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Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): I think that all hon. Members would want to ensure that the secrecy of the ballot was maintained as far as possible. The hon. Gentleman referred to two investigationsone by a councillor and another by The Guardian newspaper. He did not refer, however, to paragraph 2.33 of the Electoral Commission report:
Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman refers to what is now paragraph 2.33 on page 13 of the Electoral Commission's report, but if he reads on, he will see that paragraph 2.36 states:
I shall now deal specifically with the new clauses and amendment. On new clause 2, which was tabled by the Liberal Democrats, but to which we have added our names, we think that verifiability is crucial. We also think that the requirement for acknowledgement by the returning officer is crucial in terms of fraud prevention. I will be very surprised if the Minister is unable to accept the new clause, because it does not harm his legislation in any way, but is something that Conservative Members and the Liberal Democrats feel strongly about.
Most important is paragraph (c), which would ensure that alternative arrangements are put in place in the event of disruptions to postal services. Like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I have many problems with the postal authorities at the moment. I would be straying out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I talked too much about the huge battles in which I am involvedas are many hon. Members on both sides of the Housein attempting to save post offices. I have not been at all impressed by the attitude of the management of the Royal Mail or the Post Office in recent months and years, and I shall continue to pursue those issues over Christmas and the new year.
Paragraph (d) suggests the implementation of any anti-fraud measures that are recommended by the Electoral Commission: again, it is difficult to see why the Government should oppose that sensible change.
I very much hope that the Government will accept new clause 2if not, we shall want to press it.
I turn to our new clause 5, which would provide further protections in relation to postal voting. Many Members on both sides of the House have huge concerns about the significant deterioration in the service that is provided to all our constituents, particularly in the light of the disruption that was caused by the recent industrial action. Those concerns were most recently ventilated in this Chamber last Thursday in the very good debate on the report on the Post Office by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. We therefore believe that the Bill should contain what one might call a come-back against those who run the postal services, so that the chief executive concerned would have to give this House a clear and unambiguous undertaking that the postal services will be able to provide what is required for an all-postal pilot for a combined European and local election. If we do not have that, the pilot should not go ahead.
Conservative Members have added their names to Liberal Democrat amendment No. 3, which, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome explained, would require the Electoral Commission to consult the postal authorities after the event. Taken together, our new clause 5 and the Liberal Democrat amendment would provide for consultation with and undertakings from those managing the postal authorities beforehand, as well as a clear report back afterwards, providing belt and braces security for the arrangements.
I do not want to repeat the sensible points that were made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. We agree with him on this matterindeed, if anything we feel even more strongly about its importance. I hope that the Government will heed this crucial group of improvements to the Bill.
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree) (Lab): I want to comment on a couple of points, the first of which concerns the risk of impersonation and corruption in the electoral process. Historically, there has not been a major problem in this country since the mid-1920s, when cathedral cities were the most prone to corruption, with the seats of ancient universities coming second. Since then, as far as we can tell, we have been almost corruption-free, and one trusts that we will remain so. The danger area is that of all-postal ballots in places with a high degree of multiple occupation. As those of us who have practised the art of politics over many years know, areas of multiple occupation often have the lowest turnouts in any election. There are all sorts of reasons for that, one of which is that the people who live there tend not to stay for long. The opportunity for the misuse of postal ballots must be much greater in those areas than in established communities. I hope that those who observe such matters will pay attention to whether there is a dramatic change in voting patterns in those high-risk areas.
My second point concerns the implication that there may have been personation before, under the traditional system, but we did not know about it. I am not necessarily convinced by that. There was always a safeguard in the shape of the party tellers who sat at the entrance of the village hall, town hall or librarynormally one from each party, and preferably local to the area in which they were taking down the numbers. They might say, "Wait a momentthey have already been in once before", or, "He moved away several years agowhat is he doing voting here?" That degree of involvement or knowledge can be applied in traditional village hall or town hall voting, but is impossible in an all-postal ballot. We need more information, and I hope that the pilot schemes will provide it.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): New clause 2 would introduce some essential safeguards to the security and confidentiality of the postal voting process. All-postal voting was piloted in the London borough of Havering in the last local elections. There was an increase in turnout, so the experiment was successful in that respect. However, I have reservations about making voting easy for people who would otherwise not bother to do so. Postal voting is already available to anybody who is motivated enough to ask for itit is no longer necessary to specify the reason. Anybody who is unable to get to a polling station because he is disabled, working, on holiday, ill, or for any other reason is already eligible for a postal vote. Now, we are spoon-feeding people who cannot be bothered to vote. Instead, we should meet the challenge by increasing people's interest so that they are motivated to take the trouble to vote.
In Havering, several serious flaws in the voting arrangements became apparent during the election period: the new clause seeks to address those. Paragraph (a) would require all ballot papers to be accompanied by
The separation of ballot papers from declarations of identity is a necessary procedure, as the ballot papers have to be put into a ballot box for transfer toin Havering's casethe Electoral Commission for the count. I urge the Minister to ensure that a two-envelope system is always used in any future postal ballot, so that it would be possible to ensure that each ballot paper is accompanied by the requisite declaration of identity, but that no ballot paper could be linked to any identified elector.
Mr. Tom Harris: The new clause refers to the return of ballot papers accompanied by a "verifiable form" of identification. That suggests to me not the simple declaration that I am who I say I am, but a document that says who I am, such as a passport or a driving licence. What is the hon. Lady's understanding of that term?
Angela Watkinson: My understanding is that it is a declaration of identity. I am sure that the new clause does not propose that people should post their precious passports or other documents that could easily be lost. I received significant numbers of complaints from electors who did not wish anybody to be able to see how they had voted. I am sure that given the volume of post nobody had the slightest interest, but the point is that it was possible for that to happen.