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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:

There is much further evidence, not only in the Electoral Commission's latest report—which came out only on 8 December, so I forgive the right hon. Lady for not having seen it—but 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.

Joyce Quin rose—

Mr. Hawkins: 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 security—by way of double envelopes—that are needed, in our view, in postal pilots.

Joyce Quin: 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 increases—from, say, 25 per cent. to 60 per cent. in turnout for local elections—show that there was a problem that postal ballots are doing a great deal to address.

Mr. Hawkins: 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:

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The report goes on to state:

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 people—let us say that they could mainly be women in this context—can 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.

Mr. Hawkins: 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.

Furthermore—this may help the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and other hon. Members—the 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:

That question was asked in 1997–98. In relation to the most recent Birmingham city council elections and the postal pilot in Birmingham, the research paper goes on to state:

That comes from somebody who was appointed to look into claims that fraud might have taken place. The document continues:

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:

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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2.15 pm

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.

Mr. Hawkins: 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:

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.

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