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9.24 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I had not intended to speak, but I have been moved by a number of the speeches made during this short debate. My few remarks will be directed at the fraud that is clearly taking place in postal voting.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) represents an area that I know well from a past career in business in Birmingham in the west midlands. He expressed very grave concerns and the Minister must take them seriously. Members on both sides, including Opposition Members who are not members of the Conservative and Unionist party or even the Liberal Democrat party, have put forward to the House clear evidence that fraud is taking place.

I believe in our democratic system. However, I also believe that the Government have moved far too soon towards granting postal votes on a “When you want it”
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basis and before there was any really secure system to ensure that the voting system could not be massively abused. In the north of England, the west midlands and London the postal vote system has clearly been abused.

I intervened to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) whether he would prefer a system in which everyone had total trust in the election result or one that facilitated more and more people taking a postal vote when the postal vote system could be abused. I hope that, in his winding-up speech, the Minister will reply to that point. I am sure that he should say to the House that he would prefer a democratic decision that is respected and trusted and that is not the result of abuse, rather than an electoral system that is subject to abuse.

Mr. Wilshire: I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Does he agree that for most of our lives we lived in a country where almost everybody we spoke to took it for granted that we had an uncorrupt system? Indeed, we were proud when people said to us that this country had one of the best election systems in the world. Yet, now this Government have brought that system into disrepute.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am trying to be balanced and responsible. I am concerned about the House and ensuring that those elected to it from all the political parties are elected by votes that can be trusted. People must believe that there is a true result to an election and that councillors in Birmingham, the north-west and London have not been elected by votes that are the result of fraud. The Government must admit that a number of cases have brought the whole electoral process, particularly that for postal votes, into disrepute. We must ensure that we have a system that is trusted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) talked about those who had applied for a postal vote and had not received it. Clearly at the last election, there were many problems with those responsible for the postal vote system. In my constituency of Macclesfield, we had severe problems and a number of people had to have votes delivered to them by the borough council. [ Interruption.] I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham that I am well aware of the time that the contributions from Back Benchers are supposed to end in order to allow time for the Government to respond. I do not need to be reminded.

Daniel Kawczynski: The Whip told me to do it.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I do not need to be reminded even by the Opposition Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). He is a good friend and a man for whom I have immense respect.

I hope that the Minister will accept that Opposition Members want an electoral system that can be relied upon, that is trusted and that people believe in. Currently, the postal vote system does not meet those criteria. People are unhappy, and that point has been expressed by Members on both sides. Will the Minister
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indicate that the Government understand the concerns of the Electoral Commission, let alone Members on both sides, that action needs to be taken if the postal vote system is to be secure and trusted? Democracy is important, but it must be based on sound values and sound procedures. As I said, the Government have advanced the postal vote system without the security that is necessary. Can the Minister assure us that that point will be dealt with and that security will be 100 per cent. in the future?

9.30 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Today’s has been an important debate that has addressed perhaps the most basic and fundamental issues underpinning our democratic system: the integrity of the system’s mechanics and its methods of avoiding fraud. We recognise and welcome the Liberal Democrats’ support for our motion. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said much that we agree with, until he got to proportional representation. We are debating the system that governs the public’s one opportunity to dictate how and by whom their country or their local authority should be run. Free, fair and secure elections underpin the foundations of our democratic society.

The Minister of State said on Second Reading of the Electoral Administration Bill in 2005:

But despite the Electoral Administration Act 2006, a new range of well-publicised examples of fraud have hit our electoral system. It is becoming increasingly evident that the concept of the great British democracy is under threat and that all is still not well in our democracy. That is of great concern to the Conservative party. The Electoral Commission has warned since 2002 of the need for reform, but it has become clear that the actions taken by the Government have failed to tackle the problem robustly. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has shown that, since 2001, some 342 cases of electoral malpractice have been reported by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) was correct to note that it was simply unrealistic of the Minister to accuse us of scaremongering, although I agree that more research on fraud is needed.

David Taylor: Yet again the figure of 342 is bandied around. Do not the great majority of the cases relate to electoral imprints on communications, campaign methods in the election concerned and allegations about the level of expenditure undertaken by candidates? A relatively small number of cases—they need to be investigated—relate to actual fraud. Is that not the case?

Mr. Djanogly: The Minister and her Back Benchers are too complacent on this issue. [ Interruption. ] Yes. Looking at Tower Hamlets, Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman said that it is the view of the Scotland Yard special prosecution unit

We must not be complacent in that regard. It is a fundamental tenet of our democratic society that the
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public should have confidence in the electoral system. However, since the introduction of postal voting on demand there has been a growing perception—expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton)—that the British electoral system, a previously exemplary model in which electoral fraud was virtually non-existent, is now considered dangerously susceptible to attack.

Simon Hughes: I quoted the figures from the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the latest figures that we have authenticated are those in that report and that there are fewer than 20 investigations in total, either completed or under way? There is a problem, but exaggeration does not help anybody.

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman and I stated different figures. There are figures and there is a serious problem. The Government are making light of the problem, whatever those figures may be.

Although we have been supportive of many of the measures so far implemented by the Government—in particular, the new offences created to deter electoral fraud—as the facts stand it is becoming clear that those measures will still fall far short of the mark. The Government have even messed up the implementation of their inadequate legislation. In response to a question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the Minister admitted, as she did this evening, that the key provisions in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 on the requirement for signatures as verifiers in polling stations had, in effect, been put on ice because, apparently, the Act did not provide for a clear sanction of withholding a ballot paper. Yes, the Act provides for the piloting of personal identifiers, but we have seen a half-hearted approach to enforcement by a Government who are failing to realise, or at least admit to, their fundamental errors with regard to protecting democracy in this country.

Evidence gathered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life shows that the system in place is seriously flawed and that it will still fail to protect the arrangements for postal voting from fraud. For example, information on registration forms provided to electoral registration officers is taken at face value. There is little or no checking of completed registration forms to ensure their authenticity, and there are virtually no checks to establish people’s identities at polling stations. Despite the new checks that are being introduced for postal voting, the committee’s report states:

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) explained those weaknesses succinctly in his speech.

There are thus renewed calls from the Electoral Commission for the introduction of individual registration. That has long been the position of the Conservative party, so I am pleased to note that we are supported by the Liberal Democrats, and that a Labour Member such as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) accepts that it is necessary. The Electoral Commission and most electoral administrators believe
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that individual registration is, in principle, a more accurate means of registering eligible voters and thus the preferred way forward. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has also concluded that the new system of registration should be complemented by an additional objective verifier and that changes should be made immediately.

I am sure that other safety measures could be reviewed, not least regarding non-canvassing near polling stations, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath mentioned. I noted the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. I can tell him only that we stopped using freepost in the 1990s in London after finding much of our freepost dumped in dustbins throughout the borough. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield also made apt comments in that regard.

The sad fact remains that the Government have repeatedly resisted calls to implement measures that would remedy the situation. The Minister talked about instituting all-postal voting in 2001, but she failed to mention the fact that the Electoral Commission withdrew its support for such voting in 2004 because of the Government’s failure to implement the necessary safeguards to increase the security of postal voting and individual registration. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) made a strong case against postal votes on demand. Whether or not one supports that, the need to avoid fraud is vital. We have clearly seen in Tower Hamlets a prime example of how our system has gone very badly wrong.

The Government have consistently chosen to overlook suggestions that they consider the experiences of electoral reform in Northern Ireland. The main measures implemented through the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 included the introduction of individual registration and the use of national insurance numbers as personal identifiers. The latter measure safeguards against illegitimate multiple registration by citizens and improper registration by non-citizens. In addition, a returning officer at a polling station can ask for any suspicious voter’s personal identifiers, which can then be checked against the registration. Most critically, for the non-supervised postal votes, national insurance numbers must be submitted with the ballot papers, which combats the fraud that was evidently rife. Previously, Northern Ireland struggled with the prevalent perception that fraud was widespread. However, since the introduction of the measures in 2002, they have been judged by the electorate and the political parties to be successful in both combating fraud and decreasing the perception of fraud. Some 72 per cent. of respondents declared that they thought that the measures would reduce electoral fraud. In the combined elections in 2005, there were no reported incidents of fraudulent activity.

The position is very different in England. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne pointed out, it is so different that we are now to be investigated by the Council of Europe—I congratulate him on his initiative in that regard. One cannot say that the situation is news to the Government. In a Westminster Hall debate on 22 June 2005, I spoke about the inadequacy of the Government’s proposal to use only a signature and a date of birth as individual identifiers. On 5 July 2005, when questioned about the benefits of using
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national insurance numbers as personal identifiers, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, conceded that they were an effective method of cross-checking information to establish a person’s existence.

On Second Reading of the Government’s Electoral Administration Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire warned that the measures proposed represented a “damp lettuce leaf” rather than the “strong sword” that was required to defend our democracy. Despite that, the Government have consistently pushed forward policies that ignore the grave danger of electoral fraud in favour of increasing turnout at the polls, and they are doing so again today. I once again ask how much longer will it be, and how many more debates will it take, until the Government act.

We accept that it is important that as many eligible people as possible participate in the democratic process, but that should never be at the expense of the integrity of that process. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, correctly said that the legitimacy of our democracy depends on three things: everyone having the right to vote, everyone wanting to vote, and no one fiddling the vote. However, she has consistently failed to appreciate the relative significance of those issues. They do not, as she suggested, represent three equal legs of a stool. We believe that it is not a question of creating an exact balance between the security of the poll and encouraging voting, important though encouraging participation may be, as the integrity of the electoral process is at the heart of the democratic system. It is the fundamental issue; if there is no confidence in the system, fewer, not more, people will vote. That point was made strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington.

The point that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), made earlier about non-registration is simply a red herring. She mentioned encouraging registration, but she will know that people are obliged to register by statute. When I asked her in a written question how many people had been prosecuted for non-registration, she answered that, so far as she knew, none had been. Why is that the case? Again, the answer is Government inaction. Will she abandon what my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow called her complacency, and say whether the Government intend to take the action recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which said that the Electoral Commission’s role of increasing participation in the democratic process does not support or fit with its core regulatory task? Should we not be spending our time urgently reviewing the commission’s powers to stop fraud? May we please have a clear answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), in his response?

Unbelievably, even now, the issue dominating Department for Constitutional Affairs press releases is not the need to crack down on electoral fraud but the extension of all-postal voting, and the trialling of internet and telephone voting. Earlier, the Minister called that a sensible step, but we say that if we do not have the appropriate
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controls, such measures would, if anything, increase the incidence of fraud. As the Foundation for Information Policy Research remarked,

All the signs show that the Government have lost their way, and have lost all sight of the priority issue.

Could there be a murkier reason for Labour’s inaction? On 5 February 2007, in an article, Sir Alistair Graham was quoted as saying that Ministers did not adopt personal identifiers because there were fears that the Labour vote would suffer. He said:

What a sad indictment of new Labour if our great democracy has come to that. The Government should wake up, as the British electoral system is in serious danger of losing its credibility. As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne pointed out, what was once the model for democracies in civilisations across the world has sunk to being investigated alongside emerging states and toppled dictatorships. In light of the recommendations of the 11th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we urge the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to admit plainly that it is time urgently to address the issues, before it is too late, and to support our motion.

9.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): We have had an interesting, lively and at times informed debate on an important topic. Hon. Members have drawn on wisdom accumulated from decades of experience—and that was just the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley)—which would compound into centuries of campaigning experience. Concern has properly been expressed about the paramount need to ensure the integrity of the electoral system and protect it from those who would seek to pervert it and distort the democratic process for profoundly undemocratic ends. Scores have been settled in this evening’s debate—on both sides of the House, it must be admitted—and allegations have been aired. There have been a few disgraceful slurs, and I hope that those who made them will reflect on them.

Mr. Devine: It has been alleged that the present system is advantageous for the Labour party, but I have checked whether people who come to my surgery have registered to vote. Sometimes, as many as 40 per cent. on them are not on the register. Many people who left the register when the poll tax was introduced by the Conservatives were our supporters.

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is correct that it was alleged that the current system benefits Labour, but that allegation was made in relation to the boundary changes, and seemed to suggest that the boundary commissioners were biased towards Labour, which is a disgraceful attack on the integrity and the independence of the boundary commissions. I hope that the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who made that allegation, will reflect on it.

Mr. Horam rose—

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