I can tell the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that the draft statutory instruments that we have already published, and on which we consulted the Electoral Commission, specify that although the elections will be all-postal, there will still be opportunities for people to leave their postal votes at designated drop-off points in a local authority area. I suspect that proposed new subsection (4) in Lords amendment No. 1 refers to that means of supplementing the postal system.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
(Con): Will the Minister turn his attention to the concern that many of us feel about the integrity and security of the electoral register and, what is more, to whether that integrity and validity would be subject to abuse in a postal vote? According to a conversation that I had with the chairman of the Electoral Commission, he is concerned that a system is not in place to prevent fraud and the abuse of the electoral roll and the postal voting process.
I am glad that Conservative Members have had conversations with the chairman of the Electoral Commission, which is heartening. The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points, the first of
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which concerns the electoral register. That is an important issue, regardless of whether we are talking about an all-postal or a conventional election. His second point, however, relates more directly to postal voting: concerns have been expressed about whether all-postal voting is more prone to fraudulence or malpractice.
I want to consider the Electoral Commission's views. It has stated that the two additional regions of Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west are "potentially suitable", but that it does not feel able
"to make a positive recommendation"
on their suitability. It would therefore be useful to examine what held the commission back from making those positive recommendations, and what has now been done to address those issues. Starting with Yorkshire and the Humber, the commission noted positively that the region has "solid piloting experience", that it has
"no particular barriers to service delivery and is served by good transport links",
and that it has a
"strong daily and weekly press . . . coupled with a clear regional identity".
However, the commission raised queries about the fact that
"some parts of the region have reported that fraud and the perception of fraud has risen since the introduction of postal voting"
on demand, and said that
"it is clear that Returning Officers would strongly prefer not to be involved".
That is how the Electoral Commission explained why it held back from making a positive recommendation on Yorkshire. Its points are valid, and we have been working hard to address them. Much is being done at a national level, but it may be worth while to illustrate what is being done locally in Yorkshire. I recently wrote to its regional returning officer, as well as the regional returning officers in the other pilot regions asking them to update me on their preparations. On the subject of fraud, Paul Rogerson, chief executive of Leeds city council and regional returning officer for Yorkshire and the Humber said that
"discussions between the Region's electoral administrators have been held regarding anti-fraud safeguards. The provisions within the Bill have been noted and welcomed and a number of specific measures are being considered for adoption, including sample checks of those shown as having returned ballot papers, the mounting of local elector awareness campaigns, the establishment of hot line contact points, regular liaison with the Police and the Electoral Commission, the training of staff in supported delivery points, arrangements for the safe delivery of papers to electors in houses in multiple occupation, and checks to be made where multiple requests for the redirection of ballot papers are received."
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)
(Con): Given that the Minister is quoting extensively from a letter that the House has not seen, will he undertake, particularly in light of the fact that he has already been caught out this afternoon indulging in selective quotation, to ensure
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that the full text of all correspondence on which he seeks to rely is placed in the Library, together with the full minutes of any meetings that he or other Ministers have had with any returning officers or the Electoral Commission?
I shall certainly make available to the hon. Gentleman the letters from which I am quoting, as they are useful to my case. Indeed, I wish I had time to circulate them to hon. Members during our debate.
Sir Nicholas Winterton:
Will the Minister place them in the Library?
If I place them in the Library, perhaps hon. Members will be able to go and read them before we vote. I am not sure how efficient my officials will be, but we shall see what we can do. The important point, however, is that the regional returning officer in Yorkshire addressed concerns about fraud. In relation to the commission's point about whether returning officers were willing to participate in postal votes, he said:
"I can report that preparations for the proposed pilot are well underway and that, as might have been expected, electoral administrators from across the region have responded to the challenge presented to them by last month's announcement with their usual diligence and commitment. Indeed, in this regard, I can advise you that, whereas the region's electoral administrators were not initially supportive of an all-postal pilot (for reasons with which you are familiar), the view of a significant majority of the same administrators today is that they would prefer to be allowed to proceed with arrangements for an all-postal ballot in June, than now be constrained to revert to planning for a conventional election."
When discussing its recommendations, the Electoral Commission clearly does not rule out Yorkshire and the Humber as a pilot region and, indeed, has since said in discussions that the region and others marked as "potentially suitable" could deliver an effective pilot. In short, it is quite clear that any doubts about Yorkshire's suitability, whether over fraud or returning officer enthusiasm, have now been overcome.
As for the north-west, the commission noted positively that
"there is a strong record of piloting in the North West18 of 33 authorities have piloted".
It also noted that the north-west returning officer
"has submitted his view that the North West would be well placed to hold an all-postal pilot, and that he would ensure that appropriate resources were put in place to deliver the pilot scheme"
It also noted that the region is diverse, has a strong daily and weekly press and ranks highly for the distinctiveness of its radio services. The commission had several worries however, and said:
"There have been several allegations of electoral fraud in the North West in recent years . . . Some of these investigations could proceed to court in early 2004; this would be likely to produce unfavourable publicity about the security of postal voting".
It was concerned that
"the support for a pilot scheme does not extend across the whole of the region, given the high number of local elections scheduled for 2004".
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Given that large number of elections, it was therefore concerned that
"the complexity of the region would be a disadvantage".
Dr. John Pugh (Southport)
I should like to address each of the commission's concerns in turn, but before doing so I shall give way to the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh).
As the Minister has partly suggested, 80 per cent. of the north-west has atypical elections using two different electoral systems, so their council elections are not characteristic. Is it not perverse to choose the north-west, as the complications are surely greater there than anywhere else?
As I shall seek to explain, if we shy away from complexity and conduct pilots in simple areas with single elections, we avoid the purpose of piloting, which is to learn lessons and build on experience. Complexity can therefore be useful to piloting.
As for the fraud issue raised by the Electoral Commission, it will be useful to quote Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester city council and regional returning officer:
"We are committed to taking every possible step to preserve the integrity of the postal ballot. As I have indicated before, Local Returning Officers are keenly aware that the potential for fraud is something which must be managed irrespective of whether a pilot takes place or not. The police have indicated to me that additional vigilance and early intervention are essential to reduce the opportunities for fraud. We are therefore all working hard with colleagues from the police to develop protocols and programmes on how best fraud can be prevented; this will include checks on returned envelopes and any additions to the electoral register; systems to alert us to a proliferation of proxies or changes of address, and special delivery arrangements to houses in multiple occupation."
As for whether or not there was widespread support from local returning officers, Sir Howard Bernstein wrote:
"I have been very impressed by the consistent and positive attitude all Local Returning Officers have shown to the proposed pilot here in the North West . . . we convened a meeting of all LROs towards the end of last year to discuss the principle of a pilot and everyone present (42 of 43 local authority areas) committed themselves to work to a successful outcome . . . Since your announcement that this region should be a pilot we have met all LROs at a sub-regional level, and their positive approach to the issues has again been demonstrated. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the pilot is a complete success."
I apologise for the length of the quotations, but I think that they are important, as they record the views of independent returning officers, who are responsible for administering all-postal voting in those regions. I have every confidence and faith in their ability to deliver and do the job that they have done in the past. As for the point about complexity, if all-postal voting is ever to move on from a pilot stage, we must be prepared to test in areas that are complex as well as those that are simple.
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