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Mr. Heath: I agree with my hon. Friend and shall return to that point in a moment. Three things are essential to voters when they cast their ballots in elections. First, they must know that their votes are counted properly. Secondly, they must know that their votes will count, which relates to the point made by my hon. Friend. Thirdly, they must know that the person whom they elect counts and that a proper representative democracy is able to do its job in this placealthough the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire perhaps elided that point.
Dr. Julian Lewis: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, may I refer him back to a couple of interventions that he took from Labour Members? They did not seem to dispute his point that the system is wide open to fraud, but simply tried to say that not many cases of that fraud had yet been discovered. When designing an electoral system, surely the point is that it should not be open to fraud and that it should not be incumbent on us to do the work of detectives to determine whether fraud is being committed. The point is that if fraud can take place, it might be committed without us knowing about it, so we should close the loopholes.
Mr. Heath: I agree with the hon. Gentleman up to a point, although we live in the real world, so we would not be able to devise a system that would be wholly impossible to defraud. However, we must make it as difficult as possible to commit fraud, which is why the Electoral Commission's recommendations on individual voter identification and strictures on all-postal voting are extremely sensible. I regret those strictures because we have had a successful all-postal vote in my constituency, but clearly the system has not worked satisfactorily in all parts of the country. We should bring in additional anti-fraud measures. We all face the problem that if the system is open to malpractice, as sure as eggs is eggs, someone will attempt to abuse it.
We currently do not know the extent of electoral fraud because until now we have taken the fairly Pollyanna-ish view that this is Britain and such things do not happen here. There is now evidence that such things do happen here, although we do not know to what extent because we do not have the mechanisms or audit systems to find out. I hope the thrust of the legislation that the Minister of State will bring forward will be to put appropriate systems in place and that all parties will be able to support her proposals. However, when that happens, all political parties will have the further requirement to take the matter seriously. I say all political parties because there is not one single political party that is not open to such abuse. Indeed, I suspect that there is not one party in which there has not been an incident of a person abusing the system.
Part of a discussion that I had with the Minister of State the other day was the point that parties should have zero tolerance of such abuse. If people bend the
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rules, we need to make it clear that they no longer represent our party, the Conservative party, the Labour party, or any other party for which the democratic process is important. I am not only talking about the postal vote rigging that we have heard about, because we as politicians know that all sorts of abuses are possible. Incidents of votes being farmed in old people's homes have been reported over the years and it is time that that stopped. If anyone knows that it is happening, it is time for them to report it to the appropriate officers and for appropriate action to be taken in the relevant political party. People might receive an extra polling card and have the simple temptation to run down the street with it to get an extra vote, but it is not good enough to say that on the fringes that will not make a difference to the result, because it willevery single vote counts, so every single vote must be a properly registered vote.
We need to examine some of the rulesthis is the last point I shall make about constituency electionsthat are still very lax. It might be said that my party would say that. We have funding limits for expenditure in elections in constituencies. We all laboriously complete forms after an election declaring what we have spent. We have to register every penny. We do that while other national parties put huge expenditure into a limited number of marginal constituencies across the country. That expenditure is vastly out of proportion to anything that is spent locally. How is that anything other than an abuse of the system and of the rules that we have in place?
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong for a party to put out four letters by its national leader targeted to more than 50 per cent. of the voters, to put about a leaflet hand delivered and paid-for-delivery throughout the campaign and to put two advertisements in local newspapers, all purporting to be part of the national campaign, which have not had to be accounted for as part of local expenditure? This is a trend. I am not naming only one party. It is a trend among all parties. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a distortion of the process?
Mr. Heath: I think that it is a distortion. I think that the three parties represented in the Chamber at present are guilty of it to differing degrees because we have different assets to our names. Nevertheless, we are guilty of it and it is time it stopped. It is also time the rules reflected that.
There is the issue about making votes count. Perhaps I might be expected to say this, but I am provoked to say it by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire putting into his motionand therefore making it one that I am incapable of supportingadverse comments on proportional representation. We have just had a general election where the turnout was 61 per cent. The Labour party, which formed a Government, achieved a 67-seat majority on 36 per cent. of the popular vote, representing just 22 per cent. of the electorate. That is the lowest figure since the Great Reform Act of 1832. That is a preposterous result for anyone who considers it sensibly.
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The hon. Gentleman was complaining about the fact that the result did not reflect the fact that the Conservatives had a majority of the votes in England. He is right to complain, but he cannot see the elephant invading his bedroom, which is that the answer is to have a system that properly reflects the weight of votes cast rather than the first-past-the-post system. There was a majority of the popular vote for the Conservatives in England yet the Conservatives have no representation in any of our great metropolises outside London.
Let us consider the rural shires. In Cumbria, the Conservatives were the most popular party, with 38.2 per cent. of the vote, yet they had only one seat to show for it at the end. There were four seats for the Labour party and one seatit was an excellent winwhich was gained by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). That is hardly a reflection of the Conservative vote in Cumbria.
In Cornwall 82,543 people voted Conservative. That was 31.8 per cent. of the electorate. The Liberal Democrats took five seats out of five and the Conservatives had no representation in Cornwall. In Cambridgeshire, 74,521 people voted for Labour. That was 24.7 per cent. of the electorate. There is no Labour representation in Cambridgeshire. In Surrey, 148,620 people voted Liberal Democrat. That was 28.4 per cent. of the electorate. We have not one seat in Surrey. There are 11 Conservatives out of 11. That cannot be defended in any circumstances as a fair outcome.
Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the bias in the system is mostly accounted for by variations in size between constituencies throughout the United Kingdom? If we had an equal electoral quota that was properly implemented throughout the country so that constituencies were the same size, we would have a much more proportional system and one that did not have that bias within it?
Mr. Heath: That is arithmetical nonsense. The hon. Gentleman is saying that because the average Conservative electorate consists of 73,004, people his party is badly treated. My electorate consists of 77,000 people, and I do not feel badly treated. Making the highland seats any bigger would make them virtually the same size as a small country, and that is not a sensible form of representation.
Equalisation raises a number of issues, including the time at which we take the figures. I hesitate to mention another reason for the inequalities because I am worried about the consequences, but in the shire authorities we rely on the county boundaries to be coterminous with the sum total of the constituency. We have large constituencies in Somerset simply because in the present administrative county we do not yet merit the sixth constituency that we would otherwise deserve.
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