Saturday or both. I have no problem with e-voting, all-postal ballots or any of the other mechanisms that we could introduce for voting. We all agree that in encouraging people to vote, we need to make the act of voting as simple as we can. We need to make it easy, whether that involves the siting of polling booths, the electoral register or whatever. We need to help people.

However, these measures alone will not do the trick. If we think that by making voting easy we shall be doing anything other than tweaking the system, we are deluding ourselves and underestimating the scepticism, cynicism and mistrust that people have about the formal political process and, indeed, ourselves. That is reflected in election turnouts and the lack of desire to vote. That is the real challenge, which is why I particularly wanted to contribute to the debate. How do we as people's representatives in Parliament change, improve, reinvigorate, rejuvenate and enhance our democracy in such a way that people see voting for who should represent them in Parliament as worth while? Whether voting takes place on a Thursday, Sunday, Monday or Tuesday is irrelevant to the answer to that question.

A number of hon. Members have made that serious point. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam and my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) said, a massive majority of people in the younger generation feel disillusioned and frustrated. Only in the older population is there a sense of civic duty and connection.

I very much agreed with the remarks that I think were made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. I hope that I do not misquote him. We must consider what we do in this place and how we are perceived if we want people to vote and election turnouts to improve. We all say in elections, "Vote for me. I am not just here for you at election time; I am here all the time." However, one of the biggest criticisms that people can make is that politicians turn up only at election time. They say, "Because you turn up only at election times, we're not going to vote. If you're not interested in us between elections, we're not going to vote. If you knock on our door only when you want something from us, don't bother. We're not going to vote."

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What happens between elections is important in people's decision whether to turn out and vote at the next election. If, having elected us as their representatives in 2001, the next time that people feel any sense of involvement with their MP or Parliament is in 2005 or 2006, no change to the mechanics of voting will do anything to increase voter turnout in the election. That is because people's cynicism, disillusion and despair will have grown during that time. It will be a real challenge for us to change that, but we must try to find ways to do so.

Members of Parliament are not delegates, and it would be a sad day if we ever became just representatives who are only ever accountable at an election. It would be increasingly difficult to sustain that position because people want a greater sense of involvement and to participate in democracy all the time, not just at elections. It is a real challenge to find ways of involving them.

I want to make some suggestions that could help us to reconnect with the public and overcome that cynicism and sense of disillusion, which would help to increase the turnout at elections.

First, we should consider how we conduct our debates in this place. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire made a good point about unnecessary confrontation in the Chamber, which people do not like. They do not mind clashes of views and opinions when they are genuinely held and passionately felt, as shown in the debate on Iraq last week. I did not participate in that debate but I spent many hours listening to it in the Chamber. It was a great debate; there were huge clashes of opinion and Members expressed strongly held views. They vehemently criticised each other's points of view, but they respected them. People outside this place did not mind that; they did not see it as unnecessary, so it did not breed that sense of disillusionment that leads to their feeling disconnected from Parliament, which in turn leads to their asking why they should bother to vote.

We need to look at how we conduct our debates, how we address each other and some of the language that we use. We must consider how to involve people in the decisions that we take in this place and how we can more effectively take account of people's points of view.

Mr. Cash : The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. Does he agree with me about modification of the Whip system, a matter that I have raised many times? Many people are simply not interested in seeing Members being driven like sheep through the Lobby.

Vernon Coaker : I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and so do many other people; that is why Westminster Hall is such an interesting innovation. Many people, if asked, would probably say that there is some unnecessary whipping in Parliament. Certainly, that is what a lot of people say to me. Either we tell those people that they have got it wrong about their democracy, and that the whipping system works very well, or we listen to what people have to say.

People are becoming more frustrated by Members voting rigidly along party lines. They want more genuine debates on the issues of the day, in which Members allow their conscience to dictate how they

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vote, although we must remember that we have a party system of government. In answer to the hon. Gentleman, I would say that we must have a whipping system but that it is probably too rigid. We should consider ways of allowing more free votes and debates on issues in which Members genuinely have a free vote. That would be helpful, and I think that people in the country would appreciate it.

Reforming the way that we do our business in Parliament would allow people to feel more connected to the formal political process and should, in the end, improve electoral turnout. Greater involvement in decision making and changes to our practices here should help.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) suggested, the media have a role to play in improving electoral turnout. I am not one of those people who view the media as the enemy, always getting things wrong. The media have a responsibility to report misdeeds and wrongs, but also to recognise and report people's genuine attempts to produce solutions to political problems of the day.

I have outlined a couple of ways of reforming the way that we do our business in this House. It is crucial to reflect on how we, as MPs, connect with our constituencies' and to gain an understanding of how we can give people a greater sense of involvement in the decision-making process. People in the 21st century do not accept that they voted for me, that I come to Parliament and that they have to wait another four years before passing judgment on how I have done. That factor has to be balanced against the dangers of a pure delegate system. To improve electoral turnout, we must start to deal with those issues as well as the mechanics of voting.

Let us be imaginative, radical and determined to change the factors that lead to disillusionment and despair, which often result in the declining participation of people, particularly younger people, in voting. We need to find ways of reforming ourselves, so that people see voting as part of the democratic process.

4.41 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone): As in the previous debate of 22 January and despite my remarks at the outset that we would repeat what we had debated before, I have come away from this debate with a sense of considerable enthusiasm for the subject. All the speeches have been thoughtful and excellent. As other hon. Members have said, what a pity it is that so few people are participating in this debate. Frankly, the massive decline in voter turnout—down to 59.4 per cent.—that occurred during the last general election is a serious sign for all political parties. It is effectively a demonstration of despair in the system.

I am not criticising the Government, but I doubt whether the key issue is about systems and techniques. They could change things at the margin, but for practical purposes, with the possible exception of postal ballots, no more than that. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will forgive me for saying that the solution does not lie in proportional representation. The problem is much more fundamental. The previous worst figure in general election turnout was in 1918. By nature and inclination an issues man, I am more concerned

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about the relationship between the events of a period and the consequences for general elections than about the technical aspects of voting systems.

If people are seriously worried about a problem, they will turn out to vote. In an agreeable exchange with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) we found that five of the 10 highest turnouts were reflected by Liberal victories, which tells us a great deal about the degree of interest generated in those constituencies. Perhaps there is some connection, although I cannot think of it immediately, between what was going on in constituencies such as Liverpool, Riverside which have demonstrably low turnouts. Perhaps it was just the sense that there was nothing to vote about because it was a foregone conclusion, or it might have been because not enough political energy was being shown by the people who were their representatives. In other words,

That takes me back to the point that I have made about the Whip system. We will inevitably have a whipping system in a party system. The parties, after all, represent the translation of opinions into policies and law. Those opinions are reflected by the body of people who gather together, as Burke would put it, on a common principle in the national interest as they see it. People in the 18th century understood these things. I should like to mention a matter of anecdotal historical interest. I say this with great respect to the Lib Dems, particularly the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) who represents Ranmoor where I was brought up. My parents still live there and are his constituents.

The most illustrious member of my family was John Bright, who was effectively responsible for the 1867 Reform Act, passed by Disraeli. No one can doubt the degree of energy that he and others applied when they decided after the corn laws that they wanted to address the need for people to be given the right to vote, which was the point that the Minister made at the beginning. I entirely endorse that. I greatly admire the suffragettes for what they did. But this was not a feminist movement as such; it was a matter of the right to vote. The turnout was essential to those questions.

The Hyde park riots that preceded the 1867 Reform Act were a demonstration by people who were frustrated that, on the great issues of the day, what they said or thought was completely irrelevant. Although I am in favour of dealing with Saddam Hussein in an effective manner and although I am prepared to concede that it is not inevitable at the moment, I still think that the protest marches and other demonstrations are another form of turnout that is also extremely important not only in modern politics but in politics down the ages.

This is a terribly important debate. I suppose that I should not be surprised that there are not more hon. Members present, but I am disappointed that this is the second time that we have been around the circuit and there has not yet been a sufficient appreciation of the significance of the matter. I wish that we could have more debates like this and perhaps fewer of the other kind that often give rise to a comment that I frequently make at meetings—the best way to keep a secret is to make a speech in the House of Commons.

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I, too, am extremely alarmed by the lack of interest shown by young people. I am not entirely convinced that we have got anywhere near trying to appreciate it. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) made important points about that. If I may again quote Disraeli,

It would be an appalling state of affairs if the drop in interest among young people continued. If that trend were extrapolated into the next general election and the one after that, our democracy, which is already at risk for several reasons, would be severely tested.

I endorse and have always been enthusiastic about the idea of civic education. Some people would say that I am a traditional Tory, but they do not understand where I am coming from. Some of my more traditional colleagues are extremely suspicious of ideas of civic duty and teaching pupils in schools about the system of government, but I am all for it. It is terribly important. I wish that I had been better taught at that time. I was well taught in history, Latin and other such subjects, which have been useful in their time. But there is an important role for giving young people a clear understanding in this complicated, topsy-turvy world of why they should go out and vote.

Voting is the most important thing that a person does, when we think about it. Imagine if nobody voted, to put it in the most absurd context. The participation of a person in exercising his freedom of choice by turning out in an election and putting a cross against the name of the person who represents, in broad terms, the kind of society that he wants to live in is one of the most important things that a person can do. It is like eating, drinking and sleeping, but it happens only once in a blue moon. The fact that a vast number of people decide not to vote, for whatever reason, or think that politics is boring, uninteresting and irrelevant, or fail to understand the significance of what is going on is a dangerous sign of the times that we live in.

I was interested to hear on the radio this morning that George Orwell's "1984" has been rated the most important book in a poll of those who read books these days. Perhaps there is some significance in that. I am therefore extremely glad to know that the Electoral Commission is to take on this important role, but I issue a serious caveat, as I have done repeatedly in this House with respect to the BBC and the broadcasting authorities, about the manner in which it addresses these fundamental questions over which it has so much influence.

I suspect that unless we are determined in all parts of the House to ensure complete impartiality in these crucial arenas in the formulation of the culture of politics and democracy, we shall get into deep trouble. People will react against politics if there is not the necessary degree of impartiality. I also believe that we must give serious consideration to the manner in which we behave in Parliament. I do not just mean matters such as privacy that hit the headlines, but also the way in which we reform the House.

Two or three of our most interesting recent debates were on House of Lords reform, which produced an extraordinary result. It was a lesson in itself about the

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lack of navigation that we were able to bring to bear on that subject, for heaven's sake. I should have thought that it was an obvious matter, in concert with the views of the hon. Member for North Cornwall. The idea that we cannot have a second Chamber that is at least 80 per cent. elected is astonishing.

There is also the relative irrelevance of much of our Committee proceedings, where hon. Members are just babbling on, no one has the foggiest idea what about, and no one will ever look at the official record. It is a sort of game of chess that is being played between the civil servants and the party positions. Now is not the time to go into all that, but it is a problem.

I would also say, with respect to young people, that there is also the matter of the "celeb culture" and all that goes with it: the role models, what is considered to be important, the lack of discrimination, and the fact that young people are asked to form comparisons between politicians and celebrities. Celebrities may, of course, be very nice people. I often find that some of the people who have legendary mythologies built up around them are decent people when you get to know them, and some, such as Bob Geldof, whom I happen to know well, do an enormous amount of good.

However, young people will gain respect for politics and politicians only if they are given an understanding of their relevance to their lives. We are here to serve them, and I hope that we do the best that we can, but the turnout of young people will be reflected in the extent to which they have a respect for the institutions. That, perhaps, is why I am a Conservative, because I believe strongly in those things. I am not saying that other parties do not, but the Conservatives have, historically, put emphasis on that.

I believe that the problem is much more than a matter of systems. However, I must draw attention to the very mixed results that emerged from the pilot schemes. I assume that most people in this country are of more or less the same kind, whichever part of the country they come from, and that there is no obvious discrimination to be made between one constituency and another. I was therefore intrigued that the results for postal balloting were so mixed. Postal balloting is a simple thing—one either votes with a postal ballot or one does not. It is not dependent on whether people have new technology available to them—a point that the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) was right to raise.

A House of Commons research paper shows that turnout in South Tyneside almost doubled, from 24.2 per cent. in 1998 to 55.3 per cent. in 2002. Why should the people of South Tyneside double their response when they have a postal vote available to them? There were similar increases in Stevenage, from 25.5 to 52.9 per cent., and in Chorley, from 31.3 to 61.5 per cent. In Greenwich, however, it decreased from 32.5 to 31.9 per cent. That may not be a large decrease, but it is an interesting comparison with the others. There was also a decrease in Hackney.

I am loth to make any assumptions about those mixed results, or about other areas such as electronic/internet voting. In Crewe and Nantwich, where the website system was used, the turnout increased from 18 per cent. in 1998 to 31.4 per cent. in 2002. Perhaps more people are using websites in that area, but that trend may not be reflected in other parts of the country.

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There is a mixed pattern resulting from the pilot schemes, so I am not convinced that, with the current low turnouts, we should be paying an undue amount of attention to the systems. I am convinced that the real problem is to do with the failure of democracy, or the increasing tendency for people to become disillusioned with what we are doing, which, after all, should not be seen as a separate function. It is part and parcel of their lives and affects them. The democratic deficit reflected in the low turnout in European elections—I shall mention Europe once, then not again—is another feature of centralisation.

The same problem increasingly applies to domestic politics, as more and more legislation is sucked and absorbed into a remote system that is so complicated in its institutional arrangements, which I deplore, that it is impossible even for Members of Parliament to understand the interaction between European and domestic legislation. I personally believe that that contributes to low turnout. People simply do not know who is taking decisions and how they are arrived at. The democratic deficit, with the European constitution, will cause an absolute nightmare and be a great danger in the future. The contrast between the attitude of France and Germany to the monumental problem with the Iraq war on one hand and the Prime Minister's advocacy of a common foreign and security policy on the other is enough to make anyone wonder whether they should turn out to vote. That is part of a much deeper problem.

The media, and interviewers, as I said in the previous debate, have a huge responsibility. I am not sure whether I want to use the word "blame", but it is sometimes necessary. We are now getting to a position in which, as the hon. Member for Gedling said, the media are not necessarily seen as the enemy. Sometimes, however, they are. I can be quite blunt about that. I have been on the receiving end of the media myself. Sometimes I do not mind if they want to do this, that or the other. I have had some extremely satisfactory and helpful debates, discussions and interviews with some important interviewers during the past 20 years. That has been pretty tough stuff, but I do not mind that. However, I am concerned by something that, I think, impacts on interest in the political system. People hear great interviews and real debates on such programmes as "Today" and "Question Time", and perhaps forget that the people involved, however good, important and skilled, are not elected. They are not people's representatives.

A distortion is taking place in the public mind, perhaps especially among young people—a failure to discriminate between what is really important to the law-making and policy-making processes in the national forum of Parliament and debate that takes place between unelected people. That is not a game; it is serious and influential debate, but the people involved do not have to take the same responsibility. John Humphrys wrote a piece in The Sunday Times recently in which he said that he can fill a village hall, whereas Members of Parliament holding public meetings get no response at all. I wrote a letter to The Sunday Times and ticked him off, saying, "Just get this right, John Humphrys. You are not an elected politician—just try to keep a sense of responsibility about this". I think that he is an extremely good interviewer and I have no doubt that he works very hard, but the problem is serious.

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Now, politics is being taken on to radio, such as Radio One. Many, although by no means all, radio programmes on it are pure rubbish. There is no informed opinion there, just babble. The people who listen to that could be strongly influenced, especially young people who listen to pop programmes and come away believing that the people on those are important and so, perhaps by definition, politicians are not. I feel that we have a huge social and political problem here, and I am deeply worried by the way in which the disconnection from young people is escalating.

I also refer to the difficulties that arise from the growth of the far right; there is no far left these days. That growth comes from the centre right's lack of engagement in some of the serious problems of our time. The disillusionment and cynicism about asylum and immigration has been exacerbated by some Government policies, and that will be an increasing problem. In Stoke-on-Trent, which is near my constituency, there is a serious British National party problem. The Labour Members who represent constituencies there are aware of it. That problem exists not just in that area but elsewhere, and has a bearing on turnout. I shall not give the figures for Stoke-on-Trent, but turnout levels are a contributory factor to the increase in votes for the far right. It is far right parties that are often thought to have the passion and conviction; it is they who get out there and dish it out to the people. They play on people's apprehensions and concerns.

In some constituencies, Members of Parliament—I do not criticise those concerned—do not give the impression that they are that activated or bothered by the issues; they seem to be going through the motions. I feel passionately about politics, whether the issue is third-world debt, Europe or constitutional matters. The apathy among voters is a reflection of the lack of interest in the great issues that is shown by their representatives, who are over-controlled by the Whip system. That diminishes their confidence and determination to get up and speak for their constituents.

In my constituency in the previous election, my majority nearly doubled if for no other reason than because my constituents had a pretty clear idea about where I stood. Anyone who read my election address would know that there was no doubt about it. We need more direct discussion in Parliament, and far less finessing. There does not have to be sheer confrontation, but there has to be direct discussion. Then people will see the relevance to their lives of what we are doing. In my opinion, that is what this is all about.

I have found this debate fascinating, and I would like to say how much I have enjoyed listening to all hon. Members' speeches. I hope that we have all learned something from it; I have.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It might be helpful if I point out that if the Minister is to have an adequate opportunity to respond, she should be called no later than 5.15 pm.

5.8 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea): I value this opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. I first became interested in the matter when I was a member of the

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Select Committee on Home Affairs in the previous Parliament, and we wrote a report on electoral law and administration. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) may have been on the Committee; I do not remember. We suggested many changes, including the rolling register and postal voting on demand, which were later taken up and are now in force, but we had no illusion that they would make a huge difference. We were advised that any changes like that would make, at most, a 5 per cent. difference in turnout, and I thought that even that was an exaggeration. Indeed, since the report came out and those changes were incorporated into the Representation of the People Act 2000, turnout in parliamentary, European and local elections has fallen, so clearly there cannot have been any dramatic effect.

The fact that turnout went down after the changes came in does not prove a case of cause and effect; indeed, it may be possible that the changes have helped to increase the turnout, but that other factors have had a greater effect in reducing it. That is probably what has happened. We made the changes not because of the effect they would have on turnout, but because they were worth making in themselves.

I am sorry that some of the other changes that we proposed were not made at the same time—weekend voting is one of them. I think weekend voting is well worth pursuing. I got a slight hint from Opposition Members that they may be worried that, because so many of their voters have second homes that they go to at weekends, this might have a disproportionate partisan effect on their vote. They need not worry about this. In the previous debate, I quoted figures from Sweden where 40 per cent of the population have second homes. The country is made of islands and lakes, and many people have little cottages that they go to at the weekend. They have always had Sunday elections, and nobody has ever suggested that they have a disproportionate effect on one party or another.

Weekend voting has to be accompanied by sensible measures for early voting and postal voting. We now have postal voting on demand, but that involves applying at least a week in advance; there could be a far easier system than that. In Sweden, people can vote at any post office in any town in the country, up to and including polling day itself. There are main post offices in all major cities that take votes up until about 2 pm in most cities—up until 5 pm in Stockholm—and then convey them to the relevant local polling station. It is just as if people voted at their local polling station. As long as there are sensible provisions, people who are called away on business, or who decide to go away for the weekend, will still able to vote.

There are many more things that could be done—for example computer-linked registers. One of the main problems is that people have to vote in their own polling station and that is often inconvenient. In this day and age, when all electoral registers can be linked to a central register, there is no reason why people could not be allowed to vote anywhere, even within their own constituency. Many people go to different polling stations, only to be told that they cannot vote there. It is a simple process to allow them to vote at a different polling station.

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Overnight re-registration is another matter. We are now able to re-register in a maximum of six weeks, but there is no reason why it should take anything like as long as that. In some countries people can go to their local tax office, sit down in front of a computer and type in their new address. The following morning not only their voter registration but their tax address and address for all public purposes will be changed on the computer system, and they need do no more. We should compare that with the difficulty of registering a change of address in this country.

Postal ballots could be sent to every elector. The one change in the Representation of the People Acts that made a substantial difference was all-postal ballots. That resulted in an increase of 30 to 60 per cent. in the turnout at Chorley and Gateshead. That was not consistent everywhere, but it was clearly a substantial increase, and how much better it would be if we could send out as a matter of course a ballot paper to every voter, which they could take either to their local polling station or to another polling station, or send in if they so decided. We would thus have those dramatic benefits from all-postal ballots reproduced countrywide.

We must not start a pilot project on everything—if something is worth doing in one area, it is worth doing everywhere. It is worth having a pilot only when there are alternatives available. Most pilots do not give the answer to the question that was asked, because that is one of many factors that the pilot is never going to identify unless it is done on a massive scale; and if one is going to do that, one might as well do it countrywide anyway.

The Minister talked about the practical difficulties of having Sunday as the start of weekend voting in the European elections in 2004. This is an ideal opportunity because legislation already allows every European country to choose any day from the Thursday to the Sunday on which to hold its European election. It is a good idea to hold several elections on the same day; many countries do so as a matter of course. Some have general, regional, local and even Church elections on the same day and that leads to a much higher turnout.

Why not use the latitude that we shall have in 2004 to introduce the first serious weekend voting experiment for a long time? Holding elections on a Sunday will allow many more people to vote. I know that that will create difficulties in the Western Isles and elsewhere, but our idea that we should hold all our elections on a busy working day is crazy. There is no doubt that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who could not otherwise vote will be able to do so at the weekend. The test as to whether it is worth doing is not whether it will increase turnout but whether it will help people who cannot vote to do so. We do not need to put all the reforms to some sort of utilitarian test because, however many pilots we run, we shall never be able to prove what the effect is on turnout. We must follow our instincts, and if we think that the reforms are worth making we must introduce them.

5.16 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper) : We have had an excellent debate, encompassing some interesting and thoughtful contributions.

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Many hon. Members made the point that addressing the mechanical, practical issues that are involved in changing the way we vote does not address the underlying problem of whether people want to vote or the fact that increasing numbers of people do not vote. They are right: we should not use changing the practicalities as an excuse not to address the fundamental problem for which we must take responsibility as politicians and as political parties—the growing number of people who are disaffected, who actively choose not to vote, or who do not see enough purpose in voting. Equally, the reverse is true. The fact that there are deeper issues involved should not be used to justify ignoring practical changes that might make life easier or that might increase the number of people who find it more convenient to vote and therefore do so.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) made some important points about disenchantment. He described the attitudes of people who vote for "Big Brother". It is easy to do that—it involves sitting on a sofa and pressing the red button on the Sky remote control. To vote for "Fame Academy", one has only to pick up the phone—until the last minute, when one cannot get through at all. In some cases, one can vote early and often. There are all sorts of lessons there, I fear, about the ways in which people vote.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) raised some important points about people's attitudes towards community and civic duty. They are complex issues and we should recognise the changes that there have been in society. We must also ensure that that does not become an excuse not to address practical changes that can be made in the short term.

Let us consider the pilots that many hon. Members have quoted. In Preston, 16 per cent. more of the electorate voted in the all-postal ballot than did under the traditional system, according to the Electoral Commission review. In Trafford, 20 per cent. more of the electorate voted in the postal vote than in the vote using the traditional system. It is still the case, however, that in the ballot in Preston, 60 per cent. of the electorate did not vote in the local elections, and in Trafford 47 per cent. of the electorate did not vote, so there are clearly a huge number of wider issues. Those margins of about 16 and 20 per cent. are sufficiently large for us to take them seriously and to respond to the pilots. The worst possible defence of the status quo is to say that, because there are bigger issues, we cannot address some of the narrower questions to which solutions might be found. Just as I would never support using the voting system as an excuse for not addressing the wider issues, I would never say that, because of the wider issues, we should not make some practical changes to the system.

There are two important reasons for making changes. First, some of the evidence from the postal vote ballots suggests that making voting more convenient for some groups of voters makes a difference to whether their voices are heard and registered in our democracy. Secondly, as my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea (Martin Linton) and for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) made clear, if we can make it easier for people to vote, we should. All other things being equal, it is better if voting is more convenient. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test gave an amusing account of the way in which we vote and said how

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different certain aspects of voting are from ordinary life—for example, the horse boxes and little stubby pencils, although one can buy the little stubby pencils in IKEA, so perhaps they would catch on as part of a more modern system.

Hon. Members have referred to many issues in connection with the pilots and the evidence that they provide. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea that one cannot wait for pilots to show everything—pilotitis, as he described it—but we need pilots in such areas because no one should tamper lightly with the mechanisms of democracy. It would be a disaster to change the way in which we vote, if it turned out, for example, that the whole system fell apart or the method of counting the votes did not work. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) was right to say that a mistake in implementing a pilot or a problem with a new voting mechanism could undermine it for the long term. Those practical issues matter. The purpose of the pilot programmes is to establish credibility and legitimacy, to test practical issues and to ensure that we do not introduce problems of fraud.

There is no evidence to support weekend voting. I agree that there is a case for following our noses and trying things out on a larger scale, but the e-voting pilots did not show any substantial impact on turnout. My suspicion is that the e-voting and text-voting pilots will make an impact not in the next election but 10 years down the line. If we do not explore different methods of voting, including electronic voting, now,—especially as there are so many complex issues relating to the technology and security of such systems—we shall find ourselves looking a little bit ridiculous in 10 years' time, because increasingly so much of our lives takes place through electronic means.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree made powerful points about inequality and who votes. That must be uppermost in our minds when we consider any changes to voting mechanisms. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test made some important points about voting habits. The Electoral Commission did some research after the 2001 election into why people did not vote. That involved discussions with focus groups of people who had not voted. They were asked why they had not voted: some said that they did not know enough about it, that they did not feel confident enough to vote, or that they did not know enough about what they were voting for. I doubt whether those young people knew less than young people 30 years ago. However, there may have been a change in people's expectations of what they should know—and what they want to know—before they feel confident about making their choices, in the same way that, as consumers, they can decide what kind of car they want to buy.

I would not underestimate the long-term effect of issues relating to citizenship and education in schools, to which the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred. He is right to say that the credibility of such things depends on their being non-partisan. People should be given information about our political institutions, where they are, how one has a say in them, and the role of the people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) was also right: this is not simply about voting, but about participation in a wider sense. People no

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longer think it is enough to have one encounter with the politician—one vote—every few years. We should be considering other, broader, ways to empower people.

There are broader issues relating to people's engagement with their communities and local institutions. The issue is not simply one of engaging with Parliament; it is about engaging with other community institutions and civic participation. Those who participate in other institutions are more likely to vote. A lot of work has been done on how to reinvest and re-establish communities and how to give people greater involvement and participation in them.

Many initiatives have not been effective, but the sure start programme is. It focuses on the point in people's lives—when they have small children—at which they are suddenly faced with a big change and want to know who else is in their community. They want to be a part of the community, they want to engage with it and they are suddenly very keen to become involved in local organisations and institutions. That may be a counter-argument to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Southampton, Test. He said that such habits start early in life and are never kicked—people either start voting or they do not. However, people can change at different points in their life cycle. Fundamental life changes can have a huge impact on people's participation in things, which can also be a way of engaging people with voting.

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The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam mentioned the decline in deference and the sense of duty. He is right. We should not romanticise traditional communities. In many ways, it is a good thing that there has been a decline in deference. It is also true that people will no longer vote out of a sense of duty or deference. We must give them something else to vote for—other reasons to vote. That reflects many of the points made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. He spoke about the importance of the roles played by politicians and political parties. So much of the process of allowing people to engage more effectively with our democracy comes down to politicians and political parties becoming the vehicles of democracy. We cannot ignore or walk away from that fact. It is right that we should recognise that we are responsible for doing that. That does not mean that hon. Members have easy answers about how to do that. We will conduct much of the debate about that within our political parties, rather than in forums such as this. There are many changes that we could make in Parliament by considering other voting systems.

There is much work still to do. Decisions on many of the issues surrounding the 2004 elections and weekend voting have not taken place within Government. The debate has been helpful in contributing to those decisions, and I welcome the contributions of hon. Members this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

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