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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I cannot make a close examination of those cases at
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present because of the sub judice rules, which we all respect in this place. However, there is no doubt that there are considerable risks and that judges have made serious condemnations of how the Government have handled the whole matter.
Let me say a few words about pilot schemes. It has got to the point where pilot schemes are becoming the norm in some elections, and greater scrutiny is required. The law needs to be amended so that secondary legislation is required to ratify a pilot scheme. It is not acceptable that powers that were originally intended to allow for trial and experimentation in very tight circumstances should now be used to make near-permanent changes to the system.
It is not only the postal voting system that is unsafe and inadequate. Perhaps most important, the registers on which we depend for our system are in a poor state. Last year, a Daily Mail investigation found that the paper could register a fictitious student called Gus Troobev, an anagram of "bogus voter" on 31 electoral registers in a few hours. In Cheadle, one of the most marginal constituencies in Britain, the paper was able to obtain nine further bogus votes. The Conservative candidate and former Member of Parliament, Stephen Day, had to contact Stockport's Liberal Democrat council, after obtaining the names from the Daily Mail, so that they could be removed from the register.
A journalist from The Sunday Telegraph was able to apply for the postal ballot papers of 36 voters to be sent to one address. The Evening Standard was able to apply for postal votes diverted to bogus addresses simply by using an application form from the internet. A Sky News investigation managed falsely to obtain multiple votes in two constituencies with no proof of identity and, more than a year ago, Marion Roe, who was then a Member of Parliament, produced evidence in a debate in Westminster Hall that electoral registers were up to 10 per cent. inaccurate, containing thousands of names of voters who were not truly entitled to vote.
Democratic legitimacy derives from individual citizens' belief that their system is fair and secure. Although the Government's proposals to collect signatures and dates of birth would be an improvement, there remains no independent verification of the existence of those on the electoral register.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman criticises the electoral process in this country. We have recently had the biggest test of electoral opinion through a general election, yet so far he has given the House only one example, from the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), of alleged irregularities in that constituency. If the problem is so widespread, I presume that he can give us a list of other constituencies about which he has anxieties. Has the Conservative party lodged an election petition against the result in any constituency?
I cannot go into the details of electoral petitions any more than the hon. Gentleman, because of the rules of this place. If he is satisfied that there is no risk, given the events in the local elections of 2004, he is one of a small number of people.
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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) has left to answer his telephone, because when the Birmingham scandal was announced by the judge, Richard Mawtrey, the right hon. Gentleman made a statement. He said that, when individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, the register got smaller. Why did he believe that there were fewer people than before on the register in Northern Ireland under an individual registration system? I am glad that he has now finished his telephone call.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that false entries on the electoral register are not made simply to influence membership here or on councils or to entertain tabloid journalists, since registration is a prerequisite of establishing a credit rating? The problem goes far wider than electoral fraud.
Mr. Heald: That is true. Examples of individuals who were not entitled to vote came up during the election campaign, but they had tried to register not in order to vote but in order to apply for credit. I do not mind if they want a platinum card, but I mind that the risk exists.
Recently, The Peoplethat great organconducted an analysis of the electoral roll. It uncovered names such as Donald Duck and Jesus H. Christ. Perhaps they are genuine, but I suspect that the entries at a student address in Southampton, including Hooty McBoob and Gailord Focker, while not evidence of sinister malpractice, are not. One does suspect that these people do not exist.
Mainland Britain needs the Northern Ireland system of individual registration. In the Province, voters need to provide a signature, a date of birth and a national insurance number to register. The national insurance number is used to check that the elector exists. Such identifiers are then used to verify postal votes. Ministers were initially reluctant to use national insurance numbers, but there was considerable debate on the issue in the other place. I pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Glentoran in that regard. The Minister in the other place, Lord Williams of Mostynwhom we all miss and who was a very good spokesman for Labour in the other placeaccepted the argument that there was no independent method of verification. He insisted that national insurance numbers should be used, which was the right thing to do.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab):
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the system has suddenly become as he is describing it, or that it has always been that way? In fact, the method of registration has been as it now is since the Ballot Act 1872. Is he suggesting that the proposed system would fundamentally change a
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system that has always been subject to the problems that he has outlined, or does he believe that these problems have suddenly started to occur in the past two years?
Mr. Heald: It is hard to tell whether the situation has got worse or whether it has always been bad, but that is not the point. The point is that, if the Government are going to introduce a system of mass postal voting and want to leave open the option of all-postal voting, as the Minister does, we must have a register on which we can rely. At the moment, we do not have one, which is why we want to implement certain changes.
If we adopted the Northern Ireland system in this country, we would have a much more effective control. Furthermore, non-UK voters should have to provide proof of citizenship. Points have been made about asylum seekers and other people from overseas who live in our country, but we must do something to tackle the problem of people who sign up to the register simply for consumer credit purposes when they are not entitled to vote.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): My hon. Friend touched on the subject of people who are entitled to vote in European elections finding themselves with polling cards at the general election. That caused those people great discomfort, because they felt that the Government and the local authority should not encourage them to vote in that way. My local authority conducted compulsory postal voting for the local elections, and a great number of my constituents wanted to know why there could not be ballot boxes as well. Will my hon. Friend say something about that?
At the general election, the Conservative party scored more votes than Labour in England, but won 93 fewer seats, but that is not an argument for proportional representation, as The Independent has claimed. The use of PR in Britain has already undermined democratic accountability, without bringing about any increase in electoral turnout. It also prevents voters from removing an Administration, since it creates perpetual coalition Government. An unpopular Administration can be kept in office by a minor party, despite the desire of the people to kick the rascals out.
Proportional representation also leads to a highly disproportionate relationship between the number of votes cast and the share of Executive power, by making minority parties the power brokers in Government. It also destroys the constituency link between the elected representative and their voters. Under first past the post, each voter can identify the person responsible for looking after their interests. Under PR systems, either constituencies are massive, with multiple members, or there is a group of representatives selected from a party
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list, accountable primarily to their political party. PR systems can allow candidates to be elected with as little as 5 to 8 per cent. of the vote, opening the door to extremists. A ridiculous situation can arise in which the most popular local politician is not elected and no one's vote counts for anything, because every vote is simply a mandate for negotiation.
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