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26 Feb 2007 : Column 725

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 that—of course they did not—but 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 taken—most recently, in the Electoral Administration Act 2006—to counter threats to the electoral process. Many examples of fraud—and many examples were not even fraud—that 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. Friend’s 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
26 Feb 2007 : Column 726
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. Friend’s 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 Benches—it was echoed this evening by the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman—that 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 identifiers—signature and date of birth—for postal voting, but he says that that is not enough and will not solve the problem. There is a fundamental inconsistency in the Opposition’s 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 Government’s measure for polling stations, was so ineptly drafted that it is not being introduced at all.

David Cairns: 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,
26 Feb 2007 : Column 727
will be checked. He cannot argue that individual identifiers—signature and date of birth—solve 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. Gentleman’s 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.

Mr. Binley rose—

David Cairns: I will not give way.

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
26 Feb 2007 : Column 728
now have the evidence base that would allow us to make a decision about whether such measures would be appropriate throughout the country—

Mr. Djanogly: Will the Minister give way?

David Cairns: No, I only have a few minutes left.

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 point—I have heard Liberal Democrats make it before—that we have a lower turnout because we do not have proportional representation. Well, we have three different models for voting in Scotland—first 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. Gentleman’s 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 made—I take them seriously—that the Government do not take the Electoral Commission’s 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
26 Feb 2007 : Column 729
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 nation’s 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.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 219, Noes 282.
Division No. 056]
[9.59 pm


Afriyie, Adam
Ainsworth, Mr. Peter
Amess, Mr. David
Arbuthnot, rh Mr. James
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Baldry, Tony
Barker, Gregory
Baron, Mr. John
Barrett, John
Beith, rh Mr. Alan
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Benyon, Mr. Richard
Bercow, John
Beresford, Sir Paul
Binley, Mr. Brian
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Bone, Mr. Peter
Brady, Mr. Graham
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Brokenshire, James
Brooke, Annette
Browne, Mr. Jeremy
Burns, Mr. Simon
Burrowes, Mr. David
Burt, Lorely
Butterfill, Sir John
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Carswell, Mr. Douglas
Cash, Mr. William
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Clappison, Mr. James
Clark, Greg
Clarke, rh Mr. Kenneth
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Conway, Derek
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Curry, rh Mr. David
Davies, Mr. Dai
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth)
Davies, Philip
Davis, rh David (Haltemprice and Howden)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Dorrell, rh Mr. Stephen
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine
Duddridge, James
Duncan, Alan
Duncan Smith, rh Mr. Iain
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Evans, Mr. Nigel
Evennett, Mr. David
Fallon, Mr. Michael
Farron, Tim
Featherstone, Lynne
Field, Mr. Mark
Foster, Mr. Don
Francois, Mr. Mark
Fraser, Mr. Christopher
Gale, Mr. Roger
Galloway, Mr. George
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Gauke, Mr. David
George, Andrew
Gidley, Sandra
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Goldsworthy, Julia
Goodman, Mr. Paul
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Gray, Mr. James
Green, Damian
Greening, Justine
Greenway, Mr. John
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Hague, rh Mr. William
Hammond, Mr. Philip
Hammond, Stephen
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Hands, Mr. Greg
Harper, Mr. Mark
Harris, Dr. Evan
Harvey, Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Heath, Mr. David
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Herbert, Nick
Hoban, Mr. Mark
Hogg, rh Mr. Douglas
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holloway, Mr. Adam
Holmes, Paul
Horam, Mr. John
Horwood, Martin
Hosie, Stewart
Howard, rh Mr. Michael
Howarth, David
Hughes, Simon
Huhne, Chris
Hunter, Mark

Hurd, Mr. Nick
Jack, rh Mr. Michael
Jackson, Mr. Stewart
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Johnson, Mr. Boris
Jones, Mr. David
Kawczynski, Daniel
Keetch, Mr. Paul
Kennedy, rh Mr. Charles
Key, Robert
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Kramer, Susan
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Lamb, Norman
Lancaster, Mr. Mark
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
Laws, Mr. David
Leech, Mr. John
Leigh, Mr. Edward
Letwin, rh Mr. Oliver
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Lidington, Mr. David
Loughton, Tim
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
Maclean, rh David
Main, Anne
Malins, Mr. Humfrey
Maples, Mr. John
Mates, rh Mr. Michael
May, rh Mrs. Theresa
McCrea, Dr. William
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Mercer, Patrick
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Milton, Anne
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew
Moore, Mr. Michael
Moss, Mr. Malcolm
Mulholland, Greg
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Neill, Robert
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Öpik, Lembit
Ottaway, Richard
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Penning, Mike
Penrose, John
Pickles, Mr. Eric
Price, Adam
Prisk, Mr. Mark
Pritchard, Mark
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, Mr. John
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Robertson, Hugh
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Rogerson, Mr. Dan
Rosindell, Andrew
Rowen, Paul
Ruffley, Mr. David
Russell, Bob
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Scott, Mr. Lee
Selous, Andrew
Shapps, Grant
Simmonds, Mark
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Smith, Sir Robert
Spelman, Mrs. Caroline
Spicer, Sir Michael
Spink, Bob
Spring, Mr. Richard
Stanley, rh Sir John
Steen, Mr. Anthony
Streeter, Mr. Gary
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Stunell, Andrew
Swayne, Mr. Desmond
Swinson, Jo
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Syms, Mr. Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Mr. Ian
Taylor, Matthew
Taylor, Dr. Richard
Teather, Sarah
Thurso, John
Tredinnick, David
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Vaizey, Mr. Edward
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Viggers, Peter
Walker, Mr. Charles
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Webb, Steve
Weir, Mr. Mike
Whittingdale, Mr. John
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Wiggin, Bill
Willetts, Mr. David
Williams, Mark
Williams, Stephen
Willis, Mr. Phil
Willott, Jenny
Wilshire, Mr. David
Wilson, Mr. Rob
Winterton, Ann
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Wishart, Pete
Yeo, Mr. Tim
Young, rh Sir George
Tellers for the Ayes:

Angela Watkinson and
Michael Fabricant

Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Allen, Mr. Graham
Armstrong, rh Hilary
Atkins, Charlotte
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baird, Vera
Banks, Gordon
Barlow, Ms Celia
Barron, rh Mr. Kevin
Battle, rh John
Bayley, Hugh
Begg, Miss Anne
Benton, Mr. Joe
Betts, Mr. Clive

Blackman, Liz
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blears, rh Hazel
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Brennan, Kevin
Brown, Lyn
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Brown, Mr. Russell
Browne, rh Des
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burgon, Colin
Burnham, Andy
Butler, Ms Dawn
Byrne, Mr. Liam
Caborn, rh Mr. Richard
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Caton, Mr. Martin
Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben
Chaytor, Mr. David
Clark, Ms Katy
Clark, Paul
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Clelland, Mr. David
Clwyd, rh Ann
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Coffey, Ann
Cohen, Harry
Connarty, Michael
Cook, Frank
Cooper, Rosie
Corbyn, Jeremy
Cousins, Jim
Crausby, Mr. David
Creagh, Mary
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cummings, John
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Cunningham, Tony
Darling, rh Mr. Alistair
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Denham, rh Mr. John
Devine, Mr. Jim
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Doran, Mr. Frank
Dowd, Jim
Drew, Mr. David
Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth
Eagle, Angela
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Ennis, Jeff
Etherington, Bill
Farrelly, Paul
Flello, Mr. Robert
Flint, Caroline
Flynn, Paul
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gardiner, Barry
George, rh Mr. Bruce
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Goodman, Helen
Griffith, Nia
Griffiths, Nigel
Grogan, Mr. John
Gwynne, Andrew
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hall, Patrick
Hamilton, Mr. David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Mr. Tom
Havard, Mr. Dai
Healey, John
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Hendrick, Mr. Mark
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Heppell, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Heyes, David
Hill, rh Keith
Hillier, Meg
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Hood, Mr. Jimmy
Hopkins, Kelvin
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howells, Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Ingram, rh Mr. Adam
Irranca-Davies, Huw
James, Mrs. Siân C.
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, rh Alan
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Helen
Jones, Lynne
Jowell, rh Tessa
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keeley, Barbara
Keen, Alan
Keen, Ann
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Kennedy, rh Jane
Khabra, Mr. Piara S.
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kidney, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
Knight, Jim
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Lazarowicz, Mark
Lepper, David
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony
Love, Mr. Andrew

Lucas, Ian
Mackinlay, Andrew
Mactaggart, Fiona
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Mallaber, Judy
Mann, John
Marris, Rob
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Marshall, Mr. David
Martlew, Mr. Eric
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McCarthy, Kerry
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McCartney, rh Mr. Ian
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, John
McFadden, Mr. Pat
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGuire, Mrs. Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKechin, Ann
McKenna, Rosemary
McNulty, Mr. Tony
Meacher, rh Mr. Michael
Meale, Mr. Alan
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Milburn, rh Mr. Alan
Miliband, rh David
Miliband, Edward
Miller, Andrew
Mitchell, Mr. Austin
Moffat, Anne
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Morley, rh Mr. Elliot
Mountford, Kali
Mudie, Mr. George
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Munn, Meg
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Murphy, Mr. Jim
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
O'Hara, Mr. Edward
Olner, Mr. Bill
Osborne, Sandra
Owen, Albert
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pearson, Ian
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Pope, Mr. Greg
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Prescott, rh Mr. John
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Purnell, James
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Reed, Mr. Andy
Reid, rh John
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Rooney, Mr. Terry
Roy, Mr. Frank
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Christine
Ryan, Joan
Salter, Martin
Seabeck, Alison
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Sheridan, Jim
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Simpson, Alan
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, rh Jacqui
Smith, John
Snelgrove, Anne
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Straw, rh Mr. Jack
Stringer, Graham
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari
Taylor, David
Thornberry, Emily
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Trickett, Jon
Truswell, Mr. Paul
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Turner, Mr. Neil
Twigg, Derek
Ussher, Kitty
Vaz, rh Keith
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Walley, Joan
Waltho, Lynda
Wareing, Mr. Robert N.
Watts, Mr. Dave
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Hywel
Winnick, Mr. David
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, Mr. Anthony
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wright, Dr. Tony
Wyatt, Derek
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Michael Foster and
Claire Ward
Question accordingly negatived.
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