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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Will the Leader of the House confirm that the election timetable is entirely in the Prime Minister's gift, and that only three years and 10 months of a possible five-year electoral cycle have gone by, so if any Bill or part of a Bill does not get through, it is entirely the Government's fault?

Mr. Hain: In one sense the hon. Gentleman is right, but in another sense, all Prime Ministers are in this position. Indeed, I think that he will find that Mrs. Thatcher was in a pretty similar position in 1983 and 1987. These are the normal circumstances in which Dissolution is sought, and the Prime Minister has the right to seek it.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Has the Leader of the House made any provision for the consideration of secondary legislation between now and Dissolution? I ask that particularly in the light of this morning's European Court judgment, as the Court's provisional decision was to overturn the food supplements directive. Will he make provision between now and Dissolution to suspend the regulations that apply in this country for the duration of the election campaign, given the issues that the industry faces as we speak?

Mr. Hain: Obviously, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will give this matter close consideration in view of the Court's decision and will act accordingly, but I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The Leader of the House has been kind enough in the past to acknowledge the work that I have tried to do to reach out to the Muslim community. Will he therefore, on reflection, withdraw the remarks that he made earlier? Plenty of Conservative Members, and possibly even Labour Members, believe that there are many good reasons not to support the incitement to religious hatred provisions. Those reasons have nothing to do with hostility to the Muslim community, but rather with the concern that under the terms of that ill-considered, although well-intentioned legislation, any charlatan or exploiter who chose to define his activities as a religion would be able to prevent anyone from criticising him.

Mr. Hain: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I was not suggesting in any way that he—or any other hon. Member—was seeking to turn his back on the Muslim community. [Hon. Members: "Yes, you were."] What I was saying was that the Muslim community—in particular its most respected voice, the Muslim Council of Britain—wants that legislation and that offence to exist, to give Muslims the extra protection that they do not enjoy at the moment. They are virtually alone as a group in not enjoying that protection. The hon. Gentleman, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats must confront the fact that they are denying the Muslim community's representatives the opportunity to get the protection for which they have asked, and which we as a Government are still willing to deliver if the Opposition will co-operate.

5 Apr 2005 : Column 1274

Postal Voting

1.14 pm

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the judgment in respect of the allegations of postal voting fraud in the Birmingham wards of Bordesley Green and Aston, which was announced yesterday. The judge declared both elections void.

May I apologise to both Opposition spokesman for the fact that I was unable to let them have early sight of the statement? I hope that they will understand that I have returned, post haste, from a train taking me north, so that I can make this statement. That is why it was not possible to have the statement prepared earlier.

We unreservedly condemn the abuses of postal voting in Birmingham. With a general election having been announced today, we are taking further steps to reinforce the safeguards against any potential fraud, and we are determined that the fraud in those cases in Birmingham will not undermine public confidence in the electoral system.

Hon. Members will be aware that there are tough penalties already in place for electoral fraud: on conviction, those found guilty are liable to up to two years in prison and an unlimited fine, as well as disqualification from voting and standing for office. In general, the electoral system in the UK has been secure and commanded public confidence. We have no history of widespread electoral fraud. In fact, evidence suggests that it is rare. Since 1998, there have been only four recorded prosecutions for electoral fraud.

Contrary to suggestions that have been made, the Government are not complacent. Our top priority is to safeguard the integrity of the ballot, and to ensure that the system stays safe and secure we have put in place the following measures. The Electoral Commission has already published, on 29 March, a code of conduct for political parties, candidates and canvassers on the handling of postal vote applications and postal ballot papers. We expect all political parties and candidates to confirm their commitment to that code. We will pursue new initiatives with the police to ensure that offenders are brought to justice. I have spoken this morning to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has confirmed that he will discuss the issue with the Association of Chief Police Officers tomorrow.

Following the judgment, we have now written to all returning officers to stress the importance of taking counter-measures against electoral fraud. The Electoral Commission, together with ACPO, will shortly publish guidance specifically for returning officers and local police forces on fraud prevention and investigation. It is vital that all organisations work together to protect the integrity of the electoral process.

To back those efforts, we have provided additional funding for the forthcoming general election above that given in 2001. About £10 million of that extra money will support the administration of the elections. That will help to support returning officers in dealing with additional requests for postal votes and putting in place measures that maintain the integrity of the electoral process.
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As the Birmingham cases have related very specifically to postal voting, it is important to put in context the full implication of postal voting opportunities in the UK. Postal voting has been available in one form or another since 1918, initially for service personnel. It was subsequently extended to cover those physically incapable of going in person to the poll and those who were absent because of their occupation, change of address or holiday. Five years ago, the Representation of the People Act 2000 extended the option of postal voting, following the recommendation of the all-party working party on electoral procedures. The system whereby anyone can apply for a postal vote has been in place since that date, and the proportion of people taking advantage has increased substantially.

At the 2001 general election, the number of postal votes almost doubled on the 1997 election to approximately 4 per cent. In the 2002 local elections, 7.7 per cent. of the electorate had postal votes. At the 2004 European and local elections, outside the four all-postal regions, approximately 8.3 per cent. of the electorate had postal votes. That trend reflects the popularity and convenience of voting by post, something which has also been evidenced in the series of all-postal voting pilots conducted in local authority elections since the year 2000.

Postal voting provides an easy and accessible way for many people to participate in the democratic process. People should have the right to a postal vote if that is what they want. Having said that, it is essential to maintain the integrity of the electoral process, and we are taking the measures that I have outlined to ensure that. The Electoral Commission, which has rejected any question of withdrawing postal ballots, has also recommended in its report "Voting for change" a number of measures to improve security. The Government published their response to that report in December 2004, and accepted the large majority of the recommendations. We will put those measures into statute when parliamentary time allows.

The commission's chief executive said this morning:

The Government share that view. We are determined that the election that we are about to have will be secure and fair.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I thank the Minister for his statement, but am sorry that he felt that making a statement was a late decision. Surely it was obvious, given the judge's remarks, that a statement was required. Although we are all in favour of encouraging voting, surely that should not be at the expense of encouraging fraud in elections.

The findings of the judge in the Birmingham case highlight extensive abuse of the current system. Does the Minister agree with the judge that this was not

If so, what action will the Prime Minister take against those who so damaged the integrity of the system?
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1276

Does the Minister see the need for further guidelines to be issued in respect of Birmingham to ensure fair play with postal votes? Will the Government actually follow the advice of the Electoral Commission this time, because on previous occasions they have failed to accept the recommendations of the commission that they set up? Almost a year ago, individuals from across the political divide, including some from the Labour party, called for a Government rethink on the new system of postal votes. Why did that not happen?

The judge went on to say that the Government's statement—the Minister repeated it today—that

was complacent and surprising to

He went on to say that the Government were not only complacent, but in denial.

Is the Minister seriously saying that the Government have only just become aware of the risks of electoral fraud in the new system? In February 2004, a journalist using an anagram of "bogus voter" as his name managed to register on 31 electoral registers in a few hours, and to obtain nine votes in just one constituency. In the compulsory all-postal ballots for the European elections, there were numerous allegations of irregularities, and in September last year, the Electoral Commission came out against the future use of all-postal ballots. Why did the Government simply ignore that advice?

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Dame Marion Roe), who is retiring after 22 years of excellent service to the House, her constituents and the country, pointed out in an Adjournment debate—held, presciently, on 5 May last year—the weaknesses of the current electoral registers. Does the Minister not understand that we do not want to end up in this country with a Florida-style stand-off in the courts because the Government have failed to protect our electoral system?

The Electoral Commission, the official Opposition and others on both sides of the House have pointed out that we need the protection that individual voter registration—as used in Northern Ireland—would give, but the Government have done nothing. We have called for an end to mass postal voting from a single address without proper checks, yet the Government have done nothing. While we have been talking about protections for postal voting, the Government have been insisting on going yet further with e-voting, text voting and the like. Is it not time that they returned to the real world?

When Labour was first elected, the Minister will recall that it pledged to

Is not the truth that it cannot be trusted, and that Britain does not need another five years of being let down by Labour?

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