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Mr. Raynsford: Several of the hon. Gentleman's proposed measures were highlighted by the Electoral Commission in its report "Voting for change", which the Government have accepted, and we shall introduce those measures. Although some depend on legislation, which is not possible this side of the general election, we are committed to introducing legislation that gives effect to the commission's recommendations. Some of the measures are administrative, and I made it clear in my statement and previous answers that we are taking steps. We have written to returning officers and are in contact with the Electoral Commission. In my statement, I noted that the chief executive of the Electoral Commission said only this morning that
I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that steps are, rightly, being taken to protect the integrity of the poll. It is in everyone's interests that all political parties sign up to the code that the commission has circulated and to the good practice measures that returning officers will put in place to ensure that the poll proceeds with confidence, as we all want it to.
Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): I am sure that I speak for all my Birmingham Labour parliamentary colleagues when I utterly condemn the disgraceful and fraudulent behaviour in two wards in Birmingham. I welcome the safeguards that my right hon. Friend has announced today[Hon. Members: "What safeguards?"]and the future safeguards that he has also announced.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would indeed be a sad day for democracy and for all the parties represented in this House if one of the effects of
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misleading statements about the case were to frighten elderly, sick or disabled people out of exercising their legal right to have a postal ballot in the forthcoming election? Should we not bear that in mind when we talk about what happened in two out of 41 wards in Birmingham?
Mr. Raynsford: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend in condemning the malpractice that occurred in two wards in Birmingham. I also agree that it would be most unfortunate if misleading and, in some cases, slightly exaggerated statements made on the basis of those two cases led people who might otherwise not vote to fail to apply for the postal vote for which they have a right to apply.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that there is no evidence that such practices took place only in two wards? The information is not available. Will he also confirm that the Government have brought in a system for postal votes in which registrations to vote by overseas service personnel are far lower than in the past and registrations of overseas voters are even lower, and that what has driven the Government and the Labour party is their own self-interest, not democracy's?
Mr. Raynsford: No, I wholeheartedly reject that unwarranted comment. It is slightly odd to assume that malpractice has occurred if one cannot find evidence that it has not. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and by me is that there is evidence of fraud in two wards in Birmingham, which we condemn unreservedly; it was wrong and improper. However, in our view, it is not to correct to infer from that the whole electoral system is tainted, either in Birmingham as a whole or throughout the country.
We are discussing individual cases. As I said in my statement, a few cases requiring prosecution arose in the previous seven years. By international comparisons, such an incidence does not imply a serious problem, but we are not complacent. We are well aware of the concerns that have been voiced and we are taking practical steps to ensure both that people can continue to enjoy the benefits of postal voting, which has made it possible for many people who would otherwise be unable to do so to exercise their democratic rights, and that there are proper safeguards against the type of fraud that took place in Birmingham.
David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): It would be unfortunate if people who want to use their postal vote legally were unable to do so, but does my right hon. Friend agree that this deplorable case raises genuine concerns about the operation of postal voting? Is it not essential that an incoming Government take the measures necessary to safeguard the integrity of the voting systemfirst and foremost, the postal voting systemso that there is no doubt in anyone's mind that we live in a democracy in which people's votes are counted in the proper way, as we all want?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is vital that there be confidence in the integrity of the voting system. Measures, including legislation, should
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be taken after the general election to implement some of the safeguards which, to an increasing extent, are identified as appropriate.
This is where the issue of individual registration is so important. If we had proceeded immediately with individual registration, as the Electoral Commission recommended, without thinking about some of the potential downsides, we could well have been presented with an electoral register, as in Northern Ireland, 10 per cent. below the previous level. That in turn would have led to major criticisms about disfranchising people who should be entitled to vote. It is important to have the safeguard through individual identifiers, which are necessary to enable verification and checking, and to ensure that that is done in a way that does not deter those who should be on the register and who are entitled to be on the register to register. This is an extremely important issue about preserving the integrity of the entire voting system but at the same time ensuring that those people who are entitled to vote are not excluded from the register.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What assurance can the Minister give us that in the realities of the election electoral staff will have the opportunity to deal with fraud? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that when a large number of postal vote applications come pouring in, a very small staff will not have time to check whether they are coming in multiples and whether they have had previous applications from the same address? What support and additional help can be given to ensure that the staff have the opportunity that they need to check against fraud, and that presiding officers at polling stations have some powers that they can use to deal with a person who discovers that somebody else has voted for him?
Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fair and valid point. As I made clear in my statement, we have provided an additional £10 million to support administration. I have written, together with the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), to all returning officers throughout the country to highlight the importance of measures being in place and the importance of liaison with the police. I also referred in my statement to discussions that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be having with the Association of Chief Police Officers tomorrow on this very issue. Measures are being taken specifically to ensure that fears, suspicions and allegations of malpractice are carefully examined and that procedures are in place to deal with such problems.
Local authorities can decide for themselves how many polling stations there are and where these stations are located. Is there not a case for the Government to issue advice to local authorities encouraging them to have polling stations in as many places as possible throughout every constituency in the land?
As my hon. Friend will know, a great deal of advice has already been given over the years to
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returning officers on such matters. It is right that they should continue to look at these issues. My hon. Friend must be aware that there are an increasing number of people for whom the requirement to vote in person at a particular polling station is impossible because of their physical condition or because of their job, or because of other factors, or because it is not part of their lifestyle today. People do not necessarily work in the area in which they live. They may have children in another area. They may have responsibilities that take them away at times when it would be convenient to vote. Such people may find it more convenient to vote by post. That convenience is the reason why there has been a significant increase over recent years since the all-party group recommended that we should move to postal voting on demand. That is why the take-up has been consistently increasing.
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