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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will the right hon. and learned Lady give way?

Ms Harman: In a moment. Although I am sure that it would cause no concern among Labour Members to lose Tory representation in England and Wales, it is strange to hear that that is Opposition policy.

Dr. Lewis: The right hon. and learned Lady finds such things strange, but we take a principled position that, if a system is wrong, we should not abide by it, even if it benefits us. She said that one of the effects was that the Conservatives won more seats. Another effect is that the Liberals, who come third and fourth in such elections, get into government. Those are wholly disproportionate results.

Ms Harman: As I have said, we are reviewing the data on how the new systems that we have introduced operate in the devolved Assemblies.

Whenever anyone debates politics and elections in this country, they talk about trust—trust in politicians, trust in the system of government and trust in the voting system. No single policy or Minister can transform the self-evident problems that all of us, of whatever party, face in that regard, but we need to ensure that the system of voting—from the compilation of the electoral register and the distribution of postal votes to the counting and declaration of results—enjoys the fullest possible respect and trust in the nation.

The Government are considering a range of measures—not just in my Department, but across government—to ensure that citizens are more engaged in our political processes and the decisions that affect their lives. Britain rightly takes pride in our democratic traditions based on fairness, the secret ballot and universal suffrage. This Labour Government take an equal pride in our longstanding dedication to democracy and will do everything to protect those fundamental principles.

5.36 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I welcome the debate and the contribution made by the Minister of State. I have said before, but I will say it again, that it is high time that we had in this House a Minister of her seniority from that Department and that the Department for Constitutional Affairs had repatriated to itself responsibility for these matters, rather than their being spread across other Departments. Both those things are welcome, as was the tenor of the right hon. and learned Lady's speech.
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I was not quite so happy with tenor of the response given by the Prime Minister during Prime Minister's questions earlier today, when in an overdose of either bombast or complacency—it was hard to tell—he appeared to suggest that the governance of Britain was a low priority for his Government. The mechanisms of the governance of Britain are absolutely integral to everything that we do in the House and everything that the Government do.

We should be extremely concerned about the consequences of the last election, which have provoked comments, from a highly regarded national broadsheet paper that it was a "subversion of democracy"; from the Electoral Reform Society that it was "the worst election ever"; and that

which came from the Leader of the House. So there is a real issue to be faced.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: Just let me get my introduction over and done with, and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

There is an unfortunate degree of complacency. The assumption is that because, happily, this country was the birthplace of modern democracy, our systems are necessarily robust and right. Those of us who have represented Parliament in monitoring elections abroad—the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) made this point—know that what we look for in an adequate electoral system are things such as a registration system that neither under-registers people who are entitled to vote nor over-registers those who are not entitled to do so and a robust and replicable identification system for voters. We look for the opportunities for fraud that the system offers. We look for abuses of the rules by political parties and others. We consider whether there is an independent electoral commission of which that country's Government take proper notice and whether the voting system properly reflects the views of the electorate. Judged on those criteria, it is hard to see how this country could pass such a test at present.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of the sensationalist headlines that he has just read out do not mirror the facts? For example, the Electoral Commission's report on postal voting found little wrong with the system in terms of fraud—except, obviously, in Birmingham. We should not get carried away by the headlines; we should look at the facts.

Mr. Heath: I agree, and had I carried on a little longer before taking the hon. Gentleman's intervention I would have said that actually—miraculously, given the openness of our system to fraud and malpractice—most of our electoral practice is correct and proper. People respect the rules. But we are very foolish and myopic indeed if we do not realise that we are laying ourselves open both to the charge that our system lacks integrity
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and to the reality that if people want to abuse the system they can do so with relative impunity, notwithstanding the high profile cases that have done such a great disservice to the confidence of the public in our system.

Mark Tami : The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should look at other countries. Perhaps we should look at Australia, which has a legal requirement that people take part in elections and where there are turnouts of well over 90 per cent. Any attempt at fraud is lessened because there is such a huge turnout.

Mr. Heath: There has been a longstanding argument about whether we should have compulsory voting. I am not persuaded, and although I agree that it increases turnout because people are fined if they do not vote, it does nothing to maintain the integrity of the system unless other factors are in place.

Notwithstanding the contribution of the Minister's and the fact that she clearly intends to introduce legislation, which I hope we shall all be able to welcome, I have one major criticism of the Government's position: they did not do much for public confidence in the system, or indeed the integrity of the system, by their conduct during the passage of the European Parliamentary and Local Election (Pilots) Act 2004, on which I represented my party. The Government's attitude was characterised by the fact that they ignored the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the clear advice of parties in this and the other place. The Government went ahead with what they had intended to do in the first place, which left them open to the charge that they had acted for partisan purposes rather than having the integrity of the system as their main objective.

Steve McCabe : May I return to the list of factors that the hon. Gentleman suggested we look for when observing elections in another country? I am happy to say that I agree with all of them, but I noticed that he did not include intimidation, which we should almost certainly be looking at in those circumstances. Does he accept that it is important, and indeed beholden on all of us in this place, to make sure that when we are describing fraud or malpractice we do not exaggerate it? We should not distort the evidence or use newspaper headlines for political advantage. If we do, we intimidate elderly people into not taking up their legal democratic right to a postal vote, as some people fear happened during the recent election. It certainly happened in Birmingham, owing to the disproportionate attention to what happened in two local government wards.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman should take care about using the word "disproportionate" to describe convictions that were properly made in Birmingham and the facts revealed in a court. It is proper that such matters should be correctly reported and described. In other senses, however, I agree with him. Intimidation is a factor that we need to deal with, and later in my remarks I shall set out what all political parties should be doing about it.

John Hemming : Will my hon. Friend accept that Birmingham is perhaps unique in its commitment to dealing with electoral fraud, rather than unique as a
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place where electoral fraud occurs? Does he agree that there is evidence that electoral reform increases turnout by 20 per cent. in G8 countries and on average by 10 per cent. in other countries? If the Government were really committed to increasing turnout, they would introduce electoral reform.

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