Use of emblems on ballot papers

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Wayne David: No doubt the Minister is convinced that I am determined to make mischief on the clause. I am sorry to disappoint him. I will not embellish the concern that some Conservative Members expressed to me privately, and one or two of them in the Chamber, that this might open the way for a new symbol to be adopted if there were joint Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates in an election. I will not go that way.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): What would happen to a Labour /Co-op candidate?

Wayne David: The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my next point. That is precisely what I want to refer to.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): On the subject of a joint Liberal Democrat and Conservative emblem, could a blue duck—is it a duck or a dove that the Liberal Democrats have?—or a yellow oak tree be an amalgam of the emblems of the two parties?

Wayne David: I dread to think what it could be.

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Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I make an alternative suggestion? Perhaps it could be a dead duck sitting in an oak tree.

Wayne David: Perhaps there should be a competition to determine the most appropriate symbol.

On the issue of joint Co-op and Labour party candidates, I understand that the Government explained on Second Reading and before that the clause is intended to address a gap in the legislation. Can the Minister provide reassurance not only that it will address an anomaly in the case of parliamentary elections, but that there is no difficulty in the case of local elections, and that is covered by other legislation?

Mr Heath: I did indeed think that the hon. Gentleman intended to make further mischief, and he may have done so, marginally. May I reassure him that there is not the slightest intention of my party standing joint candidates with the Conservative party? We come together as a coalition of principle in this Government but at the next general election—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman does not keep up with the news if he believes that there are not divergent opinions developing on policies after the next election. We will see what happens.

The clause deals with a simple anomaly that affects the hon. Gentleman’s own party at every election where there are Labour/Co-op candidates and they cannot use a symbol that relates to their joint candidacy. It is not only the Labour party that is affected. Some of us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), may remember Cynog Dafis, formerly a Member of the House. He was elected on a Plaid Cymru/Green ticket. The problem did not arise then, because at that time we did not have party emblems on the ballot paper, but were he or another candidate to stand on the same basis today, he would not be able to have a joint emblem to denote his candidature. It is a small discrepancy, and the clause amends rule 19 of the parliamentary election rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 to enable a candidate who is standing on behalf of two or more registered political parties to use a single emblem on the ballot paper.

Sir Peter Bottomley: I do not claim to be expert in this and I can see that the clause allows a candidate to use one emblem of one party. Does it disallow the use of an authorised combined emblem of two parties?

Mr Heath: I believe I am right in saying that the clause would allow that if the emblem were registered as the emblem of those two parties in combination. I imagine the Labour and Co-operative party will wish to register an emblem to indicate that their candidates will be taking on that joint sponsorship.

Sir Peter Bottomley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. If his interpretation is not right, perhaps we can be written to and the matter considered before the Bill makes progress in another place. It would be useful if the Government said whether they intend a candidate standing with the agreement of more than one party to be able to use a symbol combining elements of the symbols of both parties. If the intention is to disallow that, it would be interesting to hear that. If the intention is to allow it, it would be nice to know that explicitly.

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2 pm

Mr Heath: For the avoidance of any doubt, I will write to the hon. Gentleman. The emblem would have to be registered by one of the political parties, but it could be an emblem that indicates the cross-sponsorship.

Sir Peter Bottomley: It may be that that would have to allow for the possibility that a party would register two emblems, one by themselves and one with another party. It does seem to be a slightly more complicated issue than we understand at the moment.

Mr Heath: It does seem to be a much more complicated issue than I expected when I stood at the Dispatch Box. My understanding is that under the present arrangements parties can register more than one emblem, for example to demonstrate regional or national differences within a single party, so I do not think that that is a problem. That is my understanding, unless I have completely misunderstood the intention behind this. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify that point.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to other elections. This applies only to parliamentary elections because we have already made the necessary changes in secondary legislation to address the issue for most other elections that are affected by the change. We cannot do that for UK parliamentary elections without primary legislation, and that is why it is in the Bill today. It will complete the process, so that we no longer have that discrepancy. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 19 to 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 1


‘In section 60 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (Personation) after subsection (2) insert—

“(2A) The Secretary of State shall introduce regulations by statutory instrument to facilitate actions by electoral registration officers, their agents and others, including candidates and their agents in elections, to—

(a) prevent, and

(b) detect personation.”.’. —(John Hemming.)

This Clause would enable action to be taken to prevent or deter personation.

Brought up, and read the First time.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Other voting offences—

‘In section 61 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (Other voting offences) after subsection (6) insert—

“(6AA) The Secretary of State shall introduce regulations by statutory instruments to facilitate actions by electoral registration officers, their agents and others, including candidates and their agents in elections, to—

(a) prevent, and

(b) detect the offences listed in subsections (1) to (6).”.’.

This Clause would enable action to be taken to prevent or deter other voting offences.

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John Hemming: First, I emphasise that all political parties have had members who are responsible for electoral fraud. In Birmingham it has tended to be the Labour party, but that is not to say that any one party is perfect or any one party is necessarily much worse than any other.

I have unusual experience as a Member of the House in that I have drafted election petitions. The best known is the one for Aston; less known is that for Sparkhill, which dealt with issues of personation. When it was passed to some lawyers, they missed the deadline for serving it, and it was never considered in court. So whereas in 2002 it might have been possible to have proven the scale of personation, it was not until the elections of 2004, when there were election petitions in Aston ward and Bordesley Green ward, that he looked substantially at postal vote fraud. To start with, most of the evidence came from the fact that the Labour candidates were found some time in the early morning on an industrial estate in Aston checking that there were three Labour votes on each of the 273 ballot papers because they did not trust each other to mark them with three Labour votes, it being a three-up election, thinking that the person with the most votes gets elected for four years. A number of the ballot papers in the then Springfield ward were cast with only one Labour vote if they were postal votes, so it was reasonable to assume that the Labour candidates could not necessarily trust each other and therefore their reasoning for sitting late in the morning to look at the ballot papers was justified.

In trying to deal with election fraud, the Bill tries to ensure that the people who are on the electoral roll should be there, and that is a good thing to do. What it does not do and where there is a big gap—although I intend this as a probing new clause—is to try to ensure that people cast their own vote. Historically, there has been a tendency at times for there to be a sort of informal proxy. This has gone on for decades; it is nothing massively new. People think that someone is away and somebody else goes to vote for them. That has also turned into other situations where parties cast votes intentionally for people that they do not expect to vote. We have one way of spotting that through tendered votes. For those people who do not know, if someone turns up at the polling station and is told that they have already voted—it could be that the wrong name was marked on the register—they can get a tendered vote, a pink ballot paper, which is put in an envelope, so that if there is an election petition it is possible to consider the tendered votes and see whether they would have made any difference to a narrow election result. The difficulty, as we have seen in Birmingham, is that vans of people can go from polling station to polling station casting a vote in each one. “Newsnight” found out some of the details of that.

Anyone who is interested in these issues must read the full judgment of Richard Mawrey, an electoral commissioner. He has done a number of election courts since, but he was the electoral commissioner who dealt with the Aston and Bordesley Green election petitions. We have to consider how to ensure that elections are honest. We cannot entirely rely on the apparatus of the state to do that. In his judgment at paragraph 150 he says:

“The reaction of the police”—

to the allegations of election fraud—

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“can best be summed up by drawing attention to the code name they gave to the complaints of malpractice—Operation Gripe. This indicates better than anything else their view that the whole business was a complete waste of their time and that Mr Hemming and the other complainants were a tiresome nuisance.”

I may be a nuisance at times, but at paragraph 264 he said:

“As set out above, in the course of the campaign the Liberal Democrats asserted on several occasions that the Labour Party candidates and their supporters were cheating. Mr Hemming and his team made their complaints to the police and the police largely ignored them.”

Paragraph 265 says:

“Mr Hemming also complained to Mr Owen, to be told, politely but firmly (and certainly correctly), that the Elections Office could not intervene.”

There are issues there. The elections office has to handle the paperwork of the elections in a way that is seen to be fair. My particular concern at that election was that the 273 arrested ballot papers found their way to be counted, and, most importantly, I as leader of the Liberal Democrats and Mike Whitby as leader of the Conservatives at the time, were not told that 273 ballot papers had been arrested on an industrial estate and found their way into the count. So the idea that one casts a vote and it goes off to an industrial estate, the police arrest it after a little discussion and then take it in is quite strange.

Paragraph 707 says:

“But, when all that is said and done, Mr Hemming was right and his critics were wrong. He said that there was a massive, Birmingham-wide electoral fraud by the Labour Party and there was in fact massive Birmingham-wide electoral fraud by the Labour party. He may have played the part of Cassandra, but like Cassandra his prophecies were true. He emerges from the case with credit which is more than can be said for those police officers who treated his complaints as no more than Operation Gripe.”

But the most important part of the judgment from Richard Mawrey was paragraph 717, which says:

“The systems to deal with fraud are not working well. They are not working badly. The fact is that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been. Until there are, fraud will continue unabated.”

With personation, in theory it is possible to appoint polling agents who can stand in the polling station and potentially put the statutory question to people: “Are you such and such a person of such and such address?” If a woman comes in and says, “Yes, I’m Gordon Brown of such and such address,” the fact that that woman—unless she has changed her name by deed pool—is unlikely to be telling the truth is no good reason for the presiding officer not to give her a ballot paper.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting case. Following the incident that he describes, have the police apologised for the way in which they behaved, and have they given any reassurance to him that in future they will treat complaints of electoral fraud seriously?

John Hemming: There was no apology. They did start going down a different route, but they then started prosecuting people for offences that were not offences. There was one case where they prosecuted someone for what they thought was postal vote fraud, but they made the mistake of not checking whether the votes were cast to work out whether there was a chance that there was

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postal vote fraud. Most people indulge in electoral fraud to get more votes and be elected, but if someone assists someone else in filling in the forms for a postal vote and the vote is not actually cast, one can assume that there is no offence. A person was prosecuted for that. There has been no apology for it.

I am more concerned about the fact that we are doing nothing to control personation. I want to draw a distinction between actions that enable the system as a whole to act to prevent personation and actions that enable political parties to do so. Issuing an election petition is very difficult. Again, it is worth reading the judgment. The prosecution in Birmingham took place in the Birmingham and Midland Institute, in a room that could accommodate possibly 300 people, and there were often 200 people there watching the election court’s proceedings. It was the best entertainment in town at the time, and many people who saw it would accept that as a fair description of the situation. Whatever processes are put in, there must be a facility that allows them to be transparent and enables the political parties to be involved in challenging them through an open and transparent judicial process in an election court.

At the same time, it is useful to have processes that allow the police to get involved. In Birmingham it was clear that 4,000 people’s votes were stolen in the Bordesley Green ward. There were three local election votes and one European parliamentary vote, so basically 16,000 votes were stolen. That involved threats to the postman, who was told, “We’ll give you £500 if you give us your box of postal votes or we’ll kill you.” It is an offer you cannot really refuse. One letter box was actually set on fire in an attempt to stop postal votes reaching the electoral office. There was a semi-riot involving 200 people, because obviously when this sort of thing goes on the tension goes beyond what we would normally have in rows about unparliamentary language and people start fighting in the street instead. Those are the sorts of issues that arise.

Sir Peter Bottomley: The hon. Gentleman’s new clause rightly suggests first deterring people and then being able to catch them and take action. False registration is clearly an issue, and obtaining postal votes when they are in transit is another. Has he considered whether powers are needed to be able to film each person delivering a vote in person, because there is either the postal vote personation or the voting-in-person personation?

John Hemming: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I would rather he had not made it, because I had intended to say that and now he has mentioned it first. I think that technology has facilitated recording in polling stations. Making that recording available would be the best sort of change, because it would not record which way people vote.

I had started to talk about the Greek situation, where transparent ballot boxes are used, which, in terms of transparency, are better than black boxes. In Cheetham Hill ward in Manchester in 2003 a ballot box went astray for about an hour and a half after the end of polling. Obviously that is a good opportunity for ballot box-stuffing, as people can put a few extra votes in the

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ballot box as they drive around Manchester. There are a number of advantages with the filming process. If someone is personating, we would see who it is, which in a sense is the better challenge.

Mr Kevan Jones: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s example, but surely if someone stuffs extra ballots into a ballot box the number of ballots in it would not tally with the number issued at the polling station.

John Hemming: What happens is that basically they mark off extra votes on the marked register, so it is not difficult.

Mr Jones: I am sorry, but that is not what they do; they mark off the marked register, but there is also the counter stub with the number on, which is then tallied with the number of votes issued. I think that what the hon. Gentleman suggests would be very difficult for someone to do unless they also had control of the book of ballot forms.

John Hemming: We have experience in Birmingham of identified presiding officers campaigning for the Labour party in the polling station. In Hodge Hill ward, for instance, the presiding officer was handing out poll cards to the Labour agent, which is a criminal offence, and I reported it to the chief executive at the time. In one polling station the poll cards were given to the Labour party. It cannot be assumed that just because people are presiding officers—I accept that there are two people there—they suddenly become perfect people who behave exactly as we would wish them to. If we had enough activists and we could put polling agents in each polling station for all the hours of the poll and monitor what was going on, that would not be such a problem.

2.15 pm

Mr Jones: I find it remarkable that the hon. Gentleman opened his speech by saying that electoral fraud, of which I think there are a tiny number of cases, affects all parties, because he seems to be very partisan in using examples only from the Labour party. Is he really suggesting that polling agents and people who work in polling stations are involved in fraud, because in my opinion that is not the case? There is a danger in what he is suggesting, because if we put in agents from some parties they could intimidate the polling clerks.

John Hemming: Under election law, putting in polling agents is already allowed; that is not a change to the law.

Mr Jones: Well, that can be done, but what is being suggested is that they would somehow have a role in interfering with the polling agents. I am sorry, but I think that would be a dangerous move.

John Hemming: I have two little points to make on that. First, I said that all parties have people who are responsible for election fraud but in Birmingham we have tended to find problems with the Labour party, so I am tending to talk about the Labour party. Secondly, with regard to polling agents, that is the current law. If the hon. Gentleman does not know the current law, that is life. The current law allows people to appoint both

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counting agents and polling agents. Most people do not appoint polling agents but in Birmingham, because of the large amount of personation that tends to go on, we appoint polling agents in some wards when we can manage it. I have sent to the presiding officer, with evidence, examples of presiding agents who attempted to persuade people to vote for the Labour party in the Soho ward in Birmingham. There would have been other election petitions in 2004 on the basis of those particular issues had it not been for the fact that running one election petition is a major challenge and running two would be a bigger challenge, so much so that we had legal assistance on the second one.

Wayne David: The hon. Gentleman has made some accusations, admittedly only in passing, but they are quite serious and he has stated them as though they are fact. If he has serious allegations, he really ought to produce the evidence to the police, rather than relying on parliamentary privilege in this House.

John Hemming: I did provide that information to the police in 2004, and they had an operation called Operation Gripe, in which they basically did nothing. We have now moved on. We are eight years down the track. I do not think that it would be reasonable to prosecute people for things they did eight years ago. Let me quote again from the judgment:

“The reaction of the police can be best summed up by drawing attention to the code name they gave to complaints of malpractice—Operation Gripe. This indicated better than anything else their view that the whole business was a complete waste of time and that Mr Hemming and the other complainants were a tiresome nuisance.”

I gave all the evidence to the police, who piled it in a box, called it Operation Gripe and did nothing. At the same time, we have to be realistic. We have moved on eight years and I am not going to spend all my time trying to get a particular woman prosecuted for handing poll cards to the Labour party. What I said to the returning officer, the chief executive of the council, was that I wanted her to stop doing it, not get her imprisoned. There are questions about the objectives. My objective in the campaigning I have done on election fraud over a number of years is to stop it. To do that, we must have systems to monitor and detect things. That is where these particular probing amendments come in. They would give the Government a facility to make changes. I happen to think that the proposal for video recording in the polling station would be one of the best solutions.

Chris Ruane: What estimate has the hon. Gentleman made of the cost of kitting out every polling station in the UK with such video evidence?

John Hemming: What value does the hon. Gentleman place on integrity in electoral processes? That is the real question. One of these new video camera thingies, such as a mobile phone, would cost about £100 per polling station, and if we do not necessarily introduce them throughout the country, the question is, what value do we place on integrity in election processes? To me, the integrity of an election is absolutely critical.

Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about integrity, but within that, and in hard times, we have to weigh two things in the balance: integrity and

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cost. So what assessment has he made of the incidence of such electoral fraud—personation or whatever? Would it be worth paying out £100 for every polling station in the UK, or would some of that money be better spent on installing disabled access, which is a far bigger problem?

John Hemming: Somewhere in the judgment, Members will find that I made about 50 complaints to the police in 2004 in Birmingham. As I have said, things have moved on, and some progress has been made on dealing with election fraud.

One issue was the large amount of postal vote fraud, and we proved that a small number of people had forged all the witness statements, but since then witness statements have been abolished so we can no longer prove whether any are forged. So changes have been made, but not all have necessarily been good changes.

Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman says that things have moved on in eight years. Does he have the statistics for the number of cases of electoral fraud and personation last year and this year? Is it a current problem, or would we be spending £100 on every polling station to resolve problems that existed eight years ago but do not exist today?

John Hemming: Paragraph 717 of Richard Mawrey’s judgment states:

“The systems to deal with fraud are not working well. They are not working badly. The fact is that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been.”

In paragraph 714, which I did not read out earlier, Mawrey states:

“In this judgment I have set out at length what has clearly been shown to be the weakness of the current law relating to postal votes. As some parts of this judgment may be seen as critical of the Government, I wish to make it clear that the responsibility for the present unsatisfactory situation must be shared. All political parties welcomed and supported postal voting on demand. Until very recently, none has treated electoral fraud as representing a problem. Apart from the Electoral Commission, whose role I have described above, the only voices raised against the laxity of the system have been in the media, in particular The Times newspaper, and the tendency of politicians of all Parties has been to dismiss these warnings as scaremongering.”

So there we go: personation is still going on.

In South Yardley ward this year, for instance, we put in a little bit of effort after the election and uncovered personation, but one difficulty is that when people are asked, “Did you vote?” they all tend to say yes—whether they did or not. There is a record of people who voted in 2012 but not in 2011, and when they are asked, “Do you remember whether you voted in 2011 or 2012?” they tend to say, “We voted both times,” when in fact we know that they did not vote in 2011.

We did, however, find a small number of personated votes in South Yardley ward—not enough to affect the result, but the point is that we found some. There are difficulties in dealing with things retrospectively, however, and that brings us to the point about new clause 1, which is about facilitating change. Emotionally, I like what some democracies have, which is orange or purple dye on the finger.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman thought that his suggestion of installing a camera in every polling station might create

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a whole new raft of electoral fraud—namely, one party making a spurious complaint against a known supporter of another party in order to deter that party’s voters from voting later on or in another election?

John Hemming: First, I do not think that that is true; and, secondly, the new clause is not necessarily the best way to deal with the issue, because it is an important one that needs consideration in primary legislation. Experiments—pilot schemes—might be undertaken to see how the proposal worked in certain areas, but it is an important issue that in primary legislation would attract far more Members than are currently in the Chamber to look at it. So we cannot say now what the exact solution would be, but at the moment Richard Mawrey is still right: there is no system for controlling personation.

A voter does not need their polling card, so they can turn up and say, “My name is X, of this address, please give me a ballot paper,” and the officials are under a duty to do so. Interestingly, during the 2010 general election I had in Birmingham observers from Kenya and Bangladesh, and, after I took them round and showed them how it all worked, they were quite surprised at how easy it was to defraud the system.

To return to the point I was about to make before the previous intervention—that is no criticism of the intervention—I am emotionally attracted to the practice in some countries of putting purple dye on a finger.

Chris Ruane: If we were to adopt the hon. Gentleman’s policy of putting an extra 60,000 CCTV cameras in polling stations throughout the country, how would that fit with his party’s view that there are too many such cameras already? An extra 60,000? Surely that would be Big Brother.

John Hemming: The question we have to ask is whether the use of something is proportionate, because in my constituency I supported the use of closed circuit television cameras, for instance, in the Yew Tree shopping centre, where they provide a useful function in an area with a history of crime. Sadly, there has been a history of crime in certain polling stations too, and, although I am not saying that we should put cameras all over the place, I think there is an argument for them as an option.

Chris Ruane: What criteria would the hon. Gentleman use for placing those—[Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) sniggers, but this is a serious issue. What criteria would the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) use for placing those extra 60,000 CCTV cameras across the nation? Would he do so if there had been previous electoral fraud or personation in an area, or if a certain socio-economic group or ethnic group had been involved? If he had a plan of the UK, where would he plonk those cameras?

John Hemming: Any decision would be better driven by the requests of the political parties. If they were willing to fund the measure so that it did not affect the deficit, they could place a camera to record what was going on and make sure that people were not being intimidated in the polling station.

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There have been serious problems with people being bullied by their families in what is supposed to be a secret ballot. That is not supposed to happen, but it happens at the polling station as well.

Chris Ruane: Would political parties decide where the cameras went throughout the nation? If there were 60,000 of them, would there be 20,000 for Labour, 20,000 for the Tories and 20,000 for the Lib Dems, or would there be some kind of proportional representation for the allocation of CCTV cameras? Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that point?

John Hemming: One point about the new clause is that it does not try to be explicit about how we might deal with a specific problem; it would allow a discussion to take place. I am very pleased to have the hon. Gentleman’s interventions, however, as we look creatively at how we can deal with an issue to which, effectively, a blind eye has been turned for more than a century. When political parties had larger memberships it was easier to arrange polling agents all over the place; it has become harder as political party activity and social capital has gone down. So the hon. Gentleman might make that proposal, but what is important is that something should happen.

Chris Ruane: I was not making that proposal; I was asking the hon. Gentleman whether he agreed with it and was proposing it.

John Hemming: I am proposing, believe it or not, new clause 1, which would facilitate secondary legislation to deal with the matter. I accept the point that the issue is so important that it should be dealt with in primary legislation, but it would be nice to see the Electoral Commission showing some interest in pilot schemes to deal with these issues. Personation is well known in many areas of the country, and the noble Lord Greaves has highlighted cases in his area.

Wayne David: Listening to the hon. Gentleman, I have a novel suggestion: might it not be a good idea, first, to have ID cards?

John Hemming: We do not need an ID card to have some way of checking an identity. I would not go for the fingerprint solution; I think the video camera is—[Interruption.] The reason I like the idea of colour on the finger is that it would be a badge of honour. People who had done their civic duty and cast a vote could say to those who had not, “I’m one up on you—I’ve been out to vote.” I always say to people that others have fought for the ballot and that even if they spoil the ballot paper, they should cast their vote. I also explain to them that if something sufficiently rude is written on the ballot paper the agents and candidates often get to see it, so it is a way of getting a message across, whereas sitting at home and not casting a vote does not have an effect, and those who do not cast votes tend to be ignored. People should be aware of that.

2.30 pm

In the past, the Electoral Commission has tended to be somewhat complacent about electoral fraud and has been more interested in increasing the number of votes

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cast, whether or not they were cast by the person who was supposed to do so. Hence we have ended up with phantom people on the electoral roll who vote reliably every year. The Electoral Commission has not seen that as a priority; it has been more concerned that of the people recorded on an unreliable electoral roll, a higher proportion cast votes.

We come back to the question of the secret ballot. One of my concerns about the postal voting system is that it is quite easy for people to be intimidated into voting in a particular way because the circumstances in which the ballots are cast are not controlled. In Norway, for instance, there are controlled circumstances for absentee ballots. That is important. In Birmingham, people have gone en masse into a polling station and been pressurised by family members about how to cast their secret ballot. In my view, each individual family member has a right to cast their secret ballot in whichever way they wish. We have had serious problems, with the police being called to polling stations because of the frantic things going on. Again, I am going back to 2004, but it is a continuing problem. One of the difficulties in dealing with electoral fraud is that unless one looks for it one does not find it. The challenge on election day is whether to spend time trying to get the vote out or find out what is going on.

Chris Ruane: In a recent parliamentary question, I asked how many successful prosecutions of electoral fraud there are every year, and the answer came back, one or two, but 36% of the British public think that the situation is worse than that. Part of the reason for that disparity could be that MPs and Ministers stand up in the Chamber and on the news and say that electoral fraud is a terrible problem, but really it is not and there are very few cases. Yet the whole gist of the Bill—

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): In fairness, Mr Hemming, you have taken a lot of interventions, and we have to deal with other new clauses after this. You have already been speaking for 30 minutes, and I think you are in danger of being drawn into something you do not want to be drawn into. It may be helpful if you are not drawn into it, and I am sure that you are now coming to the end of your speech.

John Hemming: Paragraph 717 of the Mawrey judgment, which I quoted earlier, deals with the hon. Gentleman’s point. These are probing amendments. However, we do need systems to detect and prevent personation, and according to Mr Justice Mawrey, we do not have them.

Mr Kevan Jones: This has been a fascinating debate. In my view, one of the weaknesses of the new clause is that it calls for action but does not outline what should happen.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that the number of cases of fraud in this country is small. Overall, we have a very good electoral system. In the Electoral Commission’s report after its voting pilots of the early 2000s, it found that the incidence of fraud was quite small, but, as we know, concentrated in certain communities, whether Asian communities in big cities such as Birmingham, which

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the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) represents, or those in other areas such as Bradford and Tower Hamlets, where the Liberal Democrats do not have a fantastic record. We must therefore be careful not to get this out of proportion.

I am worried about some of the hon. Gentleman’s suggested measures to detect fraud, which would be completely out of proportion to the problem that is being addressed. Having seen his performances in this House over the past few years, I am not surprised that the police chose the name Operation Gripe. Making scattergun accusations such as those he made today is not very helpful, either to the police or to the real debate about electoral fraud.

The hon. Gentleman proposes to extend these measures to candidates and polling agents. In Durham, political parties do appoint polling agents, but their role is very clearly defined. They cannot interfere with the issuing of ballot papers. They can ask people for their numbers, but many, rightly, do not give them. They may be asked for the number of people who have voted, and will be happy to give that. If polling agents were able to sit over the polling clerks, as he suggests, that would be wrong because it might intimidate them. The polling clerks I have dealt with in the many elections in which I have been either an agent or a candidate are very professional individuals. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of a polling clerk issuing ballot papers incorrectly, then he must provide it. He should not throw it out in such a casual manner as he has today. I would be very uncomfortable with polling agents taking on the role that he suggests in sitting over the clerks when they are doing their job.

I accept that the hon. Gentleman’s community is very different from the one that I represent, but I find it strange that voters take other people into the polling station to vote. In my experience of the elections in which I have been an agent or a candidate, if someone arrives who is infirm or needs assistance, the polling clerk will take them into the voting booth to assist in pointing out the names of the candidates. I have never known polling clerks allow a relative, or a candidate or representative of a political party, to go with somebody into the voting booth. The message is the quality and rigour of the polling clerks, who, in my experience, are professional individuals who know what the rules are.

In Durham, when polling clerks take numbers at polling stations, it is made clear that they must sit way outside the balloting area—if it is a school, usually in a corridor; if it is a community hall, usually outside—so that they cannot in any way interfere with the process. I have sometimes taken infirm people to vote. The usual procedure is to take them to the door and indicate to the clerk, who will take over from there so that we do not get involved in the process.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd said, the hon. Gentleman is doing us a disservice in perpetuating the myth that electoral fraud is a huge problem in general, because it is not. I accept that it is a huge problem in certain areas, and the people involved should be dealt with properly.

I find it strange that a Liberal Democrat has such a schizophrenic attitude towards CCTV given that the Liberal Democrats pride themselves on saying that CCTV is against civil liberties. I would not want any

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recording device in polling stations, because the ballot is private. No matter how many assurances people were given, they would fear that a CCTV camera was recording or indicating which way they had voted.

Sir Peter Bottomley: First, we have had for some time the experience of having police officers in polling stations from the days when they might have been needed to keep order. Secondly, surely the proposed CCTV camera is intended to show the ballot paper being issued and put in the box, not to go behind the screen where the paper is marked.

Mr Jones: The hon. Gentleman says that, but what is to prevent someone from shifting the camera so that it covers the voting booths? My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd also made a good point about cost. I think that many electors would find it intimidating to be filmed while they were performing their democratic right. I therefore think that this is a very strange suggestion from the Liberal Democrats. They rail against the Big Brother state a lot, but this would be taking the Big Brother state to a huge and strange conclusion.

I also find it strange that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is in favour of people marking their fingers. Again, I am not sure that that would go down well in my constituency.

Chris Ruane: Stick it on the end of their noses!

Mr Jones: I am—

John Hemming: As I said, I think that it creates an emotional attachment, but I do not think that it is a good solution.

Mr Jones: It might have been only a suggestion but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd said, why not stick the ink on people’s noses? Why not brand people? I am sorry, but that is not the way in which the electoral system operates in this country.

Chris Ruane: For the record, I want my hon. Friend and the rest of the Committee to know that that was a joke. I was not honestly suggesting that we put ink on the end of people’s noses.

Mr Jones: Having known my hon. Friend for many years, I know his sense of humour and will take his comment in that spirit. I certainly would not support electors having to have their fingers, noses or any other part of their anatomy dipped to show that they had voted.

I think that robust training for polling clerks is important. The safeguards are already there. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) spoke about police officers at polling stations. That is a good idea where there are problems. If there are problems in certain wards, as hon. Members think there are, the Bill allows for community support officers to take that role. That is a good move because it will free up police resources. The mechanisms are there to ensure that the ballot is run fairly.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley made the accusation that somebody was giving out polling cards to the Labour party. His speech was interesting in that he said that the problem affects all parties, but did

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not name one case that involved his party, when we know that the Liberal Democrats have been at this on an industrial scale in parts of the country. If he has evidence of polling cards being given out, he should report it. The only problem comes if he bombards the police with 50-odd minor complaints. In that case, even I would consider him an irritant.

John Hemming: I did report that problem—it was called Operation Gripe.

Mr Jones: I am not being funny, but if somebody turns themselves into a serial complainer, I can understand why an authority would start to ignore some of the complaints. The hon. Gentleman would be better off concentrating on specific cases on which he has hard evidence, rather than throwing complaints around like confetti, which is not helpful.

The other thing that will help the process is individual registration, which will ensure that the register is as up-to-date as possible. I reiterate that elections in this country are largely run fairly and correctly. We should keep reinforcing that message. When we had the pilots for all-postal and e-mail voting elections in the early 2000s, the report from the Electoral Commission was very positive. A council by-election in my area achieved a 67% turnout. If the number of votes cast is increased, the effect of minor fraud is diminished, so getting turnout up is important.

I accept that the constituency that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley represents is very different from mine, and that there are communities that engage in electoral fraud. The effort should be made in those places, rather than there being a scatter-gun approach. I therefore see no reason for the new clauses. They are quite weak, because they do not prescribe what the action would be. They are not well thought out.

Finally, we should praise the many local returning officers and council chief executives who work very hard and are scrupulous in running elections.

Sir Peter Bottomley: The speech from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was interesting. It was like saying that 788 planes landed safely at Heathrow and that only one crashed, and then asking why we are spending our time on the crash.

The new clause is a probing suggestion that something should happen. Clearly, something should happen. It would be good if the Minister said that he will get the Association of Chief Police Officers together with the Electoral Commission, electoral registration officers and others to come up with a way of finding out how much of a problem there is—that means research—and a statement of how the police gain the information on which they can base prosecutions when problems are reported.

2.45 pm

Chris Ruane: I refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier intervention. That research is already in place. I referred to a parliamentary answer from a few weeks ago, which stated that there are one or two cases a year. We need to get this problem into perspective.

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Sir Peter Bottomley: I respect the hon. Gentleman, but I am trying to develop a slightly different approach. I will do so very briefly.

First, there should be a one in 100 check on postal vote applications. Secondly, there should be a retrospective check on whether postal votes have been used by the elector themselves. Thirdly, there should be a place where people who think that postal votes have been stolen—literally and physically stolen—can report it, and there should be a way to check those reports. Lastly, the police should be asked what it is they lack that would make it possible for them to investigate complaints and suggestions of impropriety properly. I think that that approach would solve the problem.

Mr Heath: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this Committee, Ms Clark.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has raised an important point about impersonation and other electoral fraud offences. He was very fair in what he said at the beginning of his remarks. First, he said that this is a probing new clause. I therefore do not intend to dissect the wording of his new clauses to any great extent, because I do not think that he intends to press for a Division. Secondly, he was fair in saying that electoral malpractice is not confined to one party. We all need to be aware of it, to be on our guard against it and to take all appropriate steps to ensure that it does not happen, either in our own parties or in the wider electoral process. He, of course, recounts what he has experienced in Birmingham, and it is perfectly proper for other hon. Members to raise issues that reflect the experience in their areas.

We have traditionally been extraordinarily complacent in this country about our electoral administration arrangements. We have assumed that most people play the game according to the rules, and most people do. However, in making that big assumption, we have sometimes omitted to take elementary steps that would be considered perfectly normal in other jurisdictions to prevent the possibility of those who do not want to play by the rules doing things that we would not consider to be normal.

As I indicated earlier in the passage of the Bill, I have considerable experience of monitoring elections overseas as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Indeed, I have led international monitoring missions in a number of countries. The things that I have seen done in other countries, which we say in international forums are the things that we would like to see, are completely omitted in our country. Some of the things to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley referred, such as the use of transparent boxes to avoid ballot stuffing, are normal in most new democracies. It is normal in most new democracies for representatives of parties to act as observers in polling stations as a trust-building measure. Indeed, it is common in a lot of countries to have a method of indicating that somebody has voted, such as the use of dye. Those are not measures that we should or need to take in this country, but it is important that we do not have a complacent view of fraud, or an old-fashioned view that such things cannot happen in the United Kingdom—they can, and we should be on our guard.

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Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that the police in this country, perhaps unfortunately, have traditionally taken a relaxed view of electoral fraud—it is almost as if it is not a proper crime? Does he welcome noises from senior police officers in the past few months to the effect that they have got that wrong and will be more stringent in future?

Mr Heath: I mentioned in the debate on an earlier group of amendments the extraordinarily valuable work that has been done between the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers. That work, which has involved comparing notes and finding best practice, has brought it home to local police officers that electoral fraud is their responsibility, and that attempting to undermine our democratic process by doing things incorrectly is a serious offence and should be taken seriously.

That has not always been the case—Governments, too, have not always taken electoral fraud seriously. I give credit to the previous Government because they started to take it seriously latterly in legislation, but I emphasise on behalf of this Government that we take electoral fraud very seriously indeed and regard the integrity of the ballot as a top priority. That is precisely why we introduced the Bill and measures such as individual elector registration.

We need returning officers and their staff to work closely with local police forces, candidates and agents to raise awareness of voting offences and the proper procedure for reporting concerns. The joint guidance from ACPO and the Electoral Commission in advance of a poll, for which the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) asked, will give examples of best practice on detecting malpractice. It will be enormously valuable. For example, polling station staff will be issued with guidance notes routinely on how to identify individuals they suspect of committing a voting offence, and on what to do if they are not satisfied that a person is a genuine or eligible voter.

Under existing law and under the Bill, polling station staff can ask voters certain prescribed questions before issuing them with a ballot paper, including asking whether they are the person named on the register under the relevant entry and whether they have already voted in that election. Staff can withhold a ballot paper from those attempting to vote more than once. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley that the process of a tendered ballot is not well understood, but it ought to be in such circumstances. Staff must also mark each voter’s name on the register before they are issued with a ballot paper to prevent people from voting several times.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Marking prevents the person who should be casting the vote from doing so, because someone will have used their name before.

Mr Heath: That is precisely the point about the tendered vote. The person who subsequently arrives at the polling station can vote—whether a personation has occurred is determined at a later stage.

Similarly, measures are already in place to prevent postal voting fraud. All postal voters must supply postal vote identifiers—a signature and a date of birth—both

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when they apply for and when they return a postal vote. Anyone seeking to abuse a postal vote that is addressed to someone who has moved out of a property would have to replicate a signature and know the date of birth to pass the rigorous checking system. In addition, the Government will introduce secondary legislation to make it mandatory—this deals with an issue raised by the hon. Member for Worthing West—for returning officers to check 100% of postal vote identifiers on return postal vote statements. Taken together, those measures will make it very difficult for a third person to intercept a postal ballot and commit personation.

The evidence is that the number of instances of personation remains relatively low. That is not complacent—in certain areas under certain circumstances, there is a higher number, but overall the rate is relatively low. The encouraging thing is that the joint report by the Electoral Commission and ACPO shows a reduction in the proportion of reported cases following the 2011 referendum compared with previous ballots. The existing safeguards in legislation and practice perhaps are beginning to have an effect, but we are introducing further safeguards in the Bill.

As I said, I shall not dissect the new clauses, but the concern we have with the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley is that they are vague—unidentified measures could be taken by delegated powers, of which hon. Members have traditionally taken a dim view because they allow Ministers a freer rein to introduce new measures. If we were to take additional powers to deal with such problems, we would want to do so in primary legislation.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I apologise for having only recently come into the Chamber, but what the Minister says on personation is interesting. Polling officers check for personation, but many people do not speak English, particularly women from ethnic minorities. Will such difficulties be addressed?

Mr Heath: The most important thing is the sequence of events. First, we want to get the register right. The Bill gives a much wider responsibility to electoral registration officers to get the registers complete and accurate. An accurate register makes it more difficult for somebody to commit an offence at the point of voting. The easiest thing in the world is not to vote fraudulently but to register fraudulently. That is why we are keen to make the register accurate and complete in the first instance.

Secondly, when tendering a postal vote—voting at the polling station is not an enormous problem for the communities to which the hon. Gentleman refers—the identifiers should mean that there is no problem. The Electoral Commission constantly monitors arrangements to ensure they work for everybody.

There are structures in place to detect suspicious applications to register. One thing hon. Members spoke about earlier was the liaison between EROs and the dedicated single points of contact within local police forces. That ought to improve police performance in that respect. The key is the introduction of individual elector registration, which the Bill allows and which will remove some scope for malpractice.

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I criticised my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley for the vagueness of his proposals. I know he will take that in good part, because he did not intend to prescribe. I do not go along 100% with some of the things that came up in the debate. I am not sure, for example, that having CCTV in every polling station makes sense. Some polling stations in my constituency are lucky to have electricity, let alone CCTV.

In addition, there are confidentiality issues. I would be slightly worried about such a change. This country has a long and important tradition of secret ballots, and some people are already worried that simply being ticked off contradicts that principle. It does not, of course, but having a television camera trained on them might give them cause for concern, so this is not something we want immediately to embrace.

3 pm

Having said that, I hope that the Electoral Commission, the police and Department officials will consider constantly what initiatives and changes of practice can be made to bear down on fraud, and I think that my hon. Friend’s comments are important. I am not one of those who simply say, “Oh, fraud is such a small issue that we needn’t bother about it.” It is not a small issue but a big issue, and one that strikes at the heart of our democratic system. Luckily, though, it is reasonably low-level at the moment, which is how we want to keep it—low-level to the point that we can actually remove it from the system. That is why we are taking such stringent measures in the Bill and why we will continue to do everything we can.

On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend feels that he has been able to air his concerns, that the Government are responding to them and that we will make further progress on dealing with fraud and personation, which undoubtedly remain but which we hope we can eliminate in due course.

John Hemming: I am sorry that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is not here to hear the answers to his points. First, he confused tellers and polling agents. Secondly, it is wrong to say that this is a one-community issue. It might be limited to certain areas of the country, but it is not an issue for just one community, and I resent his assertion otherwise. There is clear evidence that it goes wider than one community, and in Birmingham, as I said, it has gone on for 100 years, which shows that it is not confined to one community.

The issue is one of evidence. At the moment, if somebody’s vote is stolen through personation, there is no evidence of who did it and nothing for the police to investigate, hence there is a hole. I agree with the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and disagree with the Deputy Leader of the House about cameras. They would not cause a problem, because simply identifying who picks up a ballot paper does not track which way they cast it. I agree with him, however, that it would be better to withdraw the new clause and for there to be a continuing discussion. It is important that we do not forget about this issue, because it does go on, and as it currently stands there is no system to pick it up. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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New Clause 3

Representation of the People Act 1985 (Amendment)

‘(1) The Representation of the People Act 1985 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 1 (Extension of parliamentary franchise) omit subsections (3)(c) and (4)(a).

(3) In section 3 (Extension of franchise for European Parliamentary elections) omit subsections (3)(c) and (4)(a).’. —(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.)

Currently, British citizens can qualify as overseas electors only if they have been resident in the United Kingdom within the previous 15 years. This also applies to Members of the House of Lords for European Parliamentary elections. This amendment would remove this qualifying period, so that British citizens could qualify as overseas electors even if they had ceased to be resident in the United Kingdom more than 15 years before.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Temporary Chair (Katy Clark): With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 5—Explicit right of British citizens to register to vote and to participate in elections—

‘(1) The Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows—

(2) Insert “a British citizen,”

(a) in section 1 (parliamentary electors), in subsection (1)(c), after “either”,

(b) in section 2 (local government electors), in subsection (1)(C), after “is”,

(c) in section 4 (entitlement to be registered as parliamentary or local government elector), in subsection (1)(c), after “either”,

(d) in section 4, subsection (3)(c), after “is”, and

(e) in section 7B, subsection (3)(e), after “is”, in the first place it occurs.’.

British citizens are currently enfranchised in statute as Commonwealth citizens, not British citizens. This amendment is to introduce a statutory entitlement for British citizens to be enfranchised as British citizens.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: At present, under sections 1 and 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1989, as amended by section 141 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, British citizens can qualify as overseas voters only if they have been resident in the UK in the previous 15 years. The new clause would remove this qualifying period altogether, so that all British citizens could qualify as overseas voters, regardless of when they were last resident in the UK.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 5.6 million British citizens currently live abroad. The shocking truth is that although, as of last December, about 4.4 million of them were of voting age, only 23,388 were registered for an overseas vote, according to the Office for National Statistics’ electoral statistics. Out of 4.4 million potential overseas voters, only 23,000-odd are actually registered! Half the problem is the difficulties of the registration process, which I brought before the House during the clause 1 stand part debate on 18 June, but the other half of the problem is the cut-off limit or qualifying period.

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Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): A number of Members have major overseas firms based in their constituencies—I have Toyota, Rolls-Royce and Bombardier—and have constituents who go to work abroad for these firms for many years. It is outrageous that they might be working for firms based in our constituencies and not have a vote. What does my hon. Friend think about that?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has read my mind. I shall happily address her issue a little later, but she makes an extremely good point.

The House and the British people should take no pride in the fact that so few citizens living abroad are registered to vote. At a time of decreasing voter turnout, the overseas vote represents a potentially large pool into which we could tap, if the House was minded to accept my new clause. This issue will not go away, and today is a timely opportunity to tackle it. Each year, more and more British citizens, for one reason or another, choose to move abroad, as my hon. Friend said. The ONS international passenger statistics show that an estimated 130,000 British citizens left the UK in the year to March 2011—up from 119,000 in the year to March 2010. In 2008, according to the IPPR, of those who moved abroad, 55% did so for work-related reasons, as my hon. Friend said, 25% for study and only 20% for retirement. With an ageing population and particularly with the increased opportunities to work and study abroad, people are bound to continue to leave the UK.

In most other countries, both developed and emerging, voting rights for parliamentary elections depend solely on nationality, not on an arbitrary time limit. For example, US nationals can vote in presidential, congressional and state elections, regardless of where they reside in the world. Similarly, Australian nationals can vote in the equivalent elections there, no matter where they live. However, the most startling example comes from our nearest neighbour. French citizens in the UK have just elected a new President and taken part in parliamentary elections for one of the 11 Members of Parliament whose job it is solely to represent French people abroad. They include the French MP for the newly created constituency of North Europe, who is in the French Assembly to represent French people living in the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic states.

The right of Spaniards abroad to vote is enshrined in article 68 of the Spanish constitution. Likewise, the Portuguese constitution states explicitly that the single Chamber, the Assembly of the Republic, is

“the representative assembly of all Portuguese citizens”.

As a result, all Portuguese citizens living abroad have the same right to vote in Assembly elections as fellow citizens living in their home country. The simple fact is that the citizens of the US, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and all these other countries have better voting rights for their citizens abroad than we do for British citizens living abroad.

For a democracy as ancient as ours, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is a stain on our democratic principles that our citizens are placed at such a disadvantage when they have moved abroad compared with citizens from those other countries. Her Majesty’s Government is very happy to collect tax from most of the enormous number of people involved, but denies them the vote.

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British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years are completely disfranchised from voting in the UK. There is certainly no lack of interest among British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years. Whenever I have addressed branches of Conservatives Abroad, this has been a contentious and profound issue. I understand that the Labour party has a similar organisation and that the Liberal Democrats have recently established their own version, so I have no doubt that this issue will have been raised by other parties’ organisations as well.

The states in which these British citizens reside do not allow them to vote as residents, because voting rights are based on nationality and not residence, and they cannot vote in the UK on the basis of the current rule, for which there is no obvious rationale. I challenge the Deputy Leader of the House to state where there would be any disadvantage in abolishing the rule. The consequence of the rule is that many British citizens living abroad are in a state of electoral limbo, unable to participate in any election whatsoever. That seems to be a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

It is not just me saying this, as a number of learned Lords agree. Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat Minister of State for Justice, said:

“I do not think there is a rationale…for the figure of 15 years, five years or 20 years”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1133.]

The noble and learned Lord Lester of Herne Hill said on the same day:

“I am not aware of any rationale for how these periods have been chosen. They seem to be entirely arbitrary”—

the point I was making—

“and, I dare say, discriminatory in a way that violates Article 14 of the European convention read with Article 3 of the first protocol.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1024.]

A number of learned people clearly think that this rule is unfair.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and it sounds like a good case, but I wonder if he is going to touch on the practicalities of enabling people to vote, particularly in countries that are not in western Europe.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: This is all about one group of people who live overseas and last registered here less than 15 years ago, who currently have the absolute right to register as overseas voters, compared with another class of overseas voters living abroad for more than 15 years since they last registered here. One has the absolute right to register; the other lot do not. It seemed to me to be an arbitrary cut-off date; as the noble and learned Lords I cited said, that seems quite wrong.

Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned a category of British citizens who could not vote at all. Membership of the European Union clearly gives them rights to vote in local government elections—in Spain, France or wherever. They have the right to do so here. Another point arises from the debate about whether 15, 20 years or whatever is the appropriate period of time. We have arrangements that deny people the vote and deny them membership of the House of Lords, for example, if they are not resident here or do

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not pay taxes here. There comes a point at which a tax equation is relevant, along with the duties and responsibilities of being a British citizen. That is different from where someone has lost connection in many ways over a long period with his nationality, responsibilities, duties and allegiance to the Crown.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend raises two issues. The first is whether British citizens are entitled to vote in EU local elections and European elections, as is the case in most European countries. The fact of the matter is that British citizens living overseas for more than 15 years since they last registered are not able to register here in order to vote in our general elections. Secondly, he says that these people have lost allegiance to the UK. I think that that is a slur on many of them. I think many people living abroad have a huge interest in what goes on in this country. I suspect that most of the voters who are unable to register still pay their taxes, or at least some part of them, to the UK. It seems to me that if the UK is prepared to take their taxes, why should they be denied a vote? I just cannot see the case for that.

Sir Peter Bottomley: My hon. Friend has clearly explained this arbitrary cut-off of 15 years. That is understood. Does he agree that the electoral registration officer is obliged to register people who are entitled to vote here and, if so, who should have the responsibility to register those overseas who are entitled to vote, irrespective of whether they have lived abroad 15 years or more since they last registered here?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is up to the electoral registration officer to consider the application on the basis of the individual involved and the facts of the case. He would no doubt be entitled to make further inquiries—the Minister will put me right if I am wrong—if there were any doubt or confusion about whether the person had been registered here within the 15-year period, outside it or indeed about whether the person was entitled to vote at all.

Sir Peter Bottomley: I understand that, but I was asking a slightly different question. Should someone have the responsibility for trying to recruit these people to register in the same way that domestically resident people like myself are if they are entitled to vote?

3.15 pm

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: That is a very fair point. I think that Her Majesty’s Government should have an interest in their citizens abroad. Just as it makes publicity available for British citizens to register on British electoral rolls, it should do the same thing for British citizens abroad. That would not be difficult in the age of the internet.

Fundamentally abolishing this arbitrary and unjust time limit is mainly about giving those people who have spent their lives abroad, often working, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) said, for British companies, for international organisations and for UK Government Departments and agencies, and who are actively pursuing and often promoting British interests, the right to have their say in

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the future government of this country. Universal suffrage is in the universal declaration of human rights, to which this country is a signatory. This arbitrary cut-off time limit is totally contrary to that principle and the declaration. This is an opportunity for my hon. Friend the Minister to rectify this wrong. If he will not accede to my suggestion today, I request that he take this matter away and carefully consult on it, as I am absolutely certain that the other place will be interested in it.

Mr Streeter: I shall speak briefly in support of my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) in endorsing new clause 3. I believe that our electoral rules for overseas citizens were fashioned in a bygone age. I realise that the 15-year rule is relatively recent—

Sir Peter Bottomley: Citizens overseas.

Mr Streeter: What did I say?

Sir Peter Bottomley: Overseas citizens.

Mr Streeter: Thank you—a very important distinction, I am sure. I am saying that I believe our rules for people living overseas who are British citizens have been fashioned in a bygone age. When we consider the world today, a young person can work anywhere, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) who mentioned the large employers in her constituency, Many students are studying mandarin Chinese and may spend much of their lives—more than 15 years—in China. Many of our fine and bright young people spend more than 15 years in America. Given our weather, many people retire to sunnier climes overseas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) spoke about people giving up their allegiance to this country and the Crown, but many people who aim to retire overseas for ever, end up coming back. The stats are quite staggering on that. People have not given up their allegiance and they will certainly have family here and perhaps property here. As we have heard, they may pay taxes here. I believe that because we have this old-fashioned mentality, we lag behind many of the countries that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds mentioned in respect of our systems to ensure that British citizens living overseas can vote.

The important point about the 15-year rule, apart from the fact that there is an absolute cut-off point after 15 years, is that it creates confusion in the minds of many of our citizens overseas as to whether or not they are allowed to vote, so they do not even look into it fully. I have looked into the process we put in place for people to register to vote in this country, and I have found that it is just about as old-fashioned as could be imagined. I realise that there are security issues, but I think that the Government should consider making the system more streamlined and more user-friendly and allowing greater use of the internet.

I wonder whether, because ours is one of the oldest democracies in the world, we have become a bit complacent. Other countries are so much more dynamic and proactive in encouraging their overseas citizens to vote. I was staggered to learn that well over a million French citizens who were not living in France at the time voted in the recent presidential elections. As we heard earlier, in this country we mustered the staggeringly small number of

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about 30,000 Brits out of the 3.5 or 4.5 million who were eligible to vote. Fewer than 30,000 had registered to vote, and of course even fewer than that will have actually voted.

I think that we have become complacent about the importance of our democracy. We make only feeble efforts to encourage our active service people to vote, and I think that our lack of support for British citizens living overseas may be another indication of our complacency. I believe that we need to do an awful lot more to remove the barriers and the confusion, and to improve the system. A French person living in London can go to the French embassy to vote in the French presidential elections, but we cannot go to the embassy in Paris. It is all rather odd, and the Government should look into it. Perhaps, in the time-honoured Liberal Democrat tradition, they could even set up a royal commission, but we probably need rather more dynamic action than that.

I support this important new clause, which takes us quite a long way towards being able to send a strong signal to Brits living abroad. We need to be able to tell them, “We still think that you are an important part of our democracy, and we want you to engage in our democratic processes. We want you to register and we want you to vote, because you have a valuable part to play in our country.” Let us remove the 15-year barrier, and make a much more dynamic and proactive effort to encourage Brits living abroad to engage in our democratic processes.

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter). For one thing, he has more or less covered many of the points that I was going to make. I will not follow the traditions of the House by simply restating them, but will press on and make one or two observations.

When it was drawn to my attention that we had imposed a time limit on British citizens living abroad, it struck me that we were sending a rather perverse message. I think that if the Committee supported the new clause we could send a very different and positive message, as well as doing a service to the democratic process. I do not think that we should say to a British citizen who has served his or her country before going abroad, be it through industry, public service, civil service or the military, “At the end of your working life—at the end of the time for which you have served your country and paid your taxes—we intend to disfranchise you if you exceed a Government target.” I am sure that none of us would wish to find ourselves in that position, and to feel that we had been effectively disfranchised for having done the right thing for most of our lives.

Why are such people disfranchised? It is quite a simple question, but I can find no convincing reason for it. I looked at the reports of some of the original debates about the issue in the House, going back as far as 1984, but none of them seems to have addressed the problem. In my opinion, ridding ourselves of the limit would involve no real cost to the Government, but only a benefit.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Surely the reason is that the system was built on a 19th-century rather than a 21st-century model. I should be grateful

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to my hon. Friend if he pushed for a system whereby people voted in the countries in which they live, and the results were telegraphed to this country.

Nick de Bois: That is entirely the point. We are living in a new world, and in a world that changes at a much faster rate than it has ever done before. There are no barriers to voting. There may be challenges for us as politicians when it comes to reaching the electorate, but that is for us to deal with. It is for the electorate to have free and fair access to the exercising of their vote. As a result of the changing world—the changing technologies, and of course the British consulates that are represented around the world—it is now possible for people overseas to vote in person.

I should like to make one important distinction. The Committee has an opportunity to move with the times by allowing overseas voters—I mean overseas British citizens; I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) is not still present, as I should be in trouble if he were—to exercise their democratic right. I was struck by a paragraph in a public letter from a Mrs Margaret Hales, MBE, who lives in Spain. She sums things up rather well, and if the Committee will forgive me, I shall read out the full quotation. She wrote this letter to the Deputy Prime Minister, and said:

“I am immensely proud that one of my ancestors was Emmeline Pankhurst. One hundred years ago she struggled through arrest, imprisonment, force-feeding and the derision of the then Liberal government”—

I make no partisan point—

“finally to gain universal suffrage. Had she been alive today she would have supported the help given to free Libya, she would have been behind William Hague in his negotiations to secure freedom in Syria and his support of Aung San Suu Kyi. But she could never ever have dreamed that her relative would be writing to you today to remind you, the British Deputy Prime Minister, that universal suffrage is the ultimate goal of every democracy and that the government is there to serve its citizens and not to disfranchise them.”

I rest our case.

Mr Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for introducing this new clause. We had a taster of the argument it raises earlier in our proceedings, when he got some answers from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is constitutional affairs Minister, but I shall attempt to give some more answers today.

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question, ably supported by the hon. Members for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) and for Enfield North (Nick de Bois). If I was asked to defend 15 years as the right length of time for qualification, I am not sure that I could come up with a convincing argument, other than the fact that that is what Parliament decided. Parliament has considered this matter on a number of occasions, and it has come up with different definitions of the appropriate qualifying period. On no occasion hitherto has Parliament decided that there should not be a qualifying period, however; it has always said, “Well, there must be a point at which somebody’s links with their country of origin are sufficiently tenuous not to entail having a vote.” Whether that is the correct view is

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for the House to decide. I merely report the view the House has taken when it has discussed this matter previously.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Surely the fact that somebody would want to register their overseas vote to take part in a general election in this country is sufficient evidence in itself that they have sufficient interest about what is going on in this country to merit being allowed a vote, rather than being denied it.

Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. I am simply reporting the fact that when Parliament debated this matter in the past, it always took the view that there should be a limit.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, many other countries take a different view on the appropriate franchise. Some provide for their citizens to vote in domestic elections, while others have specific Members of their legislatures who represent the diaspora. I recall once meeting a charming gentleman who was an Italian Senator. I think I represent a fairly large constituency in the context of the UK Parliament, but its size paled into insignificance when compared with that of his constituency, which, if I recall correctly, was Australasia, Asia, Africa and Antarctica. That is a fairly large part of the world. I do not know whether he visited every parish council on a regular basis, but he certainly represented a lot of Italians who were living abroad. The point is that different countries find different ways of addressing this issue.

Our position at the moment is that we give eligibility to vote to people within 15 years of their living abroad. We extend that also to Members of another place for the purposes of voting in European elections. Some exceptions are made in respect of members of the armed forces, persons in Crown service, persons working for the British Council and their spouses and civil partners.

3.30 pm

The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) asked about people performing important duties on behalf of this country in representing commercial interests that are vital to our world trade abroad. She makes a strong point. We assume the loyalty and the involvement of those in the service of the Crown, and treat them on the same basis as UK-based civil servants. She puts an argument that those engaged in the commercial world are every bit as committed to the interests of the UK but are working in a different capacity.

This proposal is something that the Government want to consider, as we have indicated. However, we would not want to rush into it, not because of any wish to obstruct, but simply because the question of extending the franchise is a fundamental one, and both the Government and the House would have to feel comfortable with doing that, having taken due care. If we were to accept the new clause, we would face minor but real difficulties. For instance, there is no current requirement for registration officers to keep copies of previous registers, except in so far as they need them to check registrations for the 15 years provided for under the current legislation. So under the current terms of

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checking we would not have the material to check whether someone ever had been an elector—a properly registered person—in this country. That is not insurmountable, but it is a practical issue that we would have to take into account.

Questions relating to the electoral franchise are important. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds and his friends have made valid arguments, but there are arguments the other way, which we have not heard today but which have been expressed on other occasions, and they need to be carefully considered. What we have done in the Bill is improve the overseas voting process. One significant part of that is the proposal to extend the electoral timetable for UK parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 days, which will make a significant difference to those who are registered in enabling them to vote. It will help postal voters and particular overseas and military voters. At the same time, we are ensuring that the underpinning of elections is more robust.

We also need to consider what more we can do to improve the registration process. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who is not in his place, raised a cogent question: what are registration officers to do to identify all those abroad who might be qualified to vote? Putting an onus on them similar to the responsibility we are placing on them in this Bill to seek out everyone who could possibly be qualified to vote would provide an insuperable problem for them if applied to overseas electors. I think that the hon. Member for The Cotswolds would probably acknowledge that that is the case.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown indicated assent.

Mr Heath: So we would still need to have a responsibility on overseas electors to register, rather than have the registration officer seek these people in order to enable them to be registered. Having said that, if we can find better and easier ways to enable that to happen, we should do so; the advent of IT processes may well do exactly that. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his new clause. He has made some very important points and I undertake that the Government will give them serious consideration. We will see whether there are proposals that we might wish to bring forward in due course to address some of his points.

Mr Shepherd: I support new clause 5. The reasoning behind it is clear and has been discussed over a long period. The fact is that we only have the right in this country to vote through our membership of the Commonwealth; we do not have the right to vote as British citizens. I do not intend to take up a great deal of time, because I appreciate that the debate is under considerable time pressure, but the question of the relationship between citizens’ rights and duties has become increasingly disconnected.

The history of our nationality laws goes back to a great and long imperial past, and each of our Representation of the People Acts has, in a sense, tried to catch up with the world as it is. We have no greater right than as a citizen of the Commonwealth, and I wanted to see on the face of a Bill—it has been suggested that this should happen—that a British citizen has a right to vote, and for that citizenship to be the category.

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A Library note first gave me cause for concern, along with the response to a query from me about the House of Commons research paper that accompanies the Bill. That response from the Library concerned the question of the accuracy of the information presented to Members of Parliament. I make no criticism of the Library, as it is the finest resource and the most remarkable people are employed there. They often make a difference to the quality of our speech from the arguments we were originally able to articulate according to our own ability. The Library states:

“The Research Paper refers to ‘British Irish and qualifying Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK’ in order to explain the franchise arrangements succinctly. As we agree, the RPA 1983 refers to qualifying Commonwealth citizens and Irish citizens as being able to vote. I believe that most British citizens do not understand that they come under the term ‘Commonwealth citizens’. Other disqualifications are also relevant, such as meeting the residence requirements of the RPA, and ensuring that the prisoner disqualification does not apply. The Research Paper did not cover these in detail either.”

That is why the House does not necessarily know the background.

The debate has gone on for a long time. The arguments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about the length of residency overseas that is necessary to maintain the vote here was a matter of considerable controversy in the 1980s, when those provisions were introduced. At that time, the Labour party was deeply concerned about the proposals on the false assumption, I think, that everyone who could afford to retire abroad or live for long periods in countries such as Spain would predominantly vote Conservative. That is perhaps why we have that mismatch. My experience of life is that one cannot necessarily tell how anyone will vote.

I want to commend the previous Prime Minister. I know that that is an unusual position for a Conservative and for many citizens, but he set in train the consideration of some of our Crown authority issues, such as passports and so on. He commissioned Lord Goldsmith to conduct a review of citizenship and its relationship to the vote. The review was called “Citizenship: Our Common Bond”. The anxiety with all this in relation to the Representation of the People Act 1983 is that citizenship is not necessarily a common bond any longer, as can be seen in some ways. People have dual nationalities that they can take on for whatever reason or convenience, so they can have British citizenship but no sense of allegiance to the institutions or the country. That is the way the world is going, with a divorcing of the relationship between loyalty, allegiance and a sense of pride in one’s country. As a country, we are one of the most fortunate in the world and there is an enormous sense of pride across all communities about being British. Our right to vote as citizens of Britain should be in legislation.

I note the remarks that two people have made about this issue. First, our spokesman in the Lords during the passage of the Representation of the People Act 2000, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, spoke to an amendment at Lords Committee stage to include the term “British citizen” in that legislation. He thought that should be set out clearly. I mention, in passing, that during the debate Lord Jopling suggested that if the UK were expelled from the Commonwealth there would be real problems with the wording in the legislation. That is a silly but technical point, in which there is truth. More

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importantly, Lord Goldsmith, in his report on citizenship, touched on the right to vote and recommended restricting the right to vote to UK citizens. These were his words:

“However, I do propose that government gives consideration to making a clear connection between citizenship and the right to vote by limiting in principle the right to vote in Westminster elections to UK citizens. This would recognise that the right to vote is one of the hallmarks of the political status of citizens; it is not a means of expressing closeness between countries. Ultimately, it is right in principle not to give the right to vote to citizens of other countries living in the UK until they become UK citizens.”

That is the argument behind this measure. It is an old argument and a new argument in the sense that people do not realise they have the vote only through their Commonwealth citizenship. I would like to see the measure in the Bill.

I know that the Government must think about this and that there would be consequences, but 800 million or 900 million Indian citizens, if they gained admission here—I do not think we could possibly take 800 million but if they did gain admission—would have the right to vote in British elections. I do not think that is right. This is a big and substantive issue that affects our relationships. Citizenship by birth or through the expression of allegiance, by wanting to be a citizen and acquiring citizenship, are justification for the vote. These arguments mirror those adopted elsewhere and in other countries. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look closely at this matter and see whether an amendment could be tabled in the House of Lords to support my new clause.

Mr Heath: The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) addressed two factors in his remarks, the first of which was the extent of the franchise and the different categories of people who are allowed to vote in our UK parliamentary elections. Secondly, he addressed the definition in the Bill, which his new clause addresses, of whether it is an accurate description, rather than dealing with the qualification.

The Representation of the People Act 1983 sets out those who are entitled to vote in UK parliamentary elections as those who have attained the age of 18 and are Commonwealth citizens or citizens of the Republic of Ireland who are resident in the UK. In order to register, Commonwealth citizens must have leave to enter or remain in the UK, or not require such leave. I accept that is a historical anomaly, but it has been in place for many years and reflects our historical ties with Commonwealth countries. There are reciprocal arrangements with Ireland, as British citizens resident in the Republic of Ireland have been entitled to vote in elections to the Irish Parliament since 1985. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not enter into a debate about whether that franchise is right, because that does not relate to the purpose of new clause 5.

3.45 pm

Mr Shepherd: I am trying to make the specific point that our Representation of the People Act does not include the phrase “British citizen”.

Mr Heath: Precisely so. The 1983 Act uses the term “Commonwealth citizen” and, by definition, while we remain part of the Commonwealth—I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about what would happen if we left the Commonwealth, but I do not think that that is

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expected in the near future—that includes every person who is a British citizen, a citizen of the British overseas territories, or a citizen of one of the Commonwealth countries listed in schedule 3 to the British Nationality Act 1981. People are therefore entitled to vote in this country as British citizens, but the term used in legislation is “Commonwealth citizen” because the franchise extends wider than just British citizens and citizens of British overseas territories.

I think that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that new clause 5 would have no practical effect on the franchise, but it would be a declaratory provision setting out that the right to vote in an election in this country is conferred by virtue of being a British citizen, and that that right is extended to Commonwealth citizens. It would therefore make a distinction between the two.

Mr Shepherd: What other democracies in the world do not designate their citizens as having the right to vote? Does not the Minister find it extraordinary that, of all the countries in the world, we are the one with a mechanism under which people have the right to vote only by virtue of membership of an international organisation, the policies of which we have no control over?

Mr Heath: We are not entitled to vote only through Commonwealth membership. We are entitled to vote as British citizens. British citizens are Commonwealth citizens, and that is why the legislation is drafted in such terms. I understand why the hon. Gentleman feels that it is important to make such a distinction, because I would hope that those of us who hold British citizenship are proud to do so. I am also proud to be part of the Commonwealth, which reflects the great history of our nation, and our electoral law takes account of that.

There are aspects of British electoral law in which such a distinction is necessary, and therefore is specifically stated, because an entitlement is restricted to British citizens. For example, the Representation of the People Act 1985 sets out that only British citizens are entitled to register as overseas electors. When the distinction is necessary in legislation, it is made. While I understand the intention behind new clause 5, it is not necessary to change the construction of our electoral law in such a way. I fear that if it were enacted, it would introduce a potential inconsistency with other legislation which uses the phrase “Commonwealth citizen” to include British citizens and other Commonwealth citizens.

However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point and I will go away and consider it further to see whether there is a useful distinction that ought to be made in our legislation. I hope he will not press the new clause today, although it is useful for him to have raised the issue. Perhaps we should at some stage address the question of whether that distinction should be made. Perhaps we should at some stage also look at the franchise, but now is not the right time and the Bill is not the right place to do that. Nevertheless, he is perfectly entitled to raise the point today.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: With the leave of the House, may I comment briefly on what the Deputy Leader of the House said in response to my new clause? He said

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clearly that the Government were keen to look at the issue. He rose to my challenge and raised a few minor problems with extending the franchise beyond 15 years for overseas voters, and he responded to some of my hon. Friends, whom I thank for supporting me in the debate, about some of the difficulties of the registration process.

Of course everybody wants the integrity of the electoral register to be maintained to the utmost degree. Only those who are eligible to register should register. We all understand that. The Deputy Leader of the House asked how an electoral registration officer would promote who is entitled to register as an overseas voter, which in the Bill is a positive duty. May I suggest that for overseas voters, that would be only a reactive duty? The electoral registration officer would have to react only to a valid application that was made to him.

May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House and to the Committee a practical way of dealing with the issue? The hon. Gentleman should table an amendment on Report or an amendment should be tabled in another place to take powers to extend but not reduce the 15-year period at a time when the Government are satisfied that the registration process is robust and maintains the integrity of the electoral register. He would be able to do that in tandem with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who told the House last week that he would look at the measures for the registration process that I suggested to him—namely, using the passport as an identity document, abolishing the annual requirement to register, perhaps introducing a permanent opt-in for people who had registered validly once, and the possibility of using British embassies so that people could register and, even better, vote there. The Cabinet Office Minister undertook to look carefully at those measures, which could be introduced under the Bill and under the existing legislation and secondary legislation. I suggest that the Deputy Leader of the House table an amendment to take a power to extend the 15 years when the Government are satisfied that those measures are in place. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw my new clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 4

Voting procedure

‘(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2) (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.

(2) In rule 37 (voting procedure) after paragraph (6) insert—

“(7) A voter who is in the polling station or in a queue outside the polling station for the purpose of voting at the time specified for the close of the poll shall be entitled to apply for a ballot paper under paragraph 1 above and a ballot paper shall be delivered and the voter entitled to vote in accordance with this rule.”.’.

(Mrs Laing.)

Currently, voters who are in a queue at a polling station at 10 pm but who have not yet been issued with their ballot paper are unable to cast their vote. This amendment would allow for ballot papers to be issued to any registered voter who is in the polling station or in a queue outside the polling station at 10 pm, in order that they may then cast their vote.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring new clause 4 before the Committee. As is explained on the amendment paper, the clause would allow for ballot papers to be issued to any registered voter who is in the polling station or in a queue immediately outside the polling station at 10 pm or whatever time the poll closes, in order that they may then cast their vote. The Committee will recall what happened at the last general election, when more than 1,000 voters in 16 constituencies were denied the right to vote.

As the law stands, voters who are in a queue at a polling station at 10 pm but who have not yet been issued with their ballot paper are unable to cast their vote. Both the Electoral Commission and the House of Lords Constitution Committee have called on the Government to change the law to ensure that voters are not disfranchised as some were at the last election. There is precedence for such a provision because the Scottish Government recently changed the law for local elections in Scotland to allow for voters in queues at polling stations at 10 pm on the close of poll to cast their ballots.

I take the findings of the Electoral Commission very seriously in this respect, and the main factors that the commission identified as having contributed to the problems in 2010 were that there was evidence of poor planning assumptions in some areas; that there was use of unsuitable buildings and inadequate staffing arrangements at some polling stations; that contingency arrangements were sometimes not properly triggered or were unable to cope with demand at the close of poll; and also that current restrictive legislation, and therefore the presiding officer having no ability to apply discretion, meant that those who were present in queues at polling stations at the close of poll, were not able to be issued with a ballot paper.

The main conclusions of the Electoral Commission published in May 2010 recommended that the law must be changed to allow people queuing at polling stations at 10 pm to be able to vote. The commission also noted that local authorities and acting returning officers must take steps to improve their planning—we all agree with that—and must review their schemes for polling districts and polling stations to make sure that they allocate the right numbers of staff and electors to each polling station. All of these practical measures should be taken, and I hope now will be taken as a result of the fact that we saw 1,000 people at the last general election being deprived of their votes. In addition, the structure for delivering elections must be reformed to ensure better co-ordination and consistency, and, as we have debated during the last few days in other parts of this important Bill, returning officers should be more accountable for the way they manage elections. Nevertheless, I want to give the House the opportunity to consider whether we here in Parliament ought to add this clause to the Bill in order to give not just the clear direction but the power to a presiding officer to act in the way I describe in new clause 4, which will ensure that everybody who is present at the right time at close of poll should be allowed to cast their vote.

We do not want to discourage people from voting. We are in the business of getting as many people to vote as possible. We should not have artificial restrictions

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that stop people voting when they turn up to do so. At the same time, if an unforeseen incident occurs, which means that some people are at the polling station but do not have their ballot paper in their hand, the presiding officer should have a certain amount of discretion, within very strict parameters that I am setting out here, to allow people to cast their votes. It cannot be right that we in Parliament should take action that stops people voting when they have a legitimate right to do so. It goes against everything that we are trying to do in expanding democracy and encouraging people to vote and have a say in the government of our country.

4 pm

At present a ballot paper must be correctly issued to a voter who applies for one before 10 pm. Issuing a ballot paper, as colleagues will know—we do pay attention to what happens in polling stations—is not instantaneous. There is a strict process that must be followed. It includes: calling out the number and name of the elector, as stated in the copy of the electoral register; marking the number on the corresponding number list of ballot papers issued; and placing a mark in the register against the elector’s number to indicate that a ballot paper has been received. All those steps have to be taken carefully and the presiding officer must ensure that they are all taken properly.

Therefore, it takes a minute or two to issue a ballot paper, but if there are several people in the queue, those minutes can mount up, and if there is a problem in the run-up to 10 o’clock it might take more than the few minutes to issue the necessary ballot papers. The steps that must be carried out when issuing a ballot paper necessarily affect the speed with which a polling station can deal with voters, and these practical matters must be taken into account when the House considers this legislation.

At present there is no provision for extending the polling time or issuing ballot papers beyond 10 pm, except of course in the case of riot or open violence, when polling would be adjourned to the following day. I am not talking about exceptional circumstances when there are riots or open violence at polling stations; I am talking about circumstances, such as those that occurred at the last general election, when people are genuinely present at the polling station, perhaps at 10 minutes to 10, yet there were so many that the ballot papers could not be issued.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): What happens under the current arrangements if there is suddenly a medical incident, such as a car accident, outside a polling station at a quarter to 10 and the police have to secure the area while the ambulance men deal with anyone who is hurt? Would the polling station close at 10 regardless, because that seems a bit silly?

Mrs Laing: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. That is exactly the sort of contingency that I am asking the House to consider in new clause 4. At present, if an incident occurs that prevents a potential voter entering a polling station or slows down their progress there from the car park, the tube or train station, the bus stop or the zebra crossing, nothing can be done about it.

Bob Stewart: That is wrong.

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Mrs Laing: I agree. If the presiding officer is standing at the door of the polling station and sees that there are people just about to come in at 10 minutes to 10 but they are being prevented from doing so by some very good and unforeseen reason, and if he knows that when they come in it might be two minutes to 10 and there is no way 10 or 15 ballot papers can be issued in two minutes, under the current arrangements he can do nothing about it. He has to say, “Too bad. That happened and you lose your vote.” That seems entirely undemocratic and simply wrong.

This matter has been considered by the courts, which have held that

“where a ballot paper has been duly issued to an elector that elector should be allowed to complete it and put it in the ballot box provided this is done without undue delay. However”—

and this is the crux of the matter—

“no ballot papers should be issued after the time of close of poll.”

So if a person is standing in a queue of five or six people—it does not have to be a crowd—at five minutes to 10, and in front of them someone is having difficulty identifying their name, or is perhaps suffering from a disability that makes it difficult for them to give their name quickly to the polling clerk—

Bob Stewart: Or collapses.

Mrs Laing: Yes. My hon. Friend once again comes up with an interesting contingency. Supposing someone at the front of the queue collapses or becomes ill and attention is thus diverted, the five or six people who are legitimately standing there at 10 or five minutes to 10, expecting without any problem to be given their ballot paper, cannot be given one if the clock strikes 10. That just cannot be right.

The courts—this is a statement of the law at present—have ruled:

“We are of the opinion that the true dividing line is the delivery of the ballot paper to the voter. If he has had a ballot paper delivered to him before”—

10 pm—


I say “he”, because I think that the judgment was delivered before the female of the species was entitled to vote. Let us therefore bring this judgment of the courts up to date: when I say “he”, I mean “he” or “she”.

The judgment continues, finding that

“he is entitled in our judgment to mark that ballot paper and deposit it in the ballot box before the ballot box is closed and sealed. This interpretation of the enactment…appears to us to give a simple, definite, and just rule of procedure… As the polling commences at”—

7 am—

by the officials, and the machinery being ready then to supply ballot papers to voters who apply for them, so in our view the poll must be no longer ‘kept open’ beyond”—

10 pm—

“the officials then ceasing to supply ballot papers to applicants.”

That position, as stated in court, was confirmed most recently by an election court in Northern Ireland, which in 2001 stated:

“It was the duty of the presiding officer to close the poll at 10pm by ceasing to issue any more voting papers. So long as

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voting papers were issued by 10pm, however, if electors marked them and deposited them in the boxes without delay the votes were valid.”

The Electoral Commission, in guidance published for the Scottish elections in May this year, issued strict directions to presiding officers on what exactly should happen. Some people have argued that it would not be possible to determine where a queue ends and where exactly the cut-off point should be for people who are entitled to vote, but that criticism has to be nonsense. The presiding officer—surely, in a position of responsibility—will be able either to close the door or to usher people inside the polling station, and to say exactly where the cut-off point should be.

The guidance states:

“If there is a queue shortly before 10 pm”—

the presiding officer should—

“find out if anyone waiting is delivering a postal vote so that they can hand in the postal vote before the 10pm deadline; Make sure that nobody joins the queue after 10pm; If there is a queue at 10pm and if the polling station can accommodate all the electors in the queue, ask electors to move inside the polling station and close the doors behind the last elector in the queue”.

That is so simple. The guidance continues:

“If the polling station is too small to accommodate all the electors in the queue, a member of the polling station team should mark the end of the queue by positioning themselves behind the last elector in the queue”—

again, terribly simple and straightforward. The presiding officer, the guidance notes state, should also:

“Explain to anyone who arrives after 10 pm and tries to join the queue that the poll has closed and that, by law, they cannot now join the queue to be issued with a ballot paper.”

All that is terribly simple and straightforward.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Lady agree that under the Bill a police officer, or a local community support officer acting with the same powers as the police, could be in attendance so that if there were any dispute they could ensure that people knew exactly where the end of the queue was?

Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. However, as I am sure the Committee will appreciate, this is not about an outbreak of violence, a riot, a demonstration, or unruly electors behaving in a somehow inappropriate fashion; it is about decent, law-abiding potential voters who turn up at a polling station before 10 o’clock, or whenever the close of poll might be, and find that because of some unforeseen contingency they do not get as far as having their ballot paper issued by that time.

Let me explain the difference that new clause 4 would make. At the moment, most people think that if they are in the polling station at 10 o’clock, they will get their ballot paper and be able to vote. That is a reasonable position, and the new clause would make it law. It is an unreasonable position to say that someone who has arrived at a polling station ahead of 10 o’clock, and for some unforeseen reason does not have a ballot paper issued, cannot still have one issued for a few minutes after that time. Nothing in the new clause would mean that the poll stayed open beyond 10 past or quarter past 10. We are talking about a very small amount of time for the sake of fairness. In the 2010 general election, 1,000 people were denied the opportunity to cast their vote when they had every right to do so. I am simply

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asking the Committee to bring the law up to date in order to give everybody who has the right to vote the chance to cast that vote.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Evans. I wonder whether you have had notice that a Treasury Minister intends to come to the House to make an urgent statement on the news concerning the alleged market manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate, for which Barclays has today been fined a record sum by the Financial Services Authority. The mortgage interest rates of hundreds of thousands of our constituents up and down the country depend on LIBOR. We need to know how widespread this market manipulation is across the financial services and banking sectors, and whether a Minister will come urgently to the House to talk about how the Government intend better to regulate the LIBOR-setting process.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Nigel Evans): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have been given no indication that any Treasury Minister intends to come to the House to make a statement, but I am sure that his point has been heard by those on the Treasury Bench.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. It is also a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). She is a doughty campaigner and defender of the values of the British constitution that she holds so dear, and it is incumbent on the Committee to listen carefully to what she has to say on these matters.

The hon. Lady outlined the purpose of new clause 4 in great detail and stated that it has the support of the Electoral Commission and the House of Lords Constitution Committee. The reason for the new clause relates to the problems on 6 May 2010, when 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies experienced problems with queuing in the period leading up to 10 o’clock and beyond. The constituencies included Birmingham, Ladywood; Hackney South and Shoreditch; Hackney North and Stoke Newington; Liverpool, Wavertree; Milton Keynes North; Sheffield, Hallam; and my constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge. In total, more than 40,000 polling stations were in use during the 2010 elections. As well as the 650 parliamentary elections, there were local elections and mayoral elections.

Just over 1,200 voters were affected by the problems, leading to just over 500 complaints to the Electoral Commission within a fortnight of the elections. The strength of feeling was high. For example, 100 or more students at Sheffield, Hallam staged a protest after 10 o’clock, having been denied a vote. If that protest had carried on, perhaps the mechanisms to which the hon. Lady referred would have been activated. We are glad that they were not.

Given all that we have heard and read in recent years about voter disengagement, it is heartening that people cared so much about exercising their right to vote that they were prepared to queue. In Sheffield, Hallam and in my constituency, they did so in the rain. That defied all the pundits, who said repeatedly in the years before the 2010 election that people were disengaged from politics, that they were not bothered and that turnouts were going down. In fact, the 2010 election saw an

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increase in turnout. For that, we should be grateful. This House should feel an obligation to ensure that arrangements are in place to avoid any citizen ever again being denied the right to vote in any election.

The Electoral Commission report on the May 2010 problems identified two key problems. First, in the constituencies where problems were reported, there were common factors in the failure of returning officers to make sufficient arrangements for the elections. Despite their being issued with numerous publications detailing guidance, checklists and guidebooks, the planning processes adopted were inadequate. In particular, the plans were unrealistic and inappropriate, and in some cases were based on unreliable assumptions. On top of that, there was inadequate risk management and inadequate contingency plans were put in place in the constituencies that were affected. For example, voters experienced problems with the space in some polling stations, because they were small, cramped and unsuited to dealing with a steady stream of voters. That was not the primary cause of the problems, but where those conditions existed they impeded the throughput of voters and limited attempts to deal with the building queues.

Secondly, in several of the areas where there were problems, the allocation of voters per polling station exceeded the ratio recommended by the Electoral Commission. The recommended ratio was one polling station per 2,500 voters. In some instances, the latter figure was as high as 4,500. Staffing levels also varied considerably across the piece, with some returning officers providing only one presiding officer and one polling clerk, despite having voter ratios that demanded a much more generous staffing allocation. The commission lays down guidelines on the numbers of clerks and voters allocated to each station.

The combination of elections also made things difficult.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way on that point. I have argued strongly that we should never have two elections on the same day when that includes a general election. It is not so much of a problem to have local elections and another election on the same day because the turnout is naturally much lower than for a general election. A general election should be a stand-alone election. We should never have local elections and a general election on the same day.

Angela Smith: Like me, the hon. Gentleman represents a constituency that experienced problems. The commission makes the point that the combination of a general election and other elections might have created problems. In some London constituencies, there were local and parliamentary elections, and mayoral elections. That was given as an explanation for the queuing problems, but the commission has pointed out that there were no such problems in some constituencies that had more than one election. I do not believe that having two elections on the same day is the root cause, although it can make things more difficult. Having two elections on the same day certainly made the count more difficult—I did not get my result until 7 o’clock in the morning.

Mr Leech: There was also a problem in areas where a large number of people were entitled to vote in one election but not in another. Polling station staff had to explain that to people, which slowed the process.

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Angela Smith: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point—I believe he is referring to European nationals. We would have to rely on the commission for evidence of large concentrations of European voters in any one constituency or polling district in order to make that case.

Perhaps the most astonishing failure of all is that almost all the returning officers identified by the commission as experiencing problems with queues had underestimated turnout. In some cases, predictions were based on local election turnouts since 2006; in others, the turnout from the 2005 general election was taken into account. That was despite guidance from the commission—given well in advance of the election—that plans for elections should be based on an assumption of a higher turnout in 2010 than in recent elections, including the 2005 general election. I find it astounding that any returning officer could assume that the turnout in a general election would be at local election levels.

Finally, the monitoring of polling station performance on the day and the plans for drawing down additional staffing were not robust, and some staff at stations failed to notify returning officers of problems early enough. By any calculation the commission’s report demonstrates the need to improve planning and processes for elections, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest pointed out. The commission recommended in the report that returning officers should review their approach to planning for adequate polling station and staffing provision at future elections, and made it clear that it would be more prescriptive on those points in its guidance.

The report also made it clear that there had been an unprecedented late surge in voters at some polling stations, to such an extent that extra staffing would probably not have guaranteed that all voters would get their ballot papers. That is the key point—the hon. Lady made it very successfully.

The commission therefore recommended the changes laid out in new clause 4 and pointed out that the restrictive approach of the UK to the close of the poll does not compare well with electoral legislation in many other countries. In New Zealand, for example, all electors who are inside the polling station at the close of the poll are entitled to vote. In Canada, I believe that everyone in the polling station or queuing is entitled to vote. That is the approach that we want to adopt through new clause 4, which is designed to implement the second part of the recommendation in the commission’s report.

I will briefly illustrate the provision’s value by rehearsing the problems experienced in two constituencies on that day two years ago. In Birmingham, Ladywood, 2,678 electors were eligible to vote at the polling station where the problem materialised. Turnout for the election increased to 40%—up from between 12% and 18% in the previous three years—but the station had just one clerk and one presiding officer. Just before 10 o’clock, the presiding officer asked staff to confirm the time on their watches. This is how we run elections in this country! One staff member’s watch was about 5 minutes slower than the others’, but the presiding officer took it as the correct time and issued ballot papers until that particular watch said 10 o’clock. At that point, the presiding officer sealed the ballot boxes and closed the polling station. The police were eventually called to disperse the crowd. Can we wonder!

It is estimated that between 65 and 100 electors, some inside and some outside the polling station, were turned

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away without having been issued with ballot papers. If we take the time according to the slowest watch in the room as the time at which we close the ballot, surely we are making a nonsense of the 10 o’clock cut-off point. Does it not indicate more than anything else that legislation needs to be more flexible in order to ensure that everyone at the polling station gets the right to vote. That is a really important point.

At Sheffield, Hallam, the problem was quite significant and involved three polling stations, at which many voters were denied the right to vote. St John’s parish church polling station in Ranmoor—a place I know well—was allocated 4,469 electors, excluding postal voters, and had one presiding officer and three clerks, with additional staff deployed in the evening. In the polling stations that had a problem, 480 electors were affected, most of them at St John’s. This was the polling station at which a protest was staged at 10 o’clock, with 100 students refusing to move and the police having to be called in.Despite the best efforts of the Sheffield returning officer to ensure that this polling station, which had a large allocation of voters, had four members of staff, and despite the deployment of extra resources, nothing could be done to get everybody in to vote. That suggests that new clause 4 would be a vital change to our electoral legislation.

It is obvious that we need to change the law in accordance with new clause 4. The constituents of many Members were denied the right to vote. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) has consistently raised this issue in the House and is a co-signatory to the new clause. As I said, I had 70 voters denied the right to vote in Penistone. We all feel strongly that this needs to be addressed. It is not just about students. Penistone is hardly awash with students: it is a little market town, on the edge of the Peak district, with an engineering past. It does not have a big, posh student population.

Sheffield, Hallam, on the other hand, has many student voters, 340 of whom were turned away after 10 o’clock that night. On the day following the election, Friday 7 May, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), now the Deputy Prime Minister, made a statement in which he said that he shared the “bitter dismay” of voters who had to wait in long queues and that it

“should never, ever happen again in our democracy”.

At a meeting with constituents on 21 May at the King Edward VII school in his constituency, the Deputy Prime Minister was asked about the problem again, and he quite rightly described it as “a fiasco”. Responding to one student in the audience, he said: