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Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I apologise for having missed the first part of the Statement; the screen upstairs flipped over slightly before I expected it to. I have of course read the Statement and apologise for
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not being here. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement in this House. It really cannot have been very happy readingthough perhaps, as she has not taken part in all the other discussions we have had on postal voting, it may have been less of a burden than it would be to other Ministers who have enjoyed our long discussions. Whatever the case, it simply will not do.
This House will have been amazed, first of all, at the lack of any apology from the party opposite. It is responsible to the people of Birmingham for this unparalleled electoral corruption. Indeed, if you had read the Statement alone, you would think that the Labour Party, or members of it, had absolutely nothing to do with what has happened. Further, this omission was compounded by an attack on Judge Mawrey by the Minister in another placea judge who has listened very carefully to all the evidence and come to a very firm conclusion.
If the Statement is anything to go by, the judge was right to criticise the Government's complacency on this matter. And that is where the responsibility lies. The Government have been obsessed, as with so many other areas of the constitution and its processes, with change for change's sake. They have been so convinced that postal ballots are to their electoral advantage that they have refused to listen to any warnings about the integrity of large-scale postal balloting.
The Government ignored advice from the Electoral Commission, they ignored advice from other parties, and they ignored the advice of this House. Five times this House tried to overthrow the legislation to prevent a ban on casting a secret ballot at a polling station. The Government were absolutely determined that it should happen. They absolutely refused to accept the huge concerns which were expressed over and over again during the passage of two major pieces of legislation, that the process was open to abuse. Experience after experience was quoted in this place, but all of it was pushed to one side. Now it is high time for the Government to listen and to eat a little bit of humble pie.
When the Government came to power there was not a shred of doubt about the integrity of our voting system, based on the norm of a secret ballot cast in person and on the limited availability of postal voting for those who would otherwise be unable to vote at all. On figures in the Statement alone, well over 90 per cent of people still prefer the tried and trusted system that millions fought and died forof going to a polling station and placing their votes in person.
Since 1918, postal ballots have rightly been allowed to those who need them. It was only five years ago that the Government opened the floodgates to bucket-shop balloting. Only since then have doubts about the integrity of the electoral system grown and have opportunities existed for those who believe that the only criterion is to win in any circumstances. The Government's fiddling and tampering has given comfort to them. Public confidence has been underminednot just by this shocking fraud but also by the confused mishmash of voting systems that have been introduced.
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That did not happen by accident; it was the result of deliberate legislation by this Government. Again, one would expect some acceptance of responsibility and some hint of apologybut there has been none.
I believe, and I know that most people in this House believe, that casting a vote in person and in secret wherever possible is how we should conduct our electoral system. Does the Minister share that view?
The Statement made a great deal of the need to increase participation in elections. We all favour that, and we have endlessly discussed in this House the ways that would benefit that end. But lack of confidence in the electoral system is not going to improve that situation. The Statement said that postal voting offered an easy and accessible way to participate. The trouble is that, as set up by the Government, the system is now completely tarnished. Few things will discourage participation more than if people think that their honest vote can be swamped by dishonest ones. So, how can the Minister assure the House that voting in the forthcoming election will be secure?
The Statement did not offer any guarantee of that. Indeed, as Judge Mawrey rightly said, it could not do so, given past complacency by the Government. All that has been offered are yet more guidelines to returning officers and police on how to cope with the consequences of the Government's ill thought-out laws. But what are those guidelines? Will there be any changes to the delivery and collection of postal votes and to the verification of true signatures on the forms? Perhaps noble Lords saw the programme on BBC last night where two signatures on the same form were compared. Without a shred of doubt, they looked entirely different.
An extra £l0 million of taxpayers' money has been allotted to help police a system that the Labour Party itself has helped to discredit. But what is that £10 million going to do? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.
We must, and can, do far better than this complacent Statement. I am glad to say that, with the announcement of the election today, it may not be for this Government to make the decisions, it will be for us to make them. We will be making far better ones than these.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, let us not forget that, a year ago, we were assured by Ministers in this House and in another place that the sort of problems that we now know occurred in Birmingham with postal voting could not occur. I believe that the country owes a great debt of gratitude to Judge Mawrey for helping to expose what he called a,
"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 a massive, Birmingham-wide electoral fraud by the Labour Party".
The case in Birmingham highlights how wrong Ministers were to give us those assurances a year ago. I see from the Statement today that the Minister is suggesting that new measures are being taken to toughen up on procedures, but is she aware that the new commission guidelines, to which she referred, while perhaps being more realistic, are softer than the guidelines that applied a year ago when this fraud took place.
We have been assured that there will be tough action by police against fraud in such matters. We were assured of that a year ago, before the June elections in which fraud took place. When people in Birmingham were concerned about that huge fraud, the initial police reaction was to dismiss it entirely as sour grapes. What greater assurance can we have now that the police will take instances of alleged fraud more seriously in this general election?
The case has shown how hard it is under the present rules to detect and assess the level of fraud in postal voting; how reluctant hard-pressed police officers can be to pursue fraud that may cheat people of their democratic rights; and how widespread fraud is perfectly possible under the system. All parties agree that postal voting should be a legitimate option for voters, but we must as a matter of urgency reform the process thoroughly after the general election.
In the mean time, there are a number of steps that could be taken, if all parties agreed on them, before this general electionif there was sufficient goodwill. First, we could have the postal votes counted separately in the general election. That would help us to see more obviously whether something was amiss in the system. Secondly, the forms by which people apply for a postal vote could be publicly available in the same way as are the declarations of identity that accompany the ballot papers when they are returned. It is possible for parties to scrutinise those declarations of identity to satisfy themselves afterwards about who has signed the declaration. The parties should also be able to see the forms by which people apply for postal votes.
From the Birmingham case, we have seen how difficult it is to gather such evidence in time, at great expense, to pursue the case. The period for launching an election petition should be changed from 21 days to, perhaps, two months, to allow sufficient time for people to gather the evidence necessary for an investigation into potential fraud, if that is the only option open to them.
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, a requirement could be made on presiding officers to maintain a list of all those people who turn up to
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polling stations only to find that someone has previously claimed a postal vote in their name. At present, they are denied a vote. At the moment, if they turn up to a polling station and they have not registered for a postal vote, but someone has previously claimed their vote by turning up to a polling station, they can be given a further ballot paper. If it may be significant to the result, that ballot paper may be counted. But if you go to a polling station to find that someone in your name has claimed a postal vote on your behalf, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. That would be a sensible reform to the process that could be easily and speedily introduced.
Finally, the Governmentand all partiesshould show their support for upholding democratic principles by saying clearly before the election and in time for voters to judge their statement that they rule out any further extension of postal voting until the major sources of abuse have been removed.
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