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This was not a question of the Government being slow to make a statement, but a question of which Minister should make it. I was not expecting to do so, which was why I came back from a visit elsewhere to make the statement, and was not able to give the hon. Gentleman an advance copy, for which I apologised.
I do not accept the judge's claim that there was a Birmingham-wide campaign by the Labour party. I have read the transcript of the case carefully, and the evidence relates to two wards in Birmingham. I have made it clear that we have no hesitation in unreservedly condemning the malpractice in those two wards, but that is different from concluding, without supporting evidence, that there was a city-wide conspiracy, as has been implied.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether further guidelines are being issued. I made it clear in my statement that further guidelines will be prepared, and will apply everywhere in the country, not just Birmingham.
The hon. Gentleman asks why we do not always accept the advice of the Electoral Commission. Let me remind him that in response to the summer 2003 electoral pilots, the commission recommendedthis was less than two years agothat we should move to all-postal ballots as a norm in all local government elections. Had we accepted that recommendation, the hon. Gentleman would be criticising us for having done so. It is inevitable that from time to time the Government have to differ if they believe that a recommendation has not been fully thought through. In that case, the Electoral Commission, which has subsequently changed its position, would accept that its original recommendation was not right. It is not the case that we should be bound always to accept such recommendationsbut overwhelmingly, we listen to the commission and support its work.
"There are no proposals to change the rules governing election procedures for the next election, including those for postal voting. The systems already in place to deal with allegations of electoral fraud are clearly working."
On the system of electoral registration, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and other hon. Members will know that the recommendation for individual registration was made by the Electoral Commission. In our response, we made it clear that we were sympathetic to that principle, but that there were fundamental difficulties. The experience in Northern Ireland, where individual registration has been introduced, was that the total number of people on the register fell by about 10 per cent. Real fears have been expressed, not least by the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Planning, Local Government and the Regions, which have examined the matter carefully, that moving towards individual registration could result in the register becoming less comprehensive and accurate. We thus indicated to the commission that we intended to proceed with the objective of individual identification in a way that we hoped would mitigate the adverse consequences to which I referred.
The idea that we should now abandon all pilots of other voting methods, such as electronic voting, is an unwise proposition, given the clear evidence of interest in them on the part of many sections of the population that do not necessarily participate to the extent that hon. Members of all parties would like. It is our commitment to continue to explore pilots that will test the ability of different systems of voting to enable people to vote with absolute security. The integrity of the voting system is fundamental, which is why pilots are conducted. They are carried out to test whether they work. If there is evidence that they lead to a substantial increase in turnout without associated fraud, which was the evidence from the overwhelming majority of electoral pilots, it is obviously sensible to use that evidence. It is our commitment to continue to work to assist people to vote by means that are safe but convenient, and, as I have already stressed, to ensure that we maintain the integrity of the ballot as our top priority.
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. May I make it clear to him that the good news coming out of Birmingham is that the people who tried to cheat got caught? We must emphasise that. Lots of crimes are relatively easy for people to commit, but the crucial thing is that they get caught.
Will my right hon. Friend emphasise that during the general election it is essential that electoral registration officers seek out anyone attempting to break the law and make sure that such people are prosecuted, so that we can establish the integrity of our electoral system? In the long term, however, will he introduce a system of individual registration and data matching with other organisations, so that the register comprises 100 per cent. of the people who are entitled to vote?
I very much agree that every step should be taken to ensure that those who are guilty of
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attempting to pervert electoral processes are apprehended and brought to justice. I also agree that it is a satisfactory outcome that the malpractices in Birmingham were identified and action was taken against them. As I said earlier, I strongly endorse my hon. Friend's view of the benefits of moving towards individual registration, albeit without the potential adverse consequences that the Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which he chairs, identified in the course of its thoughtful report on the issue. That is very much our objective. A letter from me and the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), has been issued to all returning officers highlighting the importance of their putting measures in place and making use of the additional funding that we have made available to them to ensure that any additional demand for postal voting is processed in a way that safeguards the integrity of the ballot.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House today and accept his assurances regarding his inability to provide the written statement to Opposition spokesmen beforehand. It is not his usual practice and we accept his apology.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot brush aside the judge's ruling yesterday. Is he not prepared to accept the judgment of Sir Richard Mawrey QC, in an historic ruling, that the postal voting system introduced by the Labour Government is
Does the Minister not realise that the judge's statement that the Government are complacent refers to potential fraud during the coming general election? That was the point. Does he realise that on the day the general election is called, his main concern should be not the embarrassment of the Labour party, but his duty to the British people to protect the legitimacy of the democratic process? How can he hope to restore trust in politics when voters cannot have trust in the postal voting system that the present Government devised?
When an election commissioner describes Britain's postal voting system as "hopelessly insecure", will the Minister really dismiss that judgment? The case was one of "massive, systematic and organised" electoral fraud. Today, rather than give excuses or fail to take responsibility, why do the Government not undertake to do far more than he has announced? Thanks to the Government's foot-dragging, it is too late for primary legislation to implement the Electoral Commission's recommendations, but there are things that can be done so that in the coming weeks we can restore confidence in our democratic system.
Why does the Minister not try to build a cross-party consensus on the emergency measures needed to protect the coming election from fraud? Why does he not, for
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example, ask the Electoral Commission to produce plans to monitor closely the operation of the postal voting system during the election? Why cannot Parliament ask the commission to undertake an information campaign to ensure that voters know how best to protect their postal votes from theft? Is it really not possible in the time left to this Parliament to pass orders to implement more protections for the forthcoming ballot? Why can we not legislate by statutory instrument to ensure that postal votes are counted separately, making it easier to identify fraud?
Why can we not allow parties to check postal vote application forms after the election? Why can we not extend the period for petitioning against an election result to two months, so that such checks can be made? Why can we not enable presiding election officers at polling stations to draw up a list of people who turn up to vote in person and are surprised to be told that they have had a postal vote issued, and allow such voters to submit a tendered pink ballot paper instead, in case the postal vote is not used or is found to have been stolen?
I wish that we had not reached this point of crisis. Time and again, the Liberal Democrats warned about the shortcomings of the Government's postal voting system. Now, the Labour Government have one last chance to stop fraud and to prevent a general election result from becoming tainted. If Ministers do not act, the stench of this shoddy affair might be the one issue that drives them from office.
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