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Lord Norton of Louth: One thought occurred to me while the Minister was speaking. In the event of any of the options that he mentioned occurring—the ultimate being a national postal strike—what would be the alternative? Should one not make provision to revert to the old format of opening polling stations?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: Yes; the advice is that we might consider that as a last resort.

Baroness Hanham: That shows the wisdom of us asking to have somewhere in every local ward in the pilot areas. We were discussing earlier whether there should not be somewhere that people could go to vote if they wished or to drop off their votes. Under these circumstances, that seems even more sensible.

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The possibility of there being a complete all-out strike may not be likely. However, wildcat strikes can never be completely cut out or anticipated. I am concerned about whether all those administrators in the Royal Mail will be able to run round emptying all the postboxes and sealing them up. I am not at all happy that they will have the option of throwing electoral mail back to the local authority. A system must be set up for delivery. If we have to give mail back to the local authority, the local authority then has to make its own arrangements for a courier system for delivery, which is then no longer the responsibility of the Royal Mail.

Under those circumstances, the Royal Mail would discharge its responsibilities by handing what it had hooked out of the postboxes back to the local authority. I do not think that that is fulfilling the obligation. Our clear view is that every area administrated by the Post Office should set up detailed arrangements, with some form of courier service to guarantee the collection as well as the delivery of postal votes. The other alternative is simply to revert to polling stations or to a manned drop-off point. That takes us back to the utter rationale of having far more drop-off points than the Government envisage, with people on hand to help. There would then have to be a system of advising people that that was going to happen.

Despite Adam Crozier's great assertions about this matter, I will wait to see what the letter says—and I would be grateful if we could have it before Report so that we can see what is anticipated. I remain extremely concerned about this matter, because the arrangements do not sound as if they will hold up. I appreciate that this sort of situation may not arise. However, we have been in situations before when opportunities are seized—I put it no higher—to cause trouble.

The Government are now talking—although we are not—about 14 million people taking part in the pilot, which is half the nation. That is no longer a pilot: that is a substantial vote throughout the country. We need far more assurances. I understand that the Minister has not been able to give those today. I look forward to seeing the letter, but, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 29:

    After Clause 2, insert the following new clause—

(1) An elector may request in writing that a ballot paper is sent to an address other than that at which he is registered as an elector where to do so would be for the convenience of the elector in casting his vote.
(2) Such a request shall be made in writing and signed by the elector; such a request shall provide a clear explanation of why the request is being made, and shall be made not later than three full weeks before the date on which the ballot papers will be issued.

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(3) The returning officer shall consider each request made under subsection (1) individually and shall accept the request if he considers that the reasons given are reasonable.
(4) But if the returning officer is not satisfied by any reasons given he shall make such enquiries as may be practical and shall only agree to the request if he is so satisfied as to the reasons for the request on the basis of his enquiries."

The noble Lord said: I apologise that I shall need to take a little time explaining the amendment. I do not make a general apology, but I apologise to the individuals in the Committee. However, I am pleased to be doing so in the relatively painless environment of the Grand Committee.

Amendment No. 29 would deal with the situation where people ask for their postal vote to be sent to a different address from that at which they are registered on the electoral register. I assume that in all postal ballots that arrangement will still be possible, in the same way that people can now apply for postal votes to be sent to a Butlins holiday camp, a student hall of residence or wherever they happen to be staying.

The new clause would put a duty on the returning officer to scrutinise such requests, to look at the reasons and to grant them straightaway only if the requests seem reasonable and are not being put forward for such vague reasons as "away" or "going shopping"—I have seen that—or even an explanation such as "student". Electors must give some evidence that at face value makes the request a reasonable one. By implication, a request to have a ballot paper sent to a house across the street would not be reasonable unless the elector had moved there. Subsection (4) provides that the returning officer should make enquiries to see whether the request is reasonable if he thinks that it is not.

So far as I am concerned, the provision arises from events during the Pendle local elections in May 2002. As I have explained on several occasions, across four small, marginal wards almost 1,000 postal votes were sent to common addresses that had nothing to do with the electors concerned. That happened in the Bradley, Brierfield, Southfield and Whitefield wards, and there is no doubt that it made a difference to the election results in the Pendle election that year.

I am aware of instances of the same kind of thing in Burnley, Oldham and Birmingham, as well as allegations that it has been going on in other places. I have to say that although the people concerned in Pendle were the local Labour Party, I am aware that in other places more than one party may have been involved.

During the all-out elections in those wards, a plan was drawn up by a group of organisers for the local Labour Party that involved signing up as many electors as they could on postal votes and then manipulating and controlling those electors to ensure that as many of them as possible voted the straight Labour ticket. That operation must be stopped. There is no way to avoid it, and nor should we. It was confined mainly, but not entirely, to the Asian community, involving 90 to 95 per cent Asian electors. One Asian landlord extended it to some of his white tenants. The problem of landlords voting on behalf of

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tenants—a problem that I referred to during our previous consideration in regard to Oldham—was taking place here as well.

The first thing that they did was to allocate postal votes to common addresses that were the homes of known Labour supporters or relatives of one of the Labour candidates. We believe that many voters signed the application forms before the addresses were filled in—that is what they told us—and certainly did not realise that their postal votes would not be sent to their home addresses. Indeed, many did not even realise that they were applying for a postal vote. All those applications were handed in at the town hall on the latest possible date.

I have a list of the common addresses concerned—around 35 addresses across all the wards. In the Whitefield ward, for example, 35 postal votes were sent to the address of a Labour candidate's nominator at 16 Albert Street. I keep referring to Labour, because that is what happened in this case, but I am not making a party political point. I believe that the problem is more widespread, but it just so happened that the Labour Party was involved in my area. Thirty postal votes were sent to 10 Carr Hill Road, Barrowford, the home of a Labour candidate's cousin in a different town in Pendle. Twenty postal votes were sent to an empty house two doors away, which, I believe, belongs to the same person. Sixty-one postal votes were sent to two addresses in Rochdale—16 King Street, East Rochdale, and 6 St Luke Street—which were ordinary two-up two-down terrace houses. We ascertained that all 61 people affected had not gone on holiday to Rochdale to live in those houses.

It was a scam that allowed people to control votes on their delivery more effectively than by the standard technique of following a postman and picking up papers from people's doorsteps or going to their houses and sorting out how they will vote as soon as they receive their papers.

We complained immediately, as did the local Conservatives, to the chief executive. He said that under existing legislation there was nothing that he could do, because the request forms had been filled in properly. Although he was very concerned about the situation, he said that he had to send the voting papers to the addresses given on the request forms. That is why my amendment is couched as it is.

A great parcel of votes was delivered to each of the addresses involved, where party activists, helpers and, in some cases, candidates collected them and brought them to central locations, which I shall refer to as committee rooms. They even took some postal votes requested by residents at those addresses. They then distributed the votes or, in some cases—we have strong evidence to prove this—they sat around a table and filled in the papers. It is generally accepted in the community and it is clear from talking to many of those affected that residents at the common addresses knew little or nothing of the operation, and that the common addresses were simply used as dead-letter drops.

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The media became interested in what was happening, as one might imagine. On 28 September 2002, the Guardian published an article about postal-vote fiddles in various areas, including east Lancashire. It said:

    "Some say they did not want their votes to be sent to these addresses. The vote of Carol Passmore, 54, a retired nurse, was sent to an address several streets away, along with 29 other postal votes. She insisted she had not wanted it sent anywhere else: 'I'm not that daft—it's my vote.' Days before the election, her postal vote was brought to her home by a Labour activist. While the party worker watched, she was asked to mark her ballot paper in front of him, Miss Passmore claimed. 'I thought a postal vote came to your house, and you did it privately and sent it back. He was looking over my shoulder while I was doing it. I won't vote again.'"

In those circumstances, party activists then took the voting papers away. They insisted that the documents remain unsealed because they had to be checked in the committee room to ensure that they were right. The article continues:

    "The address Miss Passmore's vote was sent to is the home of a Labour candidate's cousin. He was not available for comment, but his father said he did not know Miss Passmore. He referred inquiries about her vote to Mohammed Iqbal, deputy leader of the Labour group on the council".

Channel 4 News also interviewed Miss Passmore on 24 May 2002, because, unlike most people, she was willing to talk to them. They also contacted the Labour candidate's cousin to whom all the ballot papers arrived. He said that he could not possibly explain why all the papers had been sent to his home, that he knew nothing about them, and that someone had come along and picked them up after they had arrived.

Channel 4 News also interviewed a young Asian man whose voting papers had been delivered along with 44 other postal votes to 126 Chapel Street, which it claimed was the home of a Labour candidate's brother-in-law. The young man said that his vote had been stolen from him. He lived around the corner from 126 Chapel Street—most of the voting papers were delivered just across the street. When Channel 4 News interviewed the residents at that address on their doorstep, they said that they knew nothing about the matter.

That year a lot of complaints were made at polling stations. Pendle Borough Council's returning officer made a report of the complaints made. In the case of one family living at Fir Street in Nelson, none of whom had applied for a postal vote, six votes were sent to 77 Barkerhouse Road. They found that their voting papers had been sent to that address when they went to vote. When one of the voters went to that address, he was told that nothing was known about it.

There is a lot of such evidence. I am sure that the Committee does not want to hear all of it, but I could provide a huge pile of cases. It is a very serious scam that needs to be stamped out.

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In addition, we discovered that a small number of people had witnessed the declaration of identity on a large number of the votes. As I mentioned in Committee last week, in one ward 200 votes were countersigned by three councillors.

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