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I welcome the chance to debate again the issues that we covered during the debates on the Electoral Administration Bill some eight months ago. It is a good opportunity to repeat an account of the actions that the Government have taken to protect the integrity of the electoral system. Let me begin by emphasising my profound belief that we—parliamentarians, politicians and members of political parties, and others who speak on the issue—must do everything that we can to support people’s ability to participate in our elections. That is as crucial to the legitimacy of our democracy as anything else. If someone is not on the register, they cannot vote, even if they want to, and if they cannot vote, they have no say in who governs them and who decides on their taxes, their health service, their transport, or even, looking back to the earlier debate today, their navy—nothing. They are excluded and silenced.

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I notice that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) did not refer to this point when he talked about the electoral register, but we are led to believe that there are something in the region of 3.5 million people in this country who are not on the register, but who are entitled to vote. That is 3.5 million people who are excluded and silenced. That is the equivalent of between 30 and 40 parliamentary constituencies. Soon, we will be looking at the boundary commission’s recommendations on parliamentary constituencies. I hope that hon. Members will consider that there are 30 to 40 parliamentary constituencies that are not being represented because people are excluded from the register. We have a duty to encourage registration and participation.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Did the Government ever give consideration to my suggestion—some people thought that it was slightly eccentric—of rewarding people for going on the electoral register? Perhaps they could be given tax breaks, or additions to benefits if they are in receipt of a pension or other benefit entitlements.

Bridget Prentice: We always consider my hon. Friend’s suggestions carefully, although we have not, as yet, decided to follow any of them through. I am sure that we can have another look at them. I am always keen to hear what he has to say on these matters, if not any others.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Minister seems to be implying that the new system of postal voting will help those 3 million people to vote, but in my constituency, a lot of service personnel who are abroad still did not get their postal votes, despite the new system, and were unable to vote.

Bridget Prentice: I have not mentioned postal votes yet, but the hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue about service personnel. With the Electoral Commission and the Ministry of Defence, a lot of work is being done, as we speak, to ensure that service personnel abroad are given all the information that they need about registering to vote. As I understand it, the Electoral Commission says that if service personnel send back that information as soon as they get it, all of that will be taken on board. We are monitoring that situation carefully to ensure that service personnel are not disfranchised while they are serving our country.

Alongside the duty to get more people on to the register, we have a duty not to undermine the system by scaremongering about the level of fraud. That brings me to what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire had to say. Disproportionate attacks are as much to blame for driving down confidence in our system, elections, politicians and Parliament as anything else. He mentioned a poll that showed that people believe that there is fraud in the system. The Electoral Commission commissioned a poll and more than half of the people who thought that fraud was a problem said that it was because they had read about it in the newspapers. So, it was not because they had experienced fraud themselves, but because they had been influenced by what the media were saying. On that basis, the hon. Gentleman must be careful about spreading further rumours.

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Mr. Heald: It is not just me; it is the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the most senior body in this country charged with maintaining standards and investigating organisations such as the Electoral Commission. I am saying what the committee said. Is the Minister accusing Sir Alistair Graham and that important committee of scaremongering?

Bridget Prentice: I was going to come to the Committee on Standards in Public Life later, but I will come to it now. Sir Alistair and the committee have produced a useful report, much of which we agree with and, no doubt at some point, given time, will implement. However, the hon. Gentleman said that the Committee on Standards in Public Life had demanded that the Government conduct research into fraud. Actually, the committee did not say that. It recommended that the Electoral Commission conduct research into fraud, and the Electoral Commission is already doing that.

I turn to the point that the hon. Gentleman raises when he waves about the 342 cases of electoral malpractice. The Electoral Commission is looking at those files at the moment. Having discussed the matter with electoral administrators this morning, I know that they are of the belief that the vast majority of those cases involve not electoral fraud, but people not filling in their nomination papers properly, there not being imprints on the leaflets that go out and all the other issues that those of us who campaign in elections know are fraught with danger. That is what the majority of the cases involve. I hope that he will not continue to repeat them as if to imply that fraud is endemic in this country.

David Taylor: The Minister rightly points out that the vast bulk of allegations of electoral malpractice do not involve flaws with the voting process itself. Will she confirm that, in the last nationwide elections 10 months ago, which involved 176 local authorities and thousands of wards, there were just 16 electoral petitions in relation to the process, four of which—three in Tower Hamlets and one in Coventry—involved fraud? All four were either dismissed or withdrawn. Is that not the fact?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes the point extremely well. In the last six years, there have been 25,000-plus elections throughout the country, but, as he points out, there have been only a handful of cases in which electoral fraud was alleged—never mind cases that were taken up by the Crown Prosecution Service and seen through to conviction.

Mr. Heald: The Committee on Standards in Public Life lists examples of the sorts of cases it is talking about. They include personation, forgery, postal votes being forged, fraudulent voting, forged postal and proxy votes and forging documents. Is the Minister seriously saying that those are minor matters of electoral malpractice?

Bridget Prentice: I am most certainly not—unlike the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who seemed to think that we should not bother getting the police to pursue electoral offences. The police should pursue those offences. The Electoral Commission is looking at
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all those files and we will all be better placed to discuss them once the commission has analysed them. It will publicise those results.

Philip Davies: I did not say that the police should not investigate electoral fraud. My point was that they should not have to investigate all those accusations, and would not have to do so if there were a robust process of individual registration in place. It is not that the police should not investigate, but that they should not have to investigate this level of complaints.

Bridget Prentice: The police should have to investigate any criminal activity wherever they find it. That applies whether it is electoral fraud, robbery, violence or whatever. That is the job of the police, and a very good job they do too.

Postal voting on demand was introduced in 2001, with all-party support. Clearly, it was a popular decision with the electorate, because in the 2005 general election 12 per cent. of the electorate opted to have a postal ballot, and such votes accounted for some 15 per cent. of all votes cast. We must continue to make sure that postal voting is available, because of the changes in lifestyle that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire mentioned. However, I recognise that any electoral fraud is serious. It must be prevented. If it does occur, it must be detected, and those who are found guilty must be punished accordingly. That was why we ensured that additional offences were added through the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

Daniel Kawczynski: Will the Minister give way?

Bridget Prentice: I really would like to move on because several Back Benchers wish to speak and the debate has been curtailed already.

The 2006 Act introduced the new offence of falsely applying for postal votes, and extended the offence of undue influence so that it became an offence even to attempt to exercise undue influence. It also created the offence of providing false information to a registration officer at any time and gave the police extra time before prosecutions needed to be brought forward. I know that the police were keen to see that, and they have welcomed the measure.

There are new regulations in place to tighten the security of postal voting further. Administrators are now required to send confirmation letters to applicants for postal votes. Any postal voter who wants a vote to be redirected must give a reason why that should happen. Other measures include new secrecy warnings on election stationery and the introduction of a marked register for postal votes returned, which will help to detect fraudulent postal votes. Registration officers have the power to cross-match with other records held. Those new measures demonstrate that we have taken every allegation of electoral fraud seriously and that we are absolutely determined to prevent any future incidents of fraud, as far as we can, while ensuring that the anti-fraud measures are proportionate to the scale of the problem.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I first ran an election as an agent in 1966. Electoral registration officers were an important part of the process and, indeed, were very skilled and stayed around for a
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very long time. I ran 11 elections in all, so I have some experience of this matter. Does the Minister recognise that the Government have placed massive additional burdens on those officers without providing them with the resources to undertake those responsibilities properly? Will she tell us what she might do to improve the situation, which lies right at the heart of the problems about which she is talking?

Bridget Prentice: I am delighted to respond to the hon. Gentleman, who has much experience of dealing with elections. I am sure that he will be equally delighted to hear that we have put in place an extra £21 million to deal with the extra duties that we introduced through the 2006 Act. We have given a direct grant to address other aspects of that Act. There are now performance targets that are overseen by the Electoral Commission, and, in the next month or so, we will be introducing beacon status in the system so that local authorities that conduct their elections very well will be able to disseminate their good practice among others. I agree wholeheartedly that we are doing a great deal, but we are putting the money in place, too.

Daniel Kawczynski: Will the Minister give way?

Bridget Prentice: I will not give way again.

We have been working with the Electoral Commission and the police to raise awareness of fraud and to ensure that systems are in place to tackle it. I commend to the House the updated guidance that the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission have produced on fraud prevention and detection for use at this year’s elections. The guidance includes an outline of election procedures and recommended actions, guidance to the police on producing a police threat assessment and control strategy, and a list of electoral offences and the maximum penalty for each offence. It also includes a revised code for political parties, candidates and canvassers on the handling of postal vote applications and postal ballot papers, which has been agreed by all three main political parties and the Electoral Commission. My right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) might wish to take up the matter that she raised earlier with the Electoral Commission.

Jane Kennedy: We have discovered in Liverpool a quite deliberate attempt by a Liberal Democrat councillor, Councillor Graham Hulme, who held his ward last year by only 13 votes, to mislead postal voters into believing that their postal vote had been cancelled and that the best way to get it back was to contact him personally. It is deeply dishonourable, if not fraudulent, for a politician to behave in such a way, and those involved should hang their heads in shame.

Bridget Prentice: I agree with my right hon. Friend. I do not wish to be partisan during this debate because I believe absolutely and profoundly that everyone should be encouraged to vote, regardless of the party for which they are going to vote. However, the description that she has given the House suggests to me that such an activity is outwith the guidance to which the Electoral Commission, the police and the main political parties have agreed. I suggest that she might wish to direct the Electoral Commission and the returning officer to that candidate so that the matter can be dealt with appropriately.

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The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire talked about personal identifiers. The Government have no objection in principle to personal identifiers. He was a little flexible in his description of what the Electoral Commission wanted and what the Conservative party wanted. One of the reasons why we went down the road on postal vote identifiers that we did in the 2006 Act was because that was the only way in which we could get cross-party consensus. The Conservative party did not want the same thing as the Electoral Commission wanted and we could not get consensus across the House, which was why we accepted the compromise on postal vote identifiers that was incorporated in the Act.

Let me turn to the Council of Europe and its motion on the United Kingdom’s electoral system. The observers to whom the hon. Gentleman referred were here at our invitation. We invited them to come along and observe —[ Interruption. ] Yes, indeed. We encourage people to come, and we put it in the Act that we would invite people to come and observe our elections. The Council of Europe motion was agreed by a large number of Conservative Members and members of the European Democrat Group. Of course, I look forward to meeting the rapporteurs tomorrow and discussing all the measures that we have put in place to make our system more secure since 2004. However, I will also say to them that we believe that we have made the system as secure as possible and that the 2006 Act demonstrates not only that we welcome observers from all countries and organisations, but that this particular investigation is unwarranted.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con) rose—

Bridget Prentice: I give way to the hon. Gentleman—I believe that he voted for the motion.

Mr. Wilshire: No, I was the person who tabled it. The Council of Europe has decided that there is a prima facie case that the Government are conniving with regard to postal vote fraud and are thus in breach of the obligations to which they are signed up. When will the Minister take those obligations seriously?

Bridget Prentice: Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I take my obligations seriously. The Council of Europe has not done such a thing. A sub-committee has come up with a motion, which will have to go back for debate in the Council of Europe. When we meet the rapporteurs, I hope that they will see that the measures that we have put in place make our system very secure. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, our experience in all the elections that have taken place over the past few years makes it quite clear that our elections are fair, free and secure. We must take a proportionate view of the problems that we are discussing.

I agree with the part of the Opposition’s motion that says that we should not introduce e-voting unless adequate security measures are available, and that is exactly how we are proceeding. We are taking an appropriate and sensible approach by testing e-voting to ensure that if there are benefits to it, they are realised, and to ensure that the issues are addressed effectively. We will do that before we make any decision on whether to introduce it. We are not taking a knee-jerk approach; that accusation
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might be made against people in some other places, where new technologies have been introduced with results that have caused concern.

Our electoral modernisation programme is about testing innovations to find out whether they might be beneficial—whether, for example, they improve access for people who are unable to attend a traditional polling station on election day, people with disabilities and people who do not have English as a first language. We do that by piloting, as that is the appropriate way of testing those innovations. I know that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is not as keen on piloting as we are, because he said so to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Ultimately, the issue is about public confidence in our democracy. It is important to keep matters in perspective; otherwise, we may well do more harm than good. There is also the risk that action to tackle perceived electoral fraud will depress levels of participation, so we must be careful to test all the schemes that we try to put in place. The legislative measures that we have already introduced tighten up anti-fraud measures and demonstrate that our system is now much more secure. They were brought in primarily, but not exclusively, to bolster the security of the postal vote process. The measures that we introduced are sensible and proportionate, and they respond to the concerns that people have raised. On that basis, I commend our amendment to the House.

8.12 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I welcome this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on taking the initiative and tabling the motion. As you may have worked out from the fact that my colleagues and I have not tabled an amendment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we will support the motion without reservation. We think that the debate is timely as we are in the run-up to the local elections, and because it follows a clear view having been expressed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. A persistently clear view has been expressed by the Electoral Commission, too, in both the previous and the current Parliament.

The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has always been willing to engage in debate on the subject, and she is concerned to make sure that the Government respond to it appropriately. The debate is about three things in general, although there is a list of agenda items, as it were, in the motion. It is about maximising the registration of people who are eligible to vote. I share the Minister’s view that we are nowhere near to doing so yet; I will come back to that point. Clearly, there are many people who should have the right to vote who do not. Some of them, when the time comes, discover that they have not got that right, and are very angry to discover it. We have all seen people come into polling stations insisting that they are eligible to vote, but finding that, for one reason or another, they are not on the electoral roll.

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