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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) indicated assent.

Mr. Howarth: I say to the hon. Member for Torbay--[Hon. Members: "He is not here."]

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) is not here; I hope that the Minister is not under a misapprehension. He is right in asserting that there was a serious problem in the European election. The issue went to court, but was not resolved in the way that we would have hoped.

Mr. Howarth: I made a mistake. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) was nodding so vigorously that I assumed that he was the hon. Member for Torbay. Obviously, he has been seduced by the power of my oratory, which was the cause of the problem. Clearly, a problem arose in the European election, and it is a matter that must be looked at in future.

Hon. Members will recognise that the problem of the attempted misdirection of the electorate has been with us for a long time. Descriptions were introduced specifically to address that problem. Many hon. Members will recall the days when there was no description on the ballot paper; I remember that being the case within my political lifetime. Descriptions were introduced to try to address the problem, but they clearly have not been as effective as we would have wished.

There are a number of options that do not require party registration, an issue to which I shall turn in a moment, and which have been looked at by Home Office officials. The various options include the use of party logos on ballot papers, the strengthening of the 1983 Act to provide a specific offence of using a description intended to mislead, and the introduction of a challenge process to be heard before a High Court judge. I know that the Liberal Democrats, in various submissions, have supported that.

There are difficulties with all three proposals, which need to be scrutinised in much greater detail. At this stage, I would not like to make a commitment to any of them. However, now that the election is over, discussion of the issues between the political parties will go ahead. I hope that we can examine them again to see whether there is any prospect of moving ahead, although I must add the qualification that there are problems with all three proposals that I have mentioned.

I should like to say a few words on political party registration, which offers us better prospects for dealing with the problems. The principal problem with the use of party names as candidate descriptions is that political parties are not recognised in electoral law. The lack of any means by which a political party can register its name for electoral purposes is the starting point for the difficulties that my hon. Friend has described.

From that stems the problem of a candidate being able to describe himself as new Labour when he has nothing to do with the Labour party or as a Literal Democrat when he has nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats, or, as has happened in my constituency, simply to use the confusing title "Labour", spelled properly. We have never been able to challenge that.

If she were free to do so, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) could wax lyrical for at least 15 minutes on the confusion that often

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exists at elections in Liverpool, where various candidates use all kinds of different descriptions, trying to pretend that they are Labour party candidates when they are not.

We have to make progress on this. The lack of statutory registration of political parties has consequences for party funding. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned our commitment to look into that. The registration of political parties would have to be part of any mechanism for bringing party funding under control. If we have any kind of proportional system--an issue that will be considered, and should be the subject of a referendum, during this Parliament--we shall have to consider party registration.

My hon. Friend is aware of our manifesto commitment to examine ways of regulating and reforming the funding of political parties--a commitment that we take seriously. We also have a clear manifesto commitment to put to the Scottish and Welsh people proposals for the devolution of powers to representative bodies elected by proportional representation.

The Government are considering how best to take forward those commitments. The answer will, without doubt, involve a measure for the registration of political parties, although it is too early to be able to say yet what that may involve. Any measures to register political parties would provide an opportunity for action on the statutory recognition of political party names. We shall certainly have to examine that issue.

My hon. Friend also talked about granny farming--the first time that I have come across the term. That is not a bizarre agricultural practice, as it might sound, but a specific problem to do with proxy votes. The Government take seriously any allegations of widespread and systematic abuse of the procedure for absent voting. If it becomes necessary, we are prepared to legislate.

There is no recent evidence that the abuse of proxy voting is systematic or widespread. Application forms for absent votes were amended in 1994, after well-publicised examples of elderly people being deliberately misled into believing that they were applying for a postal ballot paper, which would have allowed them to cast their own vote, rather than a proxy to vote on their behalf. Electors now have to indicate clearly whether they are applying to vote by post or by proxy. All appointments of a proxy must be signed by the elector or by the proxy.

Under the Representation of the People Act 1985, an elector who is unable to vote in person at the polling station may apply to vote by post or by proxy. Those wishing to vote by proxy are required to give the name and address of the person appointed as proxy, and must sign the proxy appointment or arrange for it to be signed by the proxy.

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The review of electoral law and practice set up after the 1992 general election considered whether changes should be made to the absent voting system and to the application forms, to reduce the opportunity for abuse of the system and to make it more accessible to voters. Various suggestions were considered, including the redesign of the form, the need for the elector to sign in person, the wording on the ballot papers and the inclusion of the level of fines. The application forms were amended in 1994.

In the past five years, there have been allegations of absent voting irregularities in St. Ives in 1992, in Brighton in 1993, in Burnley in 1994 and in Cynon Valley in 1995. Various actions resulted from those allegations, some of which were upheld. The offences in Cynon Valley led to a member of Plaid Cymru being tried in Cardiff Crown court and sentenced to two months in prison.

There have been no reports, either officially from an acting returning officer or from newspapers, of abuses in connection with absent vote applications at the 1997 election, although I am sure that my hon. Friend's speech will remedy that defect. Any allegations of malpractice regarding the absent voting system should be reported to the police, whose job it is to investigate.

A person who votes as some other person--in person or by means of a postal or proxy vote--commits an offence of personation, which is a corrupt practice under the Representation of the People Acts. A person is also guilty of a corrupt practice if

I am not sure how that applies to swallowing a ballot paper, but we should investigate that.

A person who makes a false statement in an application for an absent vote, or who attests an application that he knows to contain a false statement, also commits an offence, as does anybody attesting an application when not qualified to do so. Electoral abuse is a serious matter. There are strict penalties for those found guilty, with a maximum fine of £5,000.

My hon. Friend has raised some important issues, and I congratulate him. It is right that such issues should be aired as early as possible in the electoral cycle, so that we have time to review and consider them and take any necessary action. If I have missed any points from my hon. Friend's speech, I shall pick them up and communicate with him.

Part of the task that the Government have set themselves is to clean up politics in this country. The issues raised today fall within the scope of that aim. Subject to proper consultation, we shall act to clean up politics and to make the electoral system as free of defects as possible.

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Gangmasters (South Lincolnshire)

12.59 pm

Sir Richard Body (Boston and Skegness): I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your election. I shall try not to trespass on your patience too often. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on his appointment to a Department with which I have had a love-hate relationship for many years. I hope that he will enjoy his time there and play an active part in reforming the common agricultural policy.

A large proportion of our vegetables is produced in south Lincolnshire. As it is a seasonal industry, there is an obvious need for casual labour on a considerable scale. Many thousands of men and women are engaged in harvesting the vegetables and, increasingly, in processing them in factories. To give the Minister an idea of the scale, one factory requires more than 2,000 men and women to work on a casual basis most days of the year.

Obviously it is necessary to organise many thousands of people into the various farms and factories where they are required. That is the role of the gangmaster, who enters into an agreement with the farmer or factory manager to organise a certain number of people for a certain number of days. The gangmaster receives a lump sum and it is up to him or her to pay the gangers what he or she thinks fit.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the system. It worked very well for a long time, until unemployment took off and more than 1 million people in south Lincolnshire became available for casual work. They come from as far afield as Sheffield, Doncaster, Grimsby, Mansfield and even Birmingham. The people who recruit them are different from those who previously undertook such work. According to the Department for Education and Employment, there are now about 800 gangmasters, who fall into two categories. The first comprises those whose names, addresses and telephone numbers can be found in the Yellow Pages or the telephone directory. They can be easily identified by Government Departments and, generally speaking, they engage local people. They often employ their friends, relations and neighbours. They depend on having a good reputation, and over the years they have tried to do an honest job. If they were not honest to their friends and neighbours, they would not have gangs. However, their position has become almost untenable because of the other category of gangmasters who are in the vast majority--there are only about 50 or 60 in the Yellow Pages--many of whom have criminal records and continue to commit acts of dishonesty and violence.

There is such fear among the gangers that it is impossible for me to recount the experience of any ganger. One honest gangmaster who provided me with information was warned not to speak to me again. He was told that, if he did, he would be punished. He ignored that threat and gave me more evidence about the criminal activities of the other gangmasters. Having done that, he was punished. The other gangmasters took a puppy that he had recently acquired for his family and cut off its paws. Needless to say, he has given me no more information. Indeed, none of the honest gangmasters is willing to be forthcoming about the activities of the others.

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We are dealing with people who have a disdain for the law of our country and do not hesitate to use some pretty bad methods of recruiting gangers and to treat them badly. I shall not go into detail about what goes on in the fields and the factories, but there are many cruel and obscene practices that cannot be justified.

This state of affairs has continued since unemployment rose, making it possible for disreputable gangmasters to recruit men and women who have been on social security and are willing to come to Lincolnshire, often making a long journey in transport provided by the gangmasters. Many of them get up at 4 o'clock in the morning to earn a miserable rate of pay.

The result is unfair competition. Wages are almost the only variable cost in producing and processing vegetables. Farms and factories that can reduce their wage costs can hold down their prices. As the Minister knows only too well, about five major supermarket chains are competing with each other and trying to keep down prices, with the result that at the end of the chain gangers are working at a derisory rate of pay.

The position has become worse in the past 12 months. Not only are gangmasters recruiting people who are on social security, but they have agents in eastern Europe--in Poland, the Ukraine and even Russia--who are bringing illegal immigrants to Britain. I cannot say how many there are, but it is certainly an appreciable number. Those people are told that, if they come to England, they can earn as much in one day as they get in one week in their own country, and that is true.

A number of evils are being committed. Apart from illegal immigration, there is massive social security fraud. One cannot quantify the millions of pounds that have been lost, but one sub-postmaster in my constituency has calculated that, even in his area, it must cost the system about £500,000 a year. Fraud is being perpetrated on the Inland Revenue and on Customs and Excise, but, above all, there has been a great depressing effect on wage rates in my constituency. It means that men and women in my constituency are better off on social security than doing a reasonable job. Only their self-respect enables people to continue working in appalling conditions as gangers on the farms and in the factories.

I feel sure that the Minister will be persuaded that action must be taken. The previous Government took a number of steps, none of which has succeeded. In the past, gangmasters were licensed, but licensing came to an end when there was full employment. There was no need for any control over gangmasters as, on the whole, the system worked successfully. However, the position has now completely changed and I can think of no solution other than a return to licensing.

The Minister may know that I introduced a Bill for the licensing of gangmasters. Up to now, I have not revealed that it was drafted for me by an official of the Transport and General Workers Union; I therefore hope that the Bill will be treated more sympathetically if I reintroduce it. If the Government cannot support such a measure, I urge them to think of taking some steps to overcome the evil to which I have referred. The previous Government tried; they took a number of steps, but they all failed. I urge the Minister to reconsider licensing.

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1.9 pm

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