Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab):
I generally welcome the Bill, but I am concerned about some provisions. I am pleased that the Government are moving towards individual registration through the use of personal identifiers. The use of an identifying signature is important, particularly
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for postal voting. I am pleased that the Government are not rushing ahead with their proposals, and will use pilot schemes. They have been criticised, with some justification, for proceeding too fast in previous schemes, so it is right and proper that they are proceeding with their current proposals step by step. I welcome the fact that, for the first time, returning officers will be obliged to maintain a marked register of postal voters. Some Members have spoken about postal voting in Birmingham, but if the electoral registration officer there had not voluntarily maintained a marked register of postal votes, the fraud would not have come to light.
I am concerned about the proposal that independent candidates should be allowed six words to describe their stance. In Wales, such candidates can use Welsh. My constituency is multi-cultural and has a Muslim majority. Can such a description be given in Punjabi or Urdu? There will be provisions to prevent an abuse of the description, and a candidate may not use what is said to be a collective term. I can imagine that if, at the last general election, there had been the opportunity to use six words, candidates in certain constituencies would have described themselves as "supporter of anti-Iraq war campaign". I am not sure that is a good way of moving democracy forward.
The provision to reduce the threshold for the deposit to 2 per cent. is not a positive step. It will encourage publicity seekers. I know of many restaurant owners in the balti sector of my constituency who would happily pay £500 for the right to advertise themselves as the owner of such-and-such a restaurant in so-and-so road.
As regards independent observers in polling stations, I make the same point as I made before. I am not sure what their role will be, but it will be greatly diminished in a multicultural constituency such as mine if they cannot speak Urdu or Punjabi.
I return to the subject of campaigning outside polling stations, which I raised in the debate on the integrity of the electoral system on 22 June. I pointed out what occurs in the real world of my constituency and other multicultural constituencies. In the past, it was a convention among political parties and candidates that there would be no campaigning outside polling stations, loudspeaker vans would not be parked outside polling stations, loudspeakers would be turned off as soon as they got within the vicinity, the tellers taking numbers would exchange information among the various parties, and there would be a great deal of conviviality. That may still happen in some areas of the country, but it is certainly not what happens in inner-city Birmingham, and I suspect it is not what happens in a number of other multicultural inner-city areas.
On election day in Birmingham, people congregate at the entrance to polling stations. They hand out leaflets and give out a great deal of misinformation, particularly to voters whose first language is not English and for whom the number is more important than the name on the ballot paper. Over the course of the day, the numbers increase, so that by early evening there could be 50 or 60 people campaigning outside the polling station gates. In addition, there are cars parked outside polling stations or close by, with continuous messages being played in English, Punjabi and Urdu, so that people going to vote have to run a gauntlet of
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campaigners giving out leaflets, misinformation, peer pressure, and subliminal messages being churned out over and over again by loudspeaker vans.
When I highlighted the problem in the debate on 22 June, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, who is not present, said that she appreciated what was said and that the Government "are genuinely consulting". I do not know what consultation has taken place, but there is nothing in the Bill that addresses the problem. It is not a problem that will go away; indeed, it will get worse. The police are placed in an impossible position. They know what is going on but they can do nothing about it. It is no good saying that section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 covers the situation. It does not. That section refers to attempts to stop someone voting. The people who operate outside a polling station are not trying to stop people voting. They are trying to influence how they vote. The Bill does not deal with the issue.
Clause 37 has a stab at resolving the problem. It extends the current definition by making it an offence to attempt to prevent an elector from exercising the franchise, even if the attempt is unsuccessful. I do not know what that means. I say again that people do not stand around outside a polling station for hours on end in order to get a suntan. They stand there because they know of the influence that that can have on electors, particularly vulnerable electors whose main language is Urdu or Punjabi.
It could be said that the police should deal with the matter, but they have other rather important tasks. There is often a policeman inside a polling station, but not outside. The police do not have the resources. In any event, unless the policeman spoke Urdu or Punjabi, how on earth would he know if somebody was being threatened, intimidated or pressurised?
The way to resolve the problem is by not allowing campaigning within a certain proximity to polling stations. I do not see why the Government have not taken the issue on board and included such a measure in the Bill. It seems obvious that people want to be able to go and vote without pressure and in peace. We need to stop people congregating at the entrance to polling stations, and stop cars and loudspeaker vans being parked outside or close by and playing continuous messages all day. Not only is there no need for that, but they are there for only one purposeto try and influence or put pressure on the people going in.
I do not understand why, in a Bill that is commendable overall, the Government are not prepared to bite the bullet and ban campaigning, handing out leaflets, playing messages on loudspeakers or indulging in other electoral activities within 100 or 150 yd of a polling station. If that were the case, the police would know what their position was and they would be able to take action. At present, they do not know and cannot act.
I hope the Minister who responds later and his colleagues will reconsider the Bill. The problems that I have described might apply only to certain parts of the
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countrynot his, perhaps, but certainly to my city and to the constituencies of other right hon. and hon. Members. There is one present, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), to whose city I can well imagine it applies. It is essential that the matter be dealt with now. If not, it will come back to haunt the Government. Next time we have a debate on electoral integrity, Birmingham may well come up again. I very much hope it will not, but if it does, I suspect that will be in the context of what has happened at a polling station in Birmingham where just the sort of practices that I have outlined tonight have, sadly, occurred.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru offer a qualified welcome to this important Bill, which is a modest but useful step towards democratic renewal. My hon. Friends and I will not support the reasoned amendment, if it comes to a vote.
In Wales, there is a wealth of propositions on how to extend democracy. Some hon. Members will be familiar with the National Assembly for Wales White Paper, which, I hope, we will discuss later this year. At the last general election, turnout in Wales was slightly highera percentage point or twothan in England, which was certainly the case in my constituency, but that does not mean that we should become complacent about the problems that our electoral system faces.
As I have said, the SNP and Plaid Cymru welcome the Bill. In particular, we welcome the establishment of the co-ordinated on-line register of electors and clause 20, which will reduce the minimum age for standing for Parliament from 21 to 18. We also welcome the reduction in the threshold for losing a deposit from 5 per cent. to 2 per cent. That will not benefit my party hugely, and it will certainly not benefit the SNP, about which the research paper mentions a sum of £4,000. However, the political scene in Scotland and Wales includes a number of small but entirely legitimate political parties, which add to the variety of our democracy. They should be encouraged and, although they should not be encouraged enough to deprive any hon. Members of their seats, they should not be discouraged by a high threshold.
I draw hon. Members' attention to the interesting figures on lost deposits in the research paper. The figures include the British National party, which I vehemently oppose, but the parties that lost most were the Greens, which lost £65,500, and the UK Independence party, which lost £151,000. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I hope that my party has largely replaced the Greens in Wales, and we have opposed UKIP vehemently, but such financial losses are a disincentive for those legitimate parties. For that reason, we welcome the reduction in the threshold.
Clause 19 states that each community council in Wales will be a separate polling district, which is an important point. Particularly in rural areas of Wales,
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community councils form the architecture of people's understanding of electoral districts. In my constituency, we had 83 booths at the last election, and I am glad to say that I managed to visit them all on the day. Community councils are important because they are coherent to the local community and provide a local point of contact. As I have said, I welcome the fact that clause 19 states that each community council area will be a separate polling district.
Some hon. Members may think that my next point is of minor importance, but it has a specific Welsh interest and is certainly not minor in Wales. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) has already mentioned the naming and description of parties, and clause 23 allows party titles in Wales to include up to six words of Welsh and six words of English.