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Even at this late stage in the proceedings, this is useful for clarification. In particular, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an indication of why the Bill does not follow the advice of the Electoral Commission on verification, which is a very important point.
Lord Greaves: Talking about old postal ballots takes me back to our lengthy debates in this room on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill in 2004, which ended with a record ping-pong session between the two Houses before the Government got their way and were able to organise all-postal ballots in three regions in the north of England, including my own. I think that we had six ping-pongs, so this is not new. I shall not say much more about that, except to underline the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Henley: namely, can we understand that at the moment the Government have dropped the idea of all-postal voting? If they say yes, a lot of us will be very relieved.
I am strongly in favour of Amendments 128 and 129, but, first, I have a couple of comments to make on Amendment 131 and offences. Because of the obstacles that have to be got through and over in order to take election fraud to court, it is rare for such offences to reach court and for there to be a proper trial. Nevertheless, when they go to court, quite often the offences with which people are charged turn out not to be the technical election offences which we talk about in Bills like this, but much broader offences, such as conspiracy.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, referred to the recent case in Slough, which ended up with a headline in the Daily Mailabout Tory councillor Eshaq Khan being jailed for three and a half years. It does not warm my heart to see Tory councillors or anyone jailed for election offences. It happens in all parties but taints and undermines the whole democratic political process. However, it is interesting that most of the defendantsmost of the six people who were jailedwere not charged with election offences. One gentleman was found guilty of personation and sentenced to four months, but most offences were conspiracy to defraud the returning officer, perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, which are fairly general offences. I am not saying that they are not appropriate in these cases, but they point out how, when they are looking into offences, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service find it difficult to pin down offences in the Representation of the People Act and similar legislation.
In this case, hundreds of false names had been put on the electoral register. Postal votes were applied for and then they were used. It was straightforward fraudulent activity. No doubt, conspiracy to defraud the returning officer and to pervert the course of justice were genuine offences. In relation to this amendment, it is interesting that the judge, Gordon Risius, is reported in the Daily Mailthe source of all wisdomas saying that although there are currently no sentencing guidelines for election fraud, he was required to pass sentences that would act as a deterrent. Citing a recent Court of Appeal case, he said:
That is a little different from the point of view being put forward by my noble friend, not wanting to fill up the jails. It illustrates the difficulty of taking cases to court, getting convictions and then deciding what to do.
Amendments 128 and 129 propose that 100 per cent of postal votes should be checked for personal identifiers, rather than the minimum of 20 per cent as stated in the legislation at the moment. The personal identifiers are the signature and the date of birth. My understanding is that the north-west returning officer in the European elections has written to local authority returning officers in the region requiring a 100 per cent check of postal votes. My question to the Minister is this: is the returning officer for the north-west making this decision on his own or will it be a requirement in the European and county council elections taking place on the same day? Is this a central decision or is it the returning officer for the north-west making a very sensible decision on his own?
Lord Bach: I can help the noble Lord on that. As I understand it, regional returning officers for the regions of Great Britain have indicated to the Government that they want all returned postal votes to be checked where the software systems can support this.
Lord Greaves: I am grateful for the Ministers reply, but my understanding is that the districts in Lancashire that do not possess the additional machinery rather
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Lord Bach: I can go one stage further and tell the noble Lord that we provided the money so that the software systems can support these checks. The money is in place to ensure that all returned postal votes can be checked.
Yesterday I asked the senior election officer in Pendle, the lady who runs the office, what the experience was in Pendle. Off its own bat, Pendle has been checking 100 per cent of returned postal votes, or at least certainly since last year in view of the allegations and problems there have been in our borough. She commented that, while it takes time and resources, it can be done. It is a matter of getting organised. The process is slower but the machines themselves are getting faster. The software goes into the computer, the signatures are scanned, information on the date of birth is fed in, and then the pieces of paper that people put their signature and date of birth on are fed into the computer system. The computer checks them and decides whether they match or not. When they do not match, a warning is thrown up on the screen and someone has to physically compare the piece of paper that people signed when they registered for a postal vote with what comes up on the screen. The process takes time and resources, but it is possible to do and it works quite well.
Only five weeks ago I attended a count during a town council by-election and watched the process. It seemed to work quite efficiently. From a practical point of view, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that if it works in our part of the world, it will work everywhere else.
The other interesting thing, however, is that the system is resulting in votes being rejected. When the computer finds that there is not a match, someone looks at it and decides whether the signature and the date of birth match and a proportion are rejected. Again, that is a downside of the system. For whatever reason, the proportion of postal votes rejected is quite high.
We had two town council by-elections five weeks ago. In one case, where there were not so many postal votes, only 5 per cent were rejected. In the second ward, over half the votes cast were postal votes and people had been actively signing people up for them. We did not have a candidate in this by-election, so noble Lords cannot point fingers at our party. In that case, approximately 10 per cent of the postal votes that were returned were rejected as a result of 100 per cent checking. So 100 per cent checking is weeding out illegitimate votes on quite a substantial scale in at least these areas.
The question is whether that is a deterrent to people not to do it in future. Because of the nature of the thing, the people whose votes are being rejected do not
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Lord Bach: Noble Lords will wish to ensure that at elections, returning officers are required to check the personal identifiers on all returned postal votes. The introduction of personal identifiers has been a key measure in strengthening the integrity of postal voting.
Given the technical and logistical factors involved for electoral administrators in implementing personal identifiers for postal voters, we decided to specify that at elections returning officers are required to check at least 20 per cent of returned postal votes but may check 100 per cent if they choose to do so. We think that 20 per cent is statistically a robust figure for sample checking, and is a good indicator of whether fraud is occurring. If the returning officer considers that there is a real risk of fraud, he may specify from the outset that all postal voting statements will be checked. If the returning officer decides to begin with 20 per cent checking, that level can be increased at later opening sessions if evidence of fraud emerges.
Obviously, noble Lords comments on this issue have been noted. We agree in principle that all postal votes should be checked, and will wish to require 100 per cent to be checked when it is practicable to do so. A key factor in determining when it will be appropriate to move to 100 per cent checking is when there is deemed to be sufficient capacity within postal voting software systems to support 100 per cent checking.
At the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament on 4 June 2009, the regulations for these elections follow the provisions for parliamentary and local elections and therefore require that at least 20 per cent of returned postal votes are checked. However, as I told the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the regional returning officers have indicated that they wish all returned postal votes to be checked within each region, where the software systems can support that.
We are supportive of these officers in wishing all postal votes to be checked where that is possible. However, it would be premature to mandate 100 per cent checking in law at this stage given that we cannot be certain that the necessary software systems are in place to deliver 100 per cent checking across all regions in Great Britain.
Lord Tyler: I recognise that there is a dilemma here, but putting on the face of the Bill that there should be a minimum of 20 per cent checking may make some returning officers retreat from their current practice of 100 per cent. That is a retrograde step. I do not know the administrative answer to this. Maybe it is something that could be dealt with by regulation, but if the Bill includes what would appear to be a retreat, that would send a most unfortunate signal at the present time.
While I have the Ministers ear, can he give some indication of the results of checking on a wider basis than my noble friends anecdotal evidence? There is obviously a considerable difference between finding a discrepancy between the signatures, which may be something to do with elderly people finding it difficult
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Lord Bach: I will be able to give some help about regulations in a moment. Regulations made under the Electoral Administration Act 2006 set the 20 per cent figure; not this Bill. With the funding that we are making available to electoral administrators for running the elections, we have made provision to cover the expected costs for administrators in checking all returned postal votes. Administrators will therefore have the flexibility to check them all where the necessary systems are in place.
We intend to review the experience of these elections carefully. This will inform future considerations. We will continue to work with the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators and software suppliers to establish whether it will be appropriate to move to mandatory 100 per cent checking of postal votes. That can be done by way of regulations. Just because we do not put it in the Bill, that is not the end of the story.
Evidence from the 2008 local elections in general is that the rate of rejections of postal votes is not greater than those without postal votes, and it is often lower, around 3 per cent. Those rejected are mostly due to errors by electors with the date of birth not matching between postal vote applications, as I understand it.
Lord Greaves: It would help if the regulations for the announcement of spoilt ballot papers were changed. At the moment, spoilt ballot papers are those that have been dealt with and counted at the verification stage and then are found to have something wrong with them. Perhaps there is no cross on them or more crosses than required, or whatever it happens to be. They do not announce the number of postal vote ballot papers that have been sent in but rejected because of discrepancies in the personal identifiers. That is a different issue from what we are talking about, but it would really help to identify this if that was announced as a matter of course with every election.
Amendment 131 amends provisions in Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000 concerning absent voting in Great Britain to increase the penalty for persons convicted of the offence of making fraudulent applications. I am glad to hear that this was a probing amendment, because it would mean that anyone guilty of such an offence would have to receive a custodial sentence. The maximum of that sentence could be six months. I am sure that is not what the noble Lord intends.
The greater availability of postal voting has generally proved popular, with many voters finding it a convenient way to cast their vote, in a way that fits in with their busy lives. A positive impact on voter turnout has been the result. To illustrate this, at the 2005 general election, 12 per cent of the electorate opted to have a postal ballot, accounting for 15 per cent of all votes cast. At the May 2008 local elections, it has been calculated that around 15 per cent of electors were issued with a postal vote. Of course we have to be vigilant where the security of the electoral system is concerned. A number of safeguards have been put in place.
The noble Lord highlighted the offence provisions at paragraph 8 of Schedule 4 to the 2000 Act, which concern false statements made in any declarations or forms used for the purpose of making absent voting applications. He is right that at present, conviction of an offence of making a false statement will result in a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.
Let me point out again that the Electoral Administration Act 2006 introduced new offence provisions relating to applications for a postal or proxy vote. The new offence provisions deal with a number of specific activities and build upon and complement the existing ones in Schedule 4 to the 2000 Act. Under these new provisions an offence is committed if one of the following things is done with the intention of obtaining the right to vote or depriving another of that right: first, applying for a postal or proxy vote as some other person; secondly, otherwise making a false statement in, or in connection with, an application for a postal or proxy vote; thirdly, inducing a registration officer to send a postal or proxy voting ballot paper to an address that has not requested it; or, fourthly, preventing delivery of any information relating to postal or proxy voting to an address that has requested it.
A person convicted under these offence provisions will be guilty of a corrupt practice and will be liable on conviction to be imprisoned, or to a fine, or to both. It can be up to two years imprisonment on indictment. If the conviction is on a summary basis the maximum penalty will be six months.
I appreciate that the intention of noble Lords is that strict penalties should be in place for persons who seek to abuse the integrity of the electoral process. I can reassure the Committee that a person who makes a false statement in, or in connection with, an application for a postal or proxy vote will be liable to a custodial sentence under the 2006 Act. However, I undertake to consider in more detail the relationship between the offence provisions which the noble Lord has highlighted and the offences that I have mentioned that were introduced in 2006, and perhaps revisit this issue on Report.
The purpose of Amendment 132 is obviously to prevent any future all-postal ballots, or certainly any in the near future. There is, in fact, no specific provision
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We have set out and discussed at length a clear timetable for moving towards individual registration. As was also said in the debate, such personal identifiers collected for registration purposes could be used in due course for the purposes of postal voting and so would facilitate an all-postal ballot. Given this, we see no reason to close the door altogether on holding all-postal ballots, as they may be appropriate at some stage in the future. However, further legislation would be needed to give effect to this and we have no current plans to bring such legislation forward. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will not press the amendments.
Lord Henley: Perhaps I may deal with the amendments in the order in which they appear. I am grateful that I had a degree of support on Amendments 128 and 129 from the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Greaves. I was somewhat confused at first by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who implied at first that the good people of Pendle would not be able to cope with the software systems available to them. One envisaged them in some dark age of information technology where they were still on clockwork computers or whatever, but I am glad to discover that in fact they can cope. In due course, having listened to the Government, we hope that everyone in all areas will be able to cope with these matters, and it will therefore be possible ultimately to move from 20 per cent to 100 per cent verification as appropriate.
On the probing Amendment 131, I fully accept the Ministers criticism that it is badly draftedappallingly drafted, in factif it makes prison a compulsory matter for people who commit such an offence. I also accept the point that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made, that there are already enough people in prison; the prisons are bursting at the seams, as the noble Lord will know because he knows that the figures go up every month despite everything that the Government do to provide early release. We do not want to start putting more people in prison.
I was interested in the point that the noble Lord made about fines at a time of low inflation. It might be low, depending on how you measure it, but most of us who look at these things and at what the Government have done over the past year reckon that we are going
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On Amendment 132, on the moratorium question, I am grateful for the words that came out of the Ministers mouth when he said that the Government had no plans to bring in all-postal voting at this stage and had no plans to do so before there was a proper scheme of individual voter registration. One should always say from the Opposition Benches that if you can get the Government to go so far as saying that they currently have no plans, that is probably about as good as you can get. I therefore thank the Minister for that.
I want to say a word or two to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about Amendment 132AB, which I am not planning to move. The reason I decided that I would not move it tonight but might come back to it on Report is that it has certain cost implications, and we all have to be wary of any amendments at this time that have cost implications. I will look at that amendment and possibly bring it back at a later stage, but I give the noble Lord the assurance, to speed up our progress, that I will not be moving it when we get to that part of the Bill. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Bates: This amendment, which is in the form of a new clause, deals with an important issue: the enfranchisement of military service personnel to vote in our elections. I shall set out some of the background of how the amendment came about. Before 2001, service personnel were registered on the electoral register through the Ministry of Defence. That was changed to relieve the administrative burden on the ministry and apply a greater focus to local authorities, which were then able to remove those who were no longer resident. That period was marked by poor administration, but all service personnel were registered during that time.
The 2001 changes resulted in the number of service personnel not included on the register increasing quite dramatically. The number of service voters in Great Britain on 16 February 2001 was 175,475. The same figure for 4 December 2006 was 21,006. Those people, probably more than any other citizens in this country, have due cause to have a close interest in the foreign, defence and security policies of this country. Under the terms of the Representation of the People Act 2000, the time limit on the validity of a service declaration for service registration was changed by the Secretary
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The current situation is that service personnel and their husbands, wives and civil partners are able to register as an ordinary voter or as a service voter. Those based overseas can also register as overseas voters, but as this limits the type of elections they can vote in, it is not recommended for service personnel. Those registered as service voters are registered at a fixed address in the United Kingdom, even if they move around, and is therefore used for those moving frequently or deployed overseas. They are required to re-register every three years. Ordinary voters must of course renew this annually.
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