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Earl Attlee: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He is doing a fabulously detailed job of explaining what the problem is. Can he tell us how his amendment is going to stamp out the problem? I am desperate to know.

Lord Greaves: I shall do that in a minute. I am grateful to the noble Earl, but if he will be patient for a little longer I shall explain that.

We saw the votes concerned at the count. Experienced politicians know what postal votes are like; various colours of ink are used, and numbers can be ticked or crossed out, especially in the Asian community, where voting is often by numbers. It was clear that the voting papers had been filled in centrally and that the votes were not genuine.

What are the excuses given? The then leader of Pendle Borough Council, Azhar Ali, when interviewed by BBC's "Northwest Tonight" on 30 April 2002, said:

That sums up our worries: the idea that block-voting by families at the behest of one or more people is not acceptable. It is certainly unacceptable for a third party to look over someone's shoulder while they vote or, even worse, to ask them to sign a declaration without ever seeing their own ballot paper or to forge a declaration.

I have a file of more than 100 cases in which we believe that either declarations or signatures—by either the witness or the voter—were forged. I have photocopies of them here. I do not understand why the police have not been able to deal with the evidence that we have provided.

Quite rightly, the noble Earl asks, "What is the answer?" The first answer is to give the returning officer real powers to investigate applications that he thinks might be dodgy, as this amendment would do. That means inevitably investigating applications on an individual basis. Perhaps in most places that would be regarded as a very formal procedure, but in areas such as Pendle, I am afraid, it is not. At present, the returning officer tells me that he does not have those powers.

I submitted a Written Question on the issue on 30 April 2002, when, as Members of the Committee might imagine, it was exercising my mind. I received an answer from the then Minister of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who stated that it is for each individual who applies to say where the voting paper should be sent. He continued:

    "If an electoral registration officer (ERO) or an acting returning officer (ARO) has a suspicion of electoral fraud, it is for them to notify the police".

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I shall come on to that in a minute.

    "Where an application meets the statutory requirements, it must be accepted, and, where practicable, the ERO will confirm the arrangements by notifying the elector".

Given the very tight timetable for elections that we now have, that is very often not practicable. But it can be done, and in my area it is.

    "Once these arrangements are in place, the ARO has no discretion to disregard them".—[Official Report, 30/4/02; col. WA83.]

The officials have to accept the form, request or application they receive on the basis of the information on it. They can refer it to the police. Indeed, our local returning officer has made it absolutely clear that if he receives many more applications for common addresses this year he will pass them straight to the police. But he would still have to accept them, and it would take the police a long time to investigate. I am afraid that such investigations in our area are less than effective and efficient.

In moving the amendment, I do not expect the Government to say, "Yes, this is brilliant. We shall write it into the legislation now". Indeed, the problem goes wider than pilots; it covers the whole issue of postal voting and applies to the whole country. I hope that the Government, together with the Electoral Commission, will seriously consider the matter. Despite the fact that I have written to the chairman of the Electoral Commission about it, I do not believe that it is taking the matter seriously. It needs to be taken seriously because it concerns an electoral abuse which appears to be growing in a number of different parts of the country. It has to be stopped and stamped out. I beg to move.

Earl Attlee: The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has identified a very serious problem but his arguments would carry more force if they were a wincy bit more succinct. I agree with his analysis of the problem and look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Lord Greaves: I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. I believed this was a good opportunity to have the issue written into the record so that I could refer people to it in future. I apologised to the Committee at the outset.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. He prefaced his remarks by saying that he would be speaking at some length. He has read the issue into the record and so presumably, on Report, we shall be able to read Hansard rather than listen to these very interesting arguments again.

Lord Greaves: I shall not say it all again on Report.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: Thank you. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke at great length; I shall be very brief. We find the amendment particularly interesting. It would provide, as we have heard, that before a request for ballot papers to be sent to an alternative address were granted, a valid reason must be given. We believe that is very important. We can see the purpose of this and believe that potentially it could provide a valuable safeguard.

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However, this level of detail is more appropriate for the pilot order. We are currently in discussion with returning officers and electoral administrators regarding this and other points which would be useful in helping to reduce the potential for fraud. The noble Lord's comments in Hansard should be part of the discussion.

As I said, we intend to share the policy paper that is currently being developed with noble Lords in the near future. Specifically on the provision suggested by the amendment, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, agrees that some issues need to be addressed—for instance, how electoral administrators would determine whether a redirection should be permitted. However, it is a very important issue and we are considering including it within the pilot. Given this assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Greaves: I am almost thrilled and excited by that answer. It is the first time that I have raised the matter in any place and I have begun to get through to people that there is a serious problem. I do not want to patronise the Minister or the Government by saying that. I am delighted by what he said and thank him, and I look forward with gleeful anticipation to what happens. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.30 p.m.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Electoral Commission report]:

[Amendment No. 30 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 31:

    Page 3, line 8, leave out "such relevant" and insert "all"

The noble Baroness said: I need not be very long on the matter. Amendments Nos. 31, 33 and 34 focus on Clause 4 and the Electoral Commission's report after a pilot has taken place. We very much support the inclusion of Clause 4 in the Bill. It extends the Electoral Commission's duties so that it must report not only on the election in general, but on the pilot itself. That is vital as we know that the pilot is intended to trial new and innovative methods.

We have a problem with the clause, however, in subsections (2) and (3). Subsection (2) reads:

    "The Electoral Commission must consult such relevant local authorities in the region as they consider appropriate in connection with the preparation of the report",

while subsection (3) states:

    "Every relevant local authority in the region must give the Commission such assistance as they may reasonably require".

Will the Minister explain why the Electoral Commission must consult "such relevant local authorities", rather than simply all local authorities in the region, and why every "relevant" local authority in the region must give assistance rather than every local authority in the region?

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I can see no basis for the Electoral Commission to consult only relevant local authorities rather than them all. Every local authority will have taken part in the pilot scheme on the European election, so why should some be consulted and not others? The only local authorities that will have additional information are those where there have been local elections, which presumably will automatically be consulted by the Electoral Commission as to whether those elections work.

It is very important that every local authority be consulted. Our wording seems correct, so I ask the Minister to explain the rationale behind it not being all local authorities that are consulted. I beg to move.

Lord Rennard: I wondered why the Government did not immediately suggest that all local authorities should be consulted. Perhaps there could be a Machiavellian reason for only consulting some, but the logic might well be simply that the principal local authority—the county council, the district council, the metropolitan council—should be consulted. Perhaps the Government did not think it appropriate to consult every parish or town council. My suggestion to the Minister is for an appropriate government amendment to clarify the matter using, "all principal local authorities". That might deal with the issue.

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