Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Gummer: Is not the central issue raised with the Minister that of houses in multiple occupation? I did not find his explanation convincing. It seems that nothing is being done; the matter is only being considered. Can my hon. Friend think of anything that would be more effective than ensuring that a ballot paper is given an endorsement each time so that people do not pick up at least half a dozen votes, vote in one place, then send them off in the post?

8.30 pm

Mr. Hawkins: My right hon. Friend is right. I was coming to what was said in another place about houses in multiple occupation, and his intervention is helpful. I agree that the Minister is not saying that anything is being done. There is nothing to that effect on the face of the Bill. We tried to debate the matter in Committee and to introduce more safeguards, which another place has been successful in achieving.

In Grand Committee, the noble Lord Rennard talked about the protection needed in particular for people in houses in multiple occupation. He said:

It would be

I entirely agree. He went on to say:

examples of which were given by Lord Greaves and which I mentioned earlier—

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1326

Again, I entirely agree, as my noble Friend Baroness Hanham did. Lord Rennard concluded:

He said that it would also be helpful to send out receipts. If a receipt is sent to the elector, it gives the elector confidence that the process is working properly, which he or she would not otherwise have.

Mr. Forth: I sense that my hon. Friend is in only his preliminary remarks and will come to a more profound analysis as we make progress. I hope that he will comment on the Minister's astonishing assertion that people with disabilities would find it more difficult to find someone to witness their signature than others would. Surely people with disabilities are more likely to have carers who are interested in and concerned with their welfare, and are therefore much more likely to be supported in that regard than those of us who are not in that condition. Will my hon. Friend comment on the Minister's rather facile assertion?

Mr. Hawkins: I was surprised that a couple of charities, mentioned in another place, suggested that this relatively straightforward and simple precaution would cause problems. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the regular presence of carers would make the position easier for disabled people.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister, who made a convincing case, did not simply give his own view. He mentioned Scope, which is not just another charity. No organisation has done more work to encourage access to voting and polling. I think its views should be taken more seriously.

Mr. Hawkins: The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have great respect for his views. We always consider carefully what respected charities propose, but it is still possible to disagree, as my right hon. Friend has done. However, I was not seeking to belittle Scope's submission. The right hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I always take the views of respected charities and, indeed, his views, seriously.

The concerns raised by Opposition Members here and in another place about the extra precautions that need to be included in the Bill to prevent personation are serious. My noble Friend Baroness Hanham referred to the concerns expressed by senior police officers in the west midlands about the increase in personation. The noble Baroness Gould of Potternewton described some of the tactics employed by Militant Tendency in the 1980s in respect of personation at polling stations. Other noble Lords, such as Lord Alton of Liverpool, mentioned what had gone wrong with personation in Liverpool in the 1980s. There are abuses and examples of fraud in a number of places. That is why another place was right to insist that the extra precautions should be included in the Bill. We think that they should be upheld in that, and we will certainly vote to that effect.

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1327

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I strongly support what my hon. Friend the Minister said in giving the Government's view on the changes introduced in another place. I am disappointed with the Lords amendment and regret the determination of Opposition parties to do their utmost to prevent all-postal ballots. They seem to think that such ballots cannot be conducted without large-scale fraud. As a result, I am starting to feel somewhat insulted on behalf of my constituents, who have had three successful experiments with all-postal voting without any fraud taking place. Given the success in such areas, I wish that Opposition Members would look much more at the evidence than at unfounded fears.

I was very disappointed that the noble Lord Rennard, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, said that without the changes even the north-east should not be a pilot region, despite the fact that more than 50 per cent. of its population have experimented successfully with all-postal ballots. It is important to bear that statistic in mind.

Ministers here and in another place have made the important point that the Electoral Commission does not favour the added hurdles that are being proposed. Given that Opposition Members extolled the commission's role, it is ironic that they are prepared to fly in its face on this issue.

I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said. He thought that a great deal of party politicking had occurred in another place, and that is regrettable. People of all parties in my area have very much welcomed the change to all-postal ballots. They will be extremely disappointed if the amendment is upheld tonight.

Mr. Heath: Judging by the comments of the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), for whom I have a great deal of respect, a casual listener to the debate might assume that the addition of a new barrier to postal voting was being proposed. However, it is in place already. It is exactly the position that the right hon. Lady had with her all-postal ballot. It is the position that will apply for half of England, all of Scotland and all of Wales in June when the elections take place.

I note that the right hon. Lady shakes her head, but what I have said will be the case. That is what will happen in every area outside the pilot regions with postal ballots. Those who use the postal ballot will be required to have a countersignature of a witness to a declaration of identity. It is hardly a novel approach that is being advocated. It is a continuation of current practice.

Joyce Quin: Surely the hon. Gentleman will accept that when we are having all-postal ballots the scale of what is involved is extremely important. My local authority—Gateshead—has been extremely successful in this context but has been very much opposed to these procedures. It feels that they will make it extremely difficult to have an all-postal ballot in the area in time for the elections.

Mr. Heath: I can only observe that it has not been an obstacle until now for the councils that have undertaken all-postal ballots.

We must have a care in the House not to provide opportunity for electoral fraud where that opportunity is currently reduced. I accept that there is a better way

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1328

of doing things. I accept that that is personal registration with the electoral registration officer, by means of providing proof of identity that is individual to that person rather than requiring an intercession by a witness. That is what I would like to see universally applied as the authentication of postal ballots. However, we are not yet in that position.

In the circumstances, it seems perverse to throw away the rather rudimentary and not entirely acceptable precaution that we have, in the absence of a replacement that I think would be much better. That seems to be the right precautionary approach to take. It is the approach taken by my noble Friend Lord Rennard, which happily secured the support of others.

I accept that there are real issues to do with people with disabilities. The House knows that I do a fair amount of work with the RNIB, which has serious concerns, as has Scope. Not all those concerns are focused on the issue of identity being verified by a witness. People with visual impairments could easily be provided with templates to enable voting to take place. Another issue is single-channel voting and whether alternatives should be available for people with visual impairment.

I accept that there are issues concerning the secrecy of the ballot that involve people with disabilities, which we should take seriously. Equally, we should take seriously the possibility of fraud in postal ballots that is not confined to the pilots and not to all postal ballots. However, they might be multiplied in their effect and might take place within current voting arrangements.

If right hon. and hon. Members read the evidence given to the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, they will see at least anecdotal evidence, if not objective evidence, of potential for fraud in houses of multiple occupation. There is at least anecdotal evidence that increases in turnout are not largely effected by an increased number of households voting, but by more people within households voting.

That should be a matter of at least suspicion if not concern. It suggests that the head of a household, or some person within a household, has rounded up the entire family rather than there being a genuine widening of the franchise into new areas.

I want to see these experiments succeed, and I want also to encourage ways of voting. However, I ask the House to consider carefully, before removing the precautions that are now in place, the effect of voting against the amendment from another place. It is to remove for half of England—not the other half, not for Scotland, not for Wales, not for the elections in London and not for the elections in most of the country next June, but just for the pilot areas—a precaution that has hitherto been thought necessary to avoid electoral fraud. I do not think that we should do that. We should resist the Government's attempt to resist the amendment.

Next Section

IndexHome Page