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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, first, I completely understand why the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, was unable to be here for the beginning of the Statement. I take very seriously what has happened in Birmingham and I condemn completely and utterly the actions of those who have been found wanting, to put it at its mildest, in what they have done. I treasure our democracy, as I know that every Member of your Lordships' House does—although we find ourselves in a slightly odd position in that—and I take it very seriously.

It is fair to say that in his remarks the judge made it clear that he attributed no blame to the national Labour Party. He was very clear about where he placed that blame, which is right and proper. So although I very much regret what happened in Birmingham, it is not something for which the national Labour Party takes responsibility, in that sense. Our responsibility is to ensure that these matters are dealt with properly. Noble Lords will have read the statements issued by the Labour Party about ensuring that we work closely with those in Birmingham to ensure that elections are now run properly.

I recognise the criticisms that the judge made and accept that it was right and proper for him to make them. However, it is also right to say that the remarks attributed by the judge to the Department for Constitutional Affairs left off the end of the statement. We stated:

It is important to recognise that the Government take that extremely seriously.

As the noble Baroness said, a large number of people prefer not to use postal voting and that is right and proper. But, as noble Lords will know from the history of postal voting, many people for one reason or another find it impossible to go to the polling
 
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station at the appropriate time and it is right and proper that we offer them alternative ways to exercise their democratic right.

I, for one, am keen that as we move into a new era of technology we exploit all opportunities to encourage people to exercise their democratic right, provided—I accept this point—that we can maintain safety and security in so doing. It is wrong, as I fear that the noble Baroness was suggesting, simply to say that we stick with one method, not recognising that some people in our society find it physically difficult, because of disability and other reasons, to go to a polling station. I can remember that as a young mum with small children it was pretty difficult to get to the polling station in the rain—although of course I always made it. It is always important to think carefully about the opportunities that we give people.

However, I agree about the central point of ensuring that people can vote in safety and secrecy and know that their ballot is counted. I do not accept that this is complete tarnishing, by any stretch of the imagination. I repeat that it is important to recognise that these are isolated incidents. They raise important and difficult issues, but they are not tantamount to widespread fraud in this country. That is completely wrong. We have 6,000 wards, and only four wards are in question. For many reasons, but not least to ensure that our public message is clear, we must be clear about the integrity of our system.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said that the new guidelines are softer. That is interesting, but they have not yet been circulated, so he knows more than I do. Perhaps he could supply me with a copy of them. They are currently being considered through the Electoral Commission. I do not believe that they will be softer; they are meant to be clearer and more certain. I recognise the noble Lord's great experience in all matters concerning elections and his comments on the judgment relating to the police. As I said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs will meet the Association of Chief Police Officers tomorrow. Very much on his mind will be discussions on how we protect the ballot appropriately for the general and other elections.

We will consider the particular issues raised by the noble Lord. It is important to pick up suggestions that are made. I shall not try to do so now, but will do so properly. He will recognise that, having accepted many of the recommendations in Voting for change, we need to bring forward primary legislation to make the changes. Not long ago in your Lordships' House, I answered questions from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who I see is not in his place today, on observers at elections. We need primary legislation to alter who can be at a count: something that we are looking to do.

We have an additional £20 million for the 2005 elections, compared to 2001; £10 million of that is to cover the extra cost of the increased demand for postal votes. It will cover costs of staffing, and so on. We have written to all returning officers asking them to think
 
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proactively about what they can do; that will be followed up. I trust that that money will be wisely spent to ensure that we deal with all the issues raised.

Much has been made of the four areas where we had all-postal ballots. None of the allegations reflects on them in any way—there were allegations, but there have been no convictions in any of those areas.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, this Statement is timely and urgent. The Minister referred to the absence of my noble friend Lord Greaves. He could have added a lot about the fact that incidents are not restricted to Birmingham and there have been problems elsewhere, including his part of east Lancashire.

The Statement is urgent in that there will be a perception in the next few days that at least 80 per cent of those with a postal ballot are likely to vote, compared with 60 per cent or less of those without one. Therefore, many in the political process will hope to get more postal ballots in the next two or three weeks, for the understandable reason that they believe that 80 per cent or more of those with a postal ballot will vote.

As regards the legislation, the die is cast. But between now and Friday all the political parties could sign up to a code of conduct on what their helpers should be doing, and certainly what they should not be doing, when handling postal votes in the general election. If the parties signed up, people would know where they stood and what they should not get up to. Giving people a piece of paper and saying, "If you want a postal vote, sign that" is one thing, but it is an entirely different matter when the vote itself returns. It is important that the parties lay down from the centre what they believe is the right and proper approach, and that all parties sign up to it.

Lord Biffen: My Lords—

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have to respond to each noble Lord in turn, but I shall be brief.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, that the code of conduct is very important; I have a copy of it before me. I do not know whether it will be signed up to by Friday, as there are probably logistical issues. I think that the Statement said that it is very important that we send out from the centre the message that people must follow the code of conduct and sign up to it as candidates, canvassers and participants, and that we want a proper, democratic election to take place on 5 May. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, on that point.

Lord Biffen: My Lords, would an alteration in the law be required to enable postal votes to be collected and counted separately?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not sure whether it would, but I shall endeavour to answer the noble Lord's question in the next few minutes. Most of the recommendations in Voting for Change,
 
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which suggested along similar lines different ways of approaching the voting system, would require primary legislation because the current legislation is very specific about what can be done. It would therefore not surprise me if it were required.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there have been many more instances than were reported of what went on in Birmingham? For instance, an ex-constituent of mine, a little old lady, was terrorised by four huge men coming to her door and demanding to have her postal vote so that they could fill it out. Bearing in mind those and other factors that have been reported, will the noble Baroness assure the House that, so long as she is in any position to decide on those matters, universal postal voting will not be enforced in any area?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it has already been made clear in your Lordships' House that there is no plan for further all-postal ballots at this stage. I never say "never" because, as I said earlier, it is important to think carefully about the opportunities that we give people to vote. The traditional method of voting is important, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has already said; I take nothing away from that. But we must provide more opportunities for people, particularly as they work longer or different hours, away from home and so on, by giving them alternative methods. I am not ruling out alternative methods. The noble Baroness will probably be pleased enough to hear that at this stage there are no plans to have all-postal voting.


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