Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)
(Con): Our approach to the Government's proposals in the Bill is that if our electoral system is not broken, we should not try to fix it. We are not obsessed by so-called modernisation, as the Government are on this and many other issues. Many of us believe that, wherever possible, we should carry on with the traditional way of voting that people in this country have been used to for over 100 years. Nevertheless, we want to consider some of the Government's proposals constructively, while subjecting them to scrutiny as we have done in detail in Committee, and trying to improve the protections, particularly against fraud.
As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made clear, that is the issue dealt with by the two new clauses and the amendment linked with them. As the hon. Gentleman observed, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I support new clause 2 and amendment No. 3, and we have tabled new clause 5. We are particularly concerned about the dangers that fraud may be made easier if the proposals go through unamended. Partly in response to the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), I draw attention to the comment from the Electoral Reform Society that for the first time since the 1872 ballot secrecy legislation, it considers that there is a risk that electoral fraud could occur.
I shall quote the Electoral Reform Society's words, as it is important that those who read our proceedings be aware of them. Like the hon. Member for Somerton and
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Frome, I thank the Electoral Reform Society for the helpful views that it expressed to many of us. In its brief for this debate, it states:
"Corrupt practices on a grand scale have become feasible again for the first time in 130 years. Of course, this is not a guarantee that such events will occurbut the risk is increased".
There is much further evidence, not only in the Electoral Commission's latest reportwhich came out only on 8 December, so I forgive the right hon. Lady for not having seen itbut in many of the other research papers produced by the House of Commons Library and by the Local Government Association, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
I shall give way to the right hon. Lady in a moment. She spoke in the debate on Second Reading, so I know of her interest.
Much of the evidence was publicised at the time of the postal pilots, even on the front pages of some of our national newspapers. There were allegations of fraud, some of which may not have been substantiated, but there were certainly some documented cases of fraud having taken place. The Electoral Reform Society, the Local Government Association and we in the House must take those increased risks seriously. There are particular problems, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, with houses in multiple occupation, the way in which the paperwork is sent, and the verifiability and securityby way of double envelopesthat are needed, in our view, in postal pilots.
The hon. Gentleman's quote from the Electoral Reform Society related to worries about risks and not to evidence. I am prepared to look at any evidence that may exist. He said that if the system was not broke, there was no need to fix it, but huge increasesfrom, say, 25 per cent. to 60 per cent. in turnout for local electionsshow that there was a problem that postal ballots are doing a great deal to address.
I disagree with the right hon. Lady's conclusion. I refer her to the Electoral Commission report, which was only issued on 8 December, as I mentioned. In passing, I may say that I was slightly surprised that the Electoral Commission, which has previously been good at immediately sending all its reports to hon. Members who are interested in these matters, did not manage to get that report to us. I am indebted to Library officials, as we so often are, for getting me a photocopy, without which I could not have referred to the issues involved. Under the title "Fraud considerations", paragraph 2.31 states:
"The Commission takes issues of fraud and the perception of fraud very seriously, and has recommended to Government that additional measures be introduced as part of future all-postal and electronic pilot schemes, to ensure more effective deterrence against, and measuring of, attempted fraud. We note that the Government has included in the Pilots bill a changed offence of personation for the pilot area in line with the previous Commission recommendation."
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The report goes on to state:
"The Commission has further stated that all-postal voting should not be made generally available until further measures are introduced.critically the Commission believes that the introduction of individual registration is a necessary precondition for moving beyond all-postal pilot schemes to full roll-out."
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
(Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that the possibility of intimidation, which has not been mentioned, is relevant? One benefit that our time-honoured system provides is absolute security so that peoplelet us say that they could mainly be women in this contextcan vote in safety in the privacy of the ballot booth. If people will now be expected to fill out voter forms in the home, the office or wherever, there is at least a risk that they could be intimidated by other family members or who knows whom, and we should be very aware of that issue in considering the possibilities.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. The issue to which he refers is one of the reasons why extra elements of security are so vital in relation to postal voting.
Furthermorethis may help the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and other hon. Membersthe House of Commons research paper on the issues associated with the Bill contains a lot of work on fraud and the danger that it may increase under the Bill. The research paper states:
"there is concern that personation has taken place at previous elections. A question asked by Lord Greaves in the House of Lords highlighted some areas of concern".
That question was asked in 199798. In relation to the most recent Birmingham city council elections and the postal pilot in Birmingham, the research paper goes on to state:
"A politician appointed to investigate claims of fraud at this year's Birmingham City Council elections says he has already uncovered 'worrying' evidence pointing towards possible irregularities."
That comes from somebody who was appointed to look into claims that fraud might have taken place. The document continues:
"At the heart of the inquiry are claims that postal votes were misused and that organised gangs 'stole' hundreds of votes through personationfalsely claiming to be people on the electoral register."
Councillor Alden, who is in charge of the inquiry, was hoping to complete it by the end of this month. I have not seen the results, but there is serious concern. Councillor Alden states:
"There is worrying evidence of a substantial amount of personation in Birmingham over the past few years, where people are impersonating other people at the polling station and voting."
A report published in The Guardian
in September last year also referred to a number of allegations of electoral fraud. The issue has not simply been dreamed up by Opposition Members; it is causing concern throughout the country, and in cities such as Birmingham and Leicester; indeed, what happened in Leicester was one of the cases publicised in the national press.
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Mr. Tom Harris:
Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) about the difference between the potential for fraud and the reality, the hon. Gentleman may be able to confirm that some of the problems that he has mentioned occurred in traditional polling booth voting and would not arise only in postal voting. The traditional voting arrangements already have potential for a huge amount of deception and fraud, but he seems inordinately concerned about opportunities for fraud in postal voting. Surely, the only reason why fraud has been detected in postal ballots is that no investigations such as those that have been mentioned have occurred in respect of traditional polling. If such investigations took place, there might be evidence to show that fraudulent voting and personation has occurred on some scale throughout the country for more than 100 years.
I do not think that the Electoral Reform Society, which has the experts and specialists on this matter, takes that view. In commenting specifically on what happened in the all-postal pilots in the 2003 local elections, it said:
"Other problems arose as a result of the all-postal pilots. In the past, postal votes were open to council offices in the two days prior to polling day and party observers were able to watch this process providing they had signed a declaration of secrecy. However, with the vast numbers involved in all-postal ballots, councils took the decision to open the ballots as they came in and invited party observers to watch. At this much earlier stage, it was therefore possible for parties to see how they were doing in each ward and effect changes to their campaigning strategy as a result. There needs to be a debate about whether this is a desirable outcome from the move to all-postal ballots or whether the declaration of secrecy should seek to (or even can) bar discussion within a party over their prospects."
There is not only the personation problem, but the intimidation problem to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred, as well as the secrecy issue. Without being too partisan about those issues, we are genuinely trying to introduce extra elements of security, especially in respect of houses in multiple occupation.