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Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I have always had the greatest admiration for the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and that has grown tonight. She has much greater staying power than I have. I thank her for dealing with those amendments and for giving me some comfort, although not much, regarding the last point about religions, other than the Anglican clergy, not being regarded as public bodies in the solemnisation of marriages. That is fair. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, is not in his place, but I also realise that if the Bill is enacted and a registrar has a conscientious objection to marrying people who he or she suspects are transsexual, the registrar should not really be in the job or should make the people go to another registrar. There are ways and means of achieving that. I thank the Minister very much for her comprehensive reply to the amendments, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration of the Report be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

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Official Report of the Grand Committee on the

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill [HL]

Thursday, 29 January 2004.

The Committee met at quarter past three of the clock.

[The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara) in the Chair.]

Clause 2 [Pilot order]:

[Amendments Nos. 17 to 21 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 22:

    Page 2, line 33, at end insert—

"( ) Any information or literature sent out with a postal vote must include a secrecy warning."

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 22, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 44. The amendments focus on voter secrecy, one of the most fundamental issues to those who, like me, have grave concerns about the safeguards lost in an all-postal ballot. The Committee has already been made fully aware of our concerns in regard to secrecy and I shall not weary it by repeating the excellent arguments articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and others.

Having identified the problem, our amendments attempt to provide the solution by reasserting the principle of secrecy in voting in elections. Amendment No. 22 would make it obligatory for any information or literature sent out about an all-postal ballot to include a secrecy warning within it. Again, this is not foolproof, but it is an extra safeguard.

I am sure that the Minister will respond with the kinds of comment that the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, made at Second Reading, where he said:

    "We have also been working with the electoral administrators to ensure that literature and systems are used that provide for secrecy, and that people are reminded of the importance of secrecy".

Time will not allow me to say any more, but I mark the importance of the matter.

I am not impressed. If the voters' right to secrecy cannot be guaranteed, we would like it at least to be emphasised on the face of the Bill. An explicit and strongly worded secrecy warning might be of some help in reducing pressurised voting within the home. We have referred to that on previous amendments.

I turn now to Amendment No. 44. We should like to see on the face of the Bill a requirement for the Electoral Commission to explore the effect of all-postal voting on the secrecy of the ballot. There is

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already a requirement to consider the effect of fraudulent activity and malpractice, but the amendment is concerned with undue influence at home—for example, a pushy husband wanting to know how his wife has voted or insisting that she vote in a certain way. Of course, it could happen the other way round. It is not the kind of action that should attract the attention of the police, but it should be discouraged and prevented as far as possible.

The Minister envisages the commission carrying out such an inquiry, as he made clear when he said:

    "One can conceive the possibility of pressure, although it may not be extensive. Certainly under Clause 4 the Electoral Commission will be required to report on the elections and, in doing so, we shall expect it to consider issues of secrecy".—[Official Report, 8/1/04; 348.]

I hope that an assessment of the secrecy of the ballot will be a positive obligation on the Electoral Commission, rather than merely expecting that it might consider it.

Many noble Lords have expressed concerns in regard to secrecy and the ECHR. Paragraphs 23 to 26 of the Explanatory Notes recognise that there is a problem but I shall not test the patience of the Committee by reading them out. However, the thinking behind the four paragraphs is deeply flawed. An all-postal ballot clearly fits the criteria set out in paragraph 23 as being in direct conflict with Article 3. There is no doubt that it both undermines the secrecy of the ballot and the free expression of the electorate's opinion. Apparently we are meant to turn a blind eye to this because the pilot scheme is merely generating evidence on new and innovative systems.This is hardly justification for jeopardising a human right that every citizen of this country should be guaranteed, especially when the so-called pilot scheme is to be trialled—if the Government have their way—in more than one region.

Paragraph 25 states that the wider benefits to the community that postal voting is intended to bring in terms of greater voter participation are also relevant to Article 3. Are the Government therefore implying that the loss of secrecy in voting can be offset by the expected greater voter participation? It is a dangerous and unjustifiable line to take that it is okay if you cannot freely express your right to vote in secrecy because we have an extra 5 per cent of voters bothering to fill out their ballot papers. What worth can be given to a greater percentage of returned postal ballots if there are grave suspicions about how many of them were freely completed by the rightful person to whom they were sent? This could make a mockery of our electoral system.

It has also been drawn to my attention that the Government have had internal advice that the whole concept of postal ballots is challengeable under the ECHR. Can the Minister confirm whether or not that is the case?

In conclusion, I should like the Minister to state exactly what statutory and non-statutory steps are being taken to address the issue of secrecy. Our amendments would put in place some safeguards to secrecy, although I freely admit that they are hardly likely to be 100 per cent effective in halting any

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potential abuse. There are fundamental issues at stake and I look forward to hearing from the Minister some justification for what appears to be a breach of human rights. I beg to move.

Lord Greaves: I am given authority from my noble friend Lord Rennard to say that we as a party approve and support the amendment. As this is the first time I have spoken today, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, on her stamina in running two important Bills together as a Front-Bench spokesperson. When she said to me, "You are coming to them all, aren't you?", I said, "Well, I am a Back-Bencher. I'm able to nip off and have a brew when I want to". However, I probably owe the noble Baroness a favour because I suspect the fact that the two Bills are being kept apart is for her benefit. So perhaps I am benefiting from that.

In supporting the amendment I should like to recap on one or two of the comments that my friend Councillor Suzanne Fletcher of Stockton-on-Tees Council received when it had an all-out postal ballot in May last year. She was one of the few councillors who spent their time—perhaps because she had a safe seat—not only trying to get elected and trying to get votes but delivering a questionnaire to everyone in her ward in order to obtain their opinions on the system. She received some extremely interesting comments.

One of them was from people who had been placed on the electoral register late. They wrote to her to say that they had received the ballot papers in the end and stated:

    "These were not handed to us personally but posted through the door. Either of us could easily have intercepted both and voted twice, thus depriving the other of their vote. There is nothing on the Ballot Paper to confirm who has completed it. Clearly this situation could apply to any 'multiple occupancy' property".

That was from two electors who did the right thing but were nevertheless concerned that they had been given the opportunity not to do the right thing.

Another elector—this is not quite the same point but perhaps the Minister might take it away and consider it—made a further observation:

    "I note that the envelope delivering the Ballot Paper to the voter can be re-sealed without any indication of it having happened when the votes arrived in the council building".

In other words, it had presumably a "stick-on" seal that could easily be peeled off and put back again.

There is a further concern—which comes from Birmingham—that the envelopes into which the postal ballot papers were put were made of thin paper. You could actually see through them and see how people had voted. These issues have no relation to the amendment but I take the opportunity to raise them.

Many comments were received from genuine electors, none of whom believe or engage in fraud. For example:

    "Mine's been sent in, and I filled his in for him as well".

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Other comments included,

    "I've filled all ours in . . . but they were all for you";

    "I did his for him as well, he'd never have got round to it, you know what he's like";


    "We've filled in our (son's) paper for him." would have wanted me to vote for you though."

A more famous example took place at 8 o'clock in the morning, when a woman at a bus stop was seen to get three envelopes out of her bag, fill in all three ballot papers and then post them. Those are just some examples.

Finally, a letter was received explaining how one elderly couple were called on as part of what we call the "knocking-up" operation. This lasts for a fortnight from the ballot papers being sent out, rather than only on polling day. The wife asked her husband where the voting papers were. He replied that he had filled them in and sent them off. She asked who they had voted for but he could not remember. The letter continued:

    "She was most upset as she had wanted to vote for our candidates herself. We felt most uncomfortable leaving them having a row between themselves".

The case in favour of the noble Lord's amendment is strengthened by those anecdotes.

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