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17 Apr 2007 : Column 153

Mr. Turner: I am grateful for that reply. I am sure that the Minister is aware that good transport links are an important factor in stimulating local economies. Will he ensure that there is sufficient capacity in his departmental budget, and in the regional development agency budgets, to make sure that local economies can be stimulated by new road links to any new developments built in the period that I mentioned?

Dr. Ladyman: Of course my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the regenerative effects of new road links are one of the things that have to be taken into account when road schemes are prioritised. However, it is important for him to interact with local stakeholders, whose advice we now rely on when prioritising funding. The funding that we get for road improvements will be distributed fairly across the country, and then we will work with local stakeholders to decide how to prioritise the spending.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Norfolk’s economic success is being stifled by the Government’s lack of investment in the roads infrastructure, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) pointed out. Will the Minister finally join me in saying yes to the upgrade of the A11, which needs to take place if Norfolk is to realise its true economic potential?

Dr. Ladyman: I admire the hon. Gentleman’s advocacy of that road scheme, but I again offer him the advice that I have given him on several occasions: it is necessary for him to win the support of local stakeholders if he is to get the scheme prioritised, so that work on it can start within the time scale that he wants. At the moment, the scheme is prioritised, but it will not happen as quickly as the hon. Gentleman would want. It is for him to go back to regional stakeholders and increase the priority of the scheme. By the by, it might be a good idea if he and his colleagues supported some of the measures that the Government have put forward to raise the money to pay for the road improvements that he and his colleagues want.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The last time there was any major investment in the Gateshead A1 western bypass, which runs—or should I say crawls—through my constituency, was more than 20 years ago. When can we expect further investment to bring that important artery up to national standards?

Dr. Ladyman: Once again, significant investment in road improvements is being made in the north-east, but my hon. Friend must work with local stakeholders to achieve priority for schemes that he wants in his area. We are trying our best to stick as closely as possible to priorities recommended to us by the local regions, and we will continue to do our best to stick to those priorities.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister said in reply to a supplementary that resources for roads would be allocated fairly across the country. There are many Opposition Members who would think that that was an untruth, but I do not accuse him of telling an untruth to the House. Will he give me an
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assurance that resources will be allocated fairly and that Conservative authorities such as Macclesfield borough council and Cheshire county council, which have been under-resourced, particularly in east Cheshire, will in future receive a fair allocation of resources in accordance with the prosperity that they create in Cheshire and the north-west.

Dr. Ladyman: When we decided to go for a regional funding allocation, we began with an open consultation, which included all the regions, local authorities, and Opposition Members, to decide how the money was to be allocated to the regions. We have stuck to that formula, so it is clear that the money has been fairly distributed. I have received representations since then from every region in the country saying that they would like to change the system, because they have come up with a system that would benefit their region at the expense of every other region. I am afraid that life is simply not like that, and if we want more money for the regions we must raise more money overall, and that comes down to the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition occasionally supporting the Government in raising that money.

Constitutional Affairs

The Minister of State was asked—

Electoral Fraud

20. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What recent steps she has taken to prevent electoral fraud in local elections. [131524]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): The Government have taken significant steps in recent years to tighten up the security of the electoral process, and to assist police and prosecutors in tackling electoral fraud. Those measures are primarily established by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, and associated secondary legislation.

Tom Brake: I welcome those improvements in security, but I am sure that the Minister agrees that the introduction of postal voting damaged public confidence in the voting system because of the increased risk of fraud. What specific parallel measures has her Department introduced to ensure that the internet, telephone and advance voting pilot projects, too, are not subject to fraud?

Bridget Prentice: First, may I make it clear that incidents of fraud remain isolated, and have arisen in a relatively small handful of wards? As for the pilots, we have put in place clear security measures, which will be monitored by the Electoral Commission and by ourselves. Every local authority that has asked to pilot innovative ways of allowing people to vote has done so in the clear knowledge that it wants to make sure that the system is as secure and accessible as possible.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that an important weapon in combating electoral fraud is the requirement to ensure that the electoral register is
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accurate and up to date? Will she therefore place a duty on electoral registration officers to use all available databases to make sure that the registration system is as accurate and up to date as possible?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As I have often said at the Dispatch Box, the fact that 3 million people are not on the register who should be on it is a slight to our democracy and something that we must challenge. He is quite right, too, that the Electoral Administration Act has given local registration officers further powers to use all means of registration to ensure that people who are eligible to vote are on the register and able to vote. I am constantly hearing about new ways of trying to provide further opportunities for registration officers to make such changes.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): The Minister seems to be living in a slightly different world from the rest of us. Has she read Sir Alistair Graham’s speech in January, in which he said:

Will the Minister respond to Sir Alistair Graham, who made a telling point?

Bridget Prentice: Frankly, Sir Alistair Graham made no such thing. In that speech, which I have read in detail, Sir Alistair Graham waved about the figure of 390 cases of electoral fraud. In fact, the Electoral Commission has been conducting a detailed analysis of those cases, and so far it has discovered that very few of them include allegations relating specifically to voting offences. Sir Alistair Graham and the hon. Gentleman need to understand the difference between offences involving under-age candidates, imprints on leaflets and so on and offences involving people personating others and other kinds of voting fraud. Those are very different things, and they should not be put in the same basket.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Has the Minister had the opportunity to read the Electoral Commission report on allegations of electoral malpractice between 2000 and 2006? It shows that in 25,057 elections in seven years there were only 91 cases involving any allegations of electoral malpractice. That represents 0.00363172 per cent. of elections in which there was even an allegation of malpractice. Is it not more important that we make sure that everybody has a chance to vote as easily as possible than following up the rumour-mongering and scandal-mongering by Opposition parties?

Bridget Prentice: I could not have put it better myself.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Minister will know that the Committee on Standards in Public Life warned that impersonation was the most common form of electoral fraud. The election commissioner in Birmingham warned that well-organised fraudsters
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were getting away with scores of personated votes. Given that, which Minister is responsible for the latest fiasco that the new laws to tackle impersonation will not be introduced for this year’s major set of local elections, because they were so badly drafted? Is that not yet another sign of Government incompetence in the face of growing corruption and fraud?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong. In the local elections in May, there will be personal identifiers for postal votes, which is where there have been allegations in the past of possible fraud. All local authorities involved in local elections in May have already sent out all the information to potential postal voters, and I am confident that they will work as hard as possible under the guidance of the Electoral Commission and with the support of the police to ensure that our elections are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has said, as safe, secure and democratically available as we can possibly make them.

Royal Prerogative

21. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): If she will conduct a review of the scope and use of royal prerogative powers. [131526]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): As I said on 30 January, the Government keep policy in that area under review but do not see the case for a wide-ranging consultation exercise at this time.

Mr. McGovern: The BBC recently described royal prerogative powers as

Royal prerogative powers allow decisions to be taken without the backing of or consultation with Parliament. Does the Minister agree that in a democracy, decisions taken without the backing of or consultation with Parliament should be illegal? May we have a review to address that anachronistic anomaly once and for all?

Bridget Prentice: My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor provided a statement on the Government’s position on this in the House of Lords on 7 February this year, at Hansard column 705. Moreover, the Prime Minister is very keen to ensure that Parliament has its views known, and he has made statements to that effect in recent months. In 2003, for example, there was a substantive motion in Parliament on the Iraq war. We are of course prepared to legislate to constrain the prerogative powers when it is appropriate to do so.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Given that in 2004 the Select Committee on Public Administration said that

as we come to the end of 10 years of Blair-led Labour Government where ministerial Executive power remains as great as ever, will the Minister accept that making peace and war, making treaties such as the extradition treaty and taking away passports from British citizens
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in Guantanamo Bay are matters that should be governed not by Ministers but by Parliament, and that unless the Government move on this they will remain a Government who seem to be more keen on retaining power than sharing it?

Bridget Prentice: We should be cautious in this field; let me give an example of why. We must be careful about introducing legislation in some of these areas where we would then have the undesirability of their being overseen by the courts, which would not necessarily be a good thing. Indeed, it should be for Parliament, rather than the courts, to comment on some of these issues. The Government have to be accountable to Parliament for their decisions, including decisions on the deployment of armed forces. Parliament’s rights are therefore fully protected under the existing arrangements. That does not mean to say that the Government are not prepared to look at prerogative powers again. We have done that in the past and we are still prepared to do so. We will continue to listen to views on the subject, although at the moment we see no reason to do anything different from the present situation.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I agree most strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern). Would it not be useful for my hon. Friend the Minister to look at other parliamentary democracies, especially those with constitutional monarchies such as our own, to see how they do things and perhaps to make some progressive reforms in the light of that?

Bridget Prentice: It is difficult to translate specific constitutional arrangements from one country to another. Procedures in the United Kingdom must reflect our constitutional arrangements. There are occasions when the Executive’s ability to take decisions quickly and to be flexible in using the prerogative powers remains an important cornerstone of our constitution. I am not sure that one can easily transfer what may be good in one country to make it fit here. However, as I say, we constantly keep all these matters under review.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the most important royal prerogative is that of taking this country to war? Can she conceive of a situation whereby we would take this country to war without the endorsement of this House? If so, would she consider changing the royal prerogative in this respect?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman asks whether I can conceive of a situation arising in relation to going to war. In order to reassure him, let me quote what the Prime Minister said:

That sums up the Government’s position very well.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am pleasantly surprised to be called. The Under-Secretary said that she would listen carefully to representations. May I draw it to her attention that nobody has spoken in favour of her conservative position on the matter?
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There is a case for root and branch review of the power of the monarchical institution, including the prerogative powers, which are not always exercised only by Government. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) drew attention to the fact that no Catholic has been made a member of the Order of the Thistle for hundreds of years—that is royal prerogative. It is unacceptable. We need to re-examine the whole monarchical institution.

Bridget Prentice: Although I may have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s example, I have said repeatedly—today and on other occasions—that we keep such matters under review. I shall take the specific example back for further consideration.

Postal Voting

22. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What mechanisms are in place to verify the legitimacy of postal votes. [131527]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): We are introducing a range of new measures at the May 2007 local elections that are designed to strengthen the security of postal voting. They build on the measures that were successfully introduced in May 2006. The introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters is especially important and will help ensure that postal votes are safe and secure.

James Duddridge: During the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, I raised with the Minister of State advice from the banking sector and subsequently wrote to her. The Under-Secretary kindly replied in April last year. Will she update the House on the discussions with the banking sector and their results?

Bridget Prentice: I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman and the House. Thanks to his question, I have discovered that no such discussions took place. It is often said that “Questions were asked in the House”—I shall certainly ensure that questions are asked elsewhere about why the discussions have not yet taken place and that he is informed of them as soon as they do.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Has the Department put in place any mechanism to examine how many people have not renewed their postal votes under the new regime? Will the Department consider the effectiveness of the verification procedures after the elections?

Bridget Prentice: I assure my hon. Friend that we will consider carefully, with the Electoral Commission’s support, the effect of the new legislation on postal voting. We are constantly gathering information about the number of people who apply for postal votes. We will ensure that we can make comparisons about the new system’s effect on the electorate.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): In response to a written question of mine on 28 March, in regard to postal vote fraud, the Under-Secretary said:

Does the Under-Secretary claim that availability to vote surpasses the integrity of the vote? Is not that Government approach one of extreme complacency?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman constantly raises the example of Northern Ireland and I constantly have to remind him that the measures that we took in Northern Ireland meant that registration dropped by more than 10 per cent. Approximately 3.5 million people who should be on the register in England and Wales are not. That is a great democratic deficit. It might suit the Conservative party for fewer people to be on the register and able to vote, but it does not suit those of us who believe in democracy.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Why did not the Under-Secretary ensure that all the secondary legislation was correctly drafted and in place to give returning officers the full power to enforce the postal vote safeguards in the way that Parliament intended?

Bridget Prentice: The right hon. Gentleman is right. It is most unfortunate that we could not do what he suggested. We will ensure that the regulations are drafted correctly in future. It was unfortunate that we could not get that right for 3 May, but I hope that we shall ensure that everything is exactly as it should be in future.

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