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Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): There has been much talk about corruption in elections, and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) specifically mentioned my city of Bradford. I should like to highlight a few incidents that have taken place under the present system, but we should also acknowledge that corruption in elections is perpetrated by political parties and by people acting on their behalf. If we got to grips with certain types of people in political parties, we would not have these problems.
One candidate in the 1992 general electionI stress that it was not connected with my campaignwas offering £5 for a polling card. When that was brought to my attention, we encouraged people who were going to vote to retain their polling cards. After they had voted, they delivered their cards to that candidate and collected their £5. It must have cost him about £2,000, but he did not get a single vote out of it. That happened under the present electoral system.
More recently in Bradford, large gangs of thugsperhaps 50 or 60 people have congregated around several polling stations in the inner city area. They have intimidated electors, telling them how to vote and threatening them with physical violence if they do not accept their advice. That is what is happening on the ground under the current system.
In 2001, the first election for which the new system of postal votes was in placeand bearing in mind that it was not necessary to have a medical or other specified reason to apply for a postal votethere was a 500 per cent. increase in the number of Bradford electors using postal votes. What were the problems and difficulties experienced in Bradford in 2001, that drew national attention at the time? The problems were mainly connected with registration for postal votes, which does not happen in all-out postal votes where there is no application stage. In 2001, we once again had gangs of thugs going around collecting signed application forms for postal votes, then redirecting where the votes were sent to. One gentlemanI use the terms looselywas arrested. He had 31 blank ballot papers in his pocket, but the police said that he had not committed any offence. That is happening under the current system.
In Bradford, four wards out of 30 had problems, and I am talking about the general election and two subsequent local elections. In Yorkshire, nine wards out of 400 experienced difficulties. That is no reason to deny the vast majority of the population the right to an all-out postal vote. Some argue that, the greater the turnout, the more the impact of fraudulent practices is diluted. There is a ceiling to how many people can be conned and corrupted, and a big turnout helps to overcome the problem.
I have said it to the Minister before, but the police and returning officers must take fraud and corruption more seriously. On numerous occasions over the years, West Yorkshire police have not regarded such incidents as a priority. That is a fault of the system; it is not to do with an all-out postal vote. It is a problem with applying the law, taking action, prosecuting people and, if necessary, sending them to jail.
As we all know, the root of democracy is the right to vote. The real issue is the absolute sanctity of the secret ballot. People who try to abuse that should spend a long time in custody at Her Majesty's pleasure. Such offences should be a priority for the police and returning officers. If the law needs amending, let us amend it.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am pleased to be able to contribute briefly to this very important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) on being able to quote useful examples relating to his constituency. The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) also did so.
A great deal of the debate has concentrated on how to increase turnout, whether in referendums, local government elections or at European parliamentary elections. I pose the following question to the House: is achieving an increased vote what we are about? Is an increased vote achieved merely by increased convenience? Does an increased vote mean that there is increased interest in politics and what is going on in the local council, in Westminster, in the United Kingdom or in the European Parliament? I wonder whether an increased vote indicates an increased interest and an increased desire to be involved.
I disagreed with the hon. Member for Bradford, North when he said that if we move to an all-postal electoral system, the limited amount of current fraud will not be multiplied. In that regard, I associate myself entirely with the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who made an excellent speech that reflected what will happen in an all-postal system.
As somebody who has fought 10 parliamentary electionsone fewer than my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack); I associate myself with the totality of his remarksI have some understanding of what makes the electorate tick and what encourages them to turn out. I have great admiration for the Minister, who is one of the most able and articulate Ministers in the Government. I do not say that lightly; I have listened to many of his speeches and he has sought to advance his case in an able, constructive and articulate way. However, I happen to have reached a different conclusion from his. I believe that fewer and fewer people have voted in recent elections because they no longer believe that Parliament is relevant.
Shall I tell the House why? It is because successive Governmentsincluding the current onehave sought to bypass Parliament. Indeed, many Labour Members are concerned about the way in which their Government are trying to diminish the relevance of this place to debate legislation. If this place is deemed irrelevant, people will rightly ask why they should vote for those who stand for election to it. I refer to the Executive of the day and not just the present Labour Government. In some ways, although not quite so blatantly, my party when in power sought to abuse, undermine and bypass this place in order to get on to the statute book the legislation that it required. We have only to look at the way in which Select Committees are appointed
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Indeed; that is why I believe that the other place was right to reduce the number of pilot projects from four to two. I accept that their lordships expected the Government to increase the number proposed by the Electoral Commission from two to three, but they are certainly most unhappy about the increase from two to fourfor the reasons that so many hon. Members have given during this debate.
I hope that you will allow me a little discretion, Madam Deputy Speaker. In addition to the Government's bypassing of this place, which makes people not want to vote because they do not think that the House is relevant, the political parties have played a part. The parties have sought to take away the independence of Members of Parliament in genuinely believing in or opposing an issue and in seeking to represent the best interests of their constituency or constituents. Given that the Executive of the day bypass the House and that the political parties seek to dominate and use their members merely as cannon fodder, why should people vote?
Therefore, I disagree with some of the views of the hon. Member for Bradford, North, as I did with those expressed by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), for whom I have the highest regard. Let us consider why people are not voting instead of trying to make it more convenient for them to vote, especially given that an increase in voting is not an indication of more interest in politics and in what is going on in this place, in local councils and in the European Parliament.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, I am concerned that the Government have sought modestly to misrepresent the views expressed by the chairman of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, who is clearly not happy that a third of the United Kingdom should be involved in a pilot scheme. Almost half of England is to be involved. That can hardly be described as a pilot project.
I am not sure whether the Minister is winding up the debate, but I hope that he is and that he will respond to my intervention on what positive steps are being taken to ensure that there are adequate safeguards not only to minimise any abuse of the postal voting process, but to guarantee the integrity of the electoral register. In doing so, we must bear it in mind that the incidence of abuse could dramatically increase in an all-postal election and that there could therefore be major distortion of the results in some parts of the country.
Many people are concerned that it is now very easy to get a name on an electoral register for an address. No such person lives at that address, but they have been registered by the individual who completes the form each year. Surely we want honest, fair and transparent elections. We do not want just to try to make it more convenient for people to vote. What thought has the Minister given to the valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire about the impact of the new system on campaigning? As there will be a period between when postal votes have to be sent