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In the same month, another judge, when dealing with a case, said that the evidence of electoral fraud would “disgrace a banana republic”. That is the depth to which the Government have brought us. Also in April that year, a Blackburn councillor was convicted of stealing 233 postal votes. Since then, the police have launched a huge number of investigations. The Minister complacently said that that does not amount to much. If she is right, why have the Council of Europe rapporteurs received invitations from the Metropolitan police and the Crown Prosecution Service to meet them so that they can pass on what they have discovered in their inquiries in this country?

Along with many other Members of the House, I have done my best through the normal channels to persuade the Government to act properly, but they have not done so. In the end, I decided that I had to try to find other ways to do something about this. I turned my mind to that and quickly realised that the Council of Europe offered an opportunity. I did not go down that route lightly, and criticising one’s own country in an international forum is not something that I relish, but I believe passionately in democracy. I also believe that I have a duty to help to stamp it out. [Interruption.] A slip of the tongue at this time of night is perhaps excusable. That is before my supper, I hasten to add.

Let me make it absolutely clear that I believe that it is crucial that I, with everybody else, do my best to stamp out fraud wherever we find it. That is why I am one of two Council of Europe rapporteurs monitoring the development of democracy in Albania. How on earth could I, in all conscience, go to Albania, talk to Albanian parliamentarians and politicians and urge them to tackle fraud in their own country when there is fraud here? I would be a hypocrite if I ignored fraud here and then talked to the Albanians about it, so I make no apologies for using the route that I did.

That is why tonight, in this country, a former German Social Democrat justice Minister and a Polish Christian Democrat Senator—who, interestingly, was born and brought up in the north of England and so knows our systems inside out and upside down—are both conducting a formal investigation into the British electoral system, with particular reference to postal vote fraud. It takes some doing for a member state of the Council of Europe to be brought to that level; it puts us in the same sort of category as basket cases such as Belarus. Is that where the Government want us to be?

In case people still doubt the validity of the Council of Europe, I should say that I—and I hope anybody else who takes democracy seriously—hope that the presence of those two parliamentarians from two other
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countries proves that this really is a serious matter for this country. Even if the Government do not, I welcome their inquiries and am pleased that they are prepared to help us. If the Government will not help us, we must get help from anywhere and from anybody who will do their best to stop us being worse than a banana republic. The Government probably could not be bothered, or do not know how to rescue us, so I welcome help from wherever we can get it.

9.1 pm

Mr. George Galloway (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Respect): Like the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), I wish that I had more than 10 minutes, because much needs to be said. Complacency is a fatal flaw in politics, yet it has been the hallmark of the Government’s approach this evening—and, indeed, during all previous discussions and debates on this subject.

Listening to the Minister tonight, one would not think that in addition to welcoming Polish plumbers, builders, bus drivers and vegetable pickers, we should now be forced to welcome a Polish parliamentarian to investigate large-scale voting fraud here, in the mother of all Parliaments. There is no time for me to cover all the issues that I would like to deal with, so I shall stick to postal voting if I may. By introducing lifelong postal voting on demand, the Government have fundamentally undermined one of the key democratic rights fought for and won in this country during the past 150 years: the right to cast the vote in secret. That was a central demand of the Chartists, forerunners of the Labour party, precisely to put an end to the bribery, corruption and intimidation of voters by the rich and powerful.

When, hard on the heels of the Second Reform Act of 1867, Gladstone introduced the Ballot Act 1872 to enshrine that right in law, that was a vital step forward for democracy in Britain, but it is being recklessly tossed aside. The claimed justification for the changes to the postal voting system is that they will increase voter participation. Of that there is not one jot of evidence, but there is plenty of evidence of how wide open to corruption they have made the political system.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that a better way to improve voter participation would be to reintroduce integrity to the Government?

Mr. Galloway: I shall not go down that road, because the Conservative party started the deterioration of Government integrity in this country. I would not want it to be thought that I am in any way sympathetic to Conservatives just because I shall be voting with them this evening.

Trade unions affiliated to new Labour sent out postal vote application forms by the hundreds of thousands to their members and others, and asked them to return the forms not to the town hall charged with managing the election, but to their trade union headquarters, to a post office box hundreds of miles away from the person filling in the form. There was no good reason for that, but there are plenty of bad reasons on which one could speculate. It is but a short step from that manipulation of the electoral process,
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which is none the less legal, to the fraudulent application for postal votes by people other than the voters themselves, with the instruction that the vote should be sent to an address other than the registered address of the voter.

In Tower Hamlets last May, we witnessed the most corrupt election held in Britain since 1872. Hundreds of votes were purloined by crooks applying for postal votes and getting them redirected to an address sometimes just doors away from the registered address of the voter. Whole blocks of flats woke up to discover that every one of their residents had applied for a postal vote to be redirected to another address without their knowledge. Some 2,800 postal vote applications were delivered to the town hall in Tower Hamlets in the last hours of the last day, and many were brought in by sitting councillors. A total of 18,732 postal votes were registered in Tower Hamlets: a vast increase on the vast increase that had occurred at the general election the year before. Almost 15 per cent. of those were delivered on the last afternoon. A total of 946 postal votes were redirected to addresses that were not the registered address of the voter, with considerably more as a percentage in the wards where new Labour councillors were under pressure.

For the entertainment of the Chamber, let me say that, despite all this, our party defeated the Labour mayor, the Labour deputy mayor, the Labour leader, the Labour deputy leader, the Labour housing convenor, the Labour deputy housing convenor—I could go on, but the House would lose patience. In one ward, new Labour Councillor Bill Turner, who won by just 38 votes, himself had postal votes redirected to the address at which he said that he was living. The system is so utterly without basic democratic protection that it is virtually impossible to detect fraud with a sufficient degree of proof to bring the matter successfully before an election court, where, as might not be known, one must demonstrate that the fraud would have changed the result of the election. Fraud can therefore be demonstrated on a significant scale, but if it is not enough to change the course of the election, the matter is simply thrown out.

Two petitions were accepted, and were prayed in aid by Labour Members. But we were only allowed to have the postal votes for the winning Labour candidate examined, and the only check that we could carry out was a forensic examination and comparison of the signature. None the less, the handwriting expert agreed by all sides in the petition identified 30 per cent. of the postal votes as questionable, and believed that the signatures were probably from different hands in almost half those votes—and that was just sampling 300 postal votes out of almost 19,000.

On top of that—this is where the issue of complacency arises—a major police investigation into voting fraud in Tower Hamlets is ongoing, and has engaged four police officers full-time for the past 10 months. No charges have yet been brought—I do not know if they will be, as it is so easy to subvert the system—but Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman has already commented, on the basis of that investigation, that postal votes are particularly susceptible to fraud. Despite all the talk of there not being many prosecutions, the Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that 390 cases of alleged electoral offences have occurred over the past seven years, and
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not all in inner cities. In Reading, only two of 46 postal vote applications examined were found to be authentic. Richard Mawrey QC, who has been much quoted this evening, looked at ballots in the Birmingham city wards of Aston and nearby Bordesley Green. He said that there were at least 1,000 forged votes in Aston and 1,500 to 2,000 in Bordesley Green. The system of postal voting on demand is leading to a banana republic perception.

Like the Minister, I am a former Labour party official. I have been fighting elections for almost 40 years, almost always on the winning side. I know about elections. Now, for the first time in my political life, people ask me, “How do we know that they are counting these votes fairly? How do we know they are not rigging the election?” I am not saying that that is happening, but there is a systematic undermining of confidence in the electoral process, caused largely by postal vote fraud.

Councils share the responsibility with Government. Richard Mawrey QC considered our two petitions—the only two that we could get in front of the election court. I hope that the Minister, who is laughing, will listen to what he said about a new Labour council just a few miles from Westminster, held by one seat that was secured only by this type of corruption. In response to our petitions, Richard Mawrey QC declared that the evidence that we presented showed “disturbing” and “suspicious” signs of “classic postal voting fraud”. He went on to say that a regime that allows electors to acquire postal voting ballots “on demand” has been

which has proved to be “distressingly easy”.

Yet in the wake of those comments by a Queen’s counsel, Tower Hamlets council, with its Labour majority of one, issued a press release that was such a falsification that Andrew Gilligan—remember him? The Minister shakes her head. He was the only journalist to tell us the truth about the Government’s lies on Iraq. He said in the Evening Standard that the council’s press release was a pack of lies. Who presided over all this? A woman called Christine Gilbert, whose intimate connections to new Labour are so personal that I would not like to go down that route. Suffice it to say that her reward for presiding over the tower of corruption in Tower Hamlets was to be made the chief inspector of schools at Ofsted. God save our children. God save the integrity of their examination results.

9.12 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Much has been said about fraud, but the other problem is when constituents are unaware of their rights and they are prevented from casting their postal votes by things that are not specifically fraud. Let me give the Minister one example—probably the most frustrating case that I encountered in Shrewsbury during the 2005 general election.

A lovely elderly lady who lives in Hanwood, a village south of Shrewsbury, had voted in every election for the past 70 years and she was looking forward to voting for me in 2005—she had a large “Vote Conservative” poster in her garden. She had received her postal ballot
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for the county council elections, but not for the general election, and with one day to go when I met her, it was too late for her to reapply to obtain another postal vote. She did not realise that, because she had applied for a postal vote, she could not go to the polling booth to cast her vote. She was not the only one affected by that frustrating problem: many other constituents in the village of Hanwood did not receive their postal votes. I am not saying that that was the result of deliberate fraud—it was perhaps the result of an error by the Post Office—but those people did not receive their postal ballots, and in the present system they could not simply go to the polling booth to cast their vote.

Shrewsbury is to pilot various electronic voting processes, and I hope that the Minister will tell us how much she will give Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council for piloting those schemes. I very much hope that the Government will pay for them, rather than the local Shrewsbury taxpayer.

Our borough council is excellent and is doing an excellent job. I have confidence in the chief executive, Robin Hooper, as a good returning officer; he is accountable to my local council and is part of our community. The one problem with the Government trying to force unitary status on us is that we will no longer have just one council and one electoral officer. One person will cover the whole of Shropshire and could have to deal with four or five constituencies on one night. No chief executive can properly manage on one night an election involving four or five constituencies—that is absolutely ludicrous. One chief executive of one borough council should be the electoral officer on the night in question.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) secured this debate, because there are a couple of related issues that I feel passionately about that I want to raise. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) mentioned his passion for democracy, and, I, too, came into politics because of my genuine passion for democracy. There have been allegations in Shrewsbury against certain Labour councillors who work in our local post office; indeed, I have received these allegations myself repeatedly. What can I do if they are anonymous? However, the situation is imprinted on one’s mind. One ultimately thinks, “Yes, they work in the post office. They could, as Labour party activists, play some role in manipulating postal votes.” What is the Minister going to do to ensure that Members of Parliament such as I can have confidence in the process?

Now, I find out that the Labour parliamentary candidate selected to stand against me also works in the sorting office at Shrewsbury post office.

Mr. Devine: Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear what he is suggesting? He appears to be suggesting that these post office workers, for whom there is a clear disciplinary procedure, could be stealing letters. That is a very serious allegation to make.

Daniel Kawczynski: Yes, but if the hon. Gentleman reads tomorrow’s Hansard, he will realise that I have not made such an allegation. I am saying that I have received these allegations—some anonymously and others not—from people who say that they work at the post office. This is what my constituents who work for
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the post office are telling me about Labour councillors who work at the post office. I am not saying this—my constituents are—but what am I meant to think? I am obviously concerned if my constituents are making such allegations against Labour councillors.

Now I find, as I said, that the Labour party has selected somebody who works at Shrewsbury sorting office to stand against me. I am starting to get allegations that he, when he stood to be a councillor, was also implicated in various fraudulent practices. I am not saying that; my constituents are.

Mr. Devine: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. As MPs, we get confidential information all the time about criminal activity in our constituencies. I have always reported such information directly to the police and asked them to investigate. Has the hon. Gentleman done the same?

Daniel Kawczynski: At this stage, I have not; I am still compiling the evidence, and if anything can be proved, I shall do so. Of course, if such people remain anonymous, it is very difficult to prove anything, as I was trying to say.

I have respectfully asked the Minister what guidance she will give to such people, if they work in post offices, to show that they should not in any way be involved even in touching postal ballots. She sent me a rather inappropriate reply. She said that I should not be raising these matters because I have no evidence. However, I want the Minister to tell me what guidance the Government are giving to Labour candidates who work for the Post Office. Will she give me an assurance that during a general election such candidates will not be able to touch postal ballots and that they will be excluded from the post office?

Simon Hughes: Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent a broad community, which includes post offices, and I think that his comments are inappropriate. The only way to deal with such matters is to do as I have always done, which is to use the Post Office complaints procedure. I have never received such complaints made on a party political basis, but any allegation that a postal worker has done something wrong should go through the proper complaints structure. The hon. Gentleman should use that process, and only if some real substance is found should he bring the matter here.

Daniel Kawczynski: I wholly disagree. The House of Commons is our Chamber where we should discuss such issues and where Members can receive reassurances from Ministers. I stand by my comments to the Minister. I want her to tell me what guidance the Government are giving. She mentioned at our meeting that only a few people working in sorting offices would stand as parliamentary candidates, but I do not care whether there are a lot or a few—I want guidance from the Government. What will those people be told?

Bridget Prentice: At my meeting with the hon. Gentleman I explained in considerable detail what should be done. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) said, if serious allegations have been made, there are appropriate channels for
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dealing with them. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is making serious allegations and they should be put through that process. It is not for him to find the evidence—that is the job of the police. It is for him to ask those who have made the allegations, whether anonymously or giving their name, to go to the police and to be prepared to make a statement. At our meeting, and in a subsequent letter, I told the hon. Gentleman that guidance was available, through the Electoral Commission, on how all candidates—not just Labour candidates—should conduct themselves during elections.

Daniel Kawczynski: I understand what the Minister says, but she has still not explained the Government’s policy on post office workers.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: May I suggest that my hon. Friend put this question to the Minister—is she satisfied with the security of the postal vote system? Sadly, I have not been in the Chamber for the whole debate, but I have been here for quite a percentage of it and it appears to me that grave reservations have been expressed on both sides of the House about the security of the postal vote system. That concern is shared by the Electoral Commission. If my hon. Friend put that question to the Minister, he would, I hope, receive a response.

Daniel Kawczynski: I wholly agree. Postal voting has given rise to serious issues and the Government are being far too flippant about them.

I shall finish by speaking about the armed forces. In an intervention, I mentioned that many soldiers, families of soldiers and service personnel based at Copthorne—a major Army barracks in Shrewsbury—told me after the general election that they had hoped to vote for me, and for the Conservative party, but regrettably they had not received their postal ballot papers. It is important that our armed forces, wherever in the world they are serving, have the right to vote and to take part in general elections. I very much hope that when the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland sums up he will give us an indication of what the Government are doing to ensure that the large number of service personnel who could not vote at the last election can do so at the next one.

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