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Pilot Order

Lords amendment No. 3.

Mr. Leslie: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Lords amendment No. 3 would require a declaration of identity to be used as part of the pilot schemes. That issue was discussed at great length in another place and the Government made clear their intention to mandate it within the pilot order that a ballot paper must be validated with a security statement signed by the elector alone. We have considered the issues raised and do not intend, as the amendment suggests we should, to require electors additionally to obtain the signature of a witness.

We have taken our lead from the Electoral Commission in this case. In its report entitled "The shape of elections to come", it identifies a number of reasons for utilising the security statement with a single signature in place of the declaration of identity with a witness signature from a third party. The commission feels that the requirement to complete a declaration discourages some electors from voting as it could be difficult to find a witness, meaning that there is a risk of disfranchisement for some. It also feels that the need for a witness, involving another person in the process, could increase the risk of a breach of security, as the witness may see the elector's vote, which would mitigate the measure as a safeguard against fraud.

The commission reported that, in 2003, all the local authorities carrying out all-postal pilots for the second year running would have preferred to dispense with the declaration of identity with a witness signature, as in their view it unnecessarily increased the number of rejected ballot papers. The commission noted:

That equates to 2.5 per cent. of the total turnout. Piloting is about learning lessons, and the clear lesson that has been learned from previous pilots is that the use of a witness requirement in all-postal ballots risks increasing disfranchisement and compromising secrecy and security.

Mr. Forth: I understand that the Minister might want to curtail his remarks in this part of the debate, but he did skate rather quickly over the analysis that he gave us. Did Trafford authority explain why it thought that ballots with a sole signature were more easily accepted than those signed by a witness? Why were so many more rejected in the second case than the first, and does that give us some clues about what is going on?

Mr. Leslie: All that I can go on is the report of the Electoral Commission, which surveyed local authorities

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and found that they said that they would prefer to dispense with the declaration of identity and witness signatures. I suspect that that is because of the extra complexities and hurdles that that creates for an elector, such as finding a witness, ensuring that the witness form is filled out correctly as well as the ballot paper and so forth.

That is not the only reason why a witness requirement is not needed. It might discriminate again those who are disabled or people who find it difficult to get a witness. There might be a specific need to consider the impact of witness requirements on people with disabilities. Officials from my Department recently met representatives from Scope and the Royal National Institute of the Blind, which expressed the strong view that a witness requirement provides another obstacle that bars many disabled people from voting in secret at their convenience. Scope felt so strongly about the issue that it wrote a letter expressing its views, which stated:

I thought it important to state Scope's view to the House.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Will the Minister explain how the presence of a witness to verify a signature would make it more likely that a voter would spoil his or her ballot paper because I do not understand that logic? Will he guide me through that, because I would have thought that the contrary was the case? Surely the process would be easier for a person with a visual handicap if a witness were present than if there were no witness?

Mr. Leslie: People with a visual impairment might well require somebody to help them to cast their ballot, but returning officers can assist those voters. However, the requirement would put a specific hurdle in front of electors who did not normally come into contact with people who could witness their ballot paper, especially if they wished to cast their vote in secrecy.

The forgery of one signature does not preclude the forgery of a second. It has been argued that a declaration of identity would be a more effective deterrent against fraud than the security statement with a single signature that we propose. However, it must surely be the case that people prepared to risk the consequences of forging an elector's signature would not be put off by the need to forge a witness signature on a declaration of identity. I trust that the House will disagree with that aspect of the Lords amendment.

The Lords amendment would also require returning officers to send out receipts or acknowledgements to everyone whose vote was received. I urge the House to resist that suggestion. The pilots are designed to build on the experience of previous schemes. The use of acknowledgements has not been piloted before and the Electoral Commission has not recommended that approach. Acknowledgements are not provided for postal votes returned in a conventional election. It would be extremely risky to pilot acknowledgements for the first time on such a large scale given that we have no experience to draw on.

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Additionally, such a measure would be extremely costly and would put a significant additional administrative burden on returning officers and their staff. Initial estimates put the total cost throughout four regions at between £2 million and £2.5 million, and I am sure that Opposition Members would not want that additional spending to be incurred. That assessment is also reflected in the views of the Electoral Commission, which, in a statement produced for Report in another place, wrote:

It is thus clear that opposition to the amendment comes not only from the Government but from those with practical experience of running and assessing pilots.

It is doubtful that the receipt process would be an effective anti-fraud measure. We are taking steps to reduce risks in such situations as houses in multiple occupation, but an individual who is willing to accept the consequences of fraudulently taking an elector's vote might well put in place contingencies to intercept any acknowledgement. There are thus many ways in which the measure would not be as strong an anti-fraud measure as it might appear to be. We feel very strongly about that.

Mr. Brady: The Minister says that the Government are taking steps to prevent fraud in houses in multiple occupation. Will he tell us what those steps are?

Mr. Leslie: I certainly will. Regional returning officers have already considered the matter in some detail. They are looking at houses in multiple occupation in their geographical areas. They are noting and visiting them and ensuring that there are mechanisms through which ballot papers can be delivered to individual apartments within the curtilage of houses in multiple occupation, if necessary. Regional returning officers have been paying great attention to the matter, which was discussed in Committee and on Report.

We feel strongly that the receipt and acknowledgement process would be unnecessary. It would be expensive and would not represent a useful anti-fraud mechanism. I hope that the House will reject Lords amendment No. 3.

Mr. Hawkins: As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) implies, not on the strength of what the Minister said—it was very weak—would Conservative Members agree to overturn a provision that the other place rightly put in the Bill. As I have already said, the Government lost the vote on the amendment in the other place heavily—by 157 votes to 110. I wish to refer to what was said in another place by my noble Friend Baroness Hanham, and by the Liberal Democrats, Lord Rennard and Lord Greaves.

Conservative Members believe that the dangers of fraud and personation could be significantly reduced if, as the amendment provides, a signature on the declaration of identity were required. The matter was debated in Grand Committee in another place on 26 January 2004, and debated again on 23 February 2004,

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which is when the vote took place. On 26 January, Lord Rennard spoke for the Liberal Democrats and pointed out that in all-postal voting pilots, his party, like mine,

to which Lord Greaves had referred—I cited them in the previous debate. Lord Rennard continued:

than Ministers are

or all-postal pilots are

As he rightly said, the measure

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