|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Leslie: Let me say that this is a significant point, and it would help if I were to make absolutely clear the Government's view. The Electoral Commission, in the many evaluations that it has undertaken into electoral pilots so far, has found no evidence of any greater exposure to fraud, nor did it feel that the opportunity for fraud was enhanced or that the security of the poll was undermined. I recognise, however, that this is a real concern for many, and for that reason, as an initial response to the Electoral Commission's recommendations aimed at further enhancing security and improving public confidence, we propose the introduction of two amendments to electoral law, but only at this stage for next year's pilots.
First, at present, the existing powers of arrest without a warrant are restricted to arrest in relation to personation at polling stations. "Personation" is the name given to the offence committed, under section 60 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, when someone votes as someone else but without their consent. Clause 6 of this Bill extends that power beyond the polling station, which is clearly helpful where remote voting is widely in use. Secondly, clause 7 provides that the magistrates court is given a power to allow in exceptional circumstances, on application from the police or a prosecutor, an extension of time for a prosecution to be commenced, up to a maximum of 24 months after the date of the offence. The current legislation allows only 12 months in England, Wales and Scotland.
Taken together, I believe that those two additional anti-fraud steps will improve the security of postal voting and create a more confident environment for the pilots to succeed in the region or regions eventually selected. In the longer term, if those measures are shown to be helpful, we would look to apply them more widely. In addition, other security measures not requiring primary legislation, such as watermarked ballot papers, may be employed for next year's pilots where necessary.
While increasing civic engagement is about more than offering updated ways of voting, that is one crucial part of it. The European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill is simply intended to allow the electoral pilots programme to continue next year and to scale up its size to bring closer the day when new ways of voting will become available to all of the electorate. That is in all our interests, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Minister's claims that the Government want to improve our democratic system and improve faith in the political process are indicated by the presentation of this Bill, which is a symbol of the present crisis of confidence in the democratic process in this country, which has been created and worsened by this Government.
With serious reservations, one could say that considerable advantage is to be gained from more postal voting in particular, provided that the system is rigorously monitored and that opportunities for fraud and undue influence are eliminated. There are two main questions to be addressed. First, why is the turnout in elections, and particularly in European elections, so dangerously low? In the last general election, in 2001, the turnout was a mere a 59.4 per cent. averaged across the country. That represented a massive 12 per cent. fall from 1997, when this Government came to power. Between 1955 and 1997, the turnout was consistently above 70 per cent. In the last European elections in 1999, again under this Government, the turnout across the country was a mere 23 per cent. compared with 36 per cent. in 1994.
The Opposition believe that the decline in turnout for the European elections is partly because of the introduction of party lists under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, which abolished first-past-the-post. It is also because of the centralising, remote and bureaucratic process of further and deeper European integration, now culminating in the disastrous European constitution, which has been agreed to in principle by this Government. That constitution will further undermine the trust and respect in the political system and a referendum on it is now
Mr. Cash: Having said that, first-past-the-post should be introduced for European elections. Indeed, you may be interested to know, Mr. Speaker, that only last year the European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by the indomitable hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), urged the House to reintroduce first-past-the-post for European elections. First-past-the-post is the only system that maintains the immediate link between a representative and his constituency. That is particularly important when we have enormous European regions of up to 6 million voters. Why do the Government not amend the Bill to ensure that first-past-the-post applies?
There is evidence that postal voting can increase voter turnout. For example, in the local elections in Chorley in Lancashire, all-postal ballots increased turnout from 31 per cent. in 1998 to 61 per cent. in 2002turnout nearly doubled. The same applied in Stevenage. When postal voting was used in Greenwich, however, the turnout dropped by 0.4 per cent. between the same two local elections. In Hackney, the turnout dropped by 3 per cent., so the results were bizarre and mixed. However, the fact that postal voting has been so beneficial in the areas in which it has worked is encouraging, providing we know that the system operates properly and without fraud. The doubling of turnout is beneficial but we must ask why there are such curious and bizarre results in different parts of the country.
Before I talk about fraud and arrangements for adapting the offence of personation under clause 6, I must refer to a remarkable inquiry on election fraud in Birmingham. It reported last November and its findings include important lessons. There was deep concern in Birmingham about the way in which postal voting, personation and intimidation at polling stations had emerged. Birmingham is the heartland of modern democracy in many ways because in the 19th century it was represented by John Bright, the archetypal democrat. His campaign for democracy culminated in its acceptance by the Conservative Government under Disraeli in the Reform Act 1867.
John Alden, a Conservative city councillor, led the investigation in Birmingham. Hon. Members should bear it in mind that Birmingham is a Labour council. The council was determined to get to the bottom of the matter, so it appointed a distinguished Conservative city councillor to lead the investigation. The Birmingham
Councillor Alden urged the council to insist on changes to the outdated electoral law. A senior police officer told a committee that existing election law, which was based on trust and the Representation of the People Act 1983the Act to which the Minister referredwas insufficient to bring prosecutions against offenders. Of course, we bear it in mind that clause 6 will apply the provisions of the 1983 Act on the law of personation without amendment. Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Churchill, the head of the West Midlands police major fraud unit, said that the postal voting system had few major checks or controls to ensure that the true identity of the voter was known, and added that the 1983 Act inadequately coped with the misuse of postal votes and personation.
Rob Marris: I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the 1983 Act is not always hopeless in the west midlands. An individual was convicted and, I think, jailed for personation in the constituency next to mine in Wolverhampton. That individual was a Conservative councillor.