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5. Bob Russell (Colchester)
(LD): Whether the Commission intends to reissue advice to (a) election returning officers and (b) election agents on the level of penalties which will be imposed for breaches of the postal voting system.
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Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) : The commission informs me that, with the political parties, it has developed an advisory code of conduct on postal voting. A draft was published in April 2004 and the commission intends to publish the final version shortly. The code is intended to give guidance to candidates and campaign workers. The commission has also worked with the police on guidance on fraud prevention and has issued a comprehensive guidance manual for returning officers. I shall ask the commission to place copies of all those publications in the Library of the House.
Bob Russell: I am most grateful for that reply and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and everybody involved will ensure that the information is drawn to the attention of everybody who is actively involved in elections, whenever they are held, because we have seen instances when the rules have not been complied with.
Mr. Viggers: Indeed. It may not be widely recognised that postal voting is now very widespread. I am advised, for instance, that in some areas, such as Newcastle, Cardiff and Stevenage, some 50 per cent. of voters have registered for postal votes. The commission expects that demandin Great Britain only, not in Northern Irelandin the forthcoming general election, whenever it may be, will be in the region of 15 per cent. It is obviously extremely important that proper scrutiny and supervision should be exercised.
John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab): Havering borough was one of the first pilot areas for an all-postal ballot in the last local elections in Londonsome time ago. Some of the results in those elections showed deeply unsettling inconsistencies, although nothing further arose. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to send a strong signal that anybody found guilty of perpetrating fraud will be pursued with the full force of the law, because, as he says, there will be a sharp rise in the number of postal votes at the next election?
Mr. Viggers: The Electoral Commission has made recommendations for changes to the law on postal voting. However, its current position is that, under the code of conduct, it is committed to self-regulation to begin with, but it will keep the operation of the code under review.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Is it not a fact that the reservations expressed by the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Hornchurch (John Cryer) carry great weight? The creation of a system of postal voting on demand, in which the genuineness of those applying for and receiving the ballot papers cannot be verified, has been a disaster. The secrecy of the ballot box has been destroyed by the wholesale expansion of a scheme that used to be properly reserved for people who had special reasons for voting by post because they were not able to go to the polling station.
The Electoral Commission would probably take the view that the language used by my hon. Friend was rather stronger than is justified by the circumstances. The commission believes that there is a place for postal voting, but it has moved away from the
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concept that all-postal voting should be the norm in local elections. It now believes that the norm should be based on what it calls its foundation model. The commission's work on voter choice is nearing completion and will be published in due course.
David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I have supported the postal voting system, if only because it means greater participation by those who might not otherwise vote. Is the hon. Gentleman aware, however, that greater safeguards are now needed and, if they are not introduced, the whole idea should be reconsidered? The secrecy of the ballot is our main concern and must always be so.
Mr. Viggers: The House will have heard the hon. Gentleman's contribution. I repeat that the Electoral Commission takes the view that postal voting has an important part to play in our electoral system but that safeguards are extremely important.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Surely, though, we must not sacrifice integrity for participation. The views that have just been expressed in the Chamber echo a widespread unease about the slackness of the new postal voting regime. I hope that my hon. Friend will not think that his code of conduct will in any way be sufficient, and that he will go back to the Electoral Commission and stress that the rules must be applied with the greatest vigour in order to ensure that we can be satisfied that postal votes are properly recorded and used.
Mr. Viggers: The Electoral Commission will hear the points that are made in the House. The commission has made a series of recommendations to the Government to strengthen the legal framework for postal voting. The Government have accepted many of those, and the commission will continue to keep under review the structure and operation of postal voting in Great Britain.
Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell):
The commissioners have entered into discussions with several specialist housing providers with a view to selling the freehold of some of their London residential properties. Tenancy agreements in the event of such sales will not be affected. The commissioners have informed tenants of the discussions taking place, and will communicate with them and other interested parties throughout.
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Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Gentleman, first, tell me either now or later by letter which residents in Southwark would be affected by the proposed change of landlord? Secondly, will he ensure that he passes on to his colleagues the fact that it would be entirely unacceptable if a transfer of landlord from the Church Commissioners to somebody else resulted in tenants being in any way financially disadvantaged?
Sir Stuart Bell:
I can inform the hon. Gentleman that the discussions that are taking place relate to
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480 properties in Stoke Newington, Maida Vale and part of the Waterloo estate, which might be in his constituency. I will be happy to check out the exact figures for his constituency. The commissioners believe that what we are doing will be a good deal for tenants, because unlike the commissioners, the likely new owners are expected to be focused housing providers who are able to invest in the properties for the long term. The commissioners have a wider investment portfolio and a duty to deliver the best possible return in order to help fund the work of the Church.
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for a Member of this House to enter the constituency of another Member to accompany a Member of the European Parliament on what is called "a mobile surgery"? The hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) is, as we speak, in my constituency to be, as she said to the Alloa Advertiser on 17 March,
I did not contact the hon. Lady, although she sent me an e-mail at 8 o'clock this morning to tell me that she was going to be in my constituency. As she is a candidate for the new Ochil and South Perthshire constituency, this is not news to me, but what is news to me is that she is assuming that she can participate in surgeries in my constituency. As I understand it, the election has not been called, Parliament has not been dissolved and, although I am standing down, I am still the hon. Member for Ochil, with an office and a programme of surgeries that will stretch at least into the month of April and perhaps beyond.
I have been in this House for as long as you, Mr. Speaker, and I have never encountered anything like this during those 25 years or more or in the six general elections in which I have fought. Is this a point of order that I am raising or am I merely drawing your attention to an act of gross discourtesy?
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