Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mrs. Laing: Indeed I can. First, the part of the Joseph Rowntree report quoted by the Minister is just as bad if not worse than the part that I quoted. It means that we must do even more to tighten postal voting. There are some very questionable election results from the last general election, and since then, postal votes have been unreliable. The fact that the Government have done little to tighten postal voting is even worse. My understanding is that there have been 43 cases of electoral fraud over the past few years. That means that only one electoral district in England did not have a case of electoral fraud to look at. There are far too many.
Mr. Djanogly: It is amazing that the Minister asked my hon. Friend how many incidents of fraud have taken place in this country. Perhaps he should be telling the Committee that. The figure of 43, mentioned by my hon. Friend, referred to cases taken to court, not cases notified to the authorities. The latter was, I think, 10 times that amount, not including the evidence given to this very Committee by one of the learned professors, who said that there had been under-reporting and that the true figures were not known. Why is that the case?
Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is right. In the intervening moment I have found my note on this. I was correct: in the past seven years there have been 42 convictions—not just cases brought—for electoral fraud. Only one of the 43 police authorities—I apologise, Sir Nicholas, a moment ago I said electoral registration authorities, but I meant police authorities in England and Wales—has had no case to investigate at all.
Mr. Wills: I just want to clarify something. When I was asking the hon. Lady to enlighten the Committee, it was not because I did not know the figures. I am very well aware of them and, in due course, with your indulgence, Sir Nicholas, I shall reveal them to the Committee at great length. The hon. Lady was making a hyperbolic speech about the extent of all this and I just wanted to be clear that she knew what the actual figures are. We have some idea of that, but I shall reveal more in due course.
The Chairman: Before the hon. Member for Epping Forest continues her speech, may I say that I have been somewhat upset by the Minister’s response. He indicated that he is going to talk at length. I had hoped that he would give us the information succinctly.
Mrs. Laing: Thank you, Sir Nicholas. We look forward to the Minister telling us, at length, why this is relevant. Perhaps we are interpreting this rather differently, but I think that to have 42 convictions for electoral fraud over the past seven years is a high figure and not one that we ought to be proud of in Britain in the 21st century. We should not have any electoral fraud; it is bad enough that we can have electoral mistakes and that the occasional thing goes wrong, but to have 42 convictions for electoral fraud puts the integrity of the ballot in question.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Is this not another case of the hon. Lady asking for something that we have already got? Just as she asked for individual registration, which is already available to people, it is generally agreed that the great majority of problems with fraud centre on postal votes. However, in the postal votes system that we have introduced, we already have signatures. In order to get a postal vote, one has to produce two signatures—one on the application form and another on the declaration. Surely the security that she is looking for is already there.
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman completely misses the point. Of course what he says is correct for postal votes, but it does not apply to votes in the polling station. It is more difficult to take a book out of the library than it is to go into the room next to the library and cast one’s vote.
Martin Linton: How many of these cases of fraud involve votes cast at the voting station?
Mrs. Laing: I do not understand what the hon. Gentleman is hung up about here. Postal votes are different from those at the polling station. While we are on the subject of postal votes, let me say that there have been many instances that prove the inadequacy of the system for verifying signatures. Our postal voting system calls into question the integrity of the ballot, which is all I care about. I do not care what the Minister uses. I do not mind if it is not national insurance numbers but something else—as long as it is not identity cards. If the Minister says not to use signatures, but thumb prints, I say let us consider it. It is the integrity of the ballot with which I am concerned, and not the process.
5 pm
Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I hope that she will not give me many more occasions when I feel that I have to intervene. I must correct something she said. She suggested that we on the Government Benches are proud of what happened. Of course we are not proud. No one can be complacent about a single instance. One instance is too many, and we agree on that. All that I have been seeking to achieve is that she try to put the matter in proportion.
Mrs. Laing: I accept what the Minister says. Putting it in proportion by my reckoning means that 42 convictions for electoral fraud is 42 convictions too many. We should not have electoral fraud. It is so easy to commit electoral fraud.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): The Minister is getting dangerously close to suggesting that there is not a serious problem when we have all the experts in the field queuing up to tell us that the system is “fundamentally flawed”.
Mrs. Laing: Yes. As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am beginning to worry about the Government’s motive for not introducing individual voter registration. The Bill is perfect for such a measure and everyone is calling for it, even Labour Back Benchers. Some have even been brave enough to sign the early-day motion along with the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Some 27 Labour Members had the audacity to stand up to their Government and sign that early-day motion. I am sure that many more would like to sign it and support the proposal, because there are no arguments against it.
What the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire said earlier about the reduction in the number of people registered in Northern Ireland is not an argument against bringing in individual voter registration. It is not an argument against saying that the individual is a free person and should have the right to register themselves to vote on every occasion—not just when they do it separately, because that takes a huge amount of effort.
It was mentioned a few moments ago that people can already register individually, but they would have to take the trouble to do that, knowing that for some reason they were not registered by the household by which they ought to be registered. That goes completely against what every member of the Committee and every Member of the House is saying about making it easier for people to register and to vote.
We want to encourage people to vote and to widen the franchise, not narrow it. That is what individual voter registration is all about. What are Labour Members afraid of? Are they afraid that some people in some marginal constituencies held by their colleagues will not register to vote, which will mean fewer votes for the Labour party? Is that what they are afraid of? If not, they must be afraid of something. There is no argument against individual voter registration.
Martin Linton: As a Member who represents a very marginal constituency, I am afraid that non-registration will get even worse, as it did in Northern Ireland. Already in inner London, 18 per cent. are non-registered. Some 27 per cent. of private tenants are non-registered, and 37 per cent. of black Africans. In inner-London seats, there is huge non-registration. Even if the experience in Northern Ireland is replicated only partly as a result of an immediate blanket move to individual registration, there will be an even greater problem with under-registration in seats such as mine.
Mrs. Laing: So, it is about party political advantage. The hon. Gentleman is talking about inner-London seats, but almost every inner-London seat is held by the Labour party.
Martin Linton: What about Kensington and Chelsea?
Mrs. Laing: I am not worried about Kensington and Chelsea—I said almost every seat. The hon. Gentleman is talking about an inner-London problem, but why do not people in inner-London seats register? I shall give way to him if he cares to answer that.
Martin Linton: Well, since I have been asked to intervene again, I think that the clue is in the categories in which under-registration is highest: 47 per cent. of people who share flats, 38 per cent. of people who live in unfurnished accommodation and 37 per cent. of black Africans. Those are the very categories of people who are least engaged in the political system. Those figures apply, regardless of party, to all seats in which there is a mobile population and where there are large proportions of people on low incomes or who live in tenanted properties.
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman makes my point far better than anyone else has all day. As he has just said most eloquently, the people in inner-London seats who do not register are those in shared flats, in rented accommodation and who are part of the mobile population. Those are the very people who depend on a head of household to register them. They live temporarily in shared flats and rented accommodation and do not register themselves. They do not register because they have to depend on someone else to register them— [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman makes my point perfectly, so I shall not give way to him again. This is exactly the point: if people should have the right to vote and to take part in the democratic system, they should have the right, the duty and the responsibility to register themselves. What he said a moment ago answers my question perfectly, and in the inner-London seats it is exactly the reason why people do not register.
Another reason why people do not register might be that they are not engaged in the political system, but that is up to them. Every individual has the right not to be engaged in the political system if they do not want to be. The reason why the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are so afraid of this fair system of registration is that they think it might reduce the Labour party vote. That can be the only reason why they are against individual voter registration.
Mr. Djanogly: On this point, hon. Members will want to study what happened in America recently with Obama’s campaign. He went to areas in which there was low registration and gave people a reason to register—some for the first time. The hon. Member for Battersea and other hon. Members could do that in their constituencies, but that is a separate issue from the need for individual voter registration.
Mrs. Laing: That is absolutely right. It was striking to hear people say in interviews for the American elections that they had never voted before. It is incumbent on us all to encourage people to register and to vote. A few weeks ago, I did an interview with a female journalist on this subject. A person in the audience said something about encouraging people to vote, and the journalist asked me, “Don’t you think it should be up to MPs to try to get people to vote?” I realised that she had not a clue what she was talking about because what do we all do, all the time, but try to get people to vote? We encourage them to vote first and foremost for us, or for whichever candidate we support, but my goodness, as a body of people we go out there—week after week, month after month—to encourage people to become involved in the democratic process.
Mr. Tyrie: My hon. Friend may not be aware of my evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I suggested that it was our job to get the vote out, not that of some other institution. That is why I felt that that part of the Electoral Commission’s budget should be cut back and its role altered. The Government have accepted the principle, and the Electoral Commission is being remodelled to take account of exactly that point that I made to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The committee’s report set out why it agreed. In other words, it is our primary duty to interest people in politics. We should not be relying on other institutions. We should certainly not be relying on wheezes, such as maintaining completely out of date 19th century registration systems.
Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is correct. I shall move on, because we are also considering new clauses 7 and 8.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Has my hon. Friend heard the explanation that the problem in Northern Ireland results more from the number of voters exceeding the number of people resident in the constituencies?
Mrs. Laing: Yes. Again, my hon. Friend makes a valid point of which the Committee should take note.
I shall move on, because I am conscious of the time and we have a lot to get through. However, I am not sorry for taking time over this group of amendments, because new clause 1 should have been the most important measure in the Bill. It still should be the most important, but I fear that the indications from the Minister are that the Government will not accept it, which is a great pity.
New clause 7 concerns opting in to the edited register. I merely propose it because, as we said when discussing the keeping together of so much information in the register, registers are used by many commercial organisations. Rather than giving people the right to opt out of the edited register, which then goes to mail order companies, charities and other such organisations, it would be more sensible to give people the right to opt in, if they so wished.
We should also consider, although not in the context of the Bill, the very principle of the electoral register being sold for commercial purposes. That is an argument for another day, and I do not propose to go down that route today.
New clause 8 concerns personal identifiers at the ballot box. It is incredible that a person can walk into a polling station, say, “I am John Smith and I live at 40 Acacia avenue”, and be handed a ballot to vote. They do not have to prove who they are or where they live; they do not have to prove anything at all. Most people think that they need their polling card. How often on polling day have we all encountered people and encouraged them to vote, but they say, “Oh, but I can’t find my polling card.” We have to explain to them, “Madam, you do not need your polling card. Just go down to such and such a village hall, which is where this street votes, say who you are and vote.”? It is incredible that it is easier to vote than to take out a library book.
There is no doubt that the system needs to be tightened up. The most ironic thing here is that it would be relatively easy to do. It has been done in Northern Ireland. For more than three years, the Government have been saying that they intend to do it, but they have not made proposals for individual voter registration, personal identifiers or any system that would take us forward to prevent fraud in the electoral system. That puts the integrity of the ballot itself in question.
If we were to have an election where, unlike any election in recent times, the majority in the House was small and some constituencies were decided on majorities of well under 1,000, as many were during the last general election, the integrity of our democratic system and of a future Government could be brought into question. That is unnecessary. If the Government introduced the safeguards that I suggest in new clauses 1 and 2, the system could be massively improved.
5.15 pm
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I will not take up as much of the Committee’s time as the hon. Lady, but I am glad that she moved amendments (a), (b) and (c). Apart from the problems identified by the Electoral Commission with the original drafting of new clause 1, there is also the problem that it appeared to bar all gap year students from the electoral register for at least three months. Given the hon. Lady’s strictures this morning about the importance of ensuring that students can get on to the electoral register, it would have been odd if she had proposed something that operated entirely in the opposite direction only a few hours later.
I am somewhat disappointed, however, by the interventions from the Government Benches on the question of individual registration. It seems clear that there is a serious problem with the accuracy of the electoral register, a problem that threatens the legitimacy of the entire electoral system. What Richard Mawrey, the election commissioner, said in the Slough case—not the Aston case—is important. He said that electoral fraud was
“childishly simple to commit and very difficult to detect”.
The particular fraud that he was referring to in the Slough case was what the Australians call roll-stuffing: increasing the electoral register by inserting people who do not exist. There is a clear case for reform.
The arguments on the other side are not arguments against reform; they are arguments for doing reform carefully, in a properly considered way. For example, the arguments from Northern Ireland about how much the register went down and came back says that one can go too far in reforming and throw off the register people who are entitled to be there, but that is not an argument against the proper effect of reform, which was to throw off the register people who did not exist in the first place and should not have been there.
At this point, I part company to some degree with the hon. Lady. When the reform is introduced, as I am sure it will be, it needs to be accompanied by a Government-led, state-organised campaign to get the right people on the electoral register. It is not enough to say that individual Members of Parliament or politicians in general should take on that task; it must be the state’s role to get the register right.
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