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'(2A) In the case of all-postal ballots, the Electoral Commission must consult with the postal authorities involved concerning the efficacy of the arrangements.'.
Mr. Heath: The first group includes new clause 2 which, I am pleased to say, was tabled by Conservative Front Benchers and myself. It deals, first, with the important matter of fraud in an all-postal ballot and, secondly, with the conduct of the postal authorities and their ability to cope with the burden that will be placed on them.
New clause 2 deals with fraud, which has been a major concern throughout our consideration of the Bill. Some people would say that the postal ballot system is inherently more open to electoral fraud and malpractice
Joyce Quin: The hon. Gentleman said that there is evidence of fraud, but could he be more specific? I am certainly not aware of evidence of any fraud in the successful pilots in my own part of the country. People are concerned about fraud, but we need to be specific about it.
Mr. Heath: The right hon. Lady may wish to read the new report by the Electoral Commission on these matters. It is a simple fact that there have been more prosecutions for fraudthis is not necessarily the case in the all-postal ballot pilotsamong people who cast a postal vote than among people who use the ballot box. That does not mean that there is an inherently significant problem with postal voting, but it suggests that precautions should be put in place. Indeed, the first report by the Electoral Commission on the arrangements for postal voting deals extensively with the opportunity for electoral fraud in postal voting, and makes sensible recommendations about ways in which to deal with the problem. Some of those recommendations cannot be implemented without primary legislation, and new clause 2 is an appropriate vehicle to introduce such proposals when the pilot schemes take place.
In previous discussions on the Bill, we drew attention to the rushed conditions in which such proposals would be introduced. Nevertheless, my supportersprominent among them the ERSand I believe that we should introduce more detailed proposals to avoid fraud in an all-postal ballot. The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) is somewhat complacent about this matter. That is not being unkind to him, as he said in Committee:
Many Members have drawn attention to the problem of ensuring that the postal ballot is not abused by people living in houses in multiple occupation. It can be abused in a number of ways, including personation. The Minister included welcome proposals in the Bill to define the offence of personation, but they do not entirely answer our concerns. The hon. Gentleman hinted in Committee that he would consider delivery of ballot papers by hand to houses in multiple occupation, to mitigate the risks of votes being harvested. He may
A basic problem with postal ballots is that it is far more difficult to secure a secret ballot. For a century or more, the secret ballot has been a bulwark against much electoral malpractice. We all accept the facility and utility of postal votes, but they are more open to abuse because they cannot be secret in the same way as polling station ballots, where only one person is permitted to enter the polling booth at a time. The defences against abuse are therefore much stronger at polling stations. There is a particular problem for people with disabilities. Sadly, in our debate we will not have the opportunity properly to consider their position, but one of their principal concerns about the introduction of all-postal ballots is that there will effectively be no secret ballot for them any more. We should be concerned about that.
Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman made a valid point about disabled voters' right to secrecy, but is it not the case that, under current arrangements, disabled people already have to forfeit their right to privacy if their polling station does not have disabled access, because they cannot enter it? The option of voting at home will in fact increase their privacy when casting their vote.
Mr. Heath: I do not entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Polling stations should be accessible to people with disabilities, but sadly some are not. It is normal practice for returning officers to take ballot papers to people whose physical disabilities hinder their mobility, allowing them to cast their vote with whatever secrecy is available in the circumstances. The returning officers then return the ballot papers to the presiding officer at the polling station. The hon. Gentleman's argument does not hold true for people with visual impairment. I have a particular interest in the issue, and systems are, or should be, available, such as templates and so on, to enable people with visual impairment to cast their vote in secrecy. Such arrangements are simply not available in an all-postal ballot.
My views are shared by the Local Government Association. I ought to declare an interest, although I am not absolutely certain whether I still am an honorary vice-president of the LGA. Like many hon. Members, I was certainly asked to accept such a position, but I am not sure whether my vice-presidency has lapsed. If I am still a vice-president, I declare my interest. The LGA drew attention in its representations to the problem of fraud and believes that
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): As my hon. Friend will recognise, there is not only a potential problem of fraud, but a problem in assessing the extent of the fraud. Would he be surprised to learn that I asked a question of the Government as to the extent of electoral fraud allegations in the north-westwhat had been reported and what had been investigatedand the answer I received, which was not really an answer, was that that information could be provided only at disproportionate cost?
Mr. Heath: I am not surprised by what my hon. Friend tells me. The topic has bedevilled our discussions. There are two aspects to the problem. First, people are not aware of the complaints that are being made and the investigations that have taken place, and at best know only about the successful prosecutions that are brought. Secondly, one of our concerns has been that when the Electoral Commission was asked to look into the matter, it was effectively asked to look at instances of complaint, rather than looking ab initio at a poll to see whether there was any evidence of fraud and malpractice, without a complaint having been made. At present, we rely on a complaint being initiated in order to estimate the problem. I accept what my hon. Friend says, and I deplore it.
My new clause 2 contains some modest proposals to assist in preventing fraud in a postal ballot, and suggests that in the event of postal services being disrupted during an all-postal ballot, there should be contingency plans for polling stations to be available, but that in any case a collection point should be available for those who prefer to put their vote into the hands of a returning officer. I understand that the Minister is considering that, and there is a suggestion that at least one collection point will be available in each area. If that is the case, surely it should be written into the Bill, not left to secondary legislation or to the whims of returning officers. I hope the Minister will make his position plain and say what he intends to happen.
The other new clause and the amendment in this group deal with the question of whether postal services are adequate for the task of providing for an all-postal ballot on the scale envisaged. Members of the Conservative Front-Bench team will no doubt speak to new clause 5, and I do not wish to pre-empt their proposals. The new clause deals with the situation before the ballot takes place. Amendment No. 3, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and me and is supported by the Conservatives, deals with the Electoral Commission's inquiry after the event and its recommendations for future all-postal ballots. The amendment simply suggests that the postal authorities need to be involved.
In conclusion, new clause 2 deals with fraud, a matter that is taken seriously by Members in all parts of the House. We do not damn the postal voting system as being necessarily open to fraud, but we are concerned to ensure that the best possible measures are in place to avoid it. New clause 2 also deals with the postal system, which is, potentially at least, the weak link when we have an all-postal ballot over a wide area. That will inevitably be the case when we are dealing with two or three European regions of the country at a single time. Given that Minister's and the Electoral Commission's stated intention is to have national all-postal ballots at some stage in the future, it is important that we get these things right now rather than waiting for a disaster to happen and finding that we have an invalid or improper election of the sort that we would condemn elsewhere in the world.