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Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): My constituency sits cheek by jowl with the two wards in which these disgraceful acts took place. I would like some reassurance from the Minister on three important points. First, will he reassure the 12 Labour councillors in my constituency, who are people of honour and integrity—mainly women, in fact—and who work hard for the local community? They were elected in clean elections following clean campaigns, and they are decent people doing a good job. Will the Minister reassure them that their reputations, their integrity and their ability to hold their heads up in our community will not be sullied by this judgment, whose suggestion that the corruption was city wide went beyond its remit and beyond the available evidence? Such a reassurance from the Minister would be very welcome in those quarters.

Secondly, will the Minister reassure my constituents from ethnic minority communities that this problem is not confined to any one community, and that it is not about race, as some parties would have us believe? This is a problem of people breaking the law and doing bad things, and in Birmingham, those people have been caught, tried and found guilty. This is not a race issue—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister has got the message.

Mr. Raynsford: I would say to my hon. Friend that the vast majority of local councillors act with great integrity and propriety, and it is quite wrong that they should feel threatened or stigmatised as a result of the malpractice of a small number of people who have clearly behaved in a deplorable way. That distinction is very important, and I hope that I made clear my views on that earlier. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. It would also be quite inappropriate to draw any conclusions about race from these incidents. It is right to condemn malpractice, whoever is responsible for it. We must maintain our vigilance and be absolutely rigorous in making it clear that such malpractice is unacceptable. There are no exceptions to that; it applies to everyone in this country, whatever their background.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Is it not entirely possible that a significant number of seats in the House will be won in the forthcoming election by a majority that is smaller than the number of postal votes available in the constituency? Is it not also the case that, according to the rules under which the election will take place, votes will be treated as an electoral commodity? Is it not essential that votes should be individual and secret? That is at the heart of our representative democracy.

Will the Minister also try not to be too deluded by Northern Ireland? Is it not more important that everyone who votes should be entitled to do so, rather than bending the rules so that some people who cannot be bothered to register should be encouraged to do so?

Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman will know from the figures that I gave the House earlier that, at the last general election, approximately 4 per cent. of the
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electorate were entitled to postal votes. A number of hon. Members were elected with a majority of less than 4 per cent. It is inevitable that the possibility of that happening should exist. The vast majority of people use their postal vote entirely properly, and the important thing is that action should be taken to ensure that the integrity of the postal voting system continues. It is right that the vote should be individual and secret, and it is important that measures should be in place to protect that in respect of postal voting. The guidance that the Electoral Commission has issued recently—which all parties have seen in advance and which I hope they will all be fully committed to—will help us to achieve that objective.

On Northern Ireland, the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the issue of individual registration relates to whether some members of the community would bother to register if the onus were on them to do so. We all have experience of families in which, if the mother or father did not put their youngsters' names on the register, the youngsters might not bother to do it for themselves. We are seeking to ensure that the register is as comprehensive and full as possible, and that no one is left out accidentally. In the course of an election, we all encounter people who complain that they would have liked to vote but were not on the register. We should not, therefore, go too quickly down a route that might increase the number of people who are excluded from the register, without carefully considering how to move towards individual identification of electors while avoiding the potential downsides that the Select Committee—which looked very carefully at this issue—identified.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has come to the House with this statement today. I am also pleased—although I do not want to be vindictive—that the full weight of the law is to be brought to bear on those people in Birmingham who have committed electoral fraud. This might deter certain persons in my constituency who were scurrying round harvesting ballot papers last May. Those people were from all three major parties. They were not candidates, agents or members of any party, but they were supporters of the three main candidates. I hope that the actions of the criminal justice system in Birmingham will deter such activity in Keighley in the forthcoming general election. I received numerous complaints from my constituents last year, and the same sort of thing also happened in two of the Bradford constituencies. As yet, no criminal proceedings have been brought against any of the people involved, and it is sad that certain people in those constituencies were not prepared to stand up and be counted in the criminal courts.

Mr. Raynsford: I share my hon. Friend's concern about malpractice. All political parties have a common interest in acting to stamp it out. It is right that the full force of the law should apply when malpractice has occurred and we are keen that there should be a clear understanding between returning officers and the police about effective action to deal with allegations of malpractice. That is essential if the message is to go out
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loud and clear from the House—as it should—that malpractice, the abuse of postal voting or any other electoral fraud is unacceptable and unreservedly condemned by all parties.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Since the right hon. Gentleman and I first began debating postal voting last year, his responses to The Times campaign—which should be commended—and to criticisms by the Liberal Democrats and Labour Back Benchers have consistently been characterised by complacency about a system that the judge described as

A code of conduct is not law and carries no legal sanction or penalty. The Government are guilty of playing fast and loose with our democratic system and it will redound to the right hon. Gentleman's eternal discredit that he let down the voters of this country.

Mr. Raynsford: I do not accept that, because we have always made it clear that our objective was to facilitate the opportunity for people to exercise their democratic rights by voting. It is a cause of concern to us all if people are prevented from exercising their right to vote because they cannot get to the polling station. It is right that they should have the opportunity to vote. If the hon. Gentleman takes the view that the current system of postal voting is farcical and an invitation to fraud, why are letters from his party leader going out to people in his constituency, urging them to take advantage of the opportunity of a postal vote? Will he condemn that? If not, his words will be perceived as hollow rhetoric.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is an important principle that anyone who wants a postal vote for the coming general election can have one. Does he accept that we must move as quickly as possible to a system of individual registration? That would make more secure not only postal voting but voting at polling stations. To ensure that we do not suffer the problems that happened in Northern Ireland, we should change our registration system to one similar to that in Australia, where there is a fixed register with a three-year audit. The system then concentrates its resources on getting on to the register those who move or who do not register in the first place and it includes the use of data transfer from other organisations to achieve that. If we moved towards that, we could have a more accurate register and a safer voting system.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend is a member of the Select Committee, which examined the issues thoroughly and carefully. He has highlighted one option. He knows from the Select Committee's analysis that there are complexities and difficulties and that, in moving forward towards a system that allows more precise individual identification of electors to secure the integrity of the ballot, it is vital that we do not discourage people from registering. The Government have said that we are entirely sympathetic to the principle of individual registration. We want to move in that direction, but in a way that maintains a comprehensive register and does not deter people from registering to vote.

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