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Some 20 years ago, I worked with a cross-party group of Social Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives and Labour peers to amend the Trade Union Act 1984 to make postal ballots compulsory for trade union elections. That worked because the papers being distributed were under the control and verification of the Electoral Reform Society. Postal ballots can be a blessing when they are properly controlled; they can be a curse when, as in the electrical trade union scandals of the early 1960s, they are not properly controlled.
My final, more whimsical, remarks relate to the Labour party. The Labour candidate who stood against me in the general election turned out, after the event, to be a senior figure in an organisation called tacticalvoter.net. He sabotaged his own campaignhe did not even issue an electoral addressin his attempt to help the Liberals beat me. It appeared later that the reason why he, rather than a local candidate wanting to fight a straightforward campaign for Labour, was nominated was that Labour selects its candidates partly by postal balloting. He went round many people in the local Labour party and got their postal votes. Did he tell them that he was going to sabotage his own campaign? I doubt it. If the Minister is to clean up postal voting for the country, she should think about cleaning up postal balloting in the Labour party.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con):
We have had a short, but important, debate this afternoon. If the public has no confidence in the electoral system, that system will be called into question and it will ultimately become nothing more than a banana republic. That is exactly the description given to our democratic system by the judge in the recent electoral fraud case in Birmingham.
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As my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) pointed out in a thoughtful speech, even banana republics allow outside observers. The integrity of our electoral system is not just in question, but in danger.
We have heard various examples this afternoon of the malaise that has hit our electoral system. We have heard about fraud, poor registration procedures, administrative incompetence, wildly unequal constituency sizes and over-representation in urban areas. Clearly, something must be done to remedy the situation. Indeed, the Electoral Commission has been warning since 2002 of the need for reform but the Government did not listen. If they had, we might have avoided some of the many instances of fraud that have happened across the country.
There have nevertheless been some developments. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) mentioned the priority given to counter-fraud in Birmingham during the election, which is welcome. Other Members have spoken about other developments and the Minister noted that the Government have woken up to the reality and are proposing some long-overdue reforms to our system. She supported the proposals in the Government's policy paper of May 2005, most of which were recommended by the Electoral Commission and should have been implemented long ago. Today, however, the Minister spoke as if many of these were new issues in relation to which action suddenly needs to be taken. Although the Conservative Opposition welcome the proposals, we maintain that they are too little, too late. Even if the proposals go aheadwe hope they doseveral deficiencies in the electoral system will remain.
The number of reported instances of suspected fraud relating to postal votes is alarming. For example, following the recent general election, the police have reportedly investigated dozens of claims of vote tampering. That gives rise to the question of how much electoral fraud over postal votes has taken place without being reported. After hearing evidence of the councillors' fraud in Birmingham, the judge said:
Mr. Simon: Many thanks. Is it the position of the official Opposition that this country has seen widespread and serious electoral fraud in recent years? I am asking not what the judge thinks, not what the papers think, but what the Tories think.
Even where fraud did not occur, the all-postal pilots were a disaster. The Electoral Commission reported printing and production errors in the postal ballot packs, the late delivery of votes and the absence of any checks on the identity of voters. As postal votingand, even more dangerously, e-votingdoes not have the supervision of polling stations, we believe that safeguards are essential to ensure that personation does not occur and that the postal voting system recovers its integrity. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) made that point strongly.
Several hon. Members, of all parties, supported the introduction of individual registration to safeguard the secrecy and security of postal voting. The Electoral Commission has advocated that for several years. The demography of our society has changed radically. The family home is no longer the norm, and houses are often divided into flat shares or multiple occupancy residences.
Individual registration is now used in Northern Ireland to prevent a person from registering several times in one constituencysomething that journalists have proved is all too easy to achieve in England. The Government have expressed concerns that the system may reduce participation, but is it really advantageous to have greater participation in a system littered with fraud? Can such an election truly be a fairer representation of the people?
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said that reduced participation could be explained by the fact that each voter could register only once, instead of making the multiple registrations that were prevalent in the past. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) expanded on that point by showing how other forms of fraud could emanate from that. My hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) and for Worthing, West showed that where the Government should be aiding registrationfor example, in the armed servicesthey have so failed to do so.
Another innovation in Northern Ireland was the introduction of individual identifiers to guard against fraud. As we have heard, Northern Irish citizens must give their national insurance number and date of birth when they register to vote. That offers safeguards against illegitimate multiple registration by citizens, and improper registration by non-citizens.
Most critically for non-supervised postal votes, national insurance numbers must be submitted with the ballot papers to combat the fraud that is evidently rife. The Government, and the hon. Member for
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Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, proposed that a person's signature and date of birth should be used as individual identifiers. However, we believe that that will not be sufficient to eradicate fraud, as dates of birth and signatures are widely available and easy to replicate. By contrast, national insurance numbers are not widely in circulation.
When secure, postal votes are clearly desirable to facilitate voting for the widest possible cross section of the community. Postal voting also ensures that people who live abroad or who are infirm, disabled or caught up in inflexible working schedules can vote. However, we strongly oppose all-postal voting. It is vital that British citizens should have a choice about the method of voting.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was right to say that postal voting is too remote and uncertain for a measurable proportion of our society. The Minister of State was vague on that point. She said that she would review postal voting, but then went on to refuse to rule out the use of all-postal voting in the future. As my hon. Friends the Members for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) noted, British citizens value their right to go to a polling station and vote in person.
Several hon. Members supported compulsory voting. I believe that that would increase turnout, but not necessarily the quality of the system. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe had some useful ideas in respect of a rolling audit process.
The second crucial area in which reform is demanded is electoral quotas. Representation will be unequal unless each constituency is made up of a comparable number of citizens, and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) showed clearly that Parliament would offer only a distorted reflection of society as a result. That was certainly the case with the recent general election.
Support was expressedespecially by our Liberal colleaguesfor proportional representation to remedy the balance. The Conservative Opposition maintain that that is not the answer, and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made the reason for that very clear.
Turnout was abysmal in our first PR elections for the European Parliament. Many people deeply resented having to vote for a party list rather than for an individual who would be responsible and answerable to the people and not to his or her party machine.
The Minister of State questioned our commitment to the first-past-the-post system, but I can reaffirm that now. That system promotes accountability and provides for a stable and effective Government. What the Minister should be considering is the boundary commission review that proposes constituencies of fantastically different sizes, varying from just over 50,000 to 150,000 voters. That is unacceptable and allows excessive over-representation in urban areas.
Whether or not trimming down the number of MPs is achievedsomething that the Conservative party believed should have happened for the last electionthe
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change that we want would represent the weight of votes cast, as expressed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), thus ensuring that all British citizens are equally represented no matter where they live. The integrity of an electoral system is essential to the credibility of any democratic system. The British electoral system is now in danger of losing its credibility, and we need to appreciate that that would ultimately threaten the legitimacy of the actions and decisions made in the House. I urge hon. Members to support the motion.
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