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David Cairns: I see that he has done so. I shall accept his intervention in a second. The party that waxed lyrical about the evils of pilots and our obsession with them piloted the poll tax in our native land, and did not give two hoots about it.
Mr. Horam: I merely pointed out the fact that there were 93 more Labour Members in England, even though the Conservatives received more votes. I am not implying that the Government arranged thatof course they did notbut they seek to add to that fact further advantage from electoral registration.
David Cairns: Why is it advantageous to the Labour party to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote is on the register? It is advantageous to the health of our democracy for everyone who is entitled to vote to be on the register. That is not a party political point, and it is amazing that the hon. Gentleman should construe it as such. Of course the Government take allegations of fraud seriously, but we take seriously, too, the significant under-representation on the electoral register of people who are entitled to vote.
In her opening speech, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), set out in great detail the many steps that we have takenmost recently, in the Electoral Administration Act 2006to counter threats to the electoral process. Many examples of fraudand many examples were not even fraudthat were cited predate the measures introduced in that Act, and little credit was given to the fact that we have made progress in that measure. To imply that we have not done anything at all since allegations of fraud and of operations worthy of a banana republic were made is to ignore the entire Act, which is extremely unwise.
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): The tenor of our debate suggested that electoral maladministration has occurred only since the increased opportunity for postal voting. I should be grateful if the Minister placed in the Library information about election courts that were convened prior to the Act. Like the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), I have worked for the Labour party for a number of years, and I can think of many examples of fraud that occurred before the Act, so the notion that it has all happened now is simply wrong.
David Cairns: From memory, I believe that 49 allegations were made in 2000, before the extension of postal voting, which proves my hon. Friends point. [ Interruption. ] If that figure is wrong, I will correct it, but my hon. Friend is quite right that fraud is not connected exclusively to the extension of postal voting. I shall come on to that in a second.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, not least because I have not been able to attend the whole debate. Will he comment on a situation that has arisen in my constituency? A Labour councillor has died, and in the normal course of events it would be for the Labour group to decide when to hold the by-election. It would make perfect sense to hold it on the same day as the Assembly elections at the beginning of May, but Plaid Cymru has insisted that it be held earlier, despite the fact that the
by-election on 29 March will be held under one system of postal voting and the elections, only a month later, will be held under a completely different system. Does that not show that some political parties want to sow confusion in the electors minds?
David Cairns: That sounds a particularly bonkers state of affairs that Plaid Cymru has managed to engineer in my hon. Friends constituency, but he affords me the opportunity to mention that new measures will come into place for local elections that specifically address some of the concerns that have been raised this evening. There will be a new way of operating postal votes and postal vote applications.
In his opening speech, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) revisited many of the discussions that we had at the time of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 in relation to individual voter registration and individual personal identifiers for voter registration. We had the debate at inordinate length during the passage of the Act, but we were not able to reach a consensus. There was a variety of views. The hon. Gentleman went well beyond what the Electoral Commission advocated. He wanted national insurance numbers to serve as the personal identifier. The Electoral Commission specifically ruled that out.
The position of the Liberal Democrats was more consistent with the position of the Electoral Commission. We said that we did not oppose in principle the idea of personal identifiers or individual registration, but legitimate concern was expressed not just by those on the Labour Benchesit was echoed this evening by the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmanthat any extension of that could have a detrimental effect on the numbers of people registered to vote. Hon. Members on my side were speaking of catastrophic impacts. That is why we put forward the compromise proposal that we would pilot the idea to get some evidence upon which to base a national extension of the scheme. I regret that that compromise was not accepted on all sides, so we adopted a second compromise for individual identifiers in relation to postal voting.
That has not calmed the argument about postal voting. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire says that there is a problem with fraudulent registration, which he says is ridiculously easy. He argues that we need personal identifiers in relation to the register. We are bringing in personal identifierssignature and date of birthfor postal voting, but he says that that is not enough and will not solve the problem. There is a fundamental inconsistency in the Oppositions approach.
Mr. Heald: The central allegation being made is that the Government are soft on fraud. They are ignoring the advice of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Even where they have introduced the measure requiring signature and date of birth for postal voting, they propose that only 20 per cent. of the votes will be checked. That is nowhere near enough to tackle the problem. The Governments measure for polling stations, was so ineptly drafted that it is not being introduced at all.
The hon. Gentleman knows very well that 20 per cent. is a minimum figure and that in some areas far more than that, up to 100 per cent. of votes,
will be checked. He cannot argue that individual identifierssignature and date of birthsolve the problem for the register and then say that they do not come near solving the problem for postal voting. That is fundamentally inconsistent.
Simon Hughes: I hope that the Minister is about to say that in view of the clear recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life to the Government, they will accept and implement them within the time scale required by the committee.
David Cairns: I intended to deal with that when I responded to the hon. Gentlemans remarks. We have only just received the report and we are still considering it. We will consider carefully the recommendations that it contains, and we will issue our response to that in due course.
At no point in the speech from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire did he express the slightest concern about the 3.5 million missing voters. He did not begin to recognise that there is an issue in constituencies where 80 per cent. of people who are entitled to vote are registered to vote. In some constituencies fewer than 80 per cent. are registered to vote. In my constituency the figure is 84 per cent. That is unacceptable.
We took steps in the Act to maximise the register. We gave additional resources to returning officers. The hon. Gentleman is right that we should ensure that they are given the proper status in councils. We have given them resources and we have given them duties and the extra assistance to maximise the registers. We take that seriously, even if he does not.
The hon. Gentleman and other Members mentioned that Council of Europe rapporteurs were in the country investigating allegations of electoral fraud. I hope they might investigate some allegations about selection votes in Conservative constituencies, where I understand that there are ongoing allegations of electoral fraud. There was a 15 to 14 vote in a meeting of 27 people. Perhaps if the rapporteurs are at a loose end, they might take a little detour to South Staffordshire, where I am sure that they would get ample evidence to inform their report.
I wrote in my notes that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) had taken a slightly more enlightened view on these matters than his predecessor, but the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has now planted himself on the Front Bench. I shall say it anyway. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey takes a more enlightened view than his predecessor, who did not grasp sufficiently the struggle in inner-city constituencies to get people on the register, or why we thought that some of the measures that were proposed could have a detrimental effect on that. We did not say that they would have, just that they could have, which is why we proposed the compromise of piloting the suggestion. However, he joined the Tories in opposing that compromise. That was a shame, because we do not
now have the evidence base that would allow us to make a decision about whether such measures would be appropriate throughout the country
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned the important idea of a democracy day, which has some merit. I understand that the Electoral Commission is considering having a big registration week in March and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that everyone in our constituency who is entitled to be on the register is put on it.
The hon. Gentleman made the bizarre pointI have heard Liberal Democrats make it beforethat we have a lower turnout because we do not have proportional representation. Well, we have three different models for voting in Scotlandfirst past the post for Westminster elections, an additional member system for the Scottish Parliament and a very proportional system for the European Parliament elections. If the hon. Gentlemans thesis were correct, the highest vote would be in the European elections, the second highest in the Scottish Parliament elections and the lowest in the Westminster elections. But of course the reality is that the turnouts are the other way around. The first-past-the-post election has the most voters. The hon. Gentleman should adopt an evidence-based approach to his assertions.
Allegations have been madeI take them seriouslythat the Government do not take the Electoral Commissions report or recommendations seriously. We do. Indeed, more than 80 per cent. of the measures in the Bill that became the Electoral Administration Act 2006 came from the Electoral Commission, including some of those to do with the threshold at which parties lost their deposit. We put those measures into the Bill because the commission recommended them, but the House rejected them. So we do take the commission seriously.
Let us be clear: it is the role of the Electoral Commission to make recommendations to the House, but it is the role of the House to make decisions on those recommendations. The House made decisions about individual registration and personal identifiers. The other place overturned those decisions, and they were brought back here, but the House made its views clear again. We have reservations about extending these matters, because we are concerned about the impact that they will have on registration levels. Unfortunately, those concerns are not shared on both sides of the House.
We have heard hon. Members on both sides, but especially on the Conservative Benches, speaking about their great love of democracy, which brought them into politics in the first place. But the integrity of the electoral system is about more than ensuring that there is no postal voting fraud or eliminating errors in registration. Those things are necessary, but they are not sufficient to ensure a vibrant democracy. That can be delivered only by a Government who are committed to devolving power and extending democratic participation. The Opposition denied the people of Scotland and Wales their own devolved Government, left London bereft of strategic leadership in an act of supreme political spite, fought tooth and nail when Labour introduced devolution
for Scotland and Wales and tried to oppose the return of a directly elected Mayor for London, so they have no credibility whatever when it comes to protecting and enhancing our nations democracy. That is why the House will reject, and will be right to do so, the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. The House will be right to support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
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