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Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): This has turned out to be a thoughtful debate, but unfortunately the motion does not seem to be as thoughtful as the speeches made by Members in all parts of the House. It appears to concentrate on just one aspect of what I consider to be the triple responsibility that we all have for the legitimacy of our system. Our three responsibilities are to ensure that the franchise is accessible and that people have access to it, to ensure that people can use the franchise and vote, and to ensure that when people have voted they believe they have voted fairly, safely and securely and that the result is therefore legitimate. Those three legs supporting the system's legitimacy are integral to its operation. If we pull them apart or concentrate on just one, the system itself will not have the integrity that we would wish it to have.

Our electoral process has always been open to determined fraud and abuse. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) observed, it is miraculous that, over the years, it has not been systematically abused as it might have been through personation, false registration, ballot purchase and so forth. It is certainly true that the system can be attacked. It is also true that it is failing almost completely in some parts of the country. I refer to the first leg of the system's legitimacy—the question of who registers to vote.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) mentioned the difficulty of registering, or regaining registration, in different parts of Sheffield. The figures show startling differences in different seats. They range from registration levels of under 70 per cent. of the census figure in some parts of the country to 105 per cent. of the census figure in other parts. It will not be difficult for hon. Members to guess which parts of the country represent which end of the scale. In inner-city areas, in large conurbations and, interestingly, in seaside
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towns, registration is very bad. Conversely, in some rural and semi-rural areas, particularly in parts of my county of Hampshire, not only is registration up with the census but it continues to build on the census—every person who could conceivably be registered every year in terms of the census extrapolation becomes registered.

If we extrapolated that and compared the population of constituencies with the size of the population on the register, we would find that the constituencies were rather similar in size, but that our system is gradually distorting through boundary revisions to build under-registration into our system. That does not seem to represent well the leg of legitimacy that I emphasised earlier.

The decline in trust in our society may have begun to lead, as the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) mentioned, to the questioning veracity in the electoral system. We always have accepted essentially that people are who they say they are when they register, that they are who they say they are when they go to vote and that they put in the ballot box the ballot that they have been given by the returning officer between the table and the box in which the ballot is placed.

There have at all stages been electoral petitions and various actions to challenge each of those processes. There have not been fundamental changes in the way in which we have conducted those various processes, even though those challenges have been made, there have been election petitions and the charges have been upheld on occasion.

It is interesting that every change in how our electoral system works has been accompanied by substantial charges that the change was essentially fraudulent, that everything would go to pot and that it would not work. When the Ballot Act 1872 came in, there were widespread charges concerning the so-called Tasmanian dodge. People said that there would be electoral officers standing outside the polling booth giving the first voter a blank piece of paper, that they would go in, put the blank piece of paper in, take the vote out, take the money for the vote, give it to a second person who was corrupted and that would continue during the day. No evidence was ever found that the Tasmanian dodge ever happened but the system of watermarking perforation on ballot papers was introduced as a result of fears of the Tasmanian dodge.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the cases that have come to light about elements of fraud with the ballot system and postal ballot system, the postal ballot is important in terms of how people vote as their lives change and in increasing participation in elections, one of the legs of legitimacy that I mentioned. The idea that a system, if organised well, can be completely secure is something that perhaps we will come to see as similar to the Tasmanian dodge.

It is essential that we ensure that we have integrity in our electoral system, and I commend the Green Paper for discussion. I hope that it will come substantially into legislation to ensure that that integrity is enhanced, but we have to be clear in our minds that, if we tilt in one direction so much in making sure that there are no possible ways in which fraud could ever conceivably enter into our electoral system, we will do so at the
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expense of most people's access to the ballot in the first place. That will be the end of legitimacy in a different direction.

The Conservative candidate in Southampton was seen giving money to electors both in the city centre and later on at a public meeting on the edge of the city. Obviously, that was deplorable but fortunately the electors of Southampton have not let the results of the 1895 election in Southampton, which resulted in the arrest of the Conservative candidate and his disbarment on the election petition, undermine the integrity of the system. We should be vigilant against fraud in the electoral system, but we must also ensure that that system is open and democratic and capable of being exercised by those who vote in Britain.

6.34 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Because we have so little time left, I propose, if asked to do so, to give way to one intervention from each of the remaining two speakers; otherwise, I fear that they might not get in.

I want briefly to deal with four issues: proportional representation; turnout; the experience of the trade unions; and, in a rather more whimsical vein, the Labour party. PR is commonly regarded as an abbreviation for "proportional representation", but I have always believed that it stands for something else: "permanent rule"—by the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats constantly say that there is massive under-representation in seats when one compares seats won with votes cast. But what really matters to a Government in an election—be it a Government in Wales, in Scotland or in the United Kingdom—is not how many seats a particular party gets, but whether that party gets into government.

Under PR, the party that comes third—or fourth, as the Liberal Democrats have on more than one occasion in Scotland and in Wales, let alone in the United Kingdom—holds the balance of power. So on the basis of the smallest share of the vote, it gets into government and, indeed, chooses which of the other two parties will form that Government. That is a much greater distortion of the election result than the artificial exaggeration of seats. Power in this House, for example, is not in proportion to the number of seats held by each party. That power goes to the party that has the overall majority, and it makes very little difference whether that majority is 50 or 150.

Turnout is constantly regarded as the paradigm of whether a new system is working. It is a misleading paradigm.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): It strikes me that one of the most significant developments in British democracy was the secret ballot, which was introduced in 1872. In the light of the various points that have been made, does my hon. Friend agree that the continuing use of the ballot box—in which people can physically cast their vote securely, free from coercion, intimidation and observation—is important?

Dr. Lewis: It is important, and I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point which has not been mentioned today, but which was referred to before the general
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election, when these issues were being discussed. It is understandable that we have postal ballots for people who might not be able to get to the ballot box. We take the risk that their privacy—their right to vote in a polling booth in secret—might be affected. However, we should remember that when people vote in private at a polling station, they may well vote differently from how they would vote at home, where they might come under pressure. People have often said to me on the doorstep, "I will vote for you but my other half won't." How often will that be allowed to happen when people have to vote at home?

John Hemming: Oddly enough, I had intended to raise the issue of the secret ballot myself. I represent a local government ward as well as a parliamentary constituency, and in that capacity I share part of the Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath constituency. It is true that there is substantial intimidation in the streets from time to time. The Labour party leaflet on getting out the postal vote describes everybody's house as a polling station. The big question is, where is the presiding officer?

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