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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I agree with much of what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris). We should encourage people to vote, and furthermore we should remove any physical obstacles that might prevent them from exercising their democratic right to voice their preferences. That is at the heart of our proposals. New clause 2, however, would prevent all-postal ballots from taking place until the establishment of certain security and contingency measures. An identical amendment was tabled in Committee, but was not reached.
We do not need contingency measures in the Bill, because adequate provision can be made in the detailed pilot order mentioned in clause 2. I do not deny that we need extra measures to combat fraud, but they belong in the pilot order.
My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) mentioned houses in multiple occupation. I assure him that we will consider hand delivery to certain areas if there is evidence of a problem. We have not closed our minds to the need for all people to receive the ballot papers to which they are entitled in as reasonable a way as possible.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): A university hall of residence, for instance, may contain 150 students in separate rooms. Is the Minister suggesting that the election officer will hand deliver to each student?
Mr. Leslie: I hope that that will not be necessaryI have considerable faith in the workings of the postal servicebut if there is evidence of a failure the regional returning officers will take account of it and consider hand delivery if that proves necessary. I do not think that that will be the norm, though. It has not been the norm under the existing postal voting arrangementsmany students and others in houses in multiple occupation already apply for and are granted postal votes through the postal authorities.
New clause 2 suggests that a "verifiable form of identification" accompany each vote cast. Unlike the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart, I understood that to mean that the ballot paper should be accompanied by, for example, a passport or driving licence, or perhaps a gas or electricity bill. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome suggested sotto voce that it was actually a reference to individualised registration, which is something we are considering. Certainly, if we are to extend all-postal voting permanently, we shall need to ensure that we can act in such a way if it proves necessary.
Mr. Heath: Let me be less sotto voce. Unfortunately, we do not have the opportunity to provide explanatory notes with new clauses. If pre-registration of identity were adopted, a document to that effect could accompany a ballot paper.
Mr. Leslie: As I said, we are considering the Electoral Commission's proposal for individual registration, and that may well be possible. However, I do not think that either the verifiable form of identification suggested in the new clause or the extra criterion proposed by the hon. Gentleman is necessary. Under our proposed arrangements, voters will already be required to verify their identities by signing a security statement. It is difficult to see what difference providing another form of identification would make, and how the system would be administered.
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is challenging not just all-postal voting, but the principle that has for a long time enabled people to exercise their right to vote via the post. I do not believe that any system is beyond criticism, but that also applies to conventional polling station voting. No doubt all hon. Members could dream up a series of theoretical scenarios involving potential fraudulence, but I know of no evidence of any significant problem involving "harvesting". If we have evidence of a particularly pernicious problem we will certainly consider action, but in the absence of such evidence that would be a somewhat academic exercise.
Mr. Forth: At its simplest, my argument is as follows. It is unlikely that I could persuade someone at a polling station that I was Mrs. Forth; it is much more likely that I could use her ballot paper and vote by post on her behalf. The onus is on those who argue for increased postal voting to provide much more reassurance that what is impossible at a polling station will be equally impossible by post.
Mr. Leslie: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says but it does not affect what I said to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). Anyone can imagine any number of possible scenarios, but in practice we must act on the evidence we have, and I see no evidence of a problem in that regard.
The new clause also proposes that all voters should receive acknowledgments. They are not sent under the traditional arrangements for postal voting, and in the case of all-postal voting such a system would prove both costly and burdensome. Surely it is more sensible to ensure that ballot papers are delivered correctly in the first place. Our work with the postal authorities and returning officers will minimise the potential for fraud and lost ballot papers.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The example that the Conservatives quoted in respect of personation is a good one. The Minister said that there is no evidence, but there are other examples of postal election fraudinvolving care homesthat returning officers are concerned about. Indeed, there are many examples of care home owners having tampered with the
New clause 2 refers to drop-off points and active polling stations, to which people can still physically go to place their ballot. Such provision is already planned, and I can assure the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that, as a minimum, returning officers will be required to provide at least one supported drop-off point in each local authority district. However, they will have discretion to provide more drop-off points in places suitable for local people, if doing so is appropriate to the particular locality. The hon. Member for Upminster was seeking that level of flexibility. At supported drop-off points, voters will be able to complete and deposit their ballot papers in an environment similar to that of a traditional polling station. They will also have access to trained election officials.
The final part of new clause 2 would give automatic effect to any Electoral Commission recommendation on reducing personation or other electoral fraud. That would not be appropriate. Constitutionally, it would not be appropriate to hand over our law-making powers to the commission, as it cannot be held accountable in the same way as Ministers can. Although the commission's advice is extremely valuable, the Government will always want to consider the recommendations in the broader scheme of things, and to make decisions accountable to Parliament. The Bill's two provisions relating to electoral offences stem from commission recommendations. They provide a safe and secure basis on which to undertake the pilot, in addition to existing electoral law provisions and the further arrangements that, as I have already undertaken, will be detailed in the pilot order.
Mr. Hawkins: It would be helpful, given the Minister's undertakings in relation to pilot orders, if he confirmed that each and every pilot order would have to be fully debated by this House. Am I right in that understanding?