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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): After a damning verdict by the judge, does the Minister agree
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that it is now extremely unlikely that any vote in a referendum on the European constitution should take place as an all-postal ballot? When the people of this country vote on that critical document, does he agree that they should have the opportunity to vote on it through a ballot box in a polling station in the traditional British way?

Mr. Raynsford: That is not in my remit and I do not know the precise arrangements that will be proposed. However, I know of no plan to conduct such a referendum as an all-postal ballot. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the last all-postal referendum was on regional government in the north-east of England and produced a result with which his party was entirely satisfied. There were no allegations of malpractice and a turnout of almost 50 per cent., which is far higher than would otherwise have been expected. He will therefore appreciate that some benefits derive from postal voting and that our task must be to move ahead in a way that retains them while ensuring proper safeguards against the sort of unacceptable abuse that occurred in Birmingham.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend, in putting the concerns in response to the judgment in proportion, accept reassurances in two parts? First, Sam Younger and the Metropolitan police special branch said, in evidence to the Select Committee, that there was no evidence of widespread abuse of postal voting in this country. Secondly, evidence from the Australian electoral commission showed widespread confidence in postal voting on demand in that country on the back, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said, of individual registration, and a system whereby electronic images of signatures can be used to verify the source of a postal vote before the security envelope is opened. In that way, we could move forwards to a convenient, multi-channel, 21st-century form of voting rather than backwards to stubby pencils.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend, who is also a member of the Select Committee, has examined the issue carefully and his comments are informed by his study. I agree that we are considering complex issues but that it is important to move forward in a way that ensures the safeguards that individual identification provides and a mechanism for checking the validity of postal voting, without rejecting the option that enhances convenience and, as much evidence shows, increases the number of participants in our democratic process.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I served on the Committee that considered the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. It provided for changes to Northern Ireland legislation that were necessary because, in constituencies where Sinn Fein was especially strong, there were up to 10 times the number of postal and proxy votes found elsewhere. We had to protect against systematic abuse. I fear that we do not have the same protection for postal voting under the law in England and we now have a party that was involved in systematic abuse. It happens to be the Minister's party and it sits ill for him to deal with a disaster for confidence in the electoral system by criticising the judge
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by implication when the Government have had lessons from Northern Ireland about how to protect the system for many years.

Mr. Raynsford: The experience of Northern Ireland is important and we intend to examine it closely. However, one of the downsides, which I have highlighted, is the reduction in the number of people registered in Northern Ireland. That is an equal cause of concern. As I have said to several other hon. Members, the evidence of the past seven years shows that cases of abuse have been relatively few. They have covered all parties, so there is no association between abuse and one party. I hope that he will accept what I have made clear: although I wholeheartedly condemn the abuse and thoroughly support the judgment in that respect, I do not agree with inferences, in the absence of detailed evidence, of widespread fraud, on the basis of two specific areas where such fraud undoubtedly occurred. That is the critical issue and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give it more thought, because no one does any service to the electorate's confidence in the voting system by spreading fears about widespread malpractice when the vast majority of the evidence in recent years shows that there is no widespread malpractice.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Last year, a council by-election was held in Valentines ward in Redbridge in my constituency. The successfully elected candidate won by nine votes and there were 474 proxy votes in the ward out of about 2,000 votes cast in total. Many of those proxy votes were cast by people living 50 or 100 miles away from the constituency and many were cast by white active Conservatives on behalf of elderly Asian ladies. Can we deal with the question of proxy voting, too, which was abused by the Conservatives in Redbridge last year?

Mr. Raynsford: I repeat to my hon. Friend what I said to the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). The evidence of malpractice does not apply to any one party and it behoves all of us to condemn malpractice, whoever is responsible. We do not approach this matter in a partisan spirit but in a spirit of wanting to ensure that the electoral system makes it possible for all those who should have an entitlement to vote to do so, and to do so at their convenience, but at the same time to do so in a way that maintains the integrity of the voting system and public confidence in that. That should be our overriding priority.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): May I counsel the Minister that shooting the messenger is rarely a good idea? His criticisms of the judge demean him, not the judge. The judge spoke about open invitations to fraud in a banana republic when we are talking about the mother of Parliaments, of which I am proud to be a Member. This is a big issue. Can we have fewer fine words and more action? I note from the Minister's statement that there have been only four prosecutions since 1998 for electoral fraud. Will the six Labour councillors now be barred from office and their assistants be prosecuted? What is the Home Office doing about that? While the Home Office and police are having
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discussions, what action will police be required to take on allegations of fraud—which will arise—from electoral registration officers?

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman will understand, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases, but I have no doubt that the circumstances of this case will be considered by the authorities concerned, with a view to the possibility of a prosecution. In so far as he criticises fine words, most people would share his view about the integrity of this Parliament and the fact that the voting system that has brought all of us here has generally been fair. We should therefore be careful about inferring that the standards of conduct are analogous to those of a banana republic. It behoves all of us to take the necessary steps to ensure that any malpractice, in whatever form, is stamped on where we see it.

Certainly, the Government accept fully their responsibility to ensure that all those involved are given support, help and guidance to do their best. That is why I have written to returning officers encouraging them to co-operate with the police on measures to stamp out any malpractice that might occur in the forthcoming election. That is the spirit in which we should move forward, with a view to defending the integrity of the electoral system and the good standing of this Parliament. I hope that all Members can agree on that.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister will have heard mention in an earlier question of the European referendum. I hope that any difficulties with the voting system will not be used as an excuse to delay the European referendum. Does he agree that the sooner that we have it, the better? Bring it on, I say. I digress, however. Does he accept that a discussion of postal voting involves a variety of elements, one of which is registration? Does he agree that it is essential that we take further steps to try to outlaw, where possible, the use of false, spurious or convenience addresses by voters?

Mr. Raynsford: As my hon. Friend knows, I have no responsibility in respect of the referendum on the European constitution and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that today. People registering at spurious addresses is obviously a concern and I hope that all returning officers will examine that as part of the general approach to which I referred and which I encourage them to pursue in the coming election.

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Point of Order

2.15 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm that it is inadmissible to criticise the judiciary in this House other than on a substantive motion? If you can do so, will you ask the Minister, who is normally extremely courteous and genial, if he would withdraw his criticism of the judge?

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