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I want to make it clear that I recognise that the possibility exists of malpractice in postal voting. Indeed, the argument in favour of the pilots is to make sure that such a system is as reliable as the polling station system. But let us be clear: there has been some fraud at polling stations, and in some parts of the United Kingdom it still goes on. We need to ensure that we develop a postal voting system that is as fair as the current one.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is the distinguished Chairman of a Committee of the Housea Committee that has produced written evidence that should be read by every Member taking part in this debate. I do not want him to pre-empt the views of his Committee, but does the evidence it has received lead him to the view that there are serious electoral fraud issues that need to be addressed as part of the pilot process?
Andrew Bennett: Yes, and I was about to come to that point. I want my constituents to be able to vote by post, but I do not want the system to fall into disrepute as a result of the introduction of fraud.
I have seen no evidence to suggest that more fraud has occurred in the pilots conducted so far than is already possible under the postal voting system. We have published the evidence to which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and my hon. Friend the Minister referred, and we will take oral evidence tomorrow morning. I want to encourage anybody who has a view on the possibility of fraud to let us have such evidence. However, we should be able to design a postal voting system that is at least as good as the current system, and hopefully we can design one that is better. Disabled groups have advanced arguments about the problem of disfranchisement. I have always accepted that problems arise with postal votes in old people's homes, because it is difficult to ascertain whether the vote is being cast by the old person in question, or by someone who is assisting them. But that problem is not confined to the new proposal; it already exists.
My plea to this House and to the House of Lords is to let us have some more pilots, and to let us learn from that experience. I hope that I can present to the House a Select Committee report that makes recommendations on some of the things that need to be done to ensure that we have a secure and fair voting system.
Mr. Heath: I excuse the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) from what I am about to say because he has made a very important contribution to the debate, but I should say that I find this debate and the circumstances in which we are holding it profoundly depressing. The more I listened to the Minister, the more I felt that a measure of shabby expediency was being dressed up in matters of high electoral principle. I am afraid that that simply will not wash.
There has been a process of partial quotation of the letter from Mr. Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, to the Under-Secretary, most of which has been read out today. However, it is worth drawing attention to its opening sentence, which states:
Mr. Heath: That is not what the letter suggests. It suggests that we know only too well what the Electoral Commission was saying, and that the commission is seriously put out by the fact that Ministers insist on saying that it included in its recommendations matters that it clearly did not.
Mr. Leslie: I have already said clearly that we have a disagreement with the Electoral Commission about the definition and scale of a pilot, and that the commission made a positive recommendation for two regions. My point was that there was a middle category of recommendations, with some regions that the commission said were potentially suitable, but that that was being misrepresented to suggest that it had said no to Yorkshire and the north-west, which is not the case.
Mr. Heath: I hope that hon. Members who intend to take part in the Division later will go to the Library and read the letter from the Electoral Commission, because it is incapable of the interpretation that the Minister is putting on it. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) has already pointed out the declaratory statement in the letter, which cannot be interpreted as the Minister has interpreted it. In the view of the Electoral Commission,
Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I shall not go into the totality of the Electoral Commission's proposals to reduce fraud, but it drew attention to a number of ways in which electoral law needs to be improved to satisfy the requirements for a fair election.
I entirely accept that, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said, those strictures apply equally to postal votes under the current arrangements. However, the problem with all-postal ballots is that they multiply by a considerable factor the capacity for fraud to have a significant impact on the electoral outcome. Perhaps that is not the case with European parliamentary elections, because of the extraordinary mechanism that we have for them, but the European elections in June will be combined with those for many local authorities, and the capacity for the outcome of local authority elections to be distorted on that basis is considerable. Hon. Members should be aware of that danger.
The Government's position has changed almost continually. When the idea was originally proposed, they simply wanted, for obvious administrative reasons, to bring together the date of the local government elections and that of the European parliamentary elections, so as to maximise the turnout for both. That seems an entirely laudable aim, and that was the limit of their expectations. Then we heard the suggestion about the three pilots. It was repeated again and again that the Government were looking for three pilots; indeed, that was the advice that they gave the Electoral Commission.
I understand that there may have been some disappointment in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister when the Electoral Commission said that there were only two, rather than three, regions that it could positively recommend. On Report, the Minister said that he thought that the Government would consider a third region with a view to bringing it into the net. I do not think that anybody who contributed to that debate or listened to it thought that that meant anything other than that the runner-up would be considered.
As we know, the Electoral Commission judged that the next most suitable region was Scotland. Scottish Members argued strongly that Scotland should be included. Instead, however, the extraordinary and shabby outcome is that the northern English regions will be included, with no apparent logic, ahead of Scotland. I strongly suspect the involvement of the Deputy Prime Minister here. I suspect that he has insisted that, for what purpose I do not know, he will have an all-postal ballot in his part of the countryYorkshire and the Humber. That is probably the single determining factor.
In taking that view, the Government have set aside their own original criteria. The Minister said that he disregarded complexity, and did not believe that it was an issue that needed to override other considerations. Indeed, he thought that there was a positive benefit to including a complex region. If so, why on earth did the original criteria given to the Electoral Commission expressly say that regions that were over-complex should be omitted, because so many local authority elections were happening on that day? If those are the criteria that the Electoral Commission was asked to considerthey were the Government's idea, not its ownwhy are the Government now taking a different view?
I understand that some Members are keen to have all-postal ballots in their areas. We all want innovation that really increases voter turnout, but we have to ask ourselves: when is a pilot not a pilot? The answer is: when the pilot includes almost half of England, and almost half the local authorities that will hold elections on that day. Those with an historical bent might recognise that the whole of the Danelaw will have all-postal ballots but that no part of Wessex or Anglia will have that benefit.
I do not suppose that ethnic considerations from the middle ages have come into play, but I do wonder why an all-postal ballot is considered appropriate for areas that the Government feel have a higher propensity to vote for the Labour party, but not for areas that tend to vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Conservative party.
In an earlier intervention it was suggested that postal voting was an important issue for coalfield communities. If the issue is important for retired coal miners in the north, why is it not so for retired coal miners in the Rhondda, or in Kent, or in my constituency? Why are they not to have postal voting? If the logic is that we can extend the pilot to any level, why not include the whole country? Let us have a single electoral system for the whole country.
That view is not being taken, however. We are to have one law north of the Trent and another south of it. That cannot be an acceptable way to run an election in which the campaigns will be conducted on a national, not a local basis. Those are the considerations that lead me to recommend in the strongest possible terms that my right hon. and hon. Friends hold firm to the position of our noble Friends in another place and resist the Government's blandishmentsnot because we do not want electoral practice to be reformed, but because the Government are making the changes for their own ends, not for the stated objectives.