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Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is it not true that in 99 per cent of the United Kingdom postal balloting is totally trouble-free, and that in reality the problem is in small pockets? Can we target the resources being allocated at areas where it is more likely that postal balloting fraud will take place?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I appreciate what my noble friend says. Allegations have certainly been made in a number of places, but, as I have indicated, there have been very few convictions. We need to look very carefully at those. But it cannot always be assumed that fraud will take place in any particular place. One might target resources where allegations have been made before, but if the allegations were unfounded we might be failing to do what is required. It is critical that, through the available money and the work that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will do with the Association of Chief Police Officers and returning officers, we focus carefully on making fraud impossible.
Do they accept, as the judge undoubtedly thought, that so long as the rules introduced by Labour in 2001 remain in force, there will be massive fraud? If the Government do not accept that, why not, and what good is a code of conduct if the system has no built-in safeguards?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have read the summary of the judge's verdict very carefully. I have the 192-page document, but I have not yet read it in detail. I do not recall any specific reference to the legislation introduced in 2001 in the executive summary but perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, can correct me.
The judge pointed to a series of problems in Birmingham, about which he felt very strongly. I take great care to consider the applicability of what the judge has said across the whole system. It is very important that we work closely with the Electoral Commission to see what further must be done to prevent fraud. I am not complacent about what the judge has said. He has made known his views very strongly; it is right and proper for him to do so. We are looking at the judgment. It is our responsibility to try to ensure via codes of conductthey are an important part because parties need carefully to send out a signaland our work with returning officers, individual parties and the police that fraud cannot happen again.
Unquestionably, the judge has very clearly signalled what he believes is a real problem. It is for us to ensure that in the forthcoming election we address it. My point is that in the vast majority of cases in this country postal voting works extremely well. I would be reluctant to imply that we needed to do more than take those points seriously and address them.
Lord Garden: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is ironic that she reminded us that postal voting was generated to help servicemen, when there is now such a shambles over postal voting for service people? The Electoral Commission distributed leaflets that have arrived too late to be of any use. They say something that is completely counter to the Queen's Regulations for the Army about overseas postal voting. At the moment, the services will be the one group disenfranchised at the election on 5 May.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it would be a terrible pity if there were any disenfranchisement at any election in this country. I will look carefully at those comments, as I have neither ministerial responsibility for this area nor the ability to answer the noble Lord properly. However, it is a very important point.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, as I understand the noble Baroness, she said that this was the fault, not of the Labour Party, but of the Birmingham Labour Party. Is that not rather like the Ministry of Defence saying that abuse of Iraqi prisoners is not its fault but only the fault of the regiment in which it happened?
My point was that, if the Labour Party nationally had been held to account by the judge, I would be the first to come to your Lordships' House and apologise: it was not. Responsibility was put at the door of what were seen to be particular practices that were inappropriate at best, and corrupt at worst. I am sorry that it happened, and I think that it is important that the Labour Party takes its responsibilities seriously, but I would not for one moment suggest anything other than that this party believes absolutely 100 per cent in democracy. That is critical.
Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, does the answer that the Minister has just given mean that the Labour Party does not accept responsibility for the actions of its candidates? Surely, that is nonsense.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I did not say that. If the noble Lord reads the statement put out by the Labour Party, he will see that we have already suspended the six councillors and that they will be subject to party discipline. We have appointed a senior member of the executive committee to oversee the election in Birmingham, and we have made it clear that that must include making sure that the code of conduct is adhered to. Every member of the Labour Party in Birmingham will be written to by that personMike Griffithsand the letter will include a copy of the code of conduct.
We take our responsibilities very seriously, but the fraud was not conducted by the national Labour Party; it was particular to the Labour Party in Birmingham. As the noble Lord will know from his experience in his own party, one must be clear about the difference between, on the one hand, taking responsibility and taking actionthat is right and properand, on the other, saying that something is rotten or wrong in the Labour Party itself.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, the Minister said that voters had welcomed the convenience of postal votes and had indicated that they were popular. Unfortunately, postal votes also afford convenience to and enjoy popularity among fraudsters. In preparing for this afternoon's Statement, has the noble Baroness reread the answers given by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, to similar questions last summer? He expressed overwhelming confidence in the integrity of the postal voting arrangements, a confidence that has been serially proved wrong by events.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have not read all the answers that my noble friend gave, but I am sure that I would have agreed with him about the need to make things clear. There has been fraud and corruption in two out of 6,000 wards. It has been discovered and dealt with by a judge, and there may or may not be other proceedings. It is important to recognise that.
We should protect and sustain postal voting or other forms of voting that give voters the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights in ways that are convenient for them for whatever reason, and we
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should make sure that they can happen. I take seriously what was said in the judgment. With the Electoral Commission, we must consider carefully what safeguards can be put in place. I have also said that we plan to use primary legislation when time allows in the new Parliamentwhoever is standing hereto make sure that we can do all of that. We are not complacent, but I do not wish to get the matter out of perspective.
Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, we must consider the difference between the Government and the Labour Party. The parties are responsible for organisation in the constituency parties. I am sure that active members of parties will not be able to do other than agree with me that all parties have, since the postal voting system was extended under, I think, the Representation of the People Act 1948, been anxious to maximise their vote.
I have been a Labour Party agent, and I have had conversations with Conservative Party agents and with Liberal agents. All of us have worked to a similar pattern. Up until the previous election, there have been no problems. It is unfortunate that, in the previous European and local elections, there was this incident in what is, if we take into account the electorate as a whole, a small area of the country.
It is not my noble friend who should answer for the Labour Party; the Labour Party has already answered for itself by taking disciplinary action against members who have undertaken illegal action in the name of the party. That is exactly what any other political party would have done in the circumstances.
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