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22 Jun 2005 : Column 877

Electoral Integrity

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Mr. Speaker has chosen the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.47 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I beg to move,

The United Kingdom has held a reputation—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I say to hon. Members who want to pursue conversations that this is not in order? We are trying to proceed with the debate. May I please have quiet in the House?

Mr. Heald: The United Kingdom has traditionally held a reputation as a beacon of democracy and fair play, the mother of Parliaments. We have led the way in building foundations for democracy across the world. We have tended as a country to occupy the moral high ground and even to lecture other parts of the world on democracy. But the integrity of our own recent general election was dependent on overseas observers for the first time, from places like Serbia and the Ukraine.

Although Ministers insist that there was no widespread evidence of systematic election fraud, public perception has changed over recent months and years. It is clear that the Government's modernisation programme in this area has resulted in a collapse in public confidence and compromised the perceived integrity of the British electoral system. As the right hon. and hon. Members who are shaking their heads will know, a MORI poll in March this year found that 54 per cent. of the public think that postal voting has made it easier to commit election fraud, and an even higher proportion are concerned about fraud with electronic voting.

After the 2003 local election all-postal voting pilots, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives warned the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford):

The Government simply ignored its strongly worded warnings.

In the June 2004 elections, the Government imposed widespread all-postal voting in the face of cross-party and Electoral Commission opposition, choosing pilot regions on the basis of partisan advantage. The elections descended into such administrative chaos that even in the Deputy Prime Minister's own area, Hull, the election court had to annul a decision.
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A judge recently highlighted the inherent risks in the current rules on postal voting, attacking Ministers for being in a state of not simple complacency, but denial:

New Labour should reflect carefully on those comments.

In 2004, the Labour party official postal voting handbook called for Labour activists to build their own ballot boxes to take to voters' doors:

Public confidence in the electoral system continued to decline in the 2005 election, as evidenced by the extraordinary scenes in Bethnal Green and Bow. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) has told me that he is on tour in the north of England and cannot speak in this debate, but when he gave evidence to the London Assembly, he discussed

and accused new Labour of

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): At least 100 of my constituents wish they had had postal votes, because they were refused access to a polling station because of huge queues and insufficient clerks to cope with demand. I have made representations to Sam Younger to ensure that local authorities have extra people available to allocate to areas of heavy demand. Does he believe that people like to go to polling stations to vote, which is a view that I have heard expressed on the doorstep?

Mr. Heald: It is a serious matter if people queue up around the block but cannot vote. I hope that the Electoral Commission examines that issue and takes account of my hon. Friend's idea.

The Government's decision to introduce the long-delayed electoral administration Bill is welcome. I also welcome the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister has been stripped of his responsibility for elections and postal voting, which is a long overdue vote of no confidence. Early-day motion 202 makes it clear that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are heaving a huge sigh of relief that he is no longer involved.

Although we support many of the provisions in the recent consultation paper, the proposed legislation does not go far enough.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I do not want the hon. Gentleman to move too far away from his friend, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway). When he spoke to that hon. Gentleman, did he discuss the fact that, uniquely in modern history, he was elected with the support of only 18.4 per cent. of the electorate in his constituency? Does
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the hon. Gentleman believe that that is a genuine reflection of the political views of the people of Bethnal Green and Bow?

Mr. Heald: That is the sort of point that one might wish to address in a serious way had it come from any other part of the House, but it is rich coming from the Liberal Democrats, who believe in proportional representation, which can lead to extremist parties getting elected with only 5 per cent. of the vote.

Forced all-postal voting has been condemned by the Electoral Commission in two major reports and the public have no confidence in it. Is the Minister really unable to make a commitment to the effect that we have seen the end of it? Many Members of all parties are old-fashioned enough to think that there is something special about the traditional method of voting using the properly controlled polling station and the ballot box, and that if somebody wishes to use postal voting, that should be their choice, not something that is forced upon them. Even those who support it want it to be properly controlled.

Conservative Members also have concerns about the future use of other pilot methods, including remote electronic voting. We believe that the technology for e-voting is very insecure and that all the problems that one gets with postal votes would apply to the issuing of PIN numbers. One would end up with a double danger, not just a single one.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): Given the hon. Gentleman's concerns about postal voting, how many votes does he calculate the Tory party secured during the general election as a direct result of the mailshots from the Leader of the Opposition requesting individuals to fill in a postal ballot form, and, if they could not do it themselves, to find a friend to do it? Does he think that is a strange strategy to employ in relation to a system to which he is so opposed?

Mr. Heald: It would be surprising had we not said consistently, from the beginning, that we are not against postal voting—we are against ill-regulated postal voting that is not properly controlled. That is why today, as before, we propose that there should be proper safeguards, which even now the Government are not prepared to introduce.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): One would have thought that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) would be much more concerned about representing a local authority area that was described as a banana republic in the recent judge's report on the activities that had taken place.

I am encouraged by our stand on how we want the process tightened. Does my hon. Friend have more to say about the electoral court, which will look at some of the general election results with regard to postal voting fraud? What does he think we should do about that?

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