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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Could the right hon. Gentleman do two things? First, recognising that the judiciary can be criticised only on a substantive motion, would he withdraw the remarks that he made to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the shadow Leader of the House? Secondly, will he ask all electoral registration officers to check the validity of those who appear to have applied for postal votes by writing to them?
Mr. Raynsford: My only comments on the judgment related to two particular instances where inferences were made. There was one particular inference about the Government's position. Secondly, there was a particular inference about the extent of fraud throughout Birmingham. In my view neither of those inferences was supported by evidence. The quotation from The Times to which I referred made it clear that the Government were not in any way complacent and were intending to introduce measures to deal with the very issues that the judge highlighted. There was the wider implication that there was widespread fraud throughout Birmingham, for which evidence was not provided. I stand by my two comments.
As for advice to returning officers, we have made it clear in the letter that my hon. Friend and I have written that we expect them to be taking measures to ensure that they are satisfied that postal votes are operating on a proper basis. It is not our view that we should instruct in detail exactly how they should exercise that function. They have their own responsibilities as returning officers. It is important that they should seek to ensure the integrity of the ballot and should take the measures that they regard as appropriate to check anything that they regard as potentially fraudulent.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab):
I echo the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), that every Labour Member for Birmingham condemns completely and utterly the wrongdoing in two Birmingham wards. I add my welcome to the Labour party for suspending
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the individuals concerned, for implementing a disciplinary procedure and for guarding against any allegation that there is any complacency by dispatching to Birmingham a senior member of the National Executive Committee to oversee future campaigning.
So that there should be no complacency in any part of the House, I invite other political parties to take equally seriously the issue of postal voting and the organisation that sometimes goes on around postal voting.
Finally, while it is right that we should consider tightening the regulations, I support the idea of individual registration. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the objective should be to encourage legitimate engagement with the democratic process and not to discourage it?
Mr. Raynsford: I agree with my hon. Friend that, first, we unreservedly condemn the malpractice that has been found in Birmingham. I also agree that it is incumbent on all political parties to do their utmost to ensure that all their candidates and supporters act in an entirely proper and scrupulous way in the forthcoming election. It is in everyone's interest that we ensure that the ballots that will take place on 5 May are conducted in a way that maintains public confidence.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Is the Minister aware that there is a certain grim satisfaction on the Opposition Benches that although the entire British democratic process has been tarnished by what happened in Birmingham, the principal short-term victim of the Government's ill-judged dash to favour postal voting is the Labour party itself, particularly in Birmingham"As you sow, so shall you reap"?
"If emergency action is not taken to change the system in time for the General Electioninsisting on postal votes being checked and counted separately at the very leastthe Government will leave itself open to the allegation that it is reluctant to act because its real intention is to deliver corrupt votes to Labour MPs."?
Mr. Raynsford: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to try to inject a party political note in that way. I remind him of a letter that has been sent out to many people in the country. It says:
"In the run-up to the next General Election . . . I need your help. There are three things you can do: Step 1 Apply for a postal vote today. Everyone is now entitled to vote by post without having to give a reason."
It is a bit rich for the Conservative party, which is clearly seeking to extend postal voting to the greatest possible degree, to condemn the Government for acting on an all-party recommendation to make postal voting available on demand. We did that. We have said repeatedly that it is right that there should be safeguards. There is a whiff of hypocrisy about criticism of the Government from those who are clearly themselves seeking to maximise the number of postal votes.
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab):
Further to that point, will my right hon. Friend consider issuing
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further guidelines on the encouragement of multiple applications? I have here a letter that was sent to me by a constituent. It had been sent out in the constituency of Folkestone and Hythe by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), and it states:
If we are going to get this right, the sending round of postal vote applications in this way should be stopped. We need to clean up this act, so as to prevent the despicable attempts at fraud that occur on occasions through the use of postal votes.
Mr. Raynsford: I have to say to my right hon. Friend that it is right that we should continue to make postal voting available to those people who find the facility convenient and who might not be able to exercise their democratic right without it. I take issue only with those who condemn the Government for making postal voting available but who are themselves engaged in encouraging exactly that process.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The Minister's criticism of the judge would seem to imply that the Government are still in denial. The Minister has said several times that he and the Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs had written to returning officers asking them to exercise their powers. The Minister is well aware, however, that anyone resident in the United Kingdom can place their name on the electoral register and vote, and that the multiple system that gives people permission to vote in local government elections, European elections and parliamentary elections means that there are people on the register who can quite properly vote in one election but might not be allowed to vote in another. There is no control whatever over that. The Minister has sought to place the blame everywhere except where it lies, namely, with his own Department. He has written to returning officers and told them to act. What action does he propose that they take?
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening to my statement, in which I outlined a number of measures that we have taken, including making substantial additional financial provision to enable the administration of the whole process to be conducted more efficiently. I should like to quote from the letter that I have written to the returning officers:
"The Electoral Commission, together with ACPO and ACPO Scotland, will also shortly publish guidance to returning officers and local police forces on fraud prevention and investigation. If you have not already done so, you should make immediate contact with your local police force in preparation for the forthcoming elections. It is vital that all organisations work together to protect the integrity of the electoral process."
I have mentioned the discussion that I had with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in which he said that he would talk to ACPO about this issue tomorrow. The Government are acting; we are playing our part and we are encouraging returning officers to do their best. It is right that all parties should work together to ensure that people can continue to benefit from the opportunity
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of being able to vote by post if it is not convenient for them to vote in person. At the same time, however, we must maintain the integrity of the ballot.
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